Another Phenomenal Woman of Color: Sister Thea Bowman

thea3All of us have been touched and blessed by the life of Dr. Maya Angelou.  Her recent passing had all of us of a certain age reflecting on her life and impact on our own lives.  I re-read her wonderful poem “Phenomenal Woman” (read it here), and my mind wandered to the other phenomenal women I’ve known: ALL of the women in our family, for example, every one of them: my wife, mother, sisters, cousins, daughters!  And then, listening to the rhythms of Dr. Angelou reading some of her own poetry, I was reminded of still another phenomenal woman of color: the dynamic, brilliant, multi-talented, and courageous Sister Thea Bowman, who died of cancer at age 52 in 1990.  Born and raised in Mississippi, Thea was a religious sister, singer, actress, teacher, liturgist, dramatist, Ph.D. with a particular expertise on fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, and above all, a passionate evangelist.

thea2I remember first hearing of Sister Thea many years ago, shortly after leaving the seminary.  Many of us seminarians had been helping out in African-American communities as we could during the civil rights movement, and soon word began to spread about this fiery young sister who was appearing on the scene.  Although she had earned her Ph.D. in English at the Catholic University of America, and became known as an expert on Faulkner, she was never a stereotypical academic!  Her principal mission was to enable, empower, awaken and inspire people, and her influence both within and outside of the African-American community is incalculable.

Over the last few days, I’ve mentioned her name to several people and to my amazement they had never heard of Thea.  This must not be allowed to happen!  I’m going to put up two videos here.  First is a biography of Sister Thea produced. shortly after her death.  As you can see, she continued to inspire even after the cancer that was killing her had confined her to a wheelchair.


The second video is truly remarkable.  The quality of the recording is not very good, so let me explain what you will see.  The US Bishops meet in general assembly twice a year.  This video is from one of those meetings, in 1989.  The bishops, as you will hear from the late Bishop John Ricard, had formed a Committee to support Black Catholics, and Sr. Thea was one of the consultants to that committee.  Terminally ill, she was invited to address the bishops, and — well, you will see what happens.  Keep that in mind: from her wheelchair, a dying Thea brings the bishops to their feet.

How many other Theas and Mayas are out there, still finding their voices?

RIP, Dr. Angelou.  RIP, Dr. Bowman.

Pray for us.

UPDATE: I was just informed that Brother Mickey McGrath has recently published his own work on Sister Thea.  Here’s a link to in case you’re interested.  I haven’t had a chance to enjoy it yet, but can’t wait to do so!

Poetry and Shabbat: Living Life to the Full

poetryThere is a wonderful piece over on Huffington Post by Bryan Berghoef entitled, “The World Needs More Poetry.”  In his reflection on Michael Casey’s book “Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina,” Berghoef observes, “Poetry, like meditation, can quiet us.  Slow us down.  Create a calming effect on our normally rushed way of being.”

The great spiritual practices encourage us to pay attention. A poem, at a different level from other types of writing, also invites us to pay attention. To be aware. To allow the flow of words to wash over us, the images to flicker on the screen of our mind, the senses evoked to become engaged. And yet, poetry can go even deeper than that. Casey reminds us that poetry can “trigger memories and associations that reside below the threshold of awareness.” It comes at us sideways instead of straight on. It catches us by surprise. It sneaks up on us from behind and suddenly we become aware of a presence, sense or idea that we hadn’t seen coming.

Reading such a poem slowly, repeatedly, a line or phrase at a time, can evoke in us such a deep and profound experience that opens our eyes, widens our perspective, deepens our own moment-to-moment experience. Such reading is a spiritual practice that we could all use more of. As Henri Nouwen put it: “Spiritual reading is food for our souls. We receive the word, ruminate on it, digest it and let it become flesh in us.”

ShabbatAll of this has wonderful possibilities for the human person.  In particular, it can connect us to the Jewish wisdom of “shabbat” (שַׁבָּת).  We Christians often oversimplify the richness of this tradition of “rest.”  There is so much more to it!

The term shabbat is not used during the actual creation accounts in Genesis, although we are told that YHWH rested on the seventh day.  Shabbat emerges more specifically during the sojourn in the desert following the Israelites flight from Egypt.  YHWH provides enough manna on five days of the week to feed the people for each day.  On the sixth day, a double portion of manna was provided so that the people would not have work to gather the manna on the seventh day, the day of shabbat.  This day of rest, modeled after YHWH’s rest on the seventh day, was to give people and animals an opportunity to rest and recuperate in order to face the coming week refreshed in every way, physical and spiritual.  It is a day, not of legalistic restrictions, but for “recreation” of body and spirit, a pursuit of higher things.  It is not simply a day off from work, it is a day freed from work in order to nurture the soul.  In Jewish poetry and music, shabbat is often referred to as a queen or a bride.

We can all benefit from the poetry of shabbat in our lives, can’t we?  Especially in our own day, inundated with activities and errands and responsibilities and demands, the great gift of restful contemplation can seem almost too good to be true.  I know that’s true in my life, and I would guess it is in others as well.  As Berghoef writes, “The world needs more poetry”; indeed, the world needs shabbat.

Jessica PowersBishop Robert Morneau, a renowned poet in his own right, has frequently encouraged others to discover the poetry of Jessica Powers.  Perhaps the following might inspire our own poetic entry into shabbat:


On a dark night
Kindled in love with yearnings –
Oh, happy chance! –
I went forth unobserved,
My house being now at rest.
– St. John of the Cross

How does one hush one’s house,
each proud possessive wall, each sighing rafter,
the rooms made restless with remembered laughter
or wounding echoes, the permissive doors,
the stairs that vacillate from up to down,
windows that bring in color and event
from countryside or town,
oppressive ceilings and complaining floors?

The house must first of all accept the night.
Let it erase the walls and their display,
impoverish the rooms till they are filled
with humble silences; let clocks be stilled
and all the selfish urgencies of day.

Midnight is not the time to greet a guest.
Caution the doors against both foes and friends,
and try to make the windows understand
their unimportance when the daylight ends.
Persuade the stairs to patience, and deny the passages their aimless to and fro.
Virtue it is that puts a house at rest.
How well repaid that tenant is, how blest
who, when the call is heard,
is free to take his kindled heart and go.

Shabbat Shalom!

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