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Faith and Culture Gold Medal presented to Maureena Fritz NDS - Assumption University - November 21, 2010

20/12/2010: General House - Rome

Follow Your Bliss - Listen to the voice - By Sr. Maureena Fritz


Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen.  Welcome to Assumption University and the 69th year of the Faith and Culture Gold Medal Award.  I am Father Paul Rennick, the President of Assumption University, and I am very happy to welcome you here today and to introduce this year’s Gold Medalist, Dr. Maureena Fritz of the Sisters of Sion.

Today, on the liturgical calendar, it is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday before Advent.  It is also November 21st and if this were not a Sunday we would be celebrating the memorial of the Presentation of  Mary:  A minor memorial in the life of the Church, but of major significance to Basilians, because November 21st, 1822 is the official date of the founding of The Congregation of Saint Basil.  Today is the 188th Anniversary of our founding.

I chose this particular day as the occasion for the Gold Medal Ceremony because the Basilian Fathers’ work would not have prospered nearly as well if we had not engaged the talents of religious women in our educational enterprise, and we too often neglect to honour our Sister colleagues and collaborators.

 In Toronto, at the level of post-secondary education, it was the Sisters of St. Joseph and the Loretto Sisters with whom we worked most closely; here in Windsor it was the Holy Names Sisters; and in Western Canada, especially in Saskatchewan, we worked with the Sisters of Sion.  Now I had never heard of the Sisters of Sion until the summer of 1976, when I was visiting St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan.  Little did I know that within the decade I would be working alongside them at St. Thomas More.

         At the end of that summer when I returned to Toronto to continue my theological studies, I decided to take a course from one Dr. Maureena Fritz, Sister of Sion.  Maureena was well known at the faculty of theology, but there was one curious feature that made her stand out in a particular way.  It had to do with how she arrived at classes.  She came by motorcycle.  Not the polite European scooter style, but a great big Harley hog of a bike.

 Now I wonder what the people of Melfort, Saskatchewan, where she was born and raised, would have thought had they seen Sister Maureena in her motorcycling regalia.  Or what her parents Maura and Simon might have thought of their daughter, baptized Patricia, the third of their eight children, and what they might have said. And the Sisters of Sion in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan where Patricia entered the order in 1944;  did they ever imagine that the young novice in front of them would one day be a motorcycle mama?  I think not.  Mostly I suspect Maureena wonders why a Sister on a motorcycle was such a big deal – it was the 1970’s after all.

 But I am getting ahead of the story.  After completing her initial formation with the Sisters of Sion, Maureena continued her education at the University of Alberta earning a Bachelor of Education and subsequently a Bachelor of Arts.  During some of those same years she taught primary school and secondary school in Saskatoon and Detroit.  Welcome back to the neighbourhood.

She then continued her studies completing an MA from Fordham University and a Ph.D. from the University of Ottawa both in religious studies; and in 1971 assumed a teaching position at St. Michael’s College, at the University of Toronto, in the newly formed Toronto School of Theology.

         During these same years enormously exciting changes were occurring in the worldwide theological community, especially within the Catholic community, as theologians received and appropriated the teachings of the Second Vatican Council.  Entire vistas of unimagined possibilities, for new directions in theology and interreligious explorations, opened up virtually overnight.  These changes in Catholic theology ignited a spark in Maureena and illumined her life making it clear what direction she would take.

The Sisters of Sion were founded to address the relationship between Christians and the Jewish people.  What this interaction would consist of was not really clear until the promulgation of the Vatican documents, especially Nostra Aetate and Dei Verbrum.  For Maureena the discovery and exploration of the Jewish heart at the centre of the Christian faith became the passion of her life.

It shaped the early years of her teaching and academic life, and at her first opportunity for a sabbatical she took a two year leave for post-doctoral studies in Talmud, Jewish philosophy, Jewish prayer, Jewish mysticism and Hebrew language studies at Hebrew University in Israel.

         For the next thirty-years she would continue these studies part-time while she engaged in her full time academic responsibilities at the Toronto School of Theology.  During these early years of her academic life she also served as Director of Novices for the Sisters of Sion, and following that, with some overlap, she served as the Provincial Superior of the Sisters of Sion’s Canadian Province.

Between 1981-1990 Maureena organized and directed the Israel Intersession programs at the University of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto.  She initiated two Master’s degree programs in Theology and Jewish Studies which eventually led to a doctoral level program, in the same, at the University of St. Michael’s College.

