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McKenna is a seasoned practitioner of the telling tale


Prolific author, speaker and giver of retreats Megan McKenna could be regarded as a prophet (because of her social justice work), a scripture scholar (with a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union) or a religious educator (having written texts for various publishers).

But above all, she’s a storyteller. For McKenna, telling a story is a sacred act. In the introduction to her Keepers of the Story, she writes:

“In every culture, in every geographical place, among every people, there are individuals who are entrusted with the words that belong to that place and group. They hold the heritage, the experiences and the stories that express who they are and how they stand in the universe. These are the keepers of the Story ...

“They live on the words but they never make their living from the words. The tales tell them. The stories use their flesh, their voices and minds, to remain alive and to keep the people alive. The keepers are given words and are held in sway and bondage by the lifelines of hope, suffering, exaltation, births and deaths, resurrections and vision: by the Story.”

In addition to the dozen or more of McKenna’s retreats, seminars and lectures issued by Credence Cassettes, she has written a small library of books for Orbis Books at Maryknoll: Angels Unaware; Not Counting Women and Children; Mary: Shadow of Grace; Parables; Lent: The Sunday Readings; Lent: The Daily Readings; Rites of Justice; Keepers of the Story; Advent, Christmas, Epiphany: Stories and Reflections on the Sunday Readings; and Advent, Christmas and Epiphany: Stories and Reflections on the Daily Readings. In addition, a book of her poetry, Dancing with Angels, was published in 1998 by Continuum.

In a recent interview, McKenna told NCR how she understands the difference between the stories she tells and the stories we get from movies, pop culture and television.

“The stories I tell have a history, a tradition,” she said. “They belong to a specific group of people and have been passed on, usually in a teaching or religious tradition, for thousands of years.

“I usually choose stories that come from the seven major religious traditions. They are passed on, usually orally, only lately on paper. They belong to a group of people, they are not individual stories. They don’t belong to me; they are not mine to change. They belong to a community.”

McKenna’s concern with community goes back at least as far as her doctoral thesis, which she says was not received kindly at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. What was the thesis about? “That the norm for doing theology is the small base community, not academic reflection,” she said.

Primacy of community

Her insistence on the primacy of community does not always endear her to audiences in the United States, where rugged individualism is an implicit dogma. She said her reception is actually “much better in foreign countries than in the U.S. The universal church outside the United States is much more tuned in to the scripture as a basis for a theological language and for liturgy and community.

“The United States is into a very individualistic spirituality and is ignorant of scripture,” she said. “They don’t know how to read or interpret it. They certainly never do it communally. Because of that, justice and community responsibility or accountability is not central to the church in the United States, as generally it is in other parts of the church, especially in Latin America and the Philippines.”

McKenna said that the use of scripture in cultures outside the United States is part of an entirely different sense of what it means to be a Christian.

“Ethical and moral issues are much more at the center of religious life, both as individuals and as a church. In a place like the Philippines, where 40 percent of the people are Islamic, or in Japan or Korea where Christians are one-tenth of 1 percent of the population, Christians are defined by their belief in behavioral terms. This is true not only of individuals but what the church publicly stands for. In all these countries, the church stands for human rights, against torture, against the prison system and for a range of protection of human dignity. This is frequently an international posture, rather than the convictions of one or a few individuals.

“It is assumed that, of course, you live a good, upright life. But your religion is more a public thing and what you stand for in public, speaking out for or against certain things. These public postures are rooted in church teaching and are deeply rooted in the scriptures. When you speak out as an individual, you always have the support of the community. This is strong both in the Philippines and in Latin America.”

McKenna says she was a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic, rosary-raised and Catholic-schooled. She comes from a large -- 15 children -- Irish Catholic family and laughingly recalled that when gentlemen callers came for dates, they either waited till the daily rosary was completed or came in and joined the family.

Her father was highly political. He never joined a party but worked as a high-level government official. The wider world of politics was always a part of life.

