Books with Impact

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Storm Clouds (2017)

Recently, a friend in my book club forwarded an article about the impact that specific books had had on the life of the author. The article prompted me to make my own list. I will name only a few from my past because I really want to focus on the book that I just finished.

Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994). A good friend gave me this book for my birthday in 1996. At the time, I was experiencing a lot of stress – in my job, in my home life, and subconsciously, with my health. This book was the catalyst for starting to journal – a practice that I have continued for the past 20 years.

Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Ramen (1994). Dr. Ramen’s wisdom carried me through some uncertain and anxious times following my surgeries for breast cancer. I have recommended this book to several other women undergoing treatment for cancer and other serious illnesses.

The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson with Lou Aronica (2009). I re-discovered my “element” in 2009 when I started a Master’s degree program in Pastoral Theology. I was always in my element in teaching, but changing fields of study and going back to school re-invigorated my passion for learning.

I just finished reading a book that I think will stay with me for a long time: A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura by Eileen Markey (2016). It’s too soon to know what its long-term impact will be. Let me give you a brief summary from the publisher’s notes.

On a hot and dusty December day in 1980, the bodies of four American women-three of them Catholic nuns-were pulled from a hastily dug grave in a field outside San Salvador. They had been murdered two nights before by the US-trained El Salvadoran military. News of the killing shocked the American public and set off a decade of debate over Cold War policy in Latin America. The women themselves became symbols and martyrs, shorn of context and background. In A Radical Faith, journalist Eileen Markey breathes life back into one of these women, Sister Maura Clarke. Who was this woman in the dirt? What led her to this vicious death so far from home? Maura was raised in a tight-knit Irish immigrant community in Queens, New York, during World War II. She became a missionary as a means to a life outside her small, orderly world and by the 1970s was organizing and marching for liberation alongside the poor of Nicaragua and El Salvador. Maura’s story offers a window into the evolution of postwar Catholicism: from an inward-looking, protective institution in the 1950s to a community of people grappling with what it meant to live with purpose in a shockingly violent world. At its heart, A Radical Faith is an intimate portrait of one woman’s spiritual and political transformation and her courageous devotion to justice.

At first I wondered why the book focused on just one of the four women. After all, they all suffered the same fate. (The other women are Maryknoll Sister Ita Ford, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Lay Catechist Jean Donovan.) As I read, I realized that this is the story of so many women missionaries. The author acknowledges that the stories of the other women should also be told. I think she may have chosen Maura Clarke because of the volume of letters, interviews, and documents that were available to her.

Answering the very personal questions of “who was this woman in the dirt, and what led her to this vicious death” is a story of Maura Clarke. Yet, it is so much more than that. It is the story of Maryknoll and the commitment of Maryknoll priests and sisters to the people of Latin America. It is the story of the decades-long struggle of the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador. Sister Maura had been in Nicaragua for more than 17 years. It was only in the last four months of her life that she lived with the people of El Salvador. The Maryknoll Sisters had responded to a plea from Bishop Oscar Romero for assistance. (Bishop Romero had been killed just months before Maura arrived in San Salvador.)

This is an inspiring and soul-stirring story – one for me that is disturbing in that I did not know what was happening in Nicaragua and El Salvador in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. And I was not a child during those years. How could I not have known what was going on? More disturbing still was the complicity of the United States in promoting despotic military regimes. It matters so much who is telling the story.

What is the legacy of Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Ita Ford, and Dorothy Kazel? It is the importance of accompaniment. They could protest injustice and demand equality and dignity for all people, but in the end, they were often powerless. Their strength was in standing in solidarity with those who were suffering because of poverty, illness, violence, and imprisonment. Sister Maura and all the missionaries loved the people of Nicaragua and El Salvador, lived among them, and like so many of them, suffered violent deaths.

I feel a connection with these women, partly because I have worked with universities in Guatemala and Honduras, and partly because Jean Donovan is buried here in Sarasota. I know the cemetery, and now I will look for the grave marker. On the day I finished reading A Radical Faith, I received a newsletter for the supporters of the Maryknoll Sisters. In this issue, there is an article about Maryknoll Sister Mary’s mission to El Salvador. For over 20 years, Sister Mary has worked as a doctor with AIDS prevention and in ministry to people living with HIS/AIDS. The accompaniment continues.

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