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Fragments of Real Presence: Liturgical Traditions in the Hands of Women

Teresa Berger
Professor of Ecumenical Theology
Herder & Herder: 2005
Paper, 262 pages, $24.95

Reviewed by Kazuyo Hirose

In case of a fragment, gather.” With this basic impulse, Professor Berger gathers her inspiring essays to offer Fragments of Real Presence. A variety of genres—scholarly reflections, intimate stories, poems, meditations, prayers, liturgies— are ordered according to the rhythm of the liturgical calendar. Together they reveal a multiplicity of feminist perspectives.

This volume is a treasure box of Christian spirituality. Its wealth of examples of women’s lived lives of faith will help Christian and non-Christian readers alike realize the value of the Christian tradition. I have long sought a book like this, as I look for ways to bring together Christianity and popular religions like Shintoism and Buddhism in my own country. It gave me, a Japanese Christian, a chance to deepen my understanding of the influence of religious differences on human spirituality.

For example, in a chapter that counts down the seven days before Christmas, the author questions women’s desires by relating images in the O-Antiphons, ancient texts from the Roman liturgy, to advertisements for Bed, Bath & Beyond. At about the same time of the year in Japan, another consumerist nation, women shop in preparation for the New Year, and the whole nation is scrubbed from top to bottom. Traditionally, everything is made fresh and clean to honor the purity of the New Year’s gods.

It is interesting to watch people in both countries “shop until they drop,” driven by a tradition that has its roots in welcoming the sacred into our homes. But the aims of this custom, I find, are different: gift-giving at Christmas is to practice the charity of Christianity; preparing new things for the New Year is to practice the purification of Shintoism.

While Christians’ desires for material goods may be cast into doubt when they think of God who was incarnated and born in poverty, the Japanese try to find a balance between desire and the essence of the virtue expressed in the saying, “mottainai.” The most general meaning of mottainai is “What a shame to waste this!”

Mottainai is used with a sense of humility and reverent awe toward all objects, both natural and human-made. It derives from the Buddhist concept of co-existence or connectedness. It is used in many different situations.

Photo by Mitsuru Kuroki

When Japanese Nobel Prize laureate Koichi Tanaka mixed the wrong chemicals at his lab bench, he thought “Mottainai,” and tested them anyway. His reluctance to throw out something potentially useful led to a new method of analyzing proteins. And when she was introduced to mottainai,Wangari Maathi, the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate, chose to name her anti-consumerist campaign after it. The Christian image of the babe lying in the manger and the Buddhist expression extolling reverence for even the humblest objects seem to share something important.

In the chapter “Baptism,” Berger argues that traditional Christianity downplays physical birth as it praises baptism. She suggests that women, who have the experience of birthing from their own wombs, might reclaim the value of creaturely birth. Here, Christian views parallel those of Shintoism and Buddhism, which traditionally considered menstruating women, or those who had just delivered, unclean.

But Berger’s account of her own experiences as a Christian mother, giving birth to and having her infant child baptized, left me behind. I have had neither of these experiences. I was baptized years after the births of my children. My children are not, and will probably not be baptized, for only 1 percent of our population is Christian. Still, I was led to find ways to support Berger’s claims from my point of view, a perspective quite different from hers. I find it amazing that even with this big divide between the author’s experience and my own, the rest of what this book presents appeals deeply to my spirit.

 Blending Traditions: At the 100th anniversary service of Catholic Nara Church on Sept. 23, 2005, children processed carrying God’s word for presentation to the priests for the celebratory mass. The children are carried by young men holding a Mikoshi, a portable shrine modeled after those used for Shinto procession festivals.

Berger’s humor and sharp-witted intelligence culminate in the last chapter, where various fragments on the theme “The Making of Love” are gathered. Passages by the Apostle Paul, the words of Pope John Paul II, advice from a “sexpert” and explicit e-mail advertisements are cleverly arranged from A to Z. It’s a surprising device that lets readers survey the confused and complex landscape of sexual issues in the U.S., which, it seems, is almost the same in Japan.

Yet when we remember the victims of sexual abuse, prostitution, abortion and so on, everywhere in the world, we are compelled to look at these issues in a different context. In Japan, this chapter might produce more puzzled faces than smiles. Sexuality is less discussed here than in the U.S. If a scholarly treatment of the material appeared along with this casual one, it might encourage readers unaccustomed to frank discussions of sexuality to start talking about this issue.

Professor Berger speaks as a feminist, which is not as widespread a notion in Japan as it is in the U.S. Discussions of feminist theology here are still limited to the scholarly world. Readers in either country who may have been put off by earlier feminist theological scholarship, which addressed more limited concerns like the language of texts or the politics of translation, will be drawn to Professor Berger’s feminism with its strong nurturing power and encompassing energy. It was this energy that for the first time made me want to call myself a feminist.

