The word that is life


Recently I spent a morning talking to a woman about her children. Two had run away from school in their teenage years, one to domestic work in Brazil and one to work in the mines. She has never seen them since. As she spoke, her youngest child sat next to her, twining her arms around her mother and now and again looking into two fragments of a broken mirror, which she held together in front of her face.

Later that day, as so often here, I was filled with a hundred and one thoughts, about a technical college for teenagers, about a really good primary school, about a feeding programme for pregnant women, about a hardship fund for secondary school parents – about all the things I desperately wanted to see done. The difference is that when I think these thoughts now, I know this work is not mine to do. I could no more become a good primary teacher than a good ballerina, and the thought of running an agriculture college is like the thought of becoming a professional musician – possible, perhaps, but utterly unrealistic. Once I wondered if I had the vocation to this kind of work, but not the generosity for it; now I know I have the generosity for it, but not the vocation.

I am absorbed by my work here, sifting UNICEF reports, sleuthing out statistics, interviewing parents, teachers and community members, and bringing together all the pieces that make up the picture of the educational injustice facing indigenous people here in Guyana. It’s not work at the coalface, but it is very necessary. I have been thinking much of a speech Ignacio Ellacuria SJ gave in 1982:

‘The university should become incarnate among the poor, it should become science for those who have no science, the clear voice of those who have no voice, the intellectual support of those whose very reality makes them true and right and reasonable, even though this sometimes takes the form of having nothing, but who cannot cite academic reasons to justify themselves.’

I can cite the academic reasons, and so my job here is to speak the word that is life for these people – the word that is justice, education and dignity. But even as I immerse myself in this social scientific work, I know that my deeper call is to speak the Word that is life, that is Christ. I am a theologian.

I have oftentimes shied away from being a theologian, particularly in academic clothing, because it seems so impractical, so useless and so privileged. I have felt that I ought to be and do something different, and that, if I was more generous-hearted, I would be doing something different. It seemed to me sometimes that only my lack of faith and some suspected self-indulgence kept me from throwing theology up in the air, and going off to do something more practical and worthwhile.

Increasingly, however, I recognise that the path that brought me to theology was graced, and not mistaken. I have begun to recognise that overlooking my gifts is overlooking the gifts of God. Theology remains my calling, I think, though I still do not know what shape it will take, and I still harbour doubts about academia.

I find myself thinking of something a nun said to me when I was 20 or so, when I first thought seriously about religious life and went to visit a few communities. ‘A vocation,’ she said, ‘is what you find you have when you can’t do anything else – and you’ve tried.’