March 22, 2009

Fruit of the Rule of Love

a review of Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart; by the Women of Magdalene with Becca Stevens. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008

The Rule of Saint Benedict is commonly credited with being one of the instruments by which Western civilization was supported and maintained through some difficult times in its early middle age. The Rule’s sanity, generosity, and above all, charity, are the means by which a community of persons can foster stability, through inward conversion from inordinate focus on the self towards living with and for others.

The remarkable elasticity of the Rule led to many adaptations and revisions — and reforms — down through the years. But I think that none even of the most ardent revisers or reformers would ever have conceived that an adaptation of the Rule would bring new life to scores of women who until that transformative encounter had been living on the streets as prostitutes and drug addicts. But as the old song says, grace is amazing.

A little over a decade old, Magdalene is a two-year residential and support community for women coming out of correctional facilities or off the street, from lives marked by abuse, prostitution and addiction. It began with the Reverend Becca Stevens, Episcopal chaplain at Saint Augustine’s (Vanderbilt University). She conceived of creating a safe place for women, a place not merely as a house but as a home. We all know there is a difference, a crucial one.

We also know how sadly true it is for the church both to get and to give the second-best (“I’m buying a new microwave so I’ll give the old one to the church...” You know how it goes.) Becca insisted that this home would be properly furnished, with decent furniture and a real comfortable living room, and bedrooms with beds with clean sheets. It would also be located in a residential district; not just outside the prison doors or the city gates. Soon one house grew to two and then another, as those who lived there truly found new life. Magdalene has expanded to include programs helping male first-time offenders understand and come to terms with how demeaning their use of women is, and the harm they do in contributing to a brutal system. Thistle Farms, a nonprofit maker of all-natural body care products, was launched in 2001. It is named for the hardy plant that is the sole survivor on streets the women walked in their former lives — and again in their new lives as angels of mercy helping other women to move from the old life to the new.

In Find Your Way Home the women of Magdalene recite their Rule and tell their story. In some ways reading this tender volume is like being present at a Greater Chapter, where by tradition the members of the Benedictine household would hear their Rule and reflect on it. True to Benedict’s own injunction that the youngest shall be heard, this collection of voices reflects the range of participants in the Magdalene households.

A major feature of these households is that they are not “run” so much as lived in. Although there are staff and volunteer supporters, it is the women themselves who form the community and learn to work out their differences within that community by following the Rule and living into it. Such is its generous charity that women who had been hardened by abuse — both by others and of themselves — have found themselves transformed by love.

The Rule itself, broken down chapter by chapter into short segments, is a wonderful adaptation of Benedict’s charitable and sane spirit. The reflections by the women of Magdalene that follow each section of the Rule form a powerfully moving recitation. Remember, for many of these women this will be the first time they have lived in a real home or experienced love from another person, or in some cases for another person. Imagine the experience of a woman fresh from prison being given a key to the front door and a room of her own with clean sheets on the bed. Well, you don’t have to imagine — her testimony is there for you to read. And it will move your heart.

I am tempted to cite other of passages but instead I simply urge you to obtain a copy of this short book. I began reading it on the subway on my way to a diocesan meeting and found tears running down my face as I read of the gratitude that woman felt on being given a key, as she knelt down to kiss the floor of her new home. There are many such moments of healing, thanksgiving, and transformation in this little book. It is a reassurance that God is at work.

The Rule of the women of Magdalene has something to say to us all as well. By that I mean all Christians, but particularly in these days of tension in the Anglican Communion, it is well to remember that Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine to England and so in some sense founded the Church of England, was an admirer and first biographer of Benedict. And so I will end this brief review with one of the chapters of the Rule to which I think it would do us all good to attend:

Chapter 8: Let God Sort It Out
In community our job is not to judge or say, “I told you so.” We trust that God will sort things out, so we don’t have to second-guess every decision someone else makes.
We are here to love one another in the most radical way possible, without judgment, and to pray that others can love us in the same way.
We give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, comfort to the sorrowful, clothing to the naked, and companionship to the imprisoned and dying. We wash one another’s feet.

Couldn’t the Anglican Communion learn something from the women of Magdalene? They have surely grasped an aspect of the life-saving, life-giving Gospel that many of us seem to have forgotten. It is not too late to learn from the thistle and its farmers, not too late to follow the example of the woman who loved much, rather than the Pharisee who sat in judgment.

— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

You can hear more from the women of Magdalene at the new blog, Voices of Thistle Farms.


Veritas said...

I am putting this book on my reading list. It sounds fascinating. May the church learn to operate like these havens of grace. Thanks so much for the recommendations, Father.

Anonymous said...

May God bless you taking care of the "least of my sisters".
Your article stopped me at the beginning. When you said a house is not a home "as we all know".
I didn't. Still don't. I do beleive that my "home" awaits me in the next life. At least I hope so.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Jay. I hope you will find the book as moving as I did.

Mary, I think you'll find an echo of that sentiment in the next to the last chapter of the book. "Finding your way home" does mean more than living in a nice house. But for some of the women of Magdalene who have never even known a house... well, even this way-station can seem like heaven. But as one of the women noted, "There's a song that says, 'I'm gonna trade my earthly home for a better one, one day.'" That better home has many rooms, enough for all of God's children.

Göran Koch-Swahne said...

Surely, this is the work of the Gospel!

Monk-in-Training said...

Dear Br. Tobias.
I am profoundly amazed by how these women have formed such a community. I will be reading this book as well.

I look forward to seeing you again in August.


motheramelia said...

Thank you for the review. I've ordered two copies.

WSJM said...

For those who are both impatient and cheap, this book is also available in an inexpensive Kindle edition. (It's downloading into my Kindle as I write.)

(And thanks again to my brother-in-law who gave me the Kindle as a gift -- I couldn't really afford it myself, but I love it!)

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Thanks for highlighting this, Fr. Tobias. I was at Vanderbilt in the late 1980s when Becca Stevens came to Vanderbilt, and have watched as her work has flowered and done so much good. I'll definitely be ordering the book.