The Splendour of God's Word

Sr. Eileen Schuller, an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls, recalls her life growing up in Edmonton at the Dec. 9 Nothing More Beautiful.


Sr. Eileen Schuller, an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls, recalls her life growing up in Edmonton at the Dec. 9 Nothing More Beautiful.

December 26, 2011
Following is the text of the witness talk Sister Eileen Schuller gave at the Nothing More Beautiful session at St. Joseph's Basilica Dec. 9.

I still don't quite believe that I am standing here, in Edmonton, in this cathedral, to give this talk. When Archbishop Smith first wrote to ask me if I would do a presentation in the Nothing More Beautiful series, he anticipated that I might decline, claiming that I was too busy to take this on.

I replied by return email that I would not say no for that reason (because I was too busy) – but that my immediate, indeed spontaneous, impulse was definitely negative.

I am probably the least obvious person to be invited for an evening like this. My life has been quite ordinary and uneventful. I've always been a teacher, though probably one of few sisters who has never taught elementary school or even high school. I teach now at McMaster University in Hamilton, a typical large, public/secular research university.

Some of you are perhaps already conjuring up some of the usual stereotypes of university professors: hard-to-understand, dull, isolated from the "real world," a bit eccentric.

Even worse is that within the university, I don't work on the cutting edge of modern physics, or on medical research that is going to save lives and relieve human suffering, or even on trendy postmodern theory. I teach the Bible and other ancient texts. I read dead languages; I try to make sense of tiny bits of leather that have managed to survive from antiquity.

I am quite used to giving lectures - but to be asked to give a witness talk! When I mentioned the invitation to a few friends who know me well, including some of my Ursuline sisters, they just laughed. I am one of those people who shuts down, literally goes blank, when asked to "share" how some poem or ritual is speaking to me, or my favourite animal or colour, much less some spontaneous account of what God is doing in my life.

So why am I here? Why did I say yes in the end? For at least three reasons (and there are probably more lurking beneath the surface that I can't even articulate).

First, because the topic tonight is Scripture, and I have been privileged to study and to teach the Bible, its world and its languages for over 40 years. And for me it has been through this study and teaching that I have come to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ, and to learn something of the truth of the words of Pope Benedict that have inspired this series, that "there is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to speak to others of our friendship with him."


I have been engaged with the Bible in a wide variety of contexts. As a student, I took my first course in Bible from Archbishop Gervais, but I have also studied with rabbis in Jerusalem in classes with all Jewish students.

I have gotten insight into the meaning of a biblical word by studying Akkadian and Ugaritic, but I have learned too from hearing "the ordinary folks" in a parish Bible study talk about how they read a particular verse. As a teacher, I have taught in a seminary/theological college where we all shared an understanding that the Bible was the Word of God, a sacred and authoritative text, a rule of faith and conduct.

Now I teach in a secular, academic context where the Bible competes with the Quran and the Bhagavad Gita, and where often even the basic biblical narrative, its stories and names, are virtually unknown and being read for the first time.

Secondly, I said yes to tonight because I thought that perhaps in some very small measure this might be a way of saying thank-you to the Church of Edmonton that nurtured me in the first stages of my journey of faith. I think of Assumption Parish, St. Joseph Seminary/Newman Theological College, St. Joseph's College, so many individual people, friends, relatives, teachers, pastors, who are in my thoughts this evening though they cannot be named here.

Finally and not least, I said yes because Richard (Archbishop Smith) asked me. There is a bond that links teacher and student, and it is real and tangible and enduring. Many years ago I made a commitment to myself to respond positively whenever I could to a request from a former student.

I have often been invited to break open the words of our shared Scripture in United, Anglican, Baptist, non-denominational churches across the country where my students are currently ministering. And now I join you this evening in this wonderful cathedral setting to tell you something of my life and my faith journey - because a former student asked me.

I was born only blocks from here, in the General Hospital, and grew up for a few years in Rimbey. Anyone here from Rimbey, Ponoka, Lacombe area of the diocese?

Then my parents moved to Edmonton, to the Bonnie Doon neighbourhood. I'm the oldest of four girls; three of us, myself, Theresa and Linda, so close in age that we were sometimes taken for triplets; there is another sister, Rita, and then my brother, Dennis.


My mother taught for years at St. Helen's School. My father was a construction worker who built our house - literally, first the basement where we all lived in one big room while he put on the upstairs - and for many years Dad did repairs and renovations for many rectories and convents throughout the city.

