In Praise of Stubborn Women
I don’t know about you, but I have three awesome nieces. No nephews, but who needs them when I’ve got these beauties? The youngest is Julie, who always signs her notes and cards to me, “from your most beloved niece”. Of course my cards always address each one the same way: “to Julie, to Amanda, to Hilary—my most beloved niece (our secret)”.
I’ve been so lucky to know them all their lives, watching them experience and discover the world and their own passions; observing how they respect and love one another; marveling at how they generously give of themselves to their parents, to me and other family members, to friends and even strangers. They have each grown into amazing adults, with careers that are vocations—filmmaker, educator, lawyer. I know their parents are so proud of them, and I know that if my mom and dad—their grandparents---were still around, they would be too. Correction on that: their grandparents ARE proud.
They do share one common quality, which can be sometimes annoying or exasperating: each of them can be pretty stubborn. It might be a bit genetic, now that I think about their parents. When each one gets it into her head that she wants to do something (or not), that something needs to be said or done, that an injustice needs to be addressed, that you need to think about some issue, they go at it relentlessly and they dig in for the duration. Sometimes it’s about proper nutrition or health---you must use organic sunscreen; sometimes it’s about the rules of the game---no cheating in ping pong, or miniature golf, or Cranium; sometimes it’s about politics. Political discussions with their parents can be particularly heated.
They can each be pretty headstrong, unbendable, sometimes downright bullheaded, and even if you want to wring their necks out of sheer frustration, you have to admire the determination.
We were all together this week at a rustic lake-side inn in Vermont, surrounded by thousands of mountainous acres of forests, streams and trails. It’s actually a private club called the Lake Mansfield Trout Club. Over the years the girls have gone there to swim, hike, and boat, and every year the family stays overnight for little vacations like the one we had last week.
It was created in 1899 as a fishing club, and my brother-in-law (their father) became a member maybe 25 years ago. But here’s the thing about the club: it has always had a limited number of official members, and they have always been men. The memberships can only be passed down in the family to a man, and therein lies the problem for my nieces: they don’t qualify.
At least for now. You see, not that they are imminently expecting the passing of their dear father, but their future at the Trout Club is threatened if someone doesn’t attempt to lobby now for equal rights for the superior gender. This is where their stubbornness can be a strength, and while we were up there this week they talked about strategies to try to break the wooden ceiling (the whole place is made of wood, of course).
This is not the first time they have attempted to overthrow the establishment. They have been hounding their father for years to get him to lobby other members to allow women to join the ranks. But as they say--the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree--and he has been equally stubborn in his resistance.
Dad seems to be weakening a bit, so there were numerous strategy sessions over dinner, or while treading water among the trout in the lake, or sitting in rocking chairs on the lengthy porch, book in hand. They even got one older member to agree that maybe…just maybe--when they are 80--they will be granted their wish. But that doesn't work for them. So my nieces hatched a plan which I think has a chance, but itrequires three things: 1)steadfast devotion to the cause, 2) willingness to be courageous, and 3)patience.
Change requires all of that, because change always brings the fear out in people, right? When you change the status quo, you don’t know what’s gonna happen: you go off map, and who knows what dangers lie in wait.
As a change-agent, it helps to keep your sense of humor, even if you know the cause is important and righteous. Those who feel threatened need to see your good heart, and your humanity. It's harder to demonize someone who is trying to bring about something new (and possibly better) when you see the goodness in them.
All of which reminds me of that Canaanite woman that Jesus is confronted with—you know, the one who approaches him to heal her daughter from a demon. The story throws us off a bit when we hear how Jesus responds to her appeal. He tells her to get lost, that his job description as a healer is restricted to Jews only; it's not meant for their Godless enemies, the Canaanites. And his apostle friends chime right in—yeah, beat it lady, you can’t join our club.
