The best Lenten homily I’ve heard so far this year managed to encompass many of the Ignatian and Benedictine values I hold sacred: listening, humility, compassion toward the poor and forgiveness. It was delivered not from any church pulpit by a clergy member but a Catholic who describes herself as more spiritual than orthodox and whose pulpit is in the highly visible public arena.
This surprising message from an unexpected source came from Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Justice Sotomayor, the first Latina appointed to the high court, spoke in Urbana, Ill., to students at the University of Illinois College of Law on March 7. It was a free-wheeling discussion that spanned recollections of her family, her fears, her relationships with other justices and even her inability to dance the salsa well. The justice’s words reminded me of the self-examination I’m called to do as an individual this Lent and we as a nation are called to do as we go through the process of choosing our next leader.
Justice Sotomayor might have been taking a page from the monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which begins “listen…with the ear of the heart,” when she urged political candidates to do more listening and less attacking. Her comments came in response to a law professor’s question about how we can forge a public discourse that is “less hostile and more beloved”—a word she used in the title of her memoir My Beloved World.
Without referring to any specific candidate or political party, Justice Sotomayor said the candidates for president might take a page from the way the nine justices approach their often contentious work. “You almost have to do what we do at the court. We sit in a room and talk, not for an audience, but with each other,” she says.
The justices often disagree fiercely—“if you read some of our decisions, it can get nasty,” she said. And it is easy to become frustrated with colleagues who oppose you. “You think, ‘How could you not see things the way I do,’ and you find out very quickly how they don’t see things the way you do.” But “the reason we get past our differences is that we try to listen to each other.”
Justice Sotomayor told the students not to assume that people who disagree with you are somehow intrinsically flawed. It’s advice that could apply to family disputes and office politics just as much as the national political scene or Supreme Court decisions. “You may not like what they’re proposing, but that doesn’t mean they are doing it from evil motives.” Justices manage to “live through the frustrations” and still “see the goodness” in one another.
The court is an especially small and personal world where disagreements loom large and can have vast consequences. Still, Justice Sotomayor referred to her colleagues on the bench as “family.” Her relationship with the Justice Antonin Scalia, who died suddenly last month, and with whom she often sparred, shows how that familial fabric could be stretched to its limits and yet not rupture.
He jokingly referred to her as a “pit bull,” a designation she said she still wears “with honor.” She described him as the brother she adored and “at times wanted to kill.” He “said and did things that would annoy me, just like my own brother whom I love, as I do all of [the justices],” she said.
She recalled that Justice Scalia was often the first to call if a colleague was experiencing some difficulty. Walking into the courtroom, looking over at Justice Scalia’s black-draped chair on the bench “is a very sad experience,” Justice Sotomayor said. “Sitting in conference without him and occasionally turning to where he used to sit, and he’s not there, is a very unusual moment.”
Justice Sotomayor grew up in a housing project in the Bronx. Both her parents were born in Puerto Rico. He father Juan, a tool-and-die worker who did not speak English, died when she was nine. Her mother supported her and her brother working as a practical nurse. Justice Sotomayor eventually graduated from Princeton University and Yale Law School. When she was considering taking a job in the New York District Attorney’s office as a prosecutor, most of her classmates were hiring on at private firms that paid four times as much. It was then she thought of her mother.
“I realized [at the District Attorney’s office] that I was earning more money than my mother had earned in her entire career,” Justice Sotomayor said. “If she could raise two kids on her salary, I could surely survive on mine.”
Her mother, Celina, now 88, is still an inspiration. She recently told her daughter, “I’m falling apart, but I’m also having fun.”
“In everything I do in life, her advice matters,” the justice said. “To see the best in people, to forgive…because we are all going to be hurt by the people who love us the most and forgiveness is probably the most important quality you can have.”
Justice Sotomayor calls the law “the most noble of professions.” Echoing words that could have come from Pope Francis, she said, “It’s absolutely the only profession that requires people to serve the poor for free. Doctors promise to do no harm, but they don’t promise not to charge for it.”
Justice Sotomayor said her small niece once asked about her work, “What do you take care of?” The justice said she responded, “I take care of people’s problems. When people can’t figure out how to have relationships with one another, they come to court and I provide them with an answer.
“I actually believe that the law is service,” she continued. “Think about what lawyers do, you’re helping people manage their relationships between themselves, among themselves or with institutions. You’re trying to come up with an answer, though it’s never an ideal one, but I hope you would do it with a sense of integrity…of fairness and justice.”
Justice Sotomayor said she has faced most of the milestones in her life with a sense of trepidation. Asked by a student what advice she would give people from disadvantaged backgrounds, she said, “The greatest obstacle to anyone’s success is fear—fear of being embarrassed or not taking a class that’s too hard or not taking a position because I don’t know if I can do it. Even if you fail, you take something important from it. Every failure in my life has taught me something about myself, my limits and even other people. That’s useful information.”
She overcame fear at every stage of her career by working through it. “Acknowledge the fear, stare it in the face,” she said. Fear, she notes, often clarifies not just where our weaknesses lie, but our strengths as well.
Eleven years ago, when she turned 50, the justice decided to stare down what had been a lifelong fear—dancing the salsa in public. “Do you know how embarrassing that is in a Latino household? You have no idea,” she told the University of Illinois audience to laugher.
Justice Sotomayor said her lessons taught her that she probably could never just get up and dance spontaneously, but she could follow the lead of a good dancer. “So I go to the dance floor and look around at the guys dancing and figure out who can’t dance, and if they ask me to dance I say no. If they can dance well, I say yes…. The way to master fear, for me, is to admit it.”
I also found a hint of the Easter message in Justice Sotomayor’s propensity to look for the positive in her experiences. She recalls growing up in the Bronx: “High crime, a lot of dirtiness, a lot of drugs. You almost instinctively think, how can anyone be good in that environment?” But she adds, there is always something good surrounding what appears to be negative. “If you live thinking about the negative, you forget about the positive and the good that comes from virtually every experience you have.”
Judith Valente, America’s Chicago correspondent, is a regular contributor to NPR and “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.” Twitter: @JudithValente.