In 1983, with the help of Sister Anne Anderson, (the current president of St. Michael’s College) Maureena founded Bat Kol Institute for the study of the Bible within its Jewish context and using Jewish sources.  Bat Kol translates as ‘daughter of a voice’ and besides being one of the most poetic names for an institute, it is a Hebrew expression that goes back to early rabbinic literature, in which it has two meanings. The first meaning is: an echo.  The second meaning is the unusual one. The expression bat kol refers to a voice that may resemble an echo in its mysteriousness, elusiveness and eeriness, but it is not an echo at all.  Rather, it is a voice that is heard as if out of nowhere, so it is impossible to know from where, or for whom, it comes.  And it especially refers to a supernatural voice that may reveal God’s will. The name of this Institute says volumes about Maureena’s approach to learning: learning is not so much about acquiring information as it is about entering into a mystery.

 Besides presiding over her own newly founded Institute, from 1986-1992 Maureena was the Director of the English language sector of the Ratisbonne Pontifical Institute in Jerusalem, an international Centre of Jewish Studies for Christians.

Maureena’s four books and numerous articles reveal her single hearted dedication to exploring the experience and the spiritual journey in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Her writing, especially in her books on the Exodus journey, on the psalm and on Genesis, is not only an explication of an aspect of faith, but an invitation to the reader to enter into the Jewish spiritual heritage experientially.  This is theology at its best.

 In 1992, after 21 years teaching at the Toronto School of Theology, Maureena retired from her full time teaching position there.  But in typical Maureena Fritz fashion retiring didn’t mean slowing down at all.  Instead Maureena picked up and moved to Israel to focus even more intently on the work of Bat Kol.  She had been the President of the Institute since its founding and continued in that role until 2007, and she remained its academic director until 2009.  She is currently a professor and researcher at the Institute.  Maureena became an Israeli citizen and continues to live in Jerusalem from where she travels to other parts of the globe continuing her ministry of helping people to appreciate the spiritual patrimony that is foundational to Christianity and is, indeed, the gift of the Jews to the whole human community. 

As I reviewed the elements of Maureena’s public life, even in this very brief synopsis I have given you, I was struck by two things.  First, I was struck by the sheer number of activities that Maureena has engaged in, not simply in sequence, but simultaneously: teaching at one institution, founding another institute and running programs for third, all in different countries.  I got exhausted just considering the possibilities. 

 Second, I was struck by her sense of place, that is, that the Bible needed to be studied in a Jewish context: in the culture and geography of Israel and especially Jerusalem (not Rome).  Maureena’s approach has been, that one must be steeped in the Scriptural reality.  And I wondered to what extent geography has shaped Maureena’s own spirit.

When we, in the east, think of Saskatchewan, we think: flat, wheat, perhaps recently, potash, and cold.  But I had the privilege of living and working in Saskatchewan from 1983-90 and I had two experiences that have left me wondering about geography and the human spirit.  The first was watching an oncoming storm.  In Toronto, where I grew up, when a storm came, everywhere you looked there was storm.  But on the prairies, the storm did not consume the whole sky: on either side of it there was light and I could see past the storm to the rainbow coming behind.  The second experience, was one winter night as I was leaving the house of the Sisters of Sion, after having had Mass and dinner there.  As I walked to my car I heard a shushing sound and I looked up and saw the northern lights.  Not just the pale green that is always part of them but pinks and purples dancing in the sky.  I went back and called the sisters to come and see.  We stood staring for as long as we could, but a Saskatchewan winter doesn’t let you stay still too long. 

 I see in Maureena a quality that I have seen in other prairie people, especially religious women:  she has a contagious kind of hope, a hope that I think grows out of knowing that the sky will always be bigger than the storm and that no matter how cold or dark the night, the northern lights can still dance.  It is this type of hope and vision that makes a person like Maureena possible.

Let me conclude with my most recent Maureena story.  I have a list of names of people whom I think would be appropriate recipients of the Faith and Culture Gold Medal.  Why a particular individual is chosen in a particular year is mostly a matter of timing.  Maureena Fritz was on the list and so when my friend and colleague Stan Cunningham came to me and said he would like Assumption to find a way to honour the Sisters of Sion, he was surprised when I said I think have just the way. Clearly this was to be Maureena’s year.  Now all I had to do was locate her and ask if she would accept.