This book introduced me to many women and made me feel closer to them. Unpacking and examining traditional hagiographies, the author evokes vividly the saints who live together with her. Readers may be surprised to be reintroduced to the figures of Saint Mary of Magdala, Saint Clare of Assisi, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, and Saint Teresa of Avila. The author’s intimate knowledge, as well as unforgettable stories of women in the crucible, both in the past and at present, are gathered together that they may become visible to us.

Photo by Kazuyo Hirose

 In preparation for Eucharist, each parishioner uses chopsticks to place a wafer on the plate prior to the service.

It becomes possible for us to be “with” them because we are “with” a theologian who has committed herself to be “with” women in all their varied existences. The detailed scriptural exegesis of John 6:12-“Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost”- in the book’s introduction leads into her broad vision of “with”-ness.

“The world we inhabit is nothing if not in violent labor pains. It is a world that desperately needs midwives, women who know how to be ‘with’ (from the word’s origins in Middle English). Without women who are ‘with,’ how will this world glimpse a God who is ‘with,’ Godwith- us, Emmanuel?"

Berger’s witty and poetic writings gently lead us to confront theological questions and social problems. Liturgy, she writes, does not provide a retreat from the pressing problems of poverty, the family, the environment, or social justice. On the contrary, our renewal through liturgy provides us with the clarity of vision and the strength of will we need to confront these problems. And she encourages us to pay careful attention to liturgy so that the church of today and the future may be blessed with the liturgical tradition. Throughout the book, she shows us the richness of liturgy that has been overlooked when viewed through androcentric and traditionalist perspectives, a richness she has found in women who have made meaning of liturgy “in the crucible of their own lived lives."

May this book contribute widely to the making of new “Liturgical Traditions in the Hands of Women"-traditions for the future.

A resident of the ancient Japanese capital of Nara, Kazuyo Hirose lives within a 15-minute walk of 8th century Buddhist temple complexes, Shinto shrines and Catholic Nara Church, where she was baptized at the age of 35. She participated in Dr. Berger’s Sustained Learning Seminar, “Women's Vocation: Leadership, Power, and Constraint in the Christian Tradition" during a sabbatical year in Chapel Hill, N.C., where her husband was a visiting scholar at UNC. Formerly a high school mathematics teacher, she now works as a translator.

Changed from Glory into Glory: Wesleyan Prayer for Transformation

Paul W. Chilcote D'79, G'84,
Visting Professor of the Practice of Evangelism
Upper Room Books: 2005
Paper, $15.00

Reviewed by Steve Harper G'81

Before I opened this book, I knew it would connect me with prayer as understood and practiced in the Wesleyan tradition. I saw “transformation" in the title. No single word better captures the purpose of prayer for the Wesleys than this one. No idea is more defining of prayer as the chief means of grace than this one.

But moving on to open the book only increased the sense that here is a book that can make prayer transformational for Christians today. The organization of the book is a journey. Each chapter begins in Scripture, then moves into commentary, artistic contemplation, hymnody, and meditation. The book is an exercise in lectio divina and Wesley's version of it: to read, mark, and inwardly digest words which themselves describe a transformational experience.

Readers of Dr. Chilcote's book will find the Wesleyan commitment to “plain words for plain people." His style is personable, inviting and understandable. He has learned how to connect Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience into an easy-moving narrative which becomes the very thing it is attempting to create. Knowledge and vital piety are joined in every chapter. And those who believe that John and Charles Wesley's contribution to the Wesleyan tradition should never be separated will find this book delightful.

The themes of the chapters take the reader squarely into the main categories of prayer for the Wesleyan tradition: attentive prayer, responsive prayers, unceasing prayer, corporate prayer, and prayer that places us in solidarity with those who suffer. This is prayer that forms those who pray into the life of personal and social holiness. As Dr. Chilcote notes, it is prayer that beats with the rhythm of transfiguration and which pulsates with the love of God and neighbor.

It all culminates at the Eucharist-the table where those who are praying transformationally come together to pray with great thanksgiving in a matrix that combines the past, the present, and the future. In the Eucharist, transformational prayer culminates in the holy mystery of being resurrection people who are taken, blessed, broken, and given by the living Christ himself.

In the introduction, Dr. Chilcote proposes several ways to use this book. One pattern is designed especially for Lent. I highly recommend this excellent resource for pastors' Lenten ministry in the congregation. But whether you are a pastor or a layperson, this book is a resource to which you will return-one which will provide you and others with insight into the ongoing life of prayers, a way of praying that changes us from glory to glory.

Steve Harper is professor of spiritual formation and vice president of Asbury Theological Seminary, Orlando, Fla.

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