Tag Archives: Tissa Balasuriya

LoSoRhyMo #5: Leslie Cannold’s Book of Rachael

Leslie Cannold, The Book of Rachael (Text 2011)

At the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year I embarrassed myself and Leslie Cannold, author of this book about an imagined sister to Jesus, by singing her a snatch of Dory Previn:

Did he have a sister, a little baby sister,
Did Jesus have a sister?
Was she there at his death?

I was expecting to find in the novel the kind of revisionist pleasure provided by ‘Did Jesus Have a Baby Sister‘ (the link takes you to the song on YouTube). But it turns out to be quite a different beast: it doesn’t so much ring changes on the biblical story as set out to imagine what life would have been for a spirited young woman in the time of Jesus, using the biblical story as a kind of baseline. There is some revisionism, of course: the virgin birth is explained – almost incidentally – by the familiar Roman soldier story; as a young man, Joshua/Jesus comes home late at night smelling of alcohol and women; and there’s an excellent account of the raising of Lazarus. But the aim isn’t to debunk or mock.

It’s years since I read any theology, apart from Tissa Balasuriya’s Mary and Human Liberation. Leslie Cannold’s approach to the biblical narrative goes quite a bit beyond Balasuriya’s ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, and she certainly doesn’t take up his vision of Mary (here called Miriame) as a revolutionary figure. I doubt if many scholars would take seriously the book’s version of how Joshua came to go on his preaching mission (he was looking for a woman who was pregnant to him, who had been consequently sold into prostitution by her father). It’s clear from this and other examples that this is not an attempt at historical excavation. Such pernicketiness aside, I don’t think I’ve ever read an account of the Jesus story that brings home more clearly what it meant to be poor or outcast or female in those times. That was the main pleasure of the book for me, rather than an engagement with the characters, who never quite came completely to life, despite even the scattering of cheerful sex scenes. Still, the pleasure was considerable.

But it’s November, and a sonnet is compulsory, even though it may create even more embarrassment all round than an off-key rendition of Dory Previn:

Sonnet 5: Where were the women?
These days I think of the Last Supper
and wonder where the women were
when Jesus foretold in that upper
room his foes would soon bestir
themselves and take his life. Who cooked
and shared that meal, were overlooked
by gospels and two thousand years
of art and preaching? More than spears
such silence pierces the hearts
of half the world. Oh they were there,
not just their sinful, perfumed hair
or veils, or wombs and other parts.
They've always held up half the sky.
Their absence is a stupid lie.

Mary and Human Liberation

Tissa Balasuriya, Mary and Human Liberation: The story and the text (1990, this edition with additional material edited by Helen Stanton, Geoffrey Chapman Publishers 1997)

This book inspired two of my November blog sonnets, but that’s no reason not to give it a separate entry.

I’m a stepchild of the Enlightenment; my natural parent was the Catholic Church. Of course most children don’t get to swap a natural parent for one who makes more sense to them, but if the analogy is allowed to stand despite that, I can say that reading this book was the equivalent of renewing contact with my birth parent, and discovering that she is no longer as I remember her – only to find a bit later that she really is pretty awful after all.

Father Tissa Balasuriya is a Sri Lankan scholar and liberation theologian. The essay at the heart of this book – the ‘text’ of the subtitle –  first appeared as a special double issue of the journal, Logos, published by the Centre for Society and Religion which Balasuriya founded in 1971. It scrutinises Catholic doctrines, dogmas and devotions related to Mary the mother of Jesus, and puts the case for an approach to Mary more in keeping with a liberatory version of Christianity. ‘From a Catholic perspective,’ he writes, ‘the sources of Christian theology are the Bible and tradition. Both of these should be subject to critical evaluation.’ Given that most Catholic doctrine has been developed by celibate European men, it needs to be approached with ‘a hermeneutics of suspicion’: one needs to ask constantly whether particular formulations and interpretations are influenced by self interest and limitations of that group – whether they might not be contaminated by male domination, by colonialism, by taking Western culture’s assumptions and practices to be universally human.

I read the book with a double mind: one part that of a settled atheist (for whom the book was mostly inconsequential, and I won’t pay much attention to him here), the other of the young man in whose life as a trainee Marist Brother, roughly between the ages of 16 and 23, the BVM was the primary feminine presence and fascination, of whom he has never quite let go. That young man was reminded of his pleasure years ago when a teacher said, ‘I believe in hell because it is a dogma of the Church. But I don’t have to believe that anyone has ever gone there,’ when he read Balasuriya’s strikingly similar statement about the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary (that is, the doctrine that she was conceived free of sin):

It is taught by the Church on the basis of tradition. I have no difficulty in accepting it. My problem is rather with the idea that the rest of humanity is stained or sinful at conception.  … Suffice it to say here that while I appreciate the holiness of Mary, it is not necessary to deprecate the rest of humanity by contrast.