As were books. Her father loved books and brought home boxes full of secondhand treasures that Megan would squirrel away and read until wee hours of the morning. She grew up in love with words. She lived in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn and learned to love Jewish stories. From her neighbors she acquired a rich repertoire of teaching tales that serve her well to this day.

She offers as an example a story about humility. A rabbi was leading the people in prayer and prayed devoutly: “Lord, I am nothing. Have mercy on me in my nothingness.” An elder, not to be shamed, prayed similarly, “Great God, spare me who am nothing, not even dust, in your eyes.” From the back of the room a feminine voice spoke out, “Lord, have mercy on your servant who is utterly nothing.” The rabbi looked at the elder and snorted, “Look who thinks she’s nothing!”

McKenna joined Maryknoll at 19 and stayed for a year and a half. She credits the Maryknoll Sisters with enlarging her vision of the church so that she understood the centrality of community and the importance of international extension. Praying in a group when the people are using five or six languages, she says, has a profound effect.

After leaving Maryknoll, McKenna taught in Catholic schools, worked with the civil rights movement, protested the Vietnam war, worked with the Black Panthers and then returned to school to become the only woman in St. Paul’s College, a seminary that was part of The Catholic University. She was the only woman ever to get an M.A. in theology there (the school closed in 1971).

McKenna taught in various schools, worked for a number of dioceses from 1971-78 and served as the editor of the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company’s liturgy publication Celebration from l973-75. In 1978 she moved to New Mexico, where she still lives.

In the 1980s, McKenna began to write and travel, traveling extensively in Latin America where she worked as a theologian in base communities. In the ’90s she moved to the United Kingdom where she spent time in England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. She also spent time in the Philippines, Japan and Thailand.

Yearning for justice

Social justice is at the heart of McKenna’s theological agenda. As to whether concern for social justice breaks down along liberal/conservative lines, she was characteristically blunt.

“Not necessarily. I would say that neither the liberal nor the conservative is interested in social justice generally. The conservative group is interested in personal morality, specifically in sexuality, which they call family values. The more liberal spectrum of the church in the U.S. is interested in personal morality in the area of authority and power, generally within the church.

“The conservatives will take one public issue such as abortion,” she said. “The more liberal Americans will take a specific issue, like shutting down the School of the Americas, sometimes the death penalty, but there is no consistency on either end of the spectrum. Both of them are working out of something specifically American -- individual choice, individual conscience, not necessarily backed up by the church, tradition or a community-informed conscience. Community does not inform conscience in the United States at either end of the spectrum.

“I don’t think either end of the spectrum speaks for the majority of Catholics. The more vocal, the more public people are on both ends, the less they speak for the normal people in the churches. Most people are not outraged at sexual issues or the use of power in the church. They’re dealing with alcoholism, drug addiction, violence on the streets, in schools and at home, single family issues, land, a struggle to survive as Catholics in a culture that is anti-Catholic and anti-Christian. They are trying to do that within a parish structure that no longer reaches out to the majority of the people in the parish.”

McKenna’s latest Orbis title, Blessings and Woes, is an exploration of the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel. She is currently working on a book, Leave Her Alone, which is about women who were defended publicly by Jesus or the prophets. She argues that these defended women changed the course of religion and the way we think about God.

Despite some health problems, McKenna is still going strong. In June she will be taking part in Dublin’s jubilee celebration at All Hollows Seminary (the international seminary for Western Europe) alongside Michael Alamadoss, a theologian from New Delhi, India. The themes will be story and liberation.

Teachers left their mark

Why does she spend all this effort, why is she such a militant Catholic, despite her trenchant criticism of the church? In her words, “I couldn’t imagine not being a Catholic. It is the source of the richest imagination I’ve come across.

“When I studied scripture, I had marvelous teachers in the seminary. Then people like Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day and Dan Berrigan entranced me. They read scripture differently than I’d ever heard before. It’s not just the written word but scriptures as they are lived by the Fathers of the Church, among martyrs, saints and since the Vatican Council. People around the world used those biblical stories for hope, for survival with grace in the face of horror.

