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May the Angels Lead Her Into Paradise: Remembering Ann O.

October 16, 2014

I was saddened to learn of the recent death of Ann Olivier from a lovely eulogy at Commonweal. Although we had fallen out of touch, Ann was a very significant influence during my years of self-directed theological study leading up to graduate school.

I first met Ann online in the autumn of 2004 when I joined the VaticanII-Documents group on Yahoo, which was beginning a round of detailed reading and group study of the council documents by email. It was a very large group, but Ann O., as she always signed herself, was one of the more frequent and substantive commenters, and I soon began to look for her contributions in particular. She was a generation older than I am, and hearing about her experience with the pre-conciliar church and the changes that resulted from the council was a real gift. She also brought the training and perspective from her PhD in philosophy into our theological discussion of the documents.

What I particularly remember about Ann’s participation in the group is that, while she often had strong opinions which she expressed spiritedly, she seemed to do so almost always without ego. I never got the sense that she took criticism of her opinions or arguments as a personal attack. The word that comes to mind is dispassionate, except that she wasn’t! She had a lively curiosity, and was always willing to wonder, to ask questions, and to follow the implications of an idea no matter where they led.

I dropped out of the group after a little over a year (partway through Lumen Gentium — I still regret not having gotten to do the close read of Dei Verbum or Gaudium et Spes with that group), but I had already started emailing with Ann and a couple of other women from the group offlist. We formed our own little email group for a while, discussing various theological and spiritual themes that interested us from our varied backgrounds and perspectives. This included the time when I was deciding, applying, and preparing to go to grad school for theology, and all three of these women were tremendously helpful and supportive of me during that process.

As I recall, Ann and I were both particularly interested in language, how language functioned liturgically and theologically and symbolically. She introduced me to the work of Wittgenstein (ever so slightly) and Lonergan (more seriously), so that when I encountered them in grad school, we were already acquaintances. As it turned out, my master’s thesis engaged with ecclesiologists who had been strongly influenced by Lonergan, and one theologian who correlated Lonergan with Girard.

My particular gift from Ann as I was preparing for grad school was twofold. First, she strongly recommended that I read a book called How to Read a Book.

“Ann,” I said. “I’ve been a voracious reader since I was four years old. Surely I know how to read a book by now!” But she was adamant that I would find it helpful, because I had expressed concern about the culture shock and other difficulties I might experience moving from the sciences to the humanities. And she was quite right: it was very helpful, especially as I transitioned out of the self-directed theological reading I’d been doing for a couple of years, during which I had been reading everything that interested me as fast as I could looking for the pieces that would “click,” that would fit, that would seem right. Reading this book helped me understand that although I was reading extensively, I had not been reading critically, and that this would be a critical (ahem) skill in grad school. (Science majors don’t do critical reading in college; we do math instead. Lots and lots of math!)

She also persuaded me to… to… to start writing… in my books. :gasp!: Words cannot convey the depths of horror with which I greeted this suggestion. Write in my books?? Write in my books??!! Blasphemy!! I was brought up better than that! Books are for reading, not for writing in! Only barbarians write in books! I… I… I don’t think I could!

But she kept encouraging me to do it, insisting that it was an invaluable way to really engage with ideas of a text, to have conversations with the author in the margins. She said I could use a mechanical pencil, because it had the finest point. I really respected her opinions, so I dubiously agreed to try it… once… in this book she thought I should read.

And sure enough, she was right. I started out by making little notations, question marks, exclamation points, asterisks. My marginal comments gradually expanded. I started circling key words; bracketing key phrases; and ended up by drawing all over the page to connect the key ideas to each other! I was a convert. To this day, when I’m deciding between hardcopy or ebook, I’ll buy the hardcopy if I will need to really engage with the text, so I can write in it. Without Ann, I would never have known the joy (and it is a joy) of arguing with authors in the margins. 🙂

We lost touch not long after I started school, but I have always remembered her with fondness and gratitude. I would occasionally come across a comment from her in the Catholic blogosphere and once again appreciate her clarity and perspective. And I still, often, think of her when I pick up a pencil to write in my books.

They say that when someone dies, while we who have lost them are mourning that they’re leaving us, the great cloud of witnesses in heaven are rejoicing, Here she comes!! I’m confident that Ann is gathered with the saints at the river, deep in spirited conversation by the river that flows by the throne of God.

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