Awakening to Prayer; A Woman’s Perspective, by Sister Clare Wagner (2009)

Posted in Books by Sinsinawa Dominicans

Awakening to Prayer; A Woman’s Perspective, by Sister Clare Wagner (2009)

Awakening to Prayer; A Woman’s Perspective is published by the mainstream Catholic publisher Saint Anthony Messenger Press. It’s part of a series titled “Called to Holiness: Spirituality for Catholic Women.” This book is gentle and generally sweet-natured, with attention paid to relationships and human kindness, and with a notable affection toward babies. On the other hand, there is very little reference to God Himself in personal terms, which seems part of the fallout from feminist refusal to speak of God as “He” or “Father”; Jesus is spoken of as having had an “Abba experience;” rather, God is “Unfathomable Mystery” or “loving Divine Presence,” and seemingly a kind of a force or resource: “God is available as a source of relational, healing energy;” as a consequence this book does not convey much sense of prayer as eminently a love relationship between persons. At the end of each chapter there is the sort of made-up private ritual popular with the “womenchurch” movement, for which, for instance, besides lighting a candle, “it would be helpful to place before you: an alarm clock, a bright cloth (a “wake up” color) and three to five rocks or stones.”

The Catholic Church and the Sacraments basically do not appear in this alleged book of Catholic spirituality. It seemed to me a spiritual-not-religious book.

What you wouldn’t know from the book itself, and what Saint Anthony Messenger Press probably doesn’t know, is that Sister Clare Wagner has been, according to her, an active Call to Action Madison dissent group member, who in 2009 said she has “resolved not to put energy into ‘church reform’ but rather into sowing seeds for a new church.” Until recently, she has given talks at a formerly Catholic place near Madison, Holy Wisdom Monastery, where the sisters left their vows and “went non canonical”, left the Church and now run a breakaway sect with a priestless “eucharist.” It is not Catholic now. Sister Clare suggested in 2008 that the Sinsinawa Dominicans, too, should think about giving up their formal status as a Catholic religious congregation: a “topic I would like to see studied in depth and considered again in the light of current developments is becoming non canonical. Much has happened since we last considered that possibility.” Prior to writing the book, Sister Clare Wagner had been for a time the coordinator of a Spiritual Guidance Training Program at Siena Center in Racine, Wisconsin; on SinsinOP it was said in 2012 to be “a two-year program built solidly five rounds ago by Clare Wagner and an ecumenical team. Clare still returns to lay the foundation in the Universe Story,” which is apparently basic to this doctrinally questionable program, which also covers the very closely related concept of “Cosmic Christ.”

I think of what younger Sinsinawa Dominican Sister Laurie Brink, who certainly knows Clare Wagner, described about some sisters who were “moving beyond the Church, even beyond Jesus,” in her considerably radical 2007 LCWR Assembly address:

With a new lens, women also began to see the divine within nature, the value and importance of the cosmos, and that the emerging new cosmology encouraged their spirituality and fed their souls.

One sister described it, “I was rooted in the story of Jesus, and it remains at my core, but I’ve also moved beyond Jesus.” The Jesus narrative is not the only or most important narrative for these women.

The book series of which Awakening to Prayer is a part was created with funding from “an organization of philanthropists: Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA)” in response to “[t]he need for a creative, solidly grounded, and theologically sophisticated spirituality available in an accessible form for all Christian women.” Series editor Elizabeth Dryer (whom a Sinsinawa Dominican calls “a former member of ‘our crowd'”) says “the time is ripe for ‘ordinary’ women to be doing theology,” and speaks in feminist language of younger women readers “likely to be already grooming the soil for  a fourth wave of Christian spirituality done by and for women,” though she is concerned that young women my age are unaware of past efforts to secure women’s dignity. Speaking for myself, I am aware, appreciative of what is good, but feel there have been very harmful excesses, such as feminist individuals “doing theology” by novel, questionable methodologies and without assent to Catholic teaching, resulting in large numbers of them now in painful angst as a result of their new and different belief system putting them in conflict with “the institutional Church”, as the Sinsinawa Dominicans put it.