“The person who had the deepest effect on me was Ignacio Ellacuría, one of the martyred Jesuits. They were hunting him and Juan Sobrino. They blew his brains out because his mind was as dangerous as his heart. He taught me one class on Christology in the United States and blew me out of the water.

“He showed Jesus’ struggle for justice and culture. He condemned the gap between the rich and the poor. He revealed Jesus’ opposition to people whose religion touched nothing except themselves. He showed me how to read scripture from the Third World perspective, the universal perspective of the church. I’ve not been the same since and I’m utterly grateful to him.

“When he was killed, it was incredibly hard for me to deal with. It was his death that shattered my faith in such a way that I had to come out on the other side in a whole new side of reality. If you really do believe the gospel, they might kill you.”

For McKenna the poor are at the core of Christianity. “I’ve been taught by the people I’ve met in Latin America, on Native American reservations and in the black community. They read the scriptures to survive in a horrible world. They read them with hope, with courage to keep struggling and for human dignity. They get a sense of identity that makes them proud.

“The people who are the most articulate are not those on the left or right, it’s those who are quiet and are struggling with that silence. Alone or with others they say, ‘I believe and I don’t like the way the world is much.’

“The other reason I’m a Catholic is what some folks call justice. People call me a prophet because I speak out for it, but that’s wrong. It’s the kingdom. The element of the kingdom is struggling to squeeze its way into the world where the hospitality of God needs to be. That means everyone who is not welcome, who hasn’t made it in society -- they are the poor folk of the kingdom. That means justice, peace, reconciliation, atonement and mercy but it also means resistance to evil. It means the courage to tell the truth to power, in church or out.

“If you believe, your religion makes you more compassionate, just and truthful, less self-absorbed and more careful of others. Otherwise it has little to do with the Catholic faith (or any faith, for that matter).”

New vocabulary needed

When asked what direction her faith is taking her now, she said, “I’m doing a lot of work now on two levels. I work with other religions. How do you be a Catholic in a Buddhist or Shinto or Hindu or Islamic culture? Words mean a great deal to me. But they are limited ways of describing belief. The Catholic church in the future must learn new vocabularies to deal with people in other cultures and religions or we will have nothing to say to them.

“Western European language based on Greco-Roman philosophy and law is not an adequate language to speak to people in the rest of the world. This European language and philosophy doesn’t even work well in our own culture. That’s why I use stories. They are an international language that speaks of becoming a mystery, of becoming holy and becoming careful and reverent toward all of life.

“Any dogma, any doctrine, is couched in a specific historical and geographical era and is not adequate to try to talk to people in other religions.”

McKenna is concerned with the connection between groups of people and the land. “I do more and more work with people who are struggling for sovereignty rights connected to a specific piece of earth. I do that in Hawaii, with the Native Americans and even in Northern Ireland. Religion is becoming tied to geography, a specific piece of land, which is one way of talking about the Incarnation in a pragmatic way.

“People live in a place and they must have a sense that they belong in that place. The land does not belong to them; they belong to the land. The land forms them as much as anything else because their culture is tied to a specific piece of earth. If God came to Earth, it is crucial to listen to the people who are tied the closest to it.

“That doesn’t mean people who go off and live as a hermit or start a farm, but the folks who have lived close to the earth for generations: the native Hawaiians, Native Americans, aborigines. A good number of stories I tell are connected to place names on the earth. They’re about how this place got its name, why there are so many islands off the coast of Vancouver, all sorts of things.

“I live in New Mexico for this reason. The land looks like my soul. I love it. To me, the New Mexico sky is higher than any other and makes me reach. The ground is beautiful and it is dangerous because of what we have done to it. It’s mine. I belong to it.”

Clarence Thomson is a freelance writer and former director of Credence Cassettes.

National Catholic Reporter, February 5, 1999