The Greatest Gift Binka Le Breton

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The Greatest Gift is a journalist's ardent attempt to capture the life of a person she obviously admires greatly--one of the sisters of Notre de Namur, Sister Dorothy Stang. Sister Dorothy spent much of her life serving the most poor and oppressed of the Amazonia region of Brazil. She died in the course of that service. I don't know if this technically makes her a martyr, because she didn't die for the faith, but for her activism on the part of the people she served--but I suppose that's a very, very minor point, because it was evident that Sister Dorothy clearly understood that her actions could result in her death and she continued to perform them despite this knowledge.

The author produces a strange and sometimes even bizarre assemblage of facts about Sister Dorothy. In addition, as with many journalists, she fails to apprehend the true significance of Vatican II, saying at one point:

from The Greatest Gift
Binka Le Breton

Vatican II, as it was known, formalized a movement that had been slowly growing as some members of the church began to reevaluate their whole way of being and living as followers of Christ. Known as liberation theology, this new thinking held that the Kingdom of God was here and now that that God's people were to work for social and political freedom and justice. Parishes were divided up into groups of laypeople known as base communities, where the emphasis was placed on empowering the laity to study the Bible, reflect on their day-to-day lives, and act in accordance with the liberating truths of the Gospel. Priests and nuns were abandoning both the Latin mass and their traditional dress. Inside church buildings, priests turned to face the people during the mass, inviting them to celebrate God's feast together, instead of turning away from the people to face God. The church was slowly relinquishing its absolute hold on power and was placing itself on the side of the poor and powerless.

Wow! I didn't know that it took Vatican II to unseat Pope Alexander VI. Needless, to say, this sort of misconception is distracting, but I don't sense any malice here, merely misunderstanding (a misunderstanding, I might note shared by many within the Church) of what Vatican II really meant. The book is filled with this kind of misunderstanding of the Church; however, the book does not purport to be about the Church, but about the efforts of one courageous nun in defense of the people she served.

The author narrates the story in the voices of the people who knew Sister Dorothy. This is refreshing and lively, but does lead to a certain disjointedness of narrative. That disjointedness is not necessarily a bad thing because it gives the picaresque effect of much of medieval hagiography--and that is what this book attempts to be--hagiography.

One story that stood out in my mind as exemplary of Sister Dorothy and her service is that when the Sisters first arrived in the small town where they would serve they were greeted by the Bishop. They had not had time to put on their veils and the Bishop was delighted. The sisters never afterwards wore the veil. The story stops here, but then is resumed a few pages later. One might assume that we had some sort of liberal bishop ready to upset all the teacups. A little later the author tells us why the Bishop was so pleased. It was the custom of the time for women to come to church and receive communion with their heads covered. The poverty of this region was such that most women could not afford a separate veil and so they brought a table cloth under which many of them would huddle. However, the table cloth was never large enough and there was a tussle at the ends to make certain they had their heads covered. By presenting his nuns without veils, the Bishop could send a clear signal to his impoverished parishioners that it was permissible to attend Church and worship God without wearing a veil. In other words, the action wasn't so much a comment on veils and their appropriateness as a pastoral action of a compassionate Bishop with an impoverished congregation.

Sister Dorothy Stang served her community as teacher and as representative. She went toe to toe with oppressive landlords and even sought out government intervention to prevent the intimidation and the constant displacement of the people she worked with.

There is much for the orthodox Catholic to object to--creation spirituality, and other heterodoxies that the ardent activist can readily run into, particularly in the place and serving the people that Sister Dorothy served.

By the time I reached the end of the book, I had little patience with Sister Dorothy's odd combinations of heterodox movements, but a profound respect for her abiding love for the people she served. When asked for a reflection on her life in Brazil, the author quotes Sister Dorothy:

"I have learned that faith sustains you. And I have also learned that three things are difficult. 1) as a woman to be taken seriously in the struggle for land reform, 2) to stay faithful to believing that these small groups of poor framers will prevail in organizing and carrying their own agenda forward, and 3) to have the courage to live your life in the struggle for change."

I came away from the book with a great respect for the person and work of Sister Dorothy Stang, a dislike for her odd notions regarding spirituality and preserving the environment (one need not resort to creation spirituality to have very good, very orthodox, and very Catholic reasons for wishing to preserve God's incredible creation), and a sense that with Sister Dorothy's death, we lost a wonderful, committed, compassionate advocate for the poor and oppressed.

If not a saint, the book paints a portrait of a woman engaged and fiercely loyal and dedicated to helping the poor. A woman, who despite some mistaken ideas about theology and God, nevertheless attempted to the best of her ability to live out the commandment she understood so clearly from Him: "Whatsoever you do unto one of these, the least of my brethren, that you do unto me."

So, prepare to grit your teeth through the misrepresentations (not malicious, but agenda driven) and misconceptions and misconstructions of the Church, and read about a woman who did her utmost to help to relieve the oppression and poverty of the people she worked with. Recommended with the caveats described throughout.

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Hi Steven Riddle
I just thank you for sharing this beautiful post of Binka le Breton on greatest gift.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 4, 2008 8:01 AM.

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