The Value of Irreverence

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Kristen and I met Jean Kelly, new friend and colleague and fellow woman-of-a-certain-age, at the Convivium conference in Pittsburgh. We’re delighted to have her guest blog for us today on intemperate older women.

Monday’s daily reading, Titus 2:1-8, 11-14, put me in mind of a presentation Marybeth and Kristen gave last week at a conference sponsored by Convivium journal. In “Women-of-a-Certain-Age Discuss What it is to be Crones Who Read and Write” we discussed how the wisdom of older woman is seriously undervalued in contemporary American culture and our church.

But here was Paul, admonishing his followers in Crete “to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,” going on to specifically instruct older men and women to be role models for the next generation.

“Older men should be temperate, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, love, and endurance,” Paul wrote in his epistle to Titus.  Check.

Then it was our turn: “Older women should be reverent in their behavior, not slanderers, not addicted to drink, teaching what is good.”

Okay, I do need to be reminded it is too easy to slander my soon-to-be-ex husband. And a second glass of wine often makes that first temptation even more difficult to resist.

But as I kept reading, Paul’s enlightened advice derailed. I ran smack up against the sexism so common in the Bible: it devalues women and restricts them to the role of suffering wife and mother, something I lived for more than twenty years. I squirm in my seat every time my Church chooses to read passages like this out loud at Mass:

“…teaching what is good, so that they may train younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, chaste, good homemakers, and under the control of their husbands.”

Uh, no.  I was with you, Paul, until that last line.

In fact, I only fault Paul to a point for his traditionalist views circa 66 AD.  But what excuse does the Church have for choosing these verses, while excluding the two that follow right after? The reading specified verses 1-8 and 11-14, leaving out 9-10.

So of course I read Titus 2:9-10: “Slaves must be obedient to their masters in everything, and do what is wanted without argument; and there must be no pilfering — they must show complete honesty at all times, so that they are in every way a credit to the teaching of God our Saviour.”

So the commission that created the Roman Catholic Mass lectionary in 1970 decided a reference to slaves was out of date or irrelevant, but a passage dictating women be controlled like slaves and kept in the home was okey-dokey?

The church’s daily readings for Mass come from a lectionary created just after Vatican II and only slightly updated since. In a 3-year cycle, labeled A-C, it covers much of the Bible. Almost.

As David Philippart observed in U.S. Catholic, “An inherent problem in any lectionary is what’s left out. Scriptures about women—the Books of Ruth, Esther, and Judith for example—are infrequent.” No kidding.

In my daily lectio divina, I am annoyed to think a committee of men from a time when I thought I looked good in bell bottoms still decides what I read or hear at Mass.  And now that my vision has progressed ineffectively into my cronehood, I resent having to hold my Bible closer to the lamp just to see the tiny verse numbers to be skipped. That is why I always make a point of reading what is left out of the daily readings. What goes unsaid and untaught.

So perhaps Paul is right. I am not reverent enough.  Or maybe as a “woman-of-a-certain age” I have earned the right to be a little irreverent. So, younger women, please love your families and have self-control. But when necessary, be irreverent, too.

Jean P. Kelly is embracing her cronehood in Columbus, Ohio, where she is currently writing a book chronicling her literary-spiritual pilgrimages. In 2019 she will launch a podcast about lectio divina.

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