a review of Find Your Way Home: Words from the Street, Wisdom from the Heart; by the Women of Magdalene with Becca Stevens. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008
The Rule of Saint Benedict is commonly credited with being one of the instruments by which Western civilization was supported and maintained through some difficult times in its early middle age. The Rule’s sanity, generosity, and above all, charity, are the means by which a community of persons can foster stability, through inward conversion from inordinate focus on the self towards living with and for others.
The remarkable elasticity of the Rule led to many adaptations and revisions — and reforms — down through the years. But I think that none even of the most ardent revisers or reformers would ever have conceived that an adaptation of the Rule would bring new life to scores of women who until that transformative encounter had been living on the streets as prostitutes and drug addicts. But as the old song says, grace is amazing.
A little over a decade old, Magdalene is a two-year residential and support community for women coming out of correctional facilities or off the street, from lives marked by abuse, prostitution and addiction. It began with the Reverend Becca Stevens, Episcopal chaplain at Saint Augustine’s (Vanderbilt University). She conceived of creating a safe place for women, a place not merely as a house but as a home. We all know there is a difference, a crucial one.
We also know how sadly true it is for the church both to get and to give the second-best (“I’m buying a new microwave so I’ll give the old one to the church...” You know how it goes.) Becca insisted that this home would be properly furnished, with decent furniture and a real comfortable living room, and bedrooms with beds with clean sheets. It would also be located in a residential district; not just outside the prison doors or the city gates. Soon one house grew to two and then another, as those who lived there truly found new life. Magdalene has expanded to include programs helping male first-time offenders understand and come to terms with how demeaning their use of women is, and the harm they do in contributing to a brutal system. Thistle Farms, a nonprofit maker of all-natural body care products, was launched in 2001. It is named for the hardy plant that is the sole survivor on streets the women walked in their former lives — and again in their new lives as angels of mercy helping other women to move from the old life to the new.
In Find Your Way Home the women of Magdalene recite their Rule and tell their story. In some ways reading this tender volume is like being present at a Greater Chapter, where by tradition the members of the Benedictine household would hear their Rule and reflect on it. True to Benedict’s own injunction that the youngest shall be heard, this collection of voices reflects the range of participants in the Magdalene households.
A major feature of these households is that they are not “run” so much as lived in. Although there are staff and volunteer supporters, it is the women themselves who form the community and learn to work out their differences within that community by following the Rule and living into it. Such is its generous charity that women who had been hardened by abuse — both by others and of themselves — have found themselves transformed by love.
The Rule itself, broken down chapter by chapter into short segments, is a wonderful adaptation of Benedict’s charitable and sane spirit. The reflections by the women of Magdalene that follow each section of the Rule form a powerfully moving recitation. Remember, for many of these women this will be the first time they have lived in a real home or experienced love from another person, or in some cases for another person. Imagine the experience of a woman fresh from prison being given a key to the front door and a room of her own with clean sheets on the bed. Well, you don’t have to imagine — her testimony is there for you to read. And it will move your heart.
I am tempted to cite other of passages but instead I simply urge you to obtain a copy of this short book. I began reading it on the subway on my way to a diocesan meeting and found tears running down my face as I read of the gratitude that woman felt on being given a key, as she knelt down to kiss the floor of her new home. There are many such moments of healing, thanksgiving, and transformation in this little book. It is a reassurance that God is at work.
The Rule of the women of Magdalene has something to say to us all as well. By that I mean all Christians, but particularly in these days of tension in the Anglican Communion, it is well to remember that Gregory the Great, who sent Augustine to England and so in some sense founded the Church of England, was an admirer and first biographer of Benedict. And so I will end this brief review with one of the chapters of the Rule to which I think it would do us all good to attend:
Chapter 8: Let God Sort It Out
In community our job is not to judge or say, “I told you so.” We trust that God will sort things out, so we don’t have to second-guess every decision someone else makes.
We are here to love one another in the most radical way possible, without judgment, and to pray that others can love us in the same way.
We give drink to the thirsty, food to the hungry, comfort to the sorrowful, clothing to the naked, and companionship to the imprisoned and dying. We wash one another’s feet.
Couldn’t the Anglican Communion learn something from the women of Magdalene? They have surely grasped an aspect of the life-saving, life-giving Gospel that many of us seem to have forgotten. It is not too late to learn from the thistle and its farmers, not too late to follow the example of the woman who loved much, rather than the Pharisee who sat in judgment.
— Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
You can hear more from the women of Magdalene at the new blog, Voices of Thistle Farms.