The Benedictine author of a book on the clergy that became a case study

I was Balaam’s donkey

 L’asina di Balaam ero io  DCM-005
30 April 2022

This article was published in the February 2020 issue

“For centuries, nuns kept listening to sermons, conferences, and all kinds of preaching, but they always did so like dumb beasts of burden: whatever they were told, they could only okay it. There were exceptions, but very few! The average preacher’s assumption was that in any matter and in any circumstance he was the wiser; and nuns learned to accept it, at first because they needed a priest to celebrate for them and they had to accept his conditions, and later on simply by tradition and custom. This was the form of humility that was expected of them. The result was (and is) that persons with half a century’s experience of a  life of prayer listened devoutly to absurd things preached by boys who, having pecked at a volume of Tanquerey while in the seminary and then forgotten even this once the exams were passed, fully believe themselves qualified to teach these old women; and also believe that the said old women have never been taught this by anybody else...”.

 I wrote the above after 50 years in religion, having decided that enough was enough and that the celebrant/preachers should be told the truth; namely, that nuns who listen to them can and do some thinking on their own. Moreover, they are not always yes-women.

I went on, using examples (many comical) of such matters. For example, the priests’ behaviour towards nuns, their ignorance of the very essence of religious life, their peculiar innovations in the liturgy. In addition, their tendency to avoid all the really important things, i.e. theological subjects, and to speak of irrelevant matters instead; their throwing intellect to the wind and building prayer on emotion; their ignorance of the basic laws of spiritual progress; and, finally, some evident theological errors gleaned from many sermons.

I knew, of course, that the result must have been such a surprise, like that of old Balaam’s when his she-ass not only started speaking but (oh horror!) had the temerity of being found the wiser!

In addition, it was certainly a shock for many, especially because of the laughter these Pages of mine provoked; but no stick was used against me. There were readers who thought my salvation was at risk after writing such a book; but most of them kept their indignation to themselves. On the contrary, there were very many priests who said either that the book prompted them to prepare their sermons better, or that they too had been thinking that something was wrong about the issues I had mentioned, but were not able to put it into so many words. Anyway, at the age of 78, I became a preacher myself, and was invited to conferences and asked for retreats too.

Now let me make one thing clear. I belong to a very old religious Order which is, as I believe, called to consider, to remember and to remind others of the most important and timeless truths rather than the ever-changing problems of today. The point is, morality (which is the tool for solving problems) must not be seen as flowing in the air on its own; it either grows up from the theological truth that gives it stability or is swept away by any wind that blows. In everyday practice, however, it is much easier to speak (and preach) about politics, or about the “hot issues” of the day, or about what is nicely termed as “existential problems” (meaning: how to get away with doing our will rather than God’s) than about God and His truth. Many listeners want to hear about such side things only, and you would think the preachers were there in order to teach them better, but many do not.

This is the kind of testimony or evangelisation in which I find myself engaged just now, to show these busy and worried gentlemen in clerical collars that the Creation, that the Universe makes sense once you try, with Scriptural evidence, to look at it from upstairs, not from the cellar. Moreover, the cellar can only become a better place for it.

- Teaching priests theology, are you the donkey?

– No, not exactly. I am reminding them that theology exists. Too many of       them have been content to pass the exams and then forget it all, concentrating on the “existential issues”. Today, they lack a key both to these very problems and to their life of prayer. Prayer is contact, a loving contact, and how can there be any love where there is no desire to know and to understand, as much as possible, the loved One? It cannot all be left just to passing emotions.

The Hasids tell the story of a famous Rebbe’s grandson who was playing hide-and-seek with a friend. When the friend could not find him, he went away. The boy went to the Rebbe and complained: “Grandfather, I hid myself and he does not want to seek me! – At least, says the Rebbe, you are in good company. God also says, “I hide, and they don’t want to seek me!”  This donkey, then, is trying to show certain people that it is good to wake the seeker who is sleeping in their souls. Many people strongly desire it; and they listen avidly to the basic truths of all existence: the Trinity, Christ’s Incarnation – and their implications for our ordinary life.

Whether this is good for the Church, or for the World, or for Women, remains to be seen.



Who is she

In the Benedictine monastery of Żarnowiec in Pomerania, Poland, lives Sister Małgorzata Borkowska (pictured).  Born in 1939, she is a philosopher, philologist, theologian and writer. After more than half a century of religious life, she has published a book entitled “Balaam’s Ass” Sister Małgorzata. In her book, she emphasizes, with biting humor, the arrogance, ignorance and incompetence of a priestly class that insists on treating the nuns with superiority, condescension, and sometimes even contempt. The latter, for their part, after listening to sermons passively “like stupid pack animals”, claim the value of their testimony and their active and innovative role as theologians and spiritual guides.

(Francesca Bugliani Knox and Elena Buia Rutt)