On Stage: wives of the saints--a women's view of Christianity | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Stage: wives of the saints--a women's view of Christianity 

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If you strip All That I Am down to its bones, you have six women talking about some pretty nasty things done to them by the extraordinary men they love. If you didn't know who these men were, All That I Am might seem no more than a semithreatening feminist play. It would hardly seem worthy of the powerful emotions that fly around the postshow discussions, much less the subtle censorship and outright banning it has received in some Catholic communities.

Ironically, All That I Am is a very Catholic play, written by Sister Irene Mahoney with music by Sister Kathy Sherman. Nuns who write plays aren't a problem for the magisterium. Nuns who write plays that question the absolute moral authority of the church are.

In 120 minutes Mahoney turns the history of Christianity on its ear by letting the wives and lovers of some of its most famous men speak. The play's six women possess a knowledge that official church teachings deny--an intimate knowledge born out of loving, not out of traditional dogma. "Two days and not a word," says the wife of the apostle Simon Peter. "And then when he does come, he's like a crazy man: the Master said this and the Healer said that. He acts as though he'd seen the sun dancing in the sky. And when I ask him where's the fish for supper, he gives me some cockamamy story about being a fisher of men."

Saint Augustine's abandoned mistress--a woman condemned in his writings, whose name he would not even pronounce--also tells her side of the story. "At 17 he found in Carthage the city of his dreams. When he was older and seeking after wisdom--as he called it--he would rave: 'It was all sin, all sin those years in Carthage, a foul cesspool in which I wallowed.' But then it was not sin to him but life."

Other characters include Hilde of Saint Bremar, the wife of a 12th-century priest who was forced to leave him when Rome ordered priests to take celibacy vows; Anne Donne, wife of the 16th-century Anglican minister/poet John, who bore him 12 children and died at 32; and Maria Von Wedemeyer, fiancee of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran minister imprisoned for speaking against the Nazis.

All That I Am, which Mahoney wrote ten years ago, is now in the repertory of the Performing Arts Ministry, part of the radical Chicago-based Catholic organization Call to Action. Call to Action purchased the play in 1989 and asked Mahoney to add a new, contemporary character named Kay, a battered wife who leaves her husband but doesn't feel she needs to give up her religion, despite the official teachings on divorce and adultery.

Initially the play was booked primarily by religious women's groups. Now about half the bookings are by religious organizations and the rest are by secular groups, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Religious organizations have often booked the play only on the condition that certain lines referring to Saint Augustine's male organ are cut. The play has also been booked at churches where once someone read the script the money to fund it disappeared or a schedule conflict suddenly arose and the performance was canceled. Rarely has the play been banned outright, though last March it was canceled in Madison, Wisconsin, after a performance in La Crosse generated an angry debate.

The issues at the heart of that debate were the same ones tearing apart the U.S. Catholic Church. Call to Action is one of a dozen or so lay organizations demanding church reform. Its agenda includes establishing rights for homosexuals in the church, abolishing celibacy requirements for priests, ordaining women as priests and bishops, and allowing church members to participate in determining church teachings on sexuality.

The La Crosse debate was started by a vitriolic response to a review of All That I Am published in the Catholic Times Review. Monsignor Anthony Wagener, a local pastor who hadn't seen the play, wrote, "Like everything Call to Action does, the play has a hidden agenda. Call to Action is an extreme feminist organization, fortunately disavowed by most women. More still, it is a movement in the church that is totally anti-Magisterium--blatantly opposed to many major church teachings and in defiance of the Holy Father and the Magisterium."

Yet a 1992 Gallup survey of 802 Catholics found that a majority of lay people are at odds with traditional teachings: 67 percent agree that it would be a good thing if women were ordained priests, 75 percent would support married priests, and 78 percent favored equal job opportunities for homosexuals. "In our perspective the right to choose morality, to be a conscious, participating part of an ongoing process of God's creation is divinely given to each of us," says Elaine Schatzline-Behr, executive director of the Performing Arts Ministry. "The pope is not the only voice of the Catholic Church. The pope in good conscience is bound to listen to the voices of the wider Catholic Church. And that is not happening."

All That I Am chisels away at the base of the Catholic patriarchy by arguing for a reinterpretation not only of church history but of the Bible itself. Judging from the response cards Performing Arts Ministry collects after each performance, many Catholics welcome that message. Others clearly feel it threatens the foundation of morality. "There are a lot of people who don't want to have their traditional groundings challenged--and we understand that," says Schatzline-Behr. "We're not trying to drag anyone who isn't ready, except maybe the hierarchy of the church."

In the conclusion of his letter Wagener wrote, "The most significant woman in St. Augustine's life was not his "mistress' but his mother, St. Monica, who through the grace of God brought about her son's conversion by her prayer and example, and we praise God for that. . . . I have found no information on St. Peter's wife either in the scriptures or in contemporary writing. Peter's nameless mother-in-law is mentioned in the Gospels, but that's it!" Exactly one of the points Mahoney is trying to make.

All That I Am is playing at 2:30 and 8:15 on Saturday, October 24, and at 2:30 on Sunday, October 25, at Saint Nicholas, 1120 Washington, Evanston. Tickets are $12, $10 for those with limited incomes. Dinner is also available on Saturday at 7; tickets, which include the show, are $25, and reservations are required. Call 604-0400.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Evette Cardona.

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