We belonged to Assumption Parish. It was there that I came to learn and love the liturgy, especially when I played the organ as I did, not particularly well but consistently, week after week for Mass and Sunday night Benediction. Indeed, playing the organ for weddings was my main high school source of income.

This ancient fragment of text contains commentary on the biblical verses of Hosea 2.8-14. It is part of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 in the Judean Desert.


This ancient fragment of text contains commentary on the biblical verses of Hosea 2.8-14. It is part of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered in 1947 in the Judean Desert.

I did my elementary school at St. Thomas Aquinas and my high school at St. Mary's (now I understand it is J.H. Picard). There I first met the Ursuline Sisters, who had come to Edmonton some years previously from Ontario, particularly our principal, Mother Mary Janet, of blessed memory.

There have always been only a small number of Ursulines in Edmonton - in recent years just Sister Helen Edwards, whom some of you will know. Probably more of you here are familiar with the Ursulines of Jesus - as we used to say jokingly, we're just the Ursulines of Chatham.

A year after I finished high school, I entered the Ursuline novitiate in Chatham (though I did receive the postulant dress and veil in a little ceremony in the Edmonton convent so I could travel half-fare on the train to Ontario).


Even today there is so much I cannot "explain" about that decision, and perhaps explanation is not what is needed. How many people try to "explain" their choice to marry this particular person?

1964, when I entered, was in the middle of the Second Vatican Council. The novitiate experience was strict, even rigid and traditional, yet change was in the air. We received the long black habit, but knew that we would wear it for less than a year.

Over 40 young women entered in those years, two of us are in the community today. I still don't know quite what it all means. But I do think those of us who lived through these tumultuous Vatican II and post-Vatican II years in religious life had a unique experience. It was so different than that of young people today, and yet one that needs to be named and remembered.

I made my final profession at Assumption Church on a bitterly cold January day in 1975. That is the day that I still celebrate, the moment when I really said my "yes" to a call that still remains so much a mystery.

Perhaps some of you know this quotation from the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer; in a homily he gave to a young couple on their wedding day; he told them: "From this day forth, it is not your love that sustains your marriage, but from now on, it is the marriage that sustains your love."

That is what I also experienced. It was the public profession of my religious vows, the Church gathered as witnesses on that day, that has sustained my vocation. That January morning, we sang the L'Arche hymn, "I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey, but courage will come with the sound of your step by my side." And courage has come, day by day, even as I continue to pray for perseverance.

The Second Vatican Council called upon each religious community to rediscover their special charism, that is, what was the special gift of the spirit, given to their founder, for the service of the Church.

St. Angela Merici began the Ursulines in 1535, as a company of women, living lives of evangelical holiness and total dedication but in the midst of society. At a time when the cloister was considered the only possible milieu for a consecrated life, she had a vision of women giving a different type of witness in and to their world.


Sometime during my novitiate, I came upon a short quotation from Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard, the archbishop of Paris during the war years, a quotation that I still have on my desk: "To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda or even in stirring people up but in being a living mystery; it means to live in such a way that one's life would not make sense if God did not exist."

These words spoke to my young heart and I experienced them as a call: Could there not be a witness to young people, to students, in a complex university environment like University of Alberta? Might this be the type of milieu today where St. Angela would want her daughters to live and work?

When I told my profound insight to our superior general, let's just say she didn't see things in quite the same way. Nuns go to Teacher's College or at very least to a Catholic institution (our community had Brescia College in London, Ont.). Universities were secular, dangerous places; did I want to reconsider my vocation?

I continued to think long and hard about what it might mean to be a "living witness" in venues and milieus where the Church and religion have no public presence, indeed are highly suspect.

And God works in strange ways: a few months later Mother St. David went to a meeting in Ottawa for religious superiors who were opening new missions in South America, as our community did in Peru in the 1960s.

This cave seen in the side of a rock formation is one of 11 along the northwestern shores of Israel's Dead Sea where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.


This cave seen in the side of a rock formation is one of 11 along the northwestern shores of Israel's Dead Sea where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

There she was told that it was "the mind of the Church" - I still remember her using that expression - that young religious from distant lands should be educated in their own culture. To her, Alberta was just about as foreign as Peru. So I ended up at University of Alberta.

I took a classics degree and fell in love with Greek and Latin and the ancient world. In those years, the only way to take Hebrew was at St. Stephen's College where the course was cross-listed both as a regular U of A undergraduate course and for the United Church ministry – so somewhere in the recesses of the United Church archives I do have a credit stored away.


I do not need to go through a chronology of my life. Suffice it to say that I went back and forth for a number of years – teaching at St. Joseph Seminary/Newman Theological College/St. Joseph's College, working in the liturgy office for the diocese – studying, at University of Toronto in the department of Near Eastern languages and then at Harvard University to get my PhD.

