Sister Simone Campbell: The dangers of becoming a “celebrity nun”
I was asked if I had a favorite mistake. I think I am making it right now.
In my roles as the director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice and the leader of NETWORK’s Nuns on the Bus campaign, two groups that advocate for social justice, I seek to influence lawmakers. Having influence means we can protect the safety net that so many Americans rely on; it means protecting immigrants caught up in an unjust system.
It also means notoriety. In the name of advocating on behalf of people in poverty, I have sought publicity; I have gained notoriety. I go on cable news to make our case. I am quoted in The New York Times and The Washington Post. I leverage the popularity of Nuns on the Bus to push for change on Capitol Hill.
In the name of advocating on behalf of people in poverty, I have sought publicity; I have gained notoriety.
But while influence, connections and leverage are all vital in the world of politics, I fear they can be toxic in the spiritual life. I am afraid that I am holding on to my notoriety for notoriety’s sake. Because the truth is, I enjoy my engagement with reporters and being a “talking head” on cable news. I enjoy knowing members of the U.S. House and Senate. I enjoy being known as someone who appeared on The Colbert Report and being asked to recount the story. I am worried that my hunger for fame closes the door to the contemplative life that is at the core of the life I truly hunger for.
The contemplative life is the most treasured part of my existence. It is the gift that lets me know that we are all one, created at every moment by the loving divine. But my treasuring this knowledge makes me aware that my instincts in politics might not be the instincts needed for the contemplative life.
I am afraid that I am holding on to my notoriety for notoriety’s sake.
There are only two things that shut down the contemplative life, Gerald May writes in his seminal book Will and Spirit: fear and grasping. He cites the Gospel story of the Transfiguration as evidence. Jesus takes three apostles up the mountain with him. There they are joined by Moses and Elijah. Simon Peter (my patron) gets excited and suggests that they pitch tents and stay there. Then a cloud overshadows them and there is a voice saying, “This is my beloved.” Peter cowers in fear and the experience passes. Peter’s desire to stay there (grasping) and his fear are both reactions that shut down the experience of the divine.
In my political world, I am currently fearful that 30 million people will lose access to health care. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it. At most, I am able to sit open-handed and yell at the Holy Spirit, “Come!” I can listen to the nudges of the Spirit toward action. I am frightened but trusting.
But I am worried that I am trying to “pitch my tent” in the midst of power and publicity. I feel quite like St. Paul in Romans: “For though the will to do what is good is in me, the power to do it is not: the good thing I want to do, I never do; the evil thing which I do not want—that is what I do” (9:18-19). I can give a lot of reasons for why I do what I do. I do it for the policies. I do it for the impact. I do it for those whose voices are not listened to in Washington. I do it for the adventure. I do it for the challenge. But none of this is worth shutting down the contemplative life because I enjoy the fame.
What I have learned, however, is that mistakes are not the end of the story. Rather, in my life mistakes have usually led to some new growth and insight—once I had the courage to look at them. So if this holding on to power or notoriety is a mistake, what can I learn from it? How do I learn to sit open-handed without grasping the desire to “pitch a tent” in the midst of the experiences I enjoy?
Here are a couple of hunches. First, simply admitting that I have a taste for the spotlight might be the first step toward loosening my grasp on this temptation. The second step is mustering the courage to trust in the Spirit’s enduring presence. If I have learned to sit open-handed in the face of my anguish about what will happen to our people because of the choices of members of Congress, the Spirit will certainly not leave me orphaned in the next step on this journey. I have said for many years that my spirituality is about “walking willing.” So my prayer becomes redemption in action:
Spirit of God, open my grasping hands.
Spirit of God, give me the courage I need.
Spirit of God, renew me and the face of the earth.
Now, want to hear about that time I was on The Colbert Report?