As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary, Bearings Online is highlighting profiles of persons closely associated with Collegeville Institute’s history—that great cloud of witnesses who have accompanied us since 1967, and will journey with us into the future. View past Collegeville Institute Greats here »
Roberta Bondi, professor emerita of church history at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, is among the most accessible of theologians. She is also a major player in the ecumenical movement, a good friend, and an effective ambassador for the Collegeville Institute.
Bondi is a wizard of memory. She makes present to us the Fathers and Mothers of the church long ago. When you read Bondi on the desert ascetics and medieval mystics, you are there. She learned this skill, in part at least, from them.
These virtuosos of the spiritual life were so clear-eyed about the particulars that they saw right into the heart of the universal. Bondi does the same in her writing, making it both compelling and accessible. When Bondi writes of her mother that “she was so keyed up with anxiety, newly awakened grief, unwelcome longing, and anger that she hardly knew what to do with herself,” the fine tuning in the observation and the careful crafting of the language are simultaneously 21st century and 14th century and 6th century.
The truly astonishing thing about Bondi, the reason she is among the most valuable of our theologians, is that her erudite study of the past—she can footnote with the best of them—has triggered in her an outpouring of tough-minded spiritual writing of the sort that our forebears used to do as a matter of course. The artificial but nearly impregnable wall we have constructed between the scholarly and the personal came tumbling down in her 1995 book, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life. Thanks in no small part to her, we are free to move around in the landscape from which the rubble of that wall has been cleared away.
Three others of her books are further testimony to her staking out of this fresh theological territory. Night on the Flint River: An Accidental Journey in Knowing God, for example, is terror recollected in theological wonder that doesn’t discount or minimize what it was like to truly believe on a river trip gone terribly wrong, “I was living out the last night of my life.” At the time it seemed like a present that would have no future. Bondi recalls the memories that flooded her in the darkness, such as “the long period in which everything I could not help being was in conflict with everything that was being asked of me.”
In Nick the Cat: Christian Reflections on the Stranger, Bondi muses that “on the whole, we modern Christians haven’t been very good at talking about our relationship with animals.” Nick evokes from Bondi and her family a host of reflections on strangers—how we fear them, need them, are blessed by them. Stray cats and grace, she says, show up pretty much the same way.
The preface to Houses: A Family Memoir of Grace is a meditation on time and memory that ranks with the very best of the long tradition of such ponderings. “Whether we like it or not, the human race does stand or fall together. That we are ultimately one is the only way to make sense of the confusion of time and memory, the blurring and merging of identities, for good or for ill, that we all experience.”
Bondi’s stylistic experiments in Houses, from which the quotation about her mother is taken, reflect her immersion in the Bible and early Christian texts. After all, the Bible is a hodge-podge of many different literary genres, stories told from multiple perspectives. The Bible gives us room to move around in, and Houses has a similar capaciousness. To read this book—and all of Bondi’s books—is to go exploring.
In the following excerpt, Bondi explains how the kind of theologian she became traces right back to her time in Collegeville.
From Roberta Bondi, Memories of God: Theological Reflections on a Life (Abingdon Press, 1995), “Introduction,” pp. 14-17.
Having been well trained by my education not to talk in scholarly circles about anything so private and personal as my own life, much less about prayer, I would not even have dreamed of writing about what I was learning about any of this until a few years ago, when I began to attend a series of summer consultations at the [Collegeville] Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research in Collegeville, Minnesota. These consultations were conducted in such a way that for a week each summer the various participants would gather to discuss a single theological theme, such as incarnation or the content of Christian hope. Though the themes differed from year to year, every summer the consultations began the same way: during the first two days each of us was asked to reflect on the theological topic under discussion, not as good representatives of the traditions we came from but through the lens of our own experience.
The process of telling and listening to these stories was hard work. Though I had begun in my prayer to know the significance of telling God and myself stories of my life, I had never been asked to talk publicly about the meaning of a particular Christian doctrine specifically in this way, nor had I had the chance to listen to other people’s stories. It took thinking about what we had believed in the past and in the present as well as what the history of Christian thought had had to say on the topic. It demanded a serious consideration of what in our lives had brought us to believe as we did, and how our convictions had been helpful or hurtful to us as children, as adults, as women and men, as members of our Christian communities, and as citizens.
For myself, I found this approach to theology incredibly profitable. To begin, there was the matter of wonder and gratitude. In organizing the “facts” of my life I was asked for, I was struck in a way I never had been before by a kind of awe and gratitude to God for the gift of my own particular life, of the very life I had led. Never before, I think, had I actually been glad that I was me and not somebody else. This was half the gift. The other half came as I listened to other people reflecting theologically on their own very diverse experiences. Just to hear their stories filled me in a new way with a holy wonder and gratitude both for the reality of each separate human life and the mystery of God’s presence in it.
Second, there was the matter of the universal and the individual, the public and the private. It was only in bringing myself to talk in front of the other consultation members about what I had been trained to regard as academically and socially taboo that I really could see for myself how deep and how wrong is the split we assume we must make between the publicly acceptable and the private in our churches and in academics. As individuals this split between public and private silences us on the very things that matter to us most. It makes us unable to fight for ourselves, or even to imagine new ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. It makes our churches, our families, and our friendships boring and sometimes even deadly. It causes us to compartmentalize or try to discard parts of ourselves that don’t fit with the publicly acceptable.
This split makes us forget that our private, experiencing “selves,” even our Christian selves, do not come unmediated from our own insides or even from God. Rather, we are formed in very complex ways by our social experiences of family, church, school, and friends, by our larger culture and its expectations, as well as by scripture, and by the Christian tradition. Failing to recognize the communal origins of our “private” selves makes us identify points of pain in ourselves as “personal problems,” and as a result we are not able to see how often the “personal” is, in fact, intimately linked with the social and cultural. This observation, of course, has been one of the great insights of the women’s movement in the last few decades.
-But how can we ever be healed theologically, individually, unless we refuse to accept a split in our own selves between what is publicly and what is privately acceptable—until we can find a way to tell our own stories, hear one another’s stories, and learn to tell them again in new ways? Until we can talk about our prayer and our theological convictions and our life experiences as all part of the same piece? At Collegeville, I finally accepted that the theological work of telling one another our stories, of talking about the ways in which our concrete and particular experiences intersected with the great Christian doctrines was not private work, or work done only on behalf of each of us as individuals. It was a common work, real theology done in order to find a way to claim for our own time and our own generation what it means to be Christian.
This excerpt was reprinted with permission from Abingdon Press.