Busted: Liz Kelly

Author of The Rosary: A Path into Prayer

BH: The literature we read can be disturbing as well. Is there anything redemptive in literature that can shake us on some levels?

LK: Oh, yeah, I think that when you are praying and fasting and leading a sacramental life, your spirit gets very clear on what is disturbing you, because it is speaking to some challenge or weakness in you. Or it is disturbing you because it is inciting you to lust or to anger or to violence. It’s leading you down the wrong path. The Passion of the Christ, disturbed the heck out of me, but that was for my own education. And I think that even that is an individual decision. If something is designed to disturb somebody in order to incite lust for example, you feel that, you know that. If something is disturbing you because it’s challenging a presupposition that you have or a weakness that you have, you feel that to. You do need a certain level of spiritual maturity to determine that.

BH: As far as your interest in jazz and non-sacred literature is concerned, do you find one or the other more nourishing for you?

LK: I have to say that my window back into a spiritual place has been non-traditional, non-sacred art forms. Flannery O’Connor. Chaim Potok. Certainly the spiritual questions he asks touch me to the core. Or Joseph Conrad’s short stories. They just spell out the question of human evil and avarice and things like that in a way that I can’t help but be pierced by.

BH: Were you interested in writing fiction?

LK: Yeah, my degree is an MFA in creative writing. I first published fiction, but I also published some non-fiction while I was still in school. I’ve published fiction in lots of little literary journals, like The Madison Review . One of my stories actually got nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Lately, I’ve been working on a novel. Since I just turned in my third book for Loyola Press, I’ve been really praying about whether or not to turn some attention to fiction again for the next year or so; it’s not entirely clear, but I’ve gotten a lot of feedback on the first couple of chapters from a number of different editors and agents, so that may be something that I’ll do next.

BH: You’ve worked in the development office at Harvard for the past few years, can you give me an idea of what you do there?

LK: Primarily I interview professors who hold endowed chairs, and I write profiles on their work, and we send those to the donors who endow their chairs. I get to interview some of the finest minds in the world. It’s a delight to find that 99% of them are just incredibly humble people really trying to use their gifts in the best way that they know how.

Eventually I’d love to give up my Harvard job. I’d love to be writing and singing full time again, and that is the goal, but I’ve been very blessed to have this provision in the meantime.

BH: How has your faith journey been affected by being at Harvard.

LK: One of the biggest struggles that I have had, in the last year or two–and that I have had to really keep close ties with my spiritual director on–are some of the initiatives around stem-cell research, particularly embryonic stem-cell research. As a devout Catholic, I believe that life begins at conception and that embryonic stem cell research is wrong, and that creating stem cells just for research is immoral. So I cannot do anything to promote that, or endorse that or encourage that. And thus far, I have not had to cross that line in anything that I’ve had to do. If it came to it, I would have to say, that I couldn’t do that particular work for moral reasons.

And, it’s been very hard. I mean, Harvard is a wonderful collection of gifts and minds, and it’s also wildly liberal, and there are days when it’s almost painful to be here because I just feel like there’s so much potential to do damage in leading young minds to believe things that I don’t believe are correct. So, it’s a challenge, but at the same time it is strengthening me to be this little dim light in the midst of what can sometimes be a very misdirected and dark place, and at the same time, it challenges me to understand I’m not a scientist, I’m not a scholar; I’m a writer and what is the science and the bioethics behind some of this stuff. I think a lot of time, as faith-filled people, we just want to run away from the fight rather than get in there, understand the argument, understand the other side, understand what it is you really want to do. And the bottom line for most of them, is they really believe that they are creating opportunities to lessen human suffering. And it is my opportunity to stand up and argue, first of all, the bioethics of embryonic stem cell research, and secondly, say not all suffering is evil. Some of it can be redemptive. Some of it can save our souls. Some of it can be used so well. Who are we to say that having a child born with Down syndrome is going to ruin its life? It could turn out to be a great, life-saving redemptive kind of circumstance as well. Any time we get into playing God at that level, I just think we need to step back and be cautious about moving forward.

At the same time, at Harvard I feel like I’m being given the opportunity to listen to people like Dr. Doug Melton, who’s being interviewed on 20/20 and 60 Minutes, and all these primetime television shows on his research on diabetes and embryonic stem cell research and he has two children who are diabetic. He is dying to get a cure out of them. How do you argue against that? You got to stand up and say what you know to be true, and that’s hard.

My sister had a Down’s baby, and everybody in the hospital told her it was ludicrous not to abort this child, and it seemed unthinkable that she didn’t and she didn’t and the baby ended up dying the day it was born and that decision was removed from her. But boy I had to admire the courage of my brother-in-law and her to say ‘this is our baby, and for whatever reason this child with all of its weaknesses has been given to us, in order to do the best we can with it.’ I don’t know if I’d have the courage to do that. That’s just daunting.

I’ve been able to interview and speak with Michael Sandell who is on Bush’s bioethics committee. He does a lot of work around genetic engineering of children and the question of whether we are in danger of turning the parent-child relationship into consumer and product? That is one of the main issues with all of this genetic stuff right there. Are we turning people into products, and ourselves into consumers? What are we robbing the world of when we do that? There’s a lot of other thinking going on.

BH: Do you find yourself at odds with a lot of people with your age group?

LK: Oh YEAH! (laughter) I feel like a freak most of the time. My dad had a very funny way of putting it recently. We went a dinner party with his golfing buddies and they were saying, ‘your daughter is so beautiful why isn’t she married.’ He said, ‘well the first date is fine, and the second date is fine, then the guy finds out that she’s not going to sleep with him, by the third date, she never hears from them again.’ Oh yeah, in every part of my life…

BH: In that sense in your social life, do you feel a little bit like a fish out of water?

LK: Yeah, it’s very hard not to despair sometimes. There are some days when I go into Harvard and I look at all the directions that the science is going, and it’s hard not to despair. We are called to be a hopeful people, and when I get to feeling sort of hopeless about stuff like that I have my support system, and I remember who it is that I serve. I serve a God who pointed every star in the heavens. I don’t need to be afraid. I don’t need to despair. You know, I’m dating a really nice guy right now, also very committed to waiting until marriage. Devout Catholic. We pray together. Even if we don’t end up getting married, just to know that there are men out there that appreciate the fact that I haven’t slept with everybody in town. Who actually find that to be a good thing. Yeah, total fish out of water. Especially in Cambridge, oh my gosh, it’s just a wildly liberal place, and my thinking is very different from the people around me. That can be very isolating and lonely, but God provides.