Register Monday | September 26 | 2022

Jesus was a shit disturber

K. D. Miller discusses what it means to be a woman in the Catholic Church

K. D. Miller's most recent book, Holy Writ, explores the relationship between spirituality and creativity. While researching "Operation Ordination" (Issue 19), the writer travelled to the waters of the St. Lawrence to witness the undercover ordination of nine Catholic women. Here she discusses her faith, what makes Jesus a shit disturber and how feminism will save the Catholic Church.

You witnessed the ordination of the "Saint Lawrence Nine" aboard the Thousand Islander III. What was the atmosphere on the cruise boat during this historical moment?

I would describe it as jubilant ... Though the ordination ceremony itself was by the book, and for the most part dignified and beautiful, it was also punctuated throughout by laughter, applause and cheers. There is a certain exhilaration in challenging established authority. Even those of us who were only doing so vicariously were caught up in it. The sermon Bishop Patricia Fresen preached that afternoon described the Catholic Church in its ideal form as "a flowing, moving, sailing ship, going ever forward-if needs be against the tide. Never resting in stagnant water." The Vatican, on the other hand, was "at anchor, manned by sleeping sailors."

How open were the "Saint Lawrence Nine" to talking about their experiences of ordination and the risk of excommunication?

They spoke to us very candidly at a press conference the night before the ordination. What came across was both their deep and abiding love of the Catholic Church and the huge frustration they have experienced in dealing with its power structures. "I can't not be a Catholic," was the way one of them put it. Overall, however, the feeling was optimistic. "We are making the road by walking on it," one of them said.

Did attending the ordination remind you of your own rites of passage in relation to the church? How did witnessing the ceremony affect you personally?

It reminded me of the two or three times in my life that someone has asked me if I would like to be a priest. Each time, my response has been a thoroughly visceral no! And each time, I have felt as if I was protecting something from harm. Though there is much about the priestly vocation that interests me, and though I greatly admired the women being ordained, watching the ceremony confirmed that what they were doing just wasn't for me. As for what I was protecting, when I said that "No," I think it may have been the space that a writer must create in his or her life specifically for writing and nothing else. Virginia Woolf's proverbial "room of one's own," which of course is much more than an actual room. It has to do with autonomy, a degree of self-containment, a willingness and an ability to put the needs of the writing ahead of the needs of family, job, etc. Though things have changed greatly since Woolf's day, I think this is still particularly difficult for female writers. I believe women are still judged primarily in terms of their relationships, their caregiving ... as opposed to their accomplishments. And writing is an accomplishment-one that can only come about through a rather ruthless devotion to solitude and self. Of course, a priest must have solitude also, for meditation, reading, writing. But something that struck me about the female ordinands was how much community work they already do-pastoral counselling, spiritual direction, teaching, nursing, etc. And while that is magnificent work, it can eat up your day and swallow you whole. One of them asked me to pray for her, and I can understand why.

Can you discuss your personal philosophy on creativity and spirituality?

Writing is the only effective means of prayer I've managed to find. It is a daily discipline, and if for some reason I miss it, I get bent out of shape. During times of writer's block, I feel bereft, almost bereaved. I feel out of touch with something that is essential to my being. On the other hand, when writing is going well, the feeling is very like that of being in love. The exercise of writing, choosing the best possible word or words, is an exercise in telling the truth, even when (particularly when!) the truth hurts. I believe that if I have any integrity or compassion or goodness in me at all, it will manifest itself in my writing.

In "Operation Ordination" you recall "edging liturgically toward Rome" in your teenage years, which resulted in your decision to be baptized in the United Church. At an age when many adolescents turn away from faith, what led you down this path?

Probably much the same stuff that leads any teenager down any path. Jesus, whatever you may think of him, is an undeniably romantic figure. Plus, he's a shit disturber. Plus, there's an implied eroticism in the baptismal ceremony, even if it only involves a token blop of water on the head. What more could a fifteen-year-old virgin want? Granted, I had always been a rather spooky kid. But I will always be grateful to my parents for not shoving religion down their kids' throats. Yes, we went to church, but we did it in the spirit of nineteen-fifties conformity. My parents never had their kids baptized, for instance, because they thought it was hooey, basically. Needless to say, all this made it easy for me to choose a relatively safe brand of adolescent rebellion.

In what ways were you a "spooky kid"?

