Scholar Fridays is a weekly series on Bearings Online where we interview 2017-18 Resident Scholars. This week, Susan Sink interviewed short-term Resident Scholar Rachel Miller Jacobs, a professor of Congregational Formation from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Goshen, Indiana, who spent October – November, 2017 at the Collegeville Institute. To view previous Scholar Friday interviews, click here.
Your project title is “Ordinary Time” Forgiveness. What do you mean by that?
Perhaps a better way to say it is “quotidian forgiveness.” What I’m interested in is the way we, as Christians, work with the everyday or ordinary interpersonal conflicts, irritations, and hurts that happen in families, congregations, neighborhoods, and among colleagues.
Most of what’s been written about forgiveness (and a lot has been!) is about remediating extraordinary harm: rape, murder, war crimes, sexual abuse. But little work has been done with the stuff that all of us deal with in the course of our lives. If anything has been written about the daily stuff, it’s mostly in the realm of psychology or self-help. There’s nothing wrong with that (in fact, this material can be quite helpful and practical), but it doesn’t address the issue of quotidian harm and forgiveness theologically or spiritually, which is what I’m trying to do.
Forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t the same in my mind, though some thinkers use them interchangeably. The relationship between them is complex; perhaps the easiest way to differentiate between them is that reconciliation includes a shared future. Forgiveness doesn’t have to: we can forgive unilaterally, and there may be reasons to do so. As for the truth that various faith traditions (including the historic peace church, which is my tradition) harm people: this is absolutely true, and it’s part of the reality of being human. I say that not to excuse harming behavior, but only to point out that religions of all kinds have been co-opted for terrible stuff since time immemorial—just as they have also done much good. So perhaps part of our work as Christians is to really recognize and grapple with the reality that we (yes, we) actually hurt people, even if we’re “good” people.
Did you have any surprising conversations with other residents while you were at Collegeville?
I didn’t. The current crop of scholars is introverted and hard-working, so we actually didn’t bump into each other all that much. I very much appreciated the scholar dinners on Friday evenings, and the Writer’s Table presentations (short term scholars) and the Scholar Seminars (long term scholars) that I attended; mostly, however, we hung out in our apartments or our studies and worked on our various projects.
I had a couple of hilarious conversations with monks, which reminded me of the ridiculous assumptions I, and perhaps others, make when we don’t know much about something. It’s perhaps especially tempting to imagine that monastic life is in some way perfect or protected from the ordinary things that bedevil us; that appears not to be the case.
What is your greatest ecumenical moment?
During my seven-week stay at the Collegeville Institute, it was chanting “pray for us” as we processed into the Abbey Church in the Vigil of All Saints’ Day, then praying surrounded by relics. I come from a tradition that’s been squeamish about saints, their intercessions, and their relics; this was, however, a powerful moment of awareness of the communion of saints and an opportunity to give thanks for those who have mothered and fathered us in the faith. If it didn’t involve a ten hour drive one way, I’d consider coming back for All Saints and All Souls every year!
Have you ever read a book that changed your life?
I’m a great reader of fiction and have been for as long as I can remember. While I can point to various novels over the years that have blown me away, what I would say here is that reading novels in general is an important practice of entering the lives of people vastly different from us in time, social location, experience, language, perspective, etc., and letting those lives rearrange our take on all kinds of things. And, unlike a movie, reading a novel takes time, so that we inhabit characters and situations more fully and they stick with us for longer. If I can recommend one splendid novel, it would be Stephanie Kallos’ Broken For You.
Is there anything (besides the time) you miss now that you have gone home?
I have been deeply blessed by the life of prayer of the monks, and the hospitable way they invite others to join their prayers and assist them in doing so. I’ve gone to noon prayers most weekdays, a number of Vigil of Sunday services, and Sunday Mass—and of course the Vigil of All Saints and the All Saints Day services that I mentioned earlier. There’s something deeply shaping about this kind of communal engagement with scripture and the infusion of prayer into the daily-ness of life. So I really miss participating in the worship life of the Abbey.