Sister Clare Wagner writes that she has “found it enlivening and engaging to realize that at this moment of enormous change, rapid technological advancement and a new relationship between faith and science, we are called upon to see prayer, too, in new, creative ways.” It’s not clear to me why this would really change prayer, and I don’t think she means that sometimes people use a smartphone app to pray the breviary, so I suspect she sees herself crafting a spirituality that corresponds to a changed theology. The text gives a lot of evidence of that.

Chapter 3 of Awakening to Prayer alludes rather apparently though not explicitly, to one of Sister Clare’s unusual theological interests, “the new cosmology” or “the universe story;” this refers to a radical re-imagining of God and religions in light of evolutionary science and eco-feminism, sparked by Fr Tielhard de Chardin and developed and promoted in its current form by the late Fr Thomas Berry, and Dr Brian Swimme. Besides teaching it to spiritual guidance students at Siena Center, Sister Clare gave a talk to Madison’s Call to Action on this topic in 2011 for instance, and in Awakening to Prayer she says:

The Divine Spirit is and has been living and moving in continuously new ways for billions of years in this universe. To pay attention to this movement now is to embrace an evolutionary perspective…. Each of us is a microcosm of the evolutionary process of the entire universe.

Another characteristic of the new belief system is pantheism or panentheism, which I think she is alluding to under the next sub-heading: “Pannikar writes of God being so interior to the world that there is no way we can separate God from the world.” These are, Sister Clare says, “elements of an emerging spirituality” which is now evolving away from “too limited a God image,” away from “a system of domination and hierarchical dualism,” wherein

the prevalent image of God was that of a sovereign male demanding and distant, possibly frightening and judgmental, definitely patriarchal…. In a system where the “rules” say that spirit is valued over matter, humanity over nature, heaven over earth, soul over body, and man over woman, it is nearly impossible to celebrate equality and thirst for relationship with a God who reigns supreme over all of it.

But she is not stating rightly what Catholic Christians believe; the human person is a unity of body and soul, and while the soul rules over the body, the body is not devalued but dignified; it is “a temple of the Holy Spirit.” And if the one-flesh union in Matrimony entails an order of man as head of woman, this is without prejudice to the equal dignity of both. The fact that Jesus is head of the Church–which is the reigning truth that this is ultimately about, according to Saint Paul–does not imply that the Church, for which He gave His life as ransom, is devalued. Absolutely on the contrary! But Sister Clare’s comments don’t actually mention Christ as head of the Church. She does not really mention the Church. The nearest that I can find are brief mentions of, for instance, a mother’s concern, “I have a gay son. How does my church welcome him?”

In another Sinsinawa Dominican book I reviewed, Sister Kaye Ashe included a quote startlingly proposing that female friendship should be the model for all relationships among created beings. Sister Clare similarly urges us toward a “circular, mutual, collaborative way of relating” which she sees as typical of female friendship. “This non-hierarchical way of relating is an alternative to that which is dominant in the culture. Circles of women who embrace and are empowered to relate in this manner compatible with the Spirit’s fruits–peaceful, kind, generous, self-controlled, and joyful–are changing themselves and the world.”

Purely on the level of friendship this is fine! Absolutizing this way of thinking has led the Sinsinawa Dominicans to alter their understanding and practices of religious obedience in ways that seem to have put them at odds with the Church’s canonical requirements for governance of religious life. And the attempt to implement a “non-hierarchical” vision for the Church through democratically deciding things like doctrine, morality, and Church discipline is the concept behind the destructive change-the-Church group Call to Action, of which Sister Clare is a member.

