by Betsy Azarowski
The valley spirit never dies;
It is the woman, primal mother.
Her gateway is the root of heaven and earth.
It is like a veil barely seen.
Use it, it will never faith.
–Lao Tsu Tao, Te Ching
On a cold, November night, we turned into the driveway of the Marian Center in Holyoke, and were met with a statue of Mary, tall and white, in the middle of a beautifully landscaped front lawn. Belonging to the Daughters of Mary order, the Marian Center is the home of DiCece Hall, where Suzanne and Brayton’s book presentation would begin soon.
It was my second time tagging along to hear them talk about their book Loving Life on the Margins: The Story of the Agape Community. Part book reading, part storytelling, part reunion of old friends, each presentation is unique and based on a theme from the book. There are so many facets of their life and work: nonviolence, intentional community, sustainability and climate change, tax resistance, Catholic Worker and peace movements, and this evening’s theme: feminism. One thing is true—you cannot listen to Suzanne and Brayton and maintain the illusion that change cannot and will not start with us.
The DiCece Hall is a special place. It is a space open to everyone—a community space, where people meet, learn, pray and share. Watching over its guests is a painting by Janet McKenzie of a group of women of different cultures, in the center a mother and baby with dark skin, looking serene with their eyes closed. The mother appears to be a Black Madonna, but she is of the world, surrounded by ordinary women and a sister to them all. The painting was commissioned by the Daughters of Mary, who themselves were formed during the French Revolution. The calm of the women in the painting told us we were safe, under the protection of mothers.
Suzanne began the presentation by reading from the book, a passage which spoke of Joan Chittister’s address to over a thousand Archdiocese of Boston educators, in which she encouraged them to protest America’s war-making: “Jesus is calling to all of us, sitting on the sidelines, to stand up, take up your mat of docility, and walk.” Suzanne says in the book, “I had never heard another woman speak so forcefully, nor link scripture to resistance at a mainstream Catholic gathering.”
She ended with a passage by Joan: “I am feminist because I am Catholic.” So much of Agape’s story is about reconciling Catholicism with their radical mission—that of love, of resistance, and of going against traditional mainstream ideas. In the book, Suzanne speaks of her struggle as a woman to find a place in the Church’s patriarchical structure—not only to belong, but to be a strong, central force. She became this at Agape. Joan Chittester—like Suzanne and Brayton—find the answer with Jesus as expressed by Suzanne: “Jesus discussed theology with women and sought their companionship and valued their friendship.” He discussed, sought them out and valued them. This is a powerful message for Catholic women, and all women.
Brayton began by talking about the state of the world today. “War, poverty, the destruction of the planet, etc…..where does all of it begin? The values of American society—greed, aggression, competition—are all male characteristics which have bought our planet to where it is today. Wealth has caused war, injustice, and climate crisis in America and the rest of the world. The answer, he says, lies in all of us—male and female—to accept our feminine side.
It is the feminine characteristics of intuition, community, collaboration, and creation that will be the catalyst to begin change and to heal a broken world. We have to change our attitude toward the earth, to see her as our Mother, to respect and honor her, and she will nurture us. We must embrace and encourage the female qualities within ourselves.
Suzanne and Brayton have let the feminine guide the direction of their lives. Creating a community of love and connection, reaching out to share their message of nonviolence, and living an example of how to honor and revere our Mother Earth who nurtures and feeds us, body and soul. They haven’t been afraid to leave the world’s values behind, to break tradition, and to embrace “the soft voice, the gentle voice, the merciful and feminine.” (Thomas Merton).
The statue of Mary met us again at our departure, and I felt as though the seeds of change had been planted, it was up to us to nurture them and spread their fruit to the rest of the world.
Betsy Azarowski is the nurturing anchor in the Agape office, who brings us the universal feminine in her smile and in her presence.