On completion of my studies, I ended up, quite unexpectedly, in Halifax. The Ursulines had never been in the Maritimes, and I remain forever grateful to the Sisters of Charity of Halifax who adopted me and gave me a home there. For eight very rich and challenging years, I taught the Old Testament and Hebrew at the Atlantic School of Theology.

I'm sure many of you already know something about AST since your archbishop is an alumnus. In 1971, the local United Church Pine Hill Divinity Hall, the Anglican King's College and Holy Heart Catholic Seminary had come together to form a single theological school that would prepare clergy and lay leaders for all three churches. Archbishop James Hayes provided much of the vision for this truly unique – and daring – ecumenical venture.

For me, these years were a transformative experience. As I grew up, Catholics and Protestants still lived in separate worlds. When I was in my early teens, for instance, I was asked to play the piano for the weekly meeting of the Brownies at the United Church on our corner. I still remember, only two pieces were involved, God Save the Queen and the March of the Teddy Bears.


But this required a trip to Assumption rectory and consultation with no less than Monsignor. This was not a matter for the assistant priest with whom my family usually dealt. With all the wisdom of Solomon, Monsignor decreed that Christian charity would allow me to help out these United Church Brownies - as long as I didn't say the Our Father since "they add things on the end, you know."

And now within a relatively short span of years, I was teaching Protestants, praying with them on a daily basis, and learning with and from them. The image that is often used in ecumenical circles is that of a gift exchange, where each participant brings and receives a gift. And that is what I experienced at AST.

In terms of Scripture - since that is our topic this evening - one of the gifts that I received was an appreciation of "Bible study" as a religious devotion.

A Bible study might be short or long; at times insightful, at times dull and mundane. But I saw what it means to turn to the Bible, to take up the Bible to read a passage and discuss it at the start of virtually every activity, meeting, class, before a picnic or at the sickbed.

I was able to bring a gift from my Catholic tradition: the sense of reading the Bible within the context of a long tradition, shaped by the Lectionary, a sense of the givenness of the Scripture that we read on a particular Sunday in communion with listeners around the world who are hearing the same Word of the Lord.

In January 1990, I began a new position at McMaster University, in the religious studies department. Over the Christmas break, not only did I travel geographically from Halifax to Hamilton, but I went from hearing myself being called "Sister Eileen" to becoming "Dr. Schuller."


I had to learn (and believe me I am still learning) how to witness to the Gospel now in this particular environment with all its demands and challenges. As a university professor, I am paid to do research, teaching and service. I believe that my first obligation is to do all three aspects of my job to the best of my ability; as the old saying goes, "the Christian way to wash dishes is to get them clean." But what else can I bring?

In her legacy, St. Angela counselled her daughters (and I quote): "Try to be kind always, . . . use all possible gentleness . . . take each and every one into account, not just their names but their background and character . . . you can see that human mothers even if they had a thousand sons and daughters would still find room for every single one in their hearts, because that is how true love works."

These are words that now challenge me daily in the highly competitive, impersonal atmosphere of the university as I deal with students, staff and colleagues.

Let me say just a brief word about my research. One thing that shaped my life most profoundly has been that when I was in graduate school, around 1980, I was given the opportunity to work on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

I suspect most of you have heard something about the Scrolls - they come up periodically on the news, often around Christmas or Easter when media is looking for something both religious and sensational. What we are really talking about is a vast collection of ancient manuscripts, most very damaged and fragmentary, that were discovered by chance, serendipitously, in 1947 in caves by the shore of the Dead Sea.

This has been called, justly I think, "the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times." These documents gave us a whole new source of information about Judaism at the time when Jesus lived.

She has done what she could;she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.-Mark 14.8

'She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.'

Mark 14.8

For over 60 years, between 1948 and about 2008 when the project was finally completed, many scholars, Jewish and Christian, worked on deciphering the blackened pieces of leather, transcribing the Hebrew or Aramaic, translating the texts, writing a commentary.

I was given the responsibility to prepare the first editions of various collections of prayers and psalms. In these we could see how Jews were praying at this time. They wrote new psalms, beyond the 150 in our Bible. Many were expressions of praise and thanksgiving, called the Hodayot, thanksgiving psalms, because they began 'odeka, 'Adonai ki . . ."I thank you, O Lord, because . . ." - because you have chosen me, given me knowledge, enabled me to praise you with the angels. . . .

