The Singer and the Song: An Autobiography of the Spirit

by Miriam Therese Winter.
Maryknoll,
NY: Orbis Books, 1999.
Paper. 180 pp., $15.

You Come Bringing Music

A reflective review essay by Reta Halteman Finger

The Singer and the Song book coverReading The Singer and the Song elicits many memories. My mind races back to the spring of 1967.

I was a student at Boston University. As a young rural Mennonite, I had gathered enough courage the previous fall to investigate what was for me a new breed of human — a Roman Catholic nun. Swathed in black habits with white “bibs-and-tuckers,” nuns swished across campus in twos and threes. I had been curious as to why anyone would choose this lifestyle, but accosting even two nuns at a time to ask such a question was too intimidating. So it was December before I approached a solitary nun eating lunch in the university cafeteria. To my delightful surprise, after two hours of animated conversation, she turned out to be a kindred spirit!

Throughout that winter and spring, Sr. Marie Marguerite Kililea introduced me to a strange but fascinating new world of convents and masses, sacrifices and sacred hearts.

The Music Begins

Just before I graduated and moved away, she played for me, on the record player in the convent lounge, songs from a new album by a group of Medical Mission Sisters. Titled “Joy Is Like the Rain,” the songs were composed by one of their troupe, Sr. Miriam Therese Winter. I liked them. They touched a deep chord in me, bringing me into instant contact with an elusive spiritual world by means of delight in the ordinary world of nature and relationships.

I saw raindrops on my window.
Joy is like the rain.
Laughter runs across my pain
Slips away and comes again.
Joy is like the rain.

I liked the wordplay on “pane” and “pain.” Yes! Laughter and pain often went together in my life . . .

Burned into My Soul 

I bought the album. And in the fall of 1967, when I began teaching grade school in New Jersey, I bought the second one, “I Know the Secret.” I played them over and over again till I had memorized both music and lyrics of every song on both records. They burned their way into my soul, and I marveled how this unknown brown-habited woman and her singing companions with their alien religious background and lifestyle could put into words and music the same deep longings and spiritual ecstasy I had known and continually reached for.

The Medical Mission Sisters’ address was on the albums, and Philadelphia was not so far from Mid-Jersey where I lived. I resolved to write a letter to Sr. Miriam Therese to tell her what her songs had meant to me — and while I was at it, to boldly ask if my housemate and I could visit and meet her some weekend!

I figured she was such a celebrity she would never have time to even answer my letter. But to my utter amazement, a reply came quickly, suggesting several possible Sundays when we could come to morning mass and have lunch with her afterwards!

The day arrived. As we drove over, my housemate and college friend Lois was fearful, protesting that she would have no idea how to behave at a Catholic mass. When we arrived, an ordinary woman in street clothes was leading the singing at the mass, and it took me some minutes to realize that she was indeed Sr. Miriam Therese — out of her habit. Apparently the fresh winds blowing from Vatican II that decade had reached the Medical Mission Sisters earlier than the Sisters of St. Joseph whom I had met in Boston.

A Special Friendship 

After the mass, Miriam Therese (or “M. T.,” as everyone called her) greeted Lois and me as if we were old friends, and in a whirlwind of emotional intensity we talked until late into the afternoon. By that time, it seemed like we were “old friends,” and Lois and I have never forgotten the magic of that afternoon.

For me, it was the beginning of a long relationship, which, though intermittent, has always been warm and meaningful, drawing out the best in me. Being with MT (she writes her initials without periods), even if only for an hour, would always leave me feeling — whether or not it was true — that I was important, lovable, and gifted with much to share with the world.

Since MT received her doctorate in worship and liturgy and began teaching at Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Connecticut, I was able to visit her and her companion Mary Elizabeth Johnson (“M.E.”) several times, usually me mooching off of them while I transported my son to or from the University of Hartford. It gave me a chance to witness a creative mind at work, since during those years she was writing WomanWord and WomanWitness, original collections of songs, poems, and reflections about every woman in the Old and New Testaments.

Creative Minds at Work 

I remember discussing the women of Romans 16, such as Junia, Prisca, and Julia with MT, since they were my companions on my own journey through a doctorate in New Testament. On one visit, MT was rising at 5 a.m. to write during the early morning hours, and she told me how the story of Mary had captured her heart and the words simply poured out. After WomenWord was published, the section on Mary and on the Roman women leaders became especially meaningful to me, since I had witnessed part of its conception and gestation.

Sharing M.T.’s Gifts 

But just as joyful and special were two opportunities I had to publicly share M.T.’s gifts with my friends and associates.

