Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Ministry of Anonymity

This morning I was reading a column in Entertainment Weekly from a few weeks ago (we're in sort of a magazine co-op with my mother-in-law, so we get them a bit late); the author of the column was calling out the Hollywood film industry for leaving so many female characters unnamed, and giving them no lines, and using them only as props. Examples included "topless cheerleader" and "blonde junkie," if I recall correctly. I suppose you might think it part of my master literary plan that I haven't named the columnist by now, but I must confess that in fact the magazine is on the other side of my house and I'm too lazy to go get it. But that's not the point of this post.

The point of this post is that I went from reading that column (it's in the bathroom, OK?!?!) to settling into my recliner and reading Thomas Merton's Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, specifically the part in which he discusses--and I am not making this up--the unimportance of the names of his neighboring nuns.

Nuns are generally women, in case you didn't know. That's where I was in my reading. Two sides of my house taking two completely different positions on the importance of giving women names. When stuff like that happens to me, I sit up and take notice. Then I blog about it.

You might jump to the conclusion that the column is a couple of weeks old, while Merton's meditations are a half-century old and reflect the prejudices of the day. How important, for example, do the men on Mad Men--peers of Merton, if we apply the timeline--consider the women in their lives: their spouses, secretaries, mistresses? How often do they even remember those women's names? I confess I don't know, since I don't generally watch Mad Men, which is helping this post to be perhaps my least researched ever. But that's not why I bring it up.

I bring it up because between the columnist and Merton, I think Merton remains the more enlightened. The columnist's case, for all its righteous anger (and I do think women should be given names and voices alongside men, for the record), is pretty weak. Meanwhile, Merton's more speculative thinking transcends the question of gender to consider the meaning of each moment, the value of relationship and service, even the ministry of anonymity. Here's how he enters into his reflections:

At the Little Sisters of the Poor in Louisville: the beauty of the Church is evident in the charity of her children, and especially her daughters.

The "Good Mother" is transparent, simple, of no age, both child and mother, and hence something like Mary. Perhaps the complicated names of nuns (which I can never remember) are in the end no names at all, s if nuns could not have names anyway. As if only God could know their names.


Merton is generally happy to give his strong negative opinion of the thoughtless apostasy and quiet desperation of his age, so when he gets this awestruck, I sit up and take notice. He doesn't impress easily, and yet here he is undoubtedly impressed.

Yet how real they are as persons! How much more real (often enough) than people who have "big names" in the world. One does not need to idealize the Sisters. They have their problems. Often they have to struggle with a difficult "system." Yet their faith and their love give them greatness.


Merton--decades prior to the advent of social media, where people establish their "big names" by amassing thousands of friends and followers--is himself a case study in the relative importance of a name. A bestselling author, he was nonetheless one of a small number of Trappist monks in a small town in Kentucky. For a while his was a household name; for many it still is. And yet his story is a flirtation (with its inevitable frustrations) with the ministry of anonymity--a life of quiet reflection that nonetheless challenges our cultural presumptions and shapes our ethics.

A couple of years ago I read Jose Saramago's book Blindness. (I saw the film also, and wrote about it here, in case you're interested.) In that story no one is named: not the women, not the men, not the children. Saramago makes a big deal out of it, actually--although I can't quote his rationale because the book is all the way over on the other side of the house--as a way of helping the reader (and the characters) look beyond the particular context of each person to see the bigger picture of the human condition: what assails us, what entices us, what empowers us. One of Saramago's many insights revealed in this book about blindness was made clear already in Merton's experience with the nameless nuns, and would be a helpful reminder to my nameless EW columnist: Our names are a gift, a luxury, even; but our conduct is what ultimately defines us. Whatever you call me--"Dave" or "lazy blogger #1" or anything else that comes to mind--I am called beyond myself into ministry to God's creation; my name may be my birthright, but in the words of Jose Saramago, "Today is my responsibility."

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