         I was in Toronto and I went to see Anne Anderson because I knew that Anne would likely know how I could get in touch with Maureena.  Anne was thrilled that we were giving Maureena the Gold Medal and told me that Maureena was currently in Jerusalem.  Then Anne looked at the clock and said “I think we could get her right now” and she picked up the phone, got Maureena on the other end and handed me the phone.  I said” Maureena “this is Paul Rennick, you probably don’t remember me but you taught me in theology some years ago.”  She said “Yes Paul I do remember you” (and I thought of course she would say that, it’s the gracious thing to say) and then she said “You took my course in theology and the imagination” and I said “That’s right.” And then she said “And I remember you as quite a handsome young man” and I thought, she does remember me!  And then I thought, what a good choice I’ve made. 

  Then I asked Maureena if she would accept the Faith and Culture Gold Medal and she demurred saying that she didn’t think that she deserved it.  But then she said “No, I should accept it for the sake of Bat Kol, so that more people might learn about the work of the Institute.”  I think that one sentence tells us volumes about why Maureena is here today.

Maureena it is a great privilege for a student to be able to honour his former teacher in this way.  You are one of the few teachers in my life whose words, from that class long ago, I still remember and they still serve as touchstones for my spiritual life.

 Maureena you are the daughter of a voice.  Through your ministry of almost 40 years, the voice that summons us all to recognize the shared spiritual heritage of Jews and Christians is better heard.  Your work has been both prophetic and healing and is needed now more than ever in our world.  In your undaunted and dedicated service to your religious community, the larger Christian community and the Jewish community you are a source of hope and encouragement for us all.

Maureena it is my great pleasure to present you with Assumption University’s Faith and Culture Gold Medal for 2010.

Follow Your Bliss - Listen to the voice

By Sr. Maureena Fritz

Having entered the convent with its stress on obedience and the vows I never dreamt that one day I would talk on following one’s bliss. Today I’m convinced it’s the right road.

Follow your bliss. What do I mean? It has to do with what you really want to do, to choose your life, to live it, rather than be lived by it.  To follow your bliss is the deepest form of obedience but it’s not obedience to a superior or to a book of holy rules but to a voice that only I can hear. The Word that addresses me in this hour is what I know I must do even if it costs me my reputation and my life. It’s what I deeply want to do but may not do because of fear.

One day Moses was guarding his sheep in the Sinai Mountains and he encountered a bush on fire. While he gazed on it, he knew he had to go back to Egypt and free the Hebrew slaves. Everything in him rebelled but it was the only choice that could give him peace of soul. Before Moses there was Abraham who heard a Voice to leave his family, his home and his country and go “to a land that I will show you” (Gen 12.1).

How did Abraham hear the Voice? Through the circumstances of his life. His wife was barren.  Her barrenness was but a symbol of the barrenness all around him.[1]  He was so unhappy that one day he said to himself, “I’ve got to get out of here.” The Voice of Dissatisfaction was the voice he heard. And where was he going to go? He didn’t know. The Voice simply said, “that I will show you.” Take the first step and then the next step and the road will open up for you. And in the process you will continue to become your “unique” self, an incarnate word!

I once said that to a friend of mine who needed a change, “Look deep down inside yourself—what do you want to do.” He fairly snapped back at me, “How do I know what I want to do. I haven’t time to think about that!!

Follow your bliss. Nietzsche in his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra  describes a three stages  process:

            i) The Camel: gets down on its knees and says, “Put a load on me (readiness           to obey; willingness to receive instruction, acceptance of society’s   expectations). 

            ii) The Lion: When the camel is well loaded it gets up on its feet and runs out into the desert where it becomes transformed into a Lion. The first duty of the Lion is to kill the Dragon on every scale of which is written, “Thou shalt.”

            iii) The Child: When the dragon is killed, the Lion is changed into a Child. The innocent Child brings out of its own dynamic, like a wheel rolling out of its own center, like an artist who learns all the rules and techniques of art yet must one day go beyond the rules.

Nietzsche’s advice is:  Follow your bliss, in that deep sense of your being, and go where your body and soul want to go. When you have that feeling, stay with it, and don’t let anyone throw you off. (How sad is the one who says, I have never done anything I wanted to do in my life!).

In the movie, Crimes and Misdemeanors by Woody Allen, Judah Rosenthal is having an affair with a woman who finally demands that he leave his wife and marry her.  She becomes hysterically insistent and an embarrassment to him. A rabbi, a client of his, advises him to confess to his wife. He can’t do it. He is driven to the point of either confessing or having the woman killed. He has the woman killed. In a very dramatic unfolding of character development, Woody shows how Rosenthal defined himself through his choices and lost his way.  

