Why did God make you? Every Roman Catholic of a certain age, who grew up with the Baltimore Catechism, knows the unquestionable answer to that question: “to know, love and serve him in this world, and to be happy with him in the next.” Of course that is the answer, the one, true, only possible answer. Or is it? I wonder what our good friends, the Sisters of Mary Magdalene might have to say as they contemplate why God (god, the goddess, the gods) made us.
It’s been a while since we visited the cloister, so come with me, and let’s have a peek at what the sisters are up to . . .
Since Hurricane Sandy even as the sisters continue to clean and repair the grounds, life seemed to be settling back into a more normal convent routine, at least for the moment. Each morning the sisters rise at 5AM to greet the sun; at 6 they gather for prayers and liturgies; at 8 they break their fast in a silent communal meal together, followed by manual work, liturgical prayers, and dinner at noon. The afternoons are a combination of work, spiritual reading and prayer; followed by a light supper at 6PM. Evenings include quiet time, recreation, prayer, discussion and reflection on their readings, and meetings with spiritual mentors. Most of the good sisters find their way to sleep by about 10 PM. They are reclaiming stability and comfort in the routine and strength in the discipline. And life indeed goes on.
As we look in on the Sisters their Spiritual readings focus on creation stories across traditions. Beginning with the Hebrew scriptures that are the foundation of their own tradition, and they read the second chapter of Genesis: Adam was created by his Maker. The story notes that Adam was charged with keeping a garden. That was his job, in service to his maker. But, Adam soon became lonely. His Creator wanted Adam to be happy, and so he resumed creation and brought into being every bird of the air and every beast of the field, and brought them to Adam to see and to name. Yet, none of these creatures gave Adam delight. The Creator then caused a deep sleep to come upon Adam. While Adam slept, the Creator took a rib from Adam’s side and created woman. When Adam beheld her, he said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” And he felt happiness and joy in the relatedness of human community. And things unfolded from there.
Because our sisters are committed to honoring the memory and spirit of Mary Magdalene their spiritual mother, they looked further to the creation story from the Upanishads of India. There they read that before the beginning of time, when the universe was nothing but the Self, the Self looked around, saw that there was nothing but the Self, and shouted, “It is I!” and the concept “I” arose. And when the Self became aware if itself as an ‘I’, ego arose, and it was afraid. But it reasoned, thinking, since there is no one here but myself, what is there to fear? And fear left.
But, the self still lacked delight, and wished for another. So, it swelled and split in two, becoming male and female. The male embraced the female, and from that embrace, the human race arose. But the female thought, how can he unite with me, who am of his own substance? And so she hid. She became a cow, he became a bull and united with her, and from that union cattle arose. She then became a mare and he a stallion . . . and so one, down to the ants.
Then the self realized, “I am creation; for I have poured forth all of this. And there arose the concept of ‘creation.’
Some of the sisters found this version of the creation story a bit disturbing, but they continued in their reading and reflection.
Next they looked a bit closer to home, and sought the wisdom of the Greeks, reading from Plato’s Symposium. There they examined a creation story that begins with the human race already in existence, but with three distinct human races: one entirely male, whose residence was the sun; one entirely female, who dwelt on the earth; and the third, half male and half female conjoined together, who dwelt on the moon. These beings were as large as two humans of today. They each had four hands and four feet, sides and backs forming a circle, one head with two faces. The gods of those peoples and times became afraid of the strength of these humans, and so Zeus and Apollo cut them in two, “like apples halved for pickling.” But, those divided parts, each desiring the other, came together and embraced, and would have perished of hunger had the gods not set them far apart.
The Greeks teach us that the lesson of this story is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love – according to its three kinds. Oh, my! As you can imagine, this third version really caused some distress for some of the sisters with its implicit affirmation of same sex love as a normal aspect of human being. And, yet, even in their distress they are hardy, stalwart souls. And so they persisted in their reflections.
Mother Magdalene turned to Sister Visentia, and asked her for her thoughts. Visentia smiled a bit, and said, “Well, Mother, you know, I’ve also been reading Joseph Campbell recently. And, if I remember correctly, it seems that in our traditional reading from Hebrew Scriptures, Adam, as the being whose rib was used to create woman, is the created servant, and the goal then is to become engaged in a relationship with the other, even while serving the creator. While in the version from India, it is the creator who is split into parts. And so each creature should experience and realize in life their very identity with that Being, we are each made from, made of the creator – thou art that! In the Greek version, we are left to search for our other half, while at the same time being careful not to offend the gods. These are three very different ways to think about the meaning and purpose of our lives! What very different versions of truth!”
Then, Sister Bryda chimed in, “and what different paths to justice and respect for dignity! Are we servants of a divine creator? Are we in search of relationship and our better half? Or are we each a chip off the old block, the Creator’s very self?”
At that Mother Magdalene smiled and observed, “Well, Sister Bryda, you may not realize the depth of your own wisdom. The answer is actually all three. One dimension of social space is a path of awe, the path that leads to transcendence and divinity – where we explore the vastness of all that is as you put it, a chip off the old block. That is the most neglected dimension of social space in the world at large. In our world here in the cloister, it is the most revered dimension. Another dimension is relatedness and closeness, finding authentic connections with others, and yes, in the secular world, searching for you better half. That is a dimension we have chosen to redefine somewhat within this cloister as we set aside the search for a particular half in the search for a stronger common community. And indeed there is a third dimension to social space, the dimension of hierarchy, of servant and master, of above and below, and of justice and fairness, perhaps the dimension that is most contentious in the world around us. Each dimension is necessary for a full, whole and healthy well being. The challenge is keeping them all in balance.”
Through all of this Sister Septimus looked perplexed, then thoughtful. After a few moments of silence, she spoke, “So, three dimensions of social space: awe/divinity, closeness/relatedness and hierarchy/justice. So, God made us to know him or her or them in awe, to serve him, her or them; or perhaps to work for fairness and to build a world where dignity is indeed respected.”
“Or all of the above.” Observed Mother Magdalene as the left the refectory for the chapel and evensong.