Busted: Deborah Larsen
A conversation with the former nun and author of The Tulip and the Pope
BustedHalo: If there were only one question I could ask you, it would be what you meant by “Faith is partly a matter of humbly applied wit.”
Deborah Larsen: What a great question. I meant that, while faith is a gift (as everything is a gift), it is also nurtured by thought—using one’s wits—about the mysteries that inhere in and surround that Presence which we call God. Reading, studying, prayer, meditation, talking to others—all of that is using one’s wits, which means doing actual hard work as well as disposing yourself to moments of grace. And I just think a humble or an open heart, as opposed to an arrogant one, is what’s required for any growth in faith. The humble heart doesn’t know all the answers and is walking a path, not standing on a soapbox.
BH: Would you please explain the ideological differences between the eschatologists and the incarnationalists and how the latter reshaped your views.
DL: Well, as I wrote in The Tulip and the Pope (and this is of course simplifying), the eschatologists in those days, the students of the “last things,” seemed to me to concentrate on purity of intention. When the final judgment came, all our works would be washed away like sandcastles and seashells with the outgoing tide. Matter, including the particularities of what you did, the concrete things of this world, didn’t matter. Only your inner love of God, your pure motives for what you did, your intentions, were important.
But the incarnationalists, the chief of whom for me was surely Teilhard de Chardin (paleonotologist and Jesuit priest), believed that Jesus as the Word of God took matter to himself: the word was made flesh. Matter and consciousness itself were moving toward an Omega point of complete fulfillment. Oceans, the Brooklyn Bridge, computers, Monets, space shuttles, the Big Dipper, pomegranates, robotics in medicine, birds and their sanctuaries will somehow be preserved or extended and enjoyed in the whole scheme of things eternal. Men and women who are trying to build up the universe in an ethical, positive way according to their particular talents are really co-creators with God, the Presence. Somehow, nothing will be lost at the end of time as we know it.
BH: What are some ways you find that your stay in the convent still has bearing on your life today?
DL: I learned how to be alone, in silence, and how to pray and meditate. I learned all that nourishing contemporary, liberal theology in Chicago in the 60s. And in the 60s I learned that women could succeed and be quietly powerful and smart as whips. These things will be forever with me. I learned that we all need to make the word flesh in our daily lives according to our talents. For me this meant becoming a writer.
BH: Can you talk a bit about how your conception of God has changed? How it has grown or stayed the same? How has your view of religion changed? Do you still hold a concept of an afterlife?
DL: God for me now is a Presence—personal, but way beyond human conceptions of personal, which I admit makes Her/Him hard to visualize.
(I think Anne Lamott somewhere in her writing tries to help us out by speaking of God as being like a little cat who follows us around, who is quietly there. Most of us have had the experience of a cat-like presence, non-intrusive, lying around or padding about in a room: it’s reassuring, comforting.)
Oh, above I said, Her/Him. Yes. God for me is both He and She in some sense. I love polarities. And since the sustaining Presence contains all that is, He/She makes sense.
As for religion, I believe that there are many approaches to God, the sustaining Presence. I do believe that tradition tells us something and that an informed, non-literalist approach to scripture is important.
I don’t have a clear concept of the afterlife since I haven’t been there yet but I believe that we will not be snuffed out when we die, that instead we will fall, if you will, into the very heart of reality and go on in joy forever. I believe that we will be more whole than we ever were on earth and active, not passive. My husband, David, hopes that we will be able to see every moment of the history of people and of the universe—a celestial DVD if you will. That sounds grand to me.
BH: Your memoir really inspires the reader to read the classics from fairy tales to Lady Chatterly’s Lover. It was very moving how you could quoted your favorite passages of beloved books when you were deprived of your own books in the convent. Who gave you that love of literature in your childhood?
DL: Unquestionably my mother. She took me to the library every Saturday; she read to me; she recited long poems like “The Highwayman” (from memory) to me. She read and read.
BH: You were inspired to enter the convent partly by Katherine Hulme’s The Nun’s Story. Is there a book you know of today that would inspire young women to go into the more modern convent?
DL: I know of nothing comparable to The Nun’s Story. We live in a different world now. A book titled Double Crossed by Kenneth Briggs, a former New York Times religion editor, recently caught my eye. It’s about what he calls the “betrayal of American nuns;” I have not read it, but I suspect it might give women pause rather than inspire them to enter a convent.
BH: If a young person approached you to say that he/she had a desire to join religious life, what advice would you give?
DL: My best advice would be: go—without actually joining—and spend time in several different religious communities. Ask questions like crazy. Compare various orders. Observe.
Look carefully at your own motives: e.g., an unconscious need for “shelter” or security is never a good reason to join an order. Ask yourself what you could do inside such a community that you couldn’t do outside of one. My understanding is that the “basics” of the vowed life are still in place, so that means no husband or wife or intimate partner. We used to think we could serve God more completely without a long-term companion, but now I don’t think that’s true.
DL: I’d repeat my answer to your question [above]: ….while faith is a gift (everything is a gift), it is also nurtured by thought—using one’s wits—about the mysteries that inhere in and surround that Presence which I call God. Reading, studying, prayer, meditation, talking to others—all of that is using one’s wits. And I just think a humble or an open heart, as opposed to an arrogant one, is what’s required for any growth in faith.”
Spirituality is also equally nourished by action, that kind of loving reaching out to others according to our talents, our various works in the world. Nothing will be lost.
Finally, to those in their 20s and 30s: rejoice in your being young enough to make a positive impact on others for many years to come. We need you to bring a balanced, thoughtful, prayerful, joyful, tolerant perspective to our society.