My young self was exhilarated to find the pale, most pure, most holy virgin being talked about as a mature working class woman who joined her son’s dangerous and deeply principled challenge to the oppressive order of their day. He found it bracing to be told to get his mind above the waist, to stop thinking of Mary primarily in terms of her miraculous reproductive history, and to focus on the song attributed to her, the Magnificat, which talks of psychological, political and economic revolution. He was delighted to read a powerful argument in support of the ordination of women. He (and the atheist he has become) smirked approvingly when Balasuriya pointed out that all but one of the future popes, bishops and priests of the Church deserted Jesus in his darkest hour.

That was the ‘text’. The ‘story’ is another matter altogether. In 1994 the Catholic Bishops of Sri Lanka issued a statement warning Catholics not to read the essay, and shortly after that the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), under the leadership of Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict 16) weighed in with ‘Observations’ pointing out a large number of deficiencies and errors in the essay (in this kind of writing, deficiencies and errors if defended are heresies – you know, the kind of thing that used to get people burned alive). Both those documents are included in this book, along with Balasuriya’s careful, thorough, mostly civil and at times enraged responses. It makes shocking reading. It looks to me as if the thing that really stung the bishops and the Vatican was Balasuriya’s daring to challenge the Eurocentrism and male domination of the Church authorities, because the conversation moved quickly away from the text itself (after all, it’s not clear how well the members of the CDF could read English – the misrepresentations in their Observations may well have resulted from language difficulties rather than authoritarian deviousness) to a demand that Balasuriya sign a statement of belief that was especially tailored to him. Paragraph 34 of the statement read, ‘Therefore, I firmly accept and hold that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.’ To cut a long story short, Balasuriya refused to sign off on something that no other Catholic is required to subscribe to, and in 1997 he was excommunicated with no right of appeal. (According to Wikipedia the excommunication was rescinded a year later, after this book was published, when Balasuriya signed a different, more generally acknowledged statement.)

If the current crop of militant atheists were seriously interested in anything beyond grandstanding and stirring up conflict, they would do well to engage with thinkers like Tissa Balasuriya. They wouldn’t reach agreement, but they might discover the possibility of mutual respect, and much common ground. Much more common ground, I expect, than you’d find between, say, Tony Abbott or George Pell on the one hand and on the other Tissa Balasuriya or, I’m willing to bet, any of the now oldish Marist Brothers who were my confreres in our youth.

LoSoRhyMo 14: The end

Someone said that the sonnet form reflects the shape and movement of a single thought. Or words roughly to that effect. For the last of my month of sonnets, I picked as a ‘first draft’ a single paragraph from the book I’m currently reading, Tissa Balasuriya’s Mary and Human LiberationI chose the paragraph because it featured something akin to the ‘turn’ of a sonnet rather than because of the strength of the idea – the book’s liberation theology is much richer and provocative than this paragraph might suggest. Here it is, for the sake of transparency. It’s from the section on the 9th Station (Jesus falls the third time) in the chapter ‘A Marian Way of the Cross’.

Today, in spite of the agonizing poverty of the poor, especially in impoverished countries, their ruling élites and foreign companies and governments continue to press them further and further. More debts are imposed on them. Subsidies are cut. Services are reduced. Almost everything is comercialised. The weak go to the wall. Entire countries suffer from exhaustion and internal conflict results. The poor and marginalized experience deeper and deeper troubles: poverty, unemployment, insecurity, loneliness, drugs, divorce, broken families, neglected children, depression, trauma, suicides. Sri Lanka is said to have one of the world’s highest rates of suicide. To free ourselves from all these troubles at personal and societal levels, we need to seek the values of unselfish love, justice and peace, for which Jesus died.

And here’s the sonnet:

Sonnet 14: The ninth station
So now the wretched of the earth
grow still more wretched year by year.
Debts grow, of service there’s a dearth,
and everything’s for sale. We hear
élites play polo, compradors
send wealth from poor to richer shores.
Whole nations tear themselves asunder,
send underclasses further under:
poor, unemployed, depressed, neglected,
stoned, insecure, self-harming. Poor:
the social ills corrupt our core.
When Jesus died, his times reflected
ours. Now seek, below, above,
justice, peace, unselfish love

And so we say farewell to LoSoRhyMo. As with NaNoWriMo, the ONLY thing that mattered was output, even though I aimed for 14 sonnets where the novels-in-a-month writers have to produce 50 000 words. It was all about quantity, not quality, and it turned out to be fun to have to produce for your generally forgiving eyes regular rhyming things that weren’t too embarrassingly terrible.

Apart from having fun, I’ve learned a lot – about sonnets, about the process of committing my mental processes to paper. A perceptive friend described the exercise as ‘an invigorating lesson in the pleasures of structured communication and the virtues of practice’. I’m glad it was that for him – it was  doubly so for me.