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Summer Books

Memoir illuminates bond between exiles

By Marc H. Ellis
Fortress Press, 176 pages, $18


Because of the recent scandals emanating from Boston, many Catholics feel a sense of betrayal, confusion and outrage at how the institutional church has covered up these many acts of harm done, repeatedly over decades, to innocent youth. While journalists, church officials and scholars attempt to make sense of these dynamics of denial, some Catholics may experience a gnawing dissonance in going weekly to Mass, listening to homilies about everything else but the church’s sins, and paying the weekly collection. Now more than any time in recent memory, more and more American Catholics may feel an acute sense of exile.

Beyond this current crisis, consider that in recent years those in the Catholic church who have been officially reprimanded or silenced have so often been those who are prophetic, visionary and dedicated to living out a preferential option for the poor and marginalized of church and society, among them Matthew Fox, Leonardo Boff, Ivone Gebara, Tissa Balasuriya and Jeannine Gramick. And how many ordinary Catholics have felt the lash of ecclesial repression such as job firings for seeking to live out a gospel commitment to inner-city school children, refugees and immigrants with precarious status, or gay and lesbian folks?

In such a troubling, alienating time, Marc Ellis’ newest work, Practicing Exile, may speak movingly to many Christians as to how to live out their lives with integrity. Ellis writes of his own religious odyssey that has taken him from studying at Jesuit Marquette University to working at the New York Catholic Worker, from teaching at the Maryknoll School of Theology to meeting with Palestinians on the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, from remembering how Jews tried to be faithful in the darkest hours of the Holocaust to learning how to speak and not speak of God from radical Christians living in Costa Rica.

For most of the last two decades, Ellis has been speaking a prophetic word to anyone who would listen: “The central question of contemporary Jewish life is framed by the displacement and oppression of Palestinians.” In scores of articles and hundreds of talks, Ellis has admitted that what Jews have done and are still doing to the Palestinians is wrong. Suffice it to say, this message is not warmly received in synagogues and among official Jewish organizations. And so Ellis often finds companionship with those Jews who, like himself, are far from the Jewish establishment, with, for example, secular Jews like the Israeli journalist Amira Hass and Harvard researcher Sara Roy, both of whom confront head-on what Israeli policy has meant for the Palestinian people.

Yes, to practice exile means one becomes intimate with solitude and loneliness, but, as this brief and moving memoir reveals, one can meet other exiles from other religious and secular communities. Ellis not only cultivates a reverence for Shabbat, but he also practices Zen sitting, as many Christians have been doing in the last couple of decades.

As a Jew, he has learned not only from leaders of Jewish renewal such as Arthur Waskow and Michael Lerner, but his thought has also been influenced by such Christian luminaries as Daniel Berrigan, Rosemary Ruether and Gustavo Gutierrez.

I think of how Thomas Merton was alert to the nascent global phenomenon of interreligious dialogue at the end of his life in the late 1960s when he wrote candidly of his bond with Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “I have far more in common with Nhat Hanh than I have with many Americans, and I do not hesitate to say it. It is vitally important that such bonds be admitted. They are the bonds of a new solidarity … which is beginning to be evident on all five continents and which cuts across all political, religious and cultural lines to unite young men and women in every country in something that is more concrete than an ideal and more alive than a program.”

Like Ellis, Merton was a practitioner of religious exile and also, like Dorothy Day, he knew that “we have all known the long loneliness, and that the only solution is love, and that love comes with community.” Today, that community may be composed increasingly of exiles who recognize each other in the struggle for justice and the sharing of ordinary life and hope, including Catholics who meditate with Buddhists, American veterans who travel to Iraq to help build water purifiers, young people who get arrested with their elders at Fort Benning in Georgia, Methodists who travel to East Timor to help with national reconstruction, and Mennonites who stand with Palestinian Muslims and Christians against Israeli bulldozers.

In Practicing Exile, Ellis declares, “In conscience I cannot acquiesce in the ethical violations of the covenant that now stand at the heart of what it means to be Jewish. This issue is at the very center of Jewish life and history. I am ready for judgment.” Reading Ellis can help us to articulate the difficult questions we must be asking about what it means to be Catholic, how often we acquiesce in ethical violations, and how prepared we are, consequently, for judgment.

Mark Chmiel is adjunct professor of theological studies at St. Louis University.

National Catholic Reporter, May 17, 2002