B. My own journey:

I. One of my first lessons in following my bliss had to do with my motorcycle. During a retreat I was on, I became convinced that I had to give it up.  When I told my director he asked me if I was pleased to give it up. “No,” I answered. “Actually I’m angry at God.” “Then keep it. To give it up in that spirit is the sin of voluntarism. Go and enjoy your sin.” And so I did for many years!

However, a major life-changing eventoccurred during my time in New York when I was working on my master’s degree. Up to that time I saw God’s revelation as a package filled with truths to be believed, rites to be performed and laws to be obeyed. I was the camel loaded with all the Thou shalts: all the truths I had to believe, the rites I had to perform and the laws I had to obey. In New York I became a lion that killed the dragon with all its scales of Thou Musts.  But I had nothing to put in its place, except to make up for what I termed as my “lost life.” But it wasn’t long before I learned that seeking pleasure was not the answer to fill the void. I knew that whether I believed in God or not, if I wanted to be happy I had to think of others. What to do! I said No to my major superior who ordered me back to Moose Jaw to teach. She was a smart woman. Although she wouldn’t support me she didn’t throw me out of the order (and I’m still in it, having even served as Provincial and Directress of novices). I enrolled in a doctoral program in Religious Studies in Ottawa.

II. My doctoral studies. My doctoral thesis was on Revelation—static and dynamic concepts of revelation and the human person. I described the effect my doctoral studies had on me as a Copernican revolution. My whole worldview changed. I no longer had a three-layered view of the world, God and heaven above, earth in the middle and hell down below.  Two words indicate the shift that took place in me:

a. God’s name, YHWH, which Jews don’t pronounce but refer to as HaShem, The Name, and which Christians translate as YAHWEH or LORD. Because YHWH is a verb and not a noun, it can’t be pronounced. As soon as you try to define God, God’s slips out of your hands. God is a Presence and how can you define Presence? While God can’t be defined, God can be encountered, as you know and as poets and mystics know. 

b. The human person: The human person can’t be defined either, because each person is continually changing in all her or his relationships. To become human is to enter into personal relationships. And we can enter into personal relationships not only with people but with animals, plants and even rocks. Goethe came across his rose one day and said to it, “Oh, it’s you.” In the Faith and Culture gold medal the human hand and the mustard plant are embracing.

When I authentically say YOU to another person, even to a flower, time ceases and I am just there. The most authentic name for God is YOU. When I say YOU to God I can’t define the YOU but I have a sense of the one I am addressing. To some the YOU is Father; to others it is, My Beloved.

The Bible is a record of God’s encounters with humans. The Word becomes revelation if it triggers an encounter between me and a Thou.

III. Crisis and Crossroads.

When I arrived in Toronto and was ready to give my first lecture on the Faculty of theology, USMC, Toronto, I felt I had it all together. I had passed from the camel to the lion to the child, or so I thought.  Or in Hegel’s terminology, the thesis which had fallen apart had come together in a new kind of synthesis. I was the serpent that had shed its old skin. But how long does it take before I outgrow the old skin? How long does one stay in a state of equilibrium! Not long if one is living life to the full. New questions arose. Who was Jesus? After seven years of teaching at USMC, the question was becoming ever more insistent “Who do you say that I am?” 

Fr. Eliot Allen was the Dean of the Faculty of Theology, a wise and good Dean. He was able to grant me a two-year sabbatical. I went to Israel and enrolled in courses (Hebrew, Talmud, Midrash, etc) at Hebrew University and other academic institutions in Jerusalem.   At the end of my sabbatical, I returned to the Faculty and before long I was teaching back and forth between Toronto and Jerusalem until my final move to Jerusalem in 1992 where I still live.

Deep and profound changes in my thinking and my faith took place during these years, particularly in regard to the Jesus question.  I encountered Jews who shrunk in horror at the cross. For them it was a sword turned upside down. I had a degree with a major in church history and I knew nothing about the relationship of the Church with the Jewish people. But the Jews knew that history. Their knowledge made me check the facts. The more I read the greater my horror. The crusades, the inquisition, the erection of Jewish ghettos by the Vatican, and forced conversions. Sculptures of the synagogue portrayed as a wanton woman next to sculptures of the Church as a beautiful queen are still found in cathedrals across Europe. In sermons and catechism classes, Jews were presented as Christ Killers; Leagues of Prayer were set up to pray that Jews come to recognize their messiah. On Good Friday Christians throughout the world prayed for the ‘perfidious” Jews.  Several of the councils of the Church took measures against the Jewish population similar to that of the Nazis. In the Council of Elvira, 306, Jews and Christians were not permitted to eat together; in the third synod of Orleans, 538, Jews were not permitted to show themselves in the streets during Passion week; in 1267, the Synod of Breslau, set up compulsory ghettos; in the Council of Basel, 1434, Jews were not permitted to obtain academic degrees. The main difference between these councils of the Church and the Nazis   is that the Church said, “You have no right to live among us,” while the Nazis said, “You have no right to live.”[2] Hitler would not have been able to slaughter 6 million Jews if the ground had not been prepared for him.