But she’s like my nieces. She’s stubborn, that one, and moreover she knows that Jesus can heal the daughter she loves so much. So she doesn’t just meekly stand aside, accept the rejection. She comes back at Jesus, asks again, so simply: “Lord, help me.” Jesus’ next reply is downright shocking. "It is not right to take the food of the children (the Jews) and throw it to the dogs (the Canannites)." That’s what the Jews called the Canaanites---dogs. It was as offensive in those days as it would be if someone equated your ethnic background with lowly dogs. I can’t waste my healing powers on you or your people, Jesus says.
This is where her humor comes in, here is where Jesus undoubtedly saw her good heart and her humanity. She has a great come-back, and I’m sure she said it with a smile and some good-natured sarcasm: be honest, Mr Perfect Jesus, you know you always sneak your dog some treats under the dinner table. So if I'm a dog, how about a treat? I'm sure shegot a smile out of Jesus--and maybe even an outright laugh---at that remark.
I love that woman. She reminds Jesus that his ministry, his message and his power is meant for everyone, not just a select group. Club membership should be open to all, if you are truly Lord.
Thanks to her stubborn commitment, her courage, her patience, and her good humor, the man she addressed as Lord became Lord of all. It worked. From that very hour, her daughter was healed, and Jesus himself had a better understanding of what his ministry was all about.
Meals at the Trout Club are family style, so that means that you sit down at a long table, and you are seated with more than just your own family. It’s customary to immediately introduce yourself when you join the table, and engage in good conversation about your home, your work, and your interests. You can meet some really interesting people, and sometimes you wind up talking about all kinds of things.
I introduced myself each time as a a teacher and filmmaker priest, but also as a priest. And one of the memorable conversations I had with a husband and wife. They were Catholic and regular church-goers. Not so their children. They had two girls and a boy, now grown-up women and men. The mother sighed as she talked about them. “We raised them to respect and appreciate the Church, and they all went to Catholic schools… but…”. Her voiced drifted off, and she looked over at the lake for a moment, then directly at me. “To tell you the truth, it was hard to give them a good answer about how the Church treats women.”
.I hear you, I said. I know that question well. The wife and daughters of my best friend have struggled with the issue of the role of women in the Church, and they found it so troubling that they have refused to participate anymore. And among my own nieces, only one of them has been nourished enough to participate in Mass on a relatively regular basis.
The Church and the Pope have spoken about the holiness of women among us, and of the importance of the Holy Mother in our salvation story. Pope Francis has even recently established a commission to study the idea of women deacons in the Church. But it sometimes does feel as though there is fear among the clergy and among a number of our fellow Catholics at the suggestion that women might have a deeper role in the Church. To be honest, the arguments that I have heard often sound a lot like the arguments about the male membership requirement in the Trout Club and they are not very convincing.
But then there is this bold and brassy Canaanite woman, challenging the very Source Himself. “Lord, help me,” and by the way, how much food have you given the dog under the table? It takes steadfast devotion to the cause, willingness to be a bit courageous, it takes patience, and a little bit of good humor to get to the heart of those who can effect the change. Even, apparently, Jesus.
The truth is that God is always challenging us to let go of our limiting fears, to embrace the whole world that has been entrusted to us, to bring laughter to the mix to scare away the dark, and most importantly to be stubborn and courageous in our love.
Most importantly to be stubborn and courageous in our love.
I have a feeling that my nieces will win over the hearts of those trout fishermen, just like the sassy Canaanite women did with Jesus. And I don’t think they will have to wait for the results until they are 80 years old.
Please God the same can happen in our Church with respect to the role of women and other issues that the Holy Spirit is inviting us to consider more deeply. I believe that the Holy Spirit is always encouraging us to open our hearts to continued revelation.
There are awesome women all around us in the Church, and I personally count on them to help us deepen our faith and build our Church stronger.
But it will take them and the rest of us to step up with devotion, courage, patience, and a dose of humble good humor-- trusting that Mr Perfect Jesus is with us through it all.