When Tom Finger and I were getting married in 1969, we invited M.T. and her singing Medical Mission Sisters to provide the music for our wedding. Five of them drove from Philly through Boston traffic to make our wedding the most exciting one I’ve ever attended! Ironically, they even sang the following song, based on the Lukan parable of the Great Banquet, at our reception:

I cannot come to the banquet,
don’t trouble me now.
I have married a wife,
I have bought me a cow.
I have fields and commitments
that cost a pretty sum,
Pray hold me excused,
I cannot come!

The second memorable occasion for sharing M.T.’s gifts with my friends was the 1994 EEWC conference. M.T. wrote the theme song, provided much of the music, and kept us on the edge of our seats during a plenary address on women in the Gospels. I was thrilled to be able to share her and her gifts with so many of my mostly Protestant feminist friends. Even today, Jeanne Baly says (and there are probably others) that meeting and hearing M.T. and her music has made a difference in her life ever since.

An Autobiography of the Spirit Reading 

M.T.’s latest book, The Singer and the Song: An Autobiography of the Spirit, has provided an opportunity to fill in some of the holes in my knowledge of her life experiences, and to touch again that vibrant Spirit that has so energized her own spirit.

If you are looking for a straightforward chronological autobiography, you are reading the wrong book. M.T. does cover aspects of her childhood; her decision at 16 to enter the order of the Medical Mission Sisters; her assignment to study music rather than medicine; her experiences serving as a sister during the Ethiopian famine and with refugees in Cambodia; her relationship with Stripes, the chipmunk in her own back yard; and her recent bout with breast cancer. But the chapters are arranged around themes in her life so that each event or series of events is tied to a deeper spiritual truth.

For example, “A Long Road to Freedom,” centers around her scary, uncertain, infuriatingly tedious, and sometimes humorous journey across Ghana in West Africa in various vehicles while transporting mounds of extra baggage and suffering from malaria, with no money to buy safe drinking water. “If you want to be sure to get somewhere,” says MT, “pay attention to your mode of travel” (p. 24). Religion itself is vehicle; “it can carry us forward, or it can preach a false security that justifies standing still as we pay lip service through lifeless forms to obsolete theologies.” Rather, feeding the hungry, finding housing for the homeless and opportunity for the poor, breaking the bread of systemic and global justice: “these are the vehicles that have the means to insure our soul’s salvation” (p. 24). The chapter ends with one of the early songs that I memorized and sang to myself scores of times:

It’s a long road to freedom
a’winding’ steep and high,
but when you walk in love
with the wind on your wing,
and cover the earth
with the songs you sing,
the miles fly by.

It is best to read and reread this book one chapter at a time, preferably in an introspective, devotional mood — only be prepared to laugh or cry at unexpected moments,, such as when M.T. shrieks as she unexpectedly shakes a chipmunk out of her running shoes in the pre-dawn darkness.

The words of some of her songs at the end of each chapter draw together its theme. Yet, I missed hearing the music, missed hearing the familiar lilting tunes wed to lyrics, the unity of the song itself as the vehicle conveying me into the heart of the Spirit. Perhaps this book should be audiotaped, with the songs sung and played at appropriate times.

But even as I finished the book, I sensed I was only touching the edges of it — the tassels on her magic carpet. MT’s largeness of heart and ability to see and relate to Mystery goes beyond anything I can really apprehend. Yes, I understand something of the world of the Spirit, but I am too rational, too linear, too controlled to dive in with M.T.’s abandon. I simply am not that open to new experiences, to sharing my soul with so many people, to extending myself with the spontaneity and energy M.T. does.

On one hand, M.T. provides a model for me, a guide beckoning me deeper into the heart of things, a hand stretched out across a frightening chasm. But on the other hand, I recognize that such great souls need others to rein them in at times, to provide boundaries, to pick up the pieces when emotions run high, to simply say no when no ought to be said. And so, if I have perceived correctly, M.T.’s companion Mary Elizabeth (“M.E.”), with whom she has lived for many years, provides that rock of stability to counterbalance M.T.’s exuberance and creativity. She is the organizer and bookkeeper; she says no at proper times and generally holds things together.

And so, when I cannot quite see angels or reach rainbows and starlight, or when I work behind the scenes trying to hold things together for more emotional, creative people, Mary Elizabeth has also become a model for me.

Perhaps both aspects may be encompassed in the chorus of the last song of the last chapter of The Singer and the Song:

You are the song,
and You are the singing,
All through the longing,
You come bringing music.
You are the gift
and You are the giving.
We are uplifted,
You are living music.

Editor’s note: The songs of Miriam Therese Winter and the Medical Mission Sisters are now available as CDs and cassettes. For descriptions and ordering information, see http://hartsem.edu/WLI/music.html

 

 © 2003 Evangelical and Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in EEWC Update, volume 27 number 3 Fall (October-December) 2003

 

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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