Like many embryonic writers, I was essentially a loner who liked to read, draw, daydream, etc. I was also interested in myths and legends and tales of the gods-everything from Odin to Gloosekap. Though I attempted atheism in university (it seemed to be a prerequisite for cool), I could never quite manage it. I think I've always been primarily theistic by nature.

How did your parents respond to your self-created devotion to religion in your teenage years?

The poor things were probably squirming in their pew while I was being baptized. Especially when I was required to kneel in front of the United Church minister. (Presbyterians kneel only to God, and even then, only when absolutely necessary.) To their great credit, when my "spiritual measles" cleared up less than a year later ... and I stopped going to church, they said not a word. Maybe they realized they had a teenager on their hands. Maybe they figured there were worse things I could be getting up to.

Can you elaborate on your descriptions of Jesus as a "romantic figure" and a "shit disturber"?

First, I should explain that I have come to regard the Jesus story as myth-that is, a story about something that may have happened at one specific time, but more importantly keeps on happening right now. Jesus himself I see as an essentially fictional character. This is not to say that I think he is a total fabrication, or that his story is a lie. Quite the opposite. Though he does have roots in history, they are tenuous at best, and, in my opinion, not particularly important. His personality and his story exert a tremendous pull on the human imagination. We "recognize" him. We seem to "know" him, and not just because we may have been dragged to Sunday school. He is a stranger who comes out of nowhere. He is essentially good-even supernaturally good-yet he must do battle with and be temporarily overcome by evil. His triumph is poignant, because it involves his departure, albeit with a promise to return. Now, if that isn't romantic, I don't know what is. Somebody, I forget who, said that there are only two possible plots: a stranger rides into town; a stranger rides out of town. Good old J. C. manages to do both. As for his being a shit disturber, the evil he takes on is primarily the evil of complacency, of spiritual laziness, of smugness and hypocrisy. Again, his is a story that happens over and over, in our history and in our hearts.

If you perceive the story of Jesus to be mythic fiction, what keeps you believing in your religion?

First, I'd better clarify that when I use words like "myth" and "fiction," I am not in any way implying lies or tall tales. I am referring to a perception of reality, which is essentially poetic, involving the imagination as much as the intellect. Second, I'm not sure I do "believe in my religion." Religions, religious practices, religious institutions, are essentially artificial constructs. At their best, they point the way or provide a sort of pathway to what I do believe in, namely God. Yes, I am imaginatively caught up in the Jesus story, and yes, I do feel a deep affection for the albeit shadowy figure of Jesus. But my being a Christian, as opposed to a Jew or Muslim or Hindu or anything else, is largely an accident of birth and upbringing. And were I to go to a synagogue or mosque or temple each week instead of a church, I would be doing essentially the same thing. I believe all these paths converge on that unnamable wonder which we, because we are only human, have named God.

Your article recalls a 1985 interview where Pope Benedict XVI-then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger-proclaimed, "We are not authorized to change the Our Father into an Our Mother." What are your personal feelings on feminism in the church?

By "the church," I assume you mean the Catholic Church. Again, I'm an Anglican, and my priest is a woman. I don't want to get into any kind of my-church-is-better-than-your-church tussle, because, God knows, my own has its problems too and is close to a global split over the homosexuality issue (which for me and many of us is simply not an issue). But back to the topic. I think feminism will save the Catholic Church if the Catholic Church will allow it to. Big "if." I'll go further. Unless the Catholic hierarchy undergoes a radical change in the way it views fully half the human race, it and its institution will self-destruct. I doubt that I would have put things quite so bluntly before researching this article. But part of that research involved interviewing a Catholic theologian. With great patience and courtesy, he explained to me why, in the eyes of his church, I am not "properly configured" to receive ordination. It was all very civilized, and I even thanked him, then nose-dived into a depression. Finally, at work, my lapsed-Catholic colleague gave me her best earth-to-Kathleen look and said, "He doesn't think you're human." And there is the crux of the matter. Over and over, the Gospels tell stories of Jesus talking to women. This would have made him a very unusual man in the culture of his time and place. He talked to them, listened to them and unfailingly treated them with the respect owing to an equal in the eyes of God. In my opinion, it is time for the Catholic Church to ask itself a question that Christians of any stripe are advised to consider during times of crisis-namely, "What would Jesus do?"