Spiritual Life: 'Ramah' Voices Pain, Rage - and Hope

By Rich Barlow
Boston Globe
April 19, 2003

What could Easter, the joyous pinnacle of the Christian year, possibly have to do with the sordid stories of sexual abuse by Catholic priests?

The answer starts with a simple stage in a church basement, two stools flanking a crude table of branches in front of a cloth backdrop of navy, sky blue, and gold. The choir is as soothing as the setting, in tone and lyrics:

"Nothing can trouble, nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting."

The song comes near the end of "A Cry Heard at Ramah," a stage work mingling dance, live and recorded music, and readings from the Bible and Catholic documents. The work was written and performed twice during Lent by congregants at St. Paul Church near Harvard Square. An effort by devout Catholics to wrestle with the clergy sexual abuse scandal, it could not have come at a better time.

For Christians, Easter heralds redemption, the salvation of humanity through the resurrection of Jesus. St. Paul's parishioners conceived a dramatic presentation that grieves for the abuse victims and rages at those who allowed it to happen. But as that choir song shows, it also holds out the hope of redemption and renewal of the church.

With "A Cry Heard at Ramah," the scandal has outgrown the reportage of journalism to become the meditation of art.

"Ramah" was written by Carol Menkiti, 64, a former teacher and a housewife. Like many fervent religious soldiers, Menkiti was not drafted into Catholicism as a child, but enlisted as an adult. She converted 10 years ago after attending church for two decades with her Catholic husband and their four children, whom she schooled at home. Shattered as revelations of abuse sprayed non-stop across the media, she responded by devouring every bit of information she could find - every news story, every response from the pulpit to the mushrooming disaster.

She felt the need to collect and write down relevant Biblical passages.

"I just love the Scriptures," she said. "They speak so well to so much."

Simultaneously, pieces of music came to her, from Gospel to Gregorian chants. Originally intending only to address "my own struggle with the faith, the urgency, and how to deal with all this," she showed what she'd put together to St. Paul's newly formed artists group.

"Originally, the thought was to do a calendar" of the church year as the group's first project, said parishioner George Bard. Instead, they opted for the weightier task of producing Menkiti's sobering, uplifting drama. Bard and Mica Knapp assumed producer duties, with Knapp designing the spartan set and Bard helping to coordinate the music and lighting effects.

It was not just a simple case of casting calls and rehearsals. "A Cry Heard at Ramah" includes scenes with an actor representing a real-life victim of clergy abuse whose own words, drawn from media accounts, are used. The actor, clean-cut and in a suit, describes the priest inviting him as a boy to his room. The words are painful to hear, even two Easters into the scandal.

Menkiti had to navigate sensitively among psyches frayed by abuse. While this particular victim, Mark Serrano, agreed to have his name and story included, some people felt using victims' own words was exploitative, and some asked that theirs not be used.

There was also criticism that the artists group was shilling as apologists for the church. Yet "Ramah" is hardly forgive-and-forget escapism. The foundation of dark sorrow is laid with the title. Ramah, a village near Jerusalem, is said in the Old Testament to be the burial place of Rachel, a matriarch of Israel. Jeremiah wrote that she cried from the grave for "her children," her descendants in the northern tribes of Israel who were destroyed by the Assyrians in 721 BC. In the New Testament, Matthew's Gospel says Jeremiah's passage is fulfilled when King Herod massacres boys near Bethlehem in his hunt for the infant Jesus.

History-minded Catholics knew before the scandal that their church was capable of grievous human flaws (hawking the equivalent of get-out-of-purgatory cards and other misdeeds fueled the Reformation, after all). What intrigued Menkiti as she conceived "Ramah" were the church writings acknowledging that possibility and demanding remedy. Many she incorporated into the script, in which lone lectors often face the audience and read. In one instance, a reader recites from a Vatican II document that says, "Christ summons the Church as she goes her pilgrim way to that continual reformation of which she always has need, insofar as she is an institution of men here on earth."

The set for "Ramah" came down early this Holy Week, which culminates tomorrow in Easter and its message of renewal. Some feared the rout of Christ's movement with his execution two millennia ago; today, almost one-third of the world's population is Christian. That faith may survive sin and setback is something some Catholics at one Cambridge church are praying for this holiday.

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 4/19/2003.


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