In other texts that I worked on, we have the first evidence that a particular form of prayer, the blessing formulary, baruk 'ata 'Adonai . . . / "Blessed are you, O Lord" was being developed, was already in use, at the time of Jesus. This language of praying is distinctive of the Jewish Siddur (prayer book) today, and you'll recognize it in our Mass in the prayer at the preparation of the gifts "Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation."


I am often asked what it has been like for me to work on this material. These days there is much tighter control, a greater concern for preservation, but in the 1980s when I began, we could spread out the fragments, handle the material, try to make new joins of little pieces in this vast jigsaw-like puzzle.

I was aware that some of these pieces of leather were being tanned, the ink was mixed at the time when Jesus lived and walked on earth. I think I came to know something of the mystery of the Incarnation: that to be human means that Jesus lived in a particular time and place, a member of the Jewish people.

But there is another side of research, one that I have struggled with all my life. Scholarship takes long hours, often working in isolation, writing an article that maybe only a few dozen others will read and hopefully build on, to achieve just a bit better understanding of a difficult text. What is the justification when there are people to be fed, the poor to be cared for, when there is a need for structural societal change?


I take heart from the fact that our Catholic tradition has always valued and found a place for the intellectual life. Ever since the encyclical in 1943, Divino Afflante Spiritu, the popes have called for the study of the ancient world, recognizing the need (to quote from Pius XII) for "the study of history, archeology, ethnology and other sciences" to help us understand the Bible.

I am convinced that this tradition must not be lost, even as recently as there have been calls for a more spiritual, theological reading of Scripture and a renewed study of the rich patristic heritage. I do believe that I have learned something about the search for God precisely through my studies.

As the Dominican scholar, Simon Tugwell, once put it: "The discipline of fidelity to God is essentially like the discipline of scholarship: both involve a patient and humble readiness to face the evidence."

Since we are reflecting tonight on Scripture and discipleship, I would like to close by leaving you with three passages to think about.

Perhaps these might seem a bit unusual, even idiosyncratic choices - but each has been meaningful to me, as I struggle with my own call and its challenges, acutely aware of my limitations and where I have fallen short, but increasingly aware of the depth of and hiddenness of the divine mystery beyond all human activity and knowledge.

Perhaps one of these texts or figures will elicit some response in you or shed a bit of light on something in your own life:

First, and fittingly in this Advent season, I want to call to mind the Three Wise Men. I am going to quote from Evelyn Waugh, a British novelist. Some of you might know him from his more famous work, Brideshead Revisited.


Waugh wrote a short novel about St. Helena, the mother of Constantine, and according to tradition, the discoverer of the True Cross. Helena had been a part of the turmoil and chaos of the late Roman Empire and the search for truth in that complex world.

In this passage, she makes a comparison between the Wise Men and their long journey and the more simple, spontaneous response of the shepherds. She addresses the Wise Men:

"You were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before, even the cattle. How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts! Yet you came and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger . . .


How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot!

How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot!

"You are my especial patrons, and patrons of all latecomers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.

"For his sake who did not reject your curious gifts, Pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom."


The Wise Men and the shepherds - such different models of discipleship. Yet both are needed in our world and in our Church, and both find a place at the manger.

The second passage that has been a great source of consolation to me is from the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 14 - just before the Passion narrative. Now this is a story that is told in quite different ways in each of the Gospels. We could spend all evening here if I get started with exegesis on these complex and wonderful traditions, but I'll refrain.

In Mark's Gospel, Jesus is in the house of Simon in Bethany when a woman enters with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment. She comes to Jesus and anoints his feet.

When she is criticized for not giving the money to the poor, Jesus defends her, saying, "She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial" (Mark 14.8).

"She has done what she could." The text does not say "she has done everything . . . she has done all that needs to be done . . . she has done what the others are doing;" only "She has done what she could."


Finally, in this Advent season, let us close with a verse from the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 45.15: "Truly you are a God who hides yourself, O God of Israel, the Saviour."

Advent is the season of light, of revelation. We contemplate the disclosure of God's love in the infant child. We profess that the one whom the prophets announced has indeed come, is here, is visible, to be known in time and in history.

But we also remember that the God whom we come to know in Christ Jesus remains the God of mystery and unfathomable depth, the hidden God, who dwells in unapproachable light, until that day when we meet face to face.


So I conclude this evening, with words from St. Thomas Aquinas, to pray for all of us, individually and communally:

Grant us, O Lord, a mind to know you, a heart to seek you, wisdom to find you, conduct pleasing to you, faithful perseverance in waiting for you, and the hope of finally embracing you. Amen.