Grace for the Things That Feel Hard to Do

by Jen Owens

Just a couple weeks ago, I spoke at a Theology on Tap near my hometown in Southern California. The parish school’s lunch area had been transformed that lovely July evening to reflect the conversation’s nautical theme of navigating your faith in contemporary culture. By the time the event started, I was a bundle of nerves, having flown down from Oakland just a couple hours beforehand, after having participated in a morning-long meeting at my parish there.

My portion of the evening’s conversation was to last 10-12 minutes, and I zipped through my prepared pages more quickly than I had wanted to, those nerves having gotten the better of me, despite the presence of family and friends who had come to support me. Even though I had spoken too quickly for my liking, I felt like the audience was with me throughout, and the talk seemed well-received.

Afterward, I was talking with one of the vowed religious women who organized the event, and she introduced me to a young woman who had heard me speak at another similar event at her parish the summer before. The young woman expressed her concern not about what I had said that evening, but rather, something I had mentioned the previous summer at her parish.

She was concerned that I had been discussing the ordination of women in that presentation, and she wanted to be sure that I understood how that had been received last summer. She let me know that when I spoke about some of the research on American young adults and their perceptions of women’s ordination at her parish, as well as the perspectives of some of the women in From the Pews in the Back on that topic, several members of the audience shut down and tuned out, so to speak. This young woman thought it would be helpful if I was clearer that the women in From the Pews in the Back who raise the topic must not understand our church’s teaching on it.

I listened, and I used my “I” messages, the way I had learned in Catholic grade school, but the conversation on the whole was discouraging. When I pointed out that many of the women in the collection have advanced degrees in theology and consequently spend quite a bit of their time studying the church’s teaching on these things, she didn’t understand why they didn’t assent to them as a result. When I started to explain that there is a disconnect between the teaching and the women’s lived experience, she changed the subject to a conversation about how “fundamental” this particular teaching is to the whole of the Catholic faith and recommended that I read Christopher West’s writing on JP2’s theology of the body. Sensing that we weren’t going to find much common ground that night and wanting to spend more time with my family and friends who had begun to leave, I thanked her for voicing her concerns and asked her to pray for me, as I would for her.

Since that night, I have often revisited that conversation in my mind, and I have, in fact, begun to pray for the woman who initiated it. I pray that she would have the grace to practice hospitality and an attitude of nonjudgment to those who might think differently from the way that she does and might make their way to her parish. And I pray for myself. I pray in petition for the grace to do the things that feel hard to do.

The more often I meet people who share this woman’s perspective, the more convinced I become that these difficult conversations are important for our growth in our communities of faith, whether they be local or global. And the more often I have these conversations, the more I realize how difficult they are. So I pray for grace all around.

Jen Owens is a PhD student at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. She is also a co-editor of From the Pews in the Back.

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3 Responses

  1. Jen, I was moved by this post. I feel for you and have had similar experiences. They stick with me. The hardest part for me is the idea that if I simply understood the teachings, I would certainly assent to them. There is so much more to it than that, but it is hard to even find common ground to begin the conversation.

  2. Thanks so much for your note, Angela. I really appreciate it. And you’re totally right–it IS hard to find common ground. It seems like it wouldn’t be because we have this huge thing that affects our lives so intimately in common, but what that looks like in everyone’s day to day can be so different. Sorting out how to find it is definitely an area of growth for me, so I’m trying to start with the people I know who have different perspectives from the ones that I have. I feel like there it can be a little easier because there already is a shared good will between two people and we already assume the best of one another. All in all, I definitely welcome the benefits of others’ experiences on this one because of how important I think it is to our development as a church community.

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