One thing that surprised and specially concerned me in this book is the refusal of forgiveness for some offenses.  Chapter 3, speaking of “names for God,” warns that “A judging God can be used to justify a lack of forgiveness.” But Chapter 4 treats of catastrophic “radical suffering” like child abuse, war, and other violence against the innocent. Victims, in Sister Clare’s view, “need an unlimited outpouring of compassion and rage from the Christian community.” Sister Clare Wagner suggests a startling “prayer mantra” for a woman victim of such suffering: “Suffering Companion God, help me to rage against the suffering I have endured.” The research of Doctor Robert Enright of UW Madison (a Catholic with deep insight into how Jesus’ Cross relates to this) into the psychology of forgiveness faced staunch opposition from those who, for instance, felt that the Holocaust must not be forgiven; doubting academics were won over by his solid research evidence of positive psychological outcomes when people go through the difficult process of forgiving–which doesn’t mean at all that abuse is okay, or should be tolerated, or shouldn’t be punished. Compassion is needed for deep healing, but so is forgiveness. And Jesus tells us, “If you forgive the faults of others, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours. If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive you.” (Mt 6:14-15)

Another thing I wasn’t expecting in this book was a seeming evasiveness about the divinity of Jesus. In Chapter 3, following a discussion of Sister Elizabeth Johnson and God as Sophia, she spoke of the Trinity, which “[i]n an earlier volume of this series, Elizabeth Dryer spoke of as a community of love,” for which “language, images and understandings of this Mystery compatible with the consciousness of this historical moment are emerging, especially among women theologians.” There is not any specific reference to this Trinity as “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” nor to Jesus as a member thereof. Then in Chapter 6 Sister Clare writes:

Though Jesus knew the Jewish law and the prophets well, his confidence, authority, and belief that he could make a difference were rooted in his Abba experience. This encounter with loving Divine Presence and the relationship with Abba that followed provided the foundation for his spiritual life.

She finds “[i]mportant insight into the spiritual journey of Jesus” in the baptism narrative, when “a voice called him ‘my son, the beloved.'” Jesus “recognized the Spirit of God as the ever-present source and resource of his spiritual energy.” But at no time does Sister Clare refer to Jesus as God, nor to God as His Father. Speaking of Jesus, she says: “Ahead of his time, he was often rejected as he responded to the call to mysticism.”

My own formation in the spiritual life and in prayer is above all from the Discalced Carmelite Doctors of the Church, Saint Teresa of Avila, “Doctor of Prayer,” and Saint John of the Cross, “the Mystical Doctor.”  I do not see any clear correspondence between the spirituality Sister Clare is promoting, and that prayerful journey in the life of Grace, growing free from sin and growing in virtue, with divine help, unto intensely personal union with God, that Saint Teresa writes of in nuptial terms; according to Saint Teresa in The Interior Castle, a book Sister Clare alludes to (but does not quote from) while explaining what mysticism is, the soul begins to live spiritually “when by the heat of the Holy Spirit it begins to benefit through the general help given to us all by God and through the remedies left by Him to His Church,” including, significantly, “going to confession.” Sister Clare’s new spirituality sometimes vaguely resembles Hindu  mysticism. Following Chapter 1, which wanted us to focus on our body, the end-of-chapter ritual even recalls Hindu Kundalini meditation: “place your hands first on your solar plexus, which is that area of your body just above your abdomen, next on your heart and then on your forehead honoring body, heart and mind.”

The most poignant thing in Awakening to Prayer, is from the end-of-chapter ritual for Chapter 4. We are to “[g]ather a candle, a small box with a lid, a pen, five or six small strips of paper and a dish with water in it. Arrange these items into a beautiful altar that represents struggle.”  We are to do some activities with these items, finally we sprinkle some water on these items and “Make the Sign of the Cross on yourself with this water.” That is the most poignant thing, to me: a lonely ceremony with pretend Holy Water, for a spirituality seemingly without priest or Church.

What relevance have sacramentals or Sacraments of the Catholic Church, in Sister Clare’s view? Perhaps in the new theology, everything is equally a sacrament. Her epilogue says: “God’s presence permeates everyone and everything in the universe–no exceptions. Grasping this pervasiveness of God makes it clear that there is something lasting and sacred in everything we taste and touch.”

I find Sister Clare human, warm and likeable, which all the more leaves me with sadness. Everything in Awakening to Prayer is kept vague enough and sounds enough like Catholic teaching on prayer, that apparently it slips by at a diverse publisher like Saint Anthony Messenger Press, with words on the cover stating it to be “spirituality for catholic women.” But behind this “emerging spirituality” lies an “emerging theology”, that I feel concerned seems to leave the Catholic Church behind.