by Gordon Nary
Gordon: What is the story behind your religious vocation?
Sister Mary: My vocation story is more complicated than many. I was not raised as a Christian, and I was not even baptized until I was twenty years old. That is a story in itself! At twenty-six I joined a contemplative community, the Carmelite Sisters of Baltimore. Although I loved the contemplative life, for a variety of reasons I could not find peace there and left after the novitiate. Those years of formation in the Carmelite life still provide the foundation of my personal spirituality. After leaving the Carmelites, I went to Catholic University in Washington, DC for six years and completed a doctorate in Spirituality. After that, I spent several years affiliated with another community, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary of Villa Maria, PA, but again I found myself with too much inner turmoil and doubt to go forward with making vows. Meanwhile, in 1993 I had moved to Chicago to begin teaching at Catholic Theological Union. It was there that I met the Society of the Sacred Heart, which is the congregation in which I have happily made final vows.
Gordon: Why did you decide to join the Society of the Sacred Heart?
Sister Mary: I finally found a combination of the elements that were right for me. The Society of the Sacred Heart fosters deep commitments to both contemplative development and community life, as well as a profound spirituality of educational mission. It isn’t easy to keep a balance of all this, but it is good to be among sisters who share the same desire to “discover and reveal the love of the Heart of Christ.” (That is phrase from our Constitutions that sums up our RSCJ vocation!)
Gordon: What would you say to others who find themselves struggling to find the right place to live out their vocation?
God works in each individual’s life in a totally unique and personalized way. By that I mean, we can’t insist that a person’s vocation “ought” to develop according to a standardized pattern. The main thing is to know and trust that God will always be faithful and will never condemn us, no matter how many years or even decades it takes for us to arrive at a place of greater peace with God, ourselves, and others. The advice I would give to someone who finds the vocational path long and difficult is: always be faithful to daily prayer, even if you don’t feel like it; be an active member of a prayer community; find a compatible spiritual director who “gets” you; cultivate friends who support you no matter what; and, if necessary, go for psychological counseling!
Gordon: When did you realize that you had writing talent?
Sister Mary: During the year that I was in the sixth grade, the family split up for a few months as my father took a new job in another state and my mother completed a graduate degree in yet another state. My sister was already in college, while my brother and I finished our school years living with family friends. That was in 1962, when letter writing was still the common way to communicate with loved ones, so I wrote long letters to my parents each week. Afterwards my father told me how impressed he was with my letters – that he was surprised an eleven year old could communicate like that!
Gordon: I understand that a revised version of your dissertation, The Intersubjectivity of the Mystic: A Study of Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, is still available, and that, in addition, you have several edited books, including: The Lay Contemplative: Testimonies, Perspectives, Resources; St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Essential Writings; and Carmelite Wisdom and Prophetic Hope: Treasures Both New and Old. Now your new book Breathed into Wholeness: Catholicity and Life in the Spirit has just been released. What inspired you to write it?
Sister Mary: Hopefully, the Holy Spirit – especially since it’s a book about “life in the Spirit”! This book is really the fruit of my whole life – both academic and contemplative. I am trying to articulate a theology of how the Spirit works in our lives. I hope that the book can offer a bridge between those who identify as Christians while being in search of a fresh perspective on life in the Spirit, and those “nones” who are thirsty for what the Christian tradition has to offer but who often can’t make sense of the way it is traditionally presented. So, rather than begin from the Bible or tradition, I begin from human experience and from the ways of thinking emerging within our postmodern world. Then I place these in deep dialogue with resources from our Christian tradition, especially the mystics. The core metaphor of the book is the rhythm of breathing – the Spirit breathes us in to communion and “loss of self,” and breathes us out into renewed selfhood and mission. This is an ever-renewed dynamic which is ongoing even when we are unaware of it. Our willing participation in the rhythm of the Spirit, however, helps to bring it to its intended fulfillment of tender intimacy with God.
Gordon: When did you become President of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality and what were your primary responsibilities?
Sister Mary: I was elected to this office for a one-year term in 2007. The main responsibilities of the President are to administer the Society (which is not a great deal of work since it only meets once a year) and to give the Presidential Address at the annual meeting. I also initiated a special gathering of all the past Presidents of the Society to brainstorm about “best practices” for teaching Spirituality in the academic context.
Gordon: When did you join the faculty of the Catholic Theological Union, and what are the current courses that you teach?
Sister Mary: I began teaching Spirituality at Catholic Theological Union in the Fall of 1993. Currently I am teaching only half time as I move toward retirement from the CTU faculty. This year my courses include “Discernment: Traditions and Dilemmas”; “Foundations and Methods for the Study of Spirituality”; and “French Spirituality in Global Perspective.”
Gordon: You have a strong interest in contributions of the physical and human sciences to insight into spiritual transformation and in contemplative contributions to fostering ecological conversion. Please share with our readers how these interests developed and how you are addressing them.
Sister Mary: I was a biology major in college, so I’ve always had an interest in science. Reductionist science that only allows materialistic explanations is problematic for spirituality – but so is reductionist theology that only allows “spiritual” explanations! In fact, everything that happens to us – including our most profound prayer experiences – involves physiological, psychological, and sociological dimensions, so those of us focused on theology and spirituality should not be afraid to learn from those who who are expert in these methods of study. As for our current ecological crisis, it is also at root a spiritual crisis because we humans have gotten disconnected from the fact that God loves us within and through the whole Earth community. The greatest delight of God is to see all of God’s creation – not only its human members – living as sisters and brothers!
Gordon: I understand that you enjoy hiking. What was the longest hike that you ever took?
Sister Mary: In 2007 I had the opportunity to participate in a ten-day hiking retreat in the French Alps. Each day we hiked 9 to 12 miles, climbing the high mountains to view amazing vistas. A priest was included in our group, so most days we were privileged to celebrate the eucharist in the open air. This experience is what inspired me to begin leading hiking retreats here in the U.S., which I have done during most of the summers since then.
Gordon: Why is climate change a pressing international issue?
Sister Mary: We are at an unprecedented moment in human history, when the very survival of the human species is in doubt. I’m not sure many people realize that it’s that serious, but it is. Even if the human species survives the ecological collapse that is already underway, it will be in a severely impoverished natural world. Our Bible depicts Jesus as saying “I came that they may have life, and have it more abundantly.” This ecological collapse, and the massive suffering that will inevitably accompany it, are not in accord with God’s loving desire for the Earth and for humanity.
Gordon: What can our readers do to convince their constituencies to respond more quickly to this global crisis?
Sister Mary: The approach I take is to try to help people discover their deep, tender interconnection with the Earth and its creatures. This is the deeper goal of the hiking retreats. When people find their hearts moved by a contemplative encounter in nature, it motivates them to action on behalf of a healthy Earth environment. This is only one approach. In this time of crisis, each one of us needs to use our own gifts and creativity to find some way to invite people to the needed transformation.
Gordon: In closing, here is one of your videos
On Care for Our Common Home: Mary Frohlich, RSCJ