Is this something I should talk about on such a beautiful day of memory? In general we close our eyes to our negative history (neither the Palestinians nor the Jews in Israel want to see the sufferings of the other). But only in such knowledge and repentance does new life emerge.

Thank God for Pope John XXIII who initiated the Second Vatican Council. Beginning with the Second Vatican Council and subsequent documents, the Church made a 180-degree turn towards the Jews.  Where before the Jews were labeled Christ Killers, blind, not knowing the time of their visitation, now the Church recognizes that God’s covenant with the Jewish people has not been annulled and that they are still the beloved people of God. The Church went further, instead of portraying Jesus as superseding Judaism it now recognized Jesus as a loyal Jew: “Jesus was and always remained a Jew;” (Notes’85, #20).

IV. The Faith of Jesus and the Faith about Jesus.

In the 1985 Notes, the Church declared that Jesus was and always remained a Jew and that his ministry was deliberately limited to the lost sheep of the House of Israel” (#20). That’s a powerful admission by the official church. It says that Jesus had no intention of founding a church. The Church came about not because Jesus founded it but because of the impact Jesus had upon his disciples.  The document emphasizes Jesus fidelity to his Jewish religion in these words, “But there is no doubt that (Jesus) wished to submit himself to the law (cf. Gal 4.4), that he was circumcised and presented in the Temple like any Jew of his time (cf. Lk.2.21, 22-24), that he was trained in the law’s observance. He extolled respect for it (cf. Mt 5.17-20), and invited obedience to it (cf. Mt. 8.4). The rhythm of his life was marked by observance of pilgrimages on great feasts, even from infancy (’85 Notes,# 20).

This is a 180-degree turn; it’s a paradigm shift that must affect the whole church and all of its teachings. But paradigm shifts are resisted. Remember the resistance to Copernicus (ca. 1600)with his discovery that astral bodies did not revolve around the earth, but the earth revolved around the sun. The discovery meant that humans were displaced from the center of the universe and were challenged to a new conception of themselves.  Likewise today, many in the church resist the revolutionary changes called for by the Second Vatican Council. The need to incorporate these teachings about the Jews into Christian teaching is major and Bat Kol exists to help in that project.

V. By their fruits you shall know them.  Beginnings often frighten us because they seem like lonely voyages into the unknown. Yet, in truth, no beginning is empty or isolated. Johann Von Goethe says that once the commitment is made, destiny conspires with us to support and realize it. To name but one example, the new degree programs in Jewish studies between Jerusalem and Toronto. The two Deans at USMC with whom I worked were Elliot Allen, CSB, and Michael Fahey, S.J. and Anne Anderson, as business advisor, now the President of USMC and, Sr. Kay MacDonald, my Provincial. I received letters of recommendation and support from Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, who was President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in the Vatican; Msgr.Carlo Curis, then the Apostolic Delegate to Israel; Bishop Pierre Eyt, then Rector of Institute Catholique de Paris, and Etienne Nodet, OP, the then Rector of the Ratisbonne Centre. So to all the people who participated in my life, I say thanks. They are living proof that to follow your bliss can become a living reality.

VII. Follow your bliss. I knew of someone who had an evening off. She called up different people but it was a Friday night and they all had previous commitments. Finally she hung up the phone and said, “Thank God, now I can read and get a good night’s sleep which is what I really wanted to do all along.”  Which is what I wanted to do all along! If that is what I want—to read and get a good night’s sleep—why can’t I, why don’t I, do it?”

(End with thanks to: President Paul Rennick and the Basilian Fathers; Assumption University; and family, friends and Sisters of Sion who have come to join in this celebration.)

[1]Avivah Zornberg, Genesis: The Beginning of Desire (1995), p. 72ff.

[2]Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, 1961; Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World, 1969.