February 2017

Being a woman on the fringe of the Church

Today, my sense of belonging to the Catholic Church is different. I am more independent. I often feel disappointed and frustrated about the formal Church. However, I’m also more tolerant of the pace and possibility of change in a complex institution, writes Andrea Dean.
BY Andrea Dean
I admit it: despite a life of deep involvement with the Catholic Church, I now feel on the fringe. I haven’t moved much – or have I?
I grew up in a very small country town and went to a two-teacher school where I was taught by the Sisters of St Joseph. After four years at a Catholic boarding school, I came home and enrolled in a Government high school for Years 11 and 12. Then I enrolled at a Catholic teachers’ college. After struggling with the scary notion of ‘vocation’, I entered the Sisters of St Joseph. Yes, a step right into the mainstream of the Church!
Over years of teaching in Catholic schools and related ministries, I remained deeply connected to Church, especially at parish level. Of course, I read at Mass, was a communion minister, facilitated children’s liturgies, served on parish councils, liturgy committees and also participated on archdiocesan councils. It felt good being on the inside. Mostly. Access to forward-thinking and inclusive theology helped, as did regular retreats and spiritual direction. Like-minded companions were essential too.
Fast-forward 20 years and the community and collegiality I experienced has been enriching. I’ve taught in country schools across NSW and had four years as a missionary in Papua New Guinea. Lots of terrific formation and education opportunities have come my way. But I started to wonder, is this where I am really called to be? Am I using the identity of the group as a shield and avoiding my own emerging sense of self?
At this point I was content with being a Catholic woman, but struggled with religious life. I felt that I had hidden in the strong group culture and put a lid on my own growth. I was feeling on the fringe of religious life.
For years I struggled with the notion of my identity. I wondered who I would be if I left the religious community. I thought I would be nothing. I imagined that the act of leaving the congregation was as risky and dangerous as stepping off a cliff. It was frightening. It was paralysing.
Finally, after much inner work, the help of spiritual companions, a psychologist and loving friends, my perspective started to change. I had a dream where the frightening cliff was transformed into a playful slippery dip. Only then could I face leaving the Sisters of St Joseph. And it was not as scary as I imagined.
Today, my sense of belonging to the Catholic Church is different. I am more independent. I often feel disappointed and frustrated about the formal Church. However, I’m also more tolerant of the pace and possibility of change in a complex institution. I don’t go around expressing my anger and sadness, except in the company of close friends.
Nowadays, I draw my spiritual nourishment from a broader palate of spiritual practices. For example, I am now on retreat with an ecumenical group of Christians with whom I am sharing the journey towards becoming an accredited spiritual companion. I’m praying with them, experiencing community and growth, as well as learning more about living the Gospel. The Scripture passage in this morning’s session of our retreat was an adaptation of Matthew 13:44 (“Treasure in the field”):
“Are you listening to this? Really listening? God’s kingdom is like a treasure hidden in a field for years and then accidentally found by a trespasser. The finder is ecstatic – what a find! – and proceeds to sell everything she owns to raise money and buy that field.”
I’m thrilled by the thought that the treasure is found in the field where one would not normally travel – on the edge, and that it is accidentally found. Without intending to be out at the edge, that is where I find myself. Surprisingly though, I’m stumbling upon treasure and that is making all the difference.
I’ve come across the treasure of ‘a second-half-of-life-spirituality’ where I can see the richness and the limits of my tradition. I also have the capacity to see the goodness in other traditions and communities, and recognise the one humanity we all share. I’m savouring the treasure of a mature spirituality.
I’m on the search for expansive understandings of ‘Catholic’ such as those described by theologian and Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio. She writes that originally catholicity was a deliberate term to describe the Church as disciples who had a sense of the consciousness of Christ and gathered into community as one in Christ. Gradually the focus shifted from wholeness to orthodoxy.
I’m running my fingers through the gold of this inclusive understanding of being Catholic. I’m coming to appreciate the naturalness of women’s spirituality, which is relational, intuitive, influenced by issues of justice and equity, reliant on new images of the divine, and recognises the sacred in the ordinary. I’m finding many practices associated with Celtic spirituality are framing my days and scattering more treasure through my life.
I know that ridiculous delight described by the seeker in Matthew 13:44 and I’m willing to sell all that I have just to be in this field – even if it is on the fringe of the Church. In this place I have a clearer sense of who I am.
Andrea Dean is leading a retreat in Sydney on the weekend of March 10-12, 2017, for mature Catholic women who feel on the fringe of the Catholic Church. Exploring the theme “Food for Mind, Body and Soul”, the program will include semi-structured activities with the whole group, as well as opportunities for individual prayer, reflection, and access to an experienced spiritual companion. A second retreat will be offered in June at Mittagong. For more information, visit www.andreadean.com.au

Andrea Dean

Andrea Dean’s consultancy - www.futurematters.net.au - partners with leaders and groups from Catholic schools and organisations in their struggles to be authentically Catholic, genuinely making a difference, effectively living the Gospel, and creating a worthwhile future, a future that matters.

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