Women may remember a scramble to hide our uncovered heads from God, who did not want to look down from Heaven and see that a seven-year-old had forgotten her beret. The nuns, who wore medieval veils that would win approval from all but the most fundamentalist Ayatollahs, would chew us out before grabbing a Kleenex and a bobby pin. Heads decently covered we could proceed into the holy place. Meanwhile, our moms were testing the limits by trading their decent Sunday hats for a mantilla- a lace scarf, or even a daring lace doily that hid nothing of their offending feminine hair.
Although Warwick was probably not swarming with heretics we were not to relax our vigilance. The nuns drilled us with the lives of the saints, most of whom did not die easy. We could never measure up to their martyrdom or even comprehend why both oppressors and oppressed hung life and death on an affirmation of faith.
In the center of worship was the consecrated host. The host was a thin wafer of wheat flour, similar to a candy we bought at the penny store called ‘Flying Saucers’, but minus the food coloring and little balls of sugar inside, though it would melt in your mouth the same way. Once the priest said the words it became the physical Body of Christ. The nuns told us of a martyr priest who ran into a burning church to save the Body of Christ at the cost of his own poor body. This was how we were to set priorities.
While the older nuns had to make their life choices in the Great Depression, the younger nuns were now faced with calls for liberation from the Pope to the streets. If you craved law and order you might find yourself marching with segregationists and warmongers. It was not only a war of words, it was a time when our president was shot and murdered in broad daylight at a civic event. Other terrible assassinations preceded this crime and would follow. Willing or not, people suffered martyrdom for speaking their truth.
How do you balance the Word and the Flesh?
No social freedom exists outside society, and no virtue is absolute. The quaint fears of the nuns were not completely unfounded. There was a time when Catholics were a persecuted minority in the US, and even in the sixties the Klan included Catholics on their enemies list. This may have been the New Frontier, but many citizens in the great Melting Pot bore the scars of history.
How do we reconcile our great principle of freedom of expression with the reality that words can affront and even harm? That one person’s joke is another person’s violation? That there’s such a thing as ‘fighting words’?
Although I am long ex-Catholic, I find an answer in the metaphor of the body and blood. The body and blood of another human being is holy and not to be violated for imagined or real offense. The sacred heart beats in all of us and is not to be stopped in defense of some god or principle.
In fact, as the nuns taught us, suffering only gives validation to those who sacrificed. Thousands who never heard of Charlie Hebdo now march in the streets, because some men and women who went to work earned a martyr’s crown. Now the daily courage they showed in keeping on in the face of threats is known to the world. Their loss is not only felt by their friends and families, but by all who live by words and art, or simply hope to speak without fear.
Courtesy of CNN, here are the names of the slain Charlie Hebdo writers: