By Ilia Delio. Orbis Books, 2019. 240 pages. $24/paperback; $19.50/eBook.
Over the last 20 years, Ilia Delio has written books about God, Christ, evolution, technology, St. Francis, cosmology, Clare of Assisi, cyborgs, St. Bonaventure, and artificial intelligence. If that list seems scattered, you haven’t met Ilia Delio. She is writing about one universal catholic faith: a faith that embraces all physical and spiritual reality.
Delio’s memoir, Birth of a Dancing Star, traces her life’s trajectory through science and religion. As a rather ambitious Italian American teenager in the 1970s, Denise (even before she was Ilia) was a bit of a troublemaker. She wanted to be a doctor while also wanting “to have fun, play music, and never work too hard.” But, “all of a sudden, I felt the power of God’s love invade me.” That divine invasion could not be ignored, although she did try. “I controlled the tiny inner flame of divine love by putting a lid on it, making a conscious effort to ignore it, hoping it would disappear.”
With nose to the proverbial grindstone, she proved herself an able researcher, eventually earning a doctorate in pharmacology and hoping, as she puts it, to cure a major disease and win a Nobel Prize. But then, to the surprise of most, she entered a Carmelite monastery, becoming Sister Teresa Ilia (feminine of Elijah). Her doctoral diploma was delivered to the monastery in a plain paper bag and eventually buried—along with her bachelor’s and master’s degree documents—under the altar as a sign of leaving “the world.” (Don’t worry; the altar was movable, the documents recovered, and she has never left “the world.”)
Delio loved the rhythm of monastic life but also found it cold, tiring, and bereft of friendships. She felt a call to prophecy, and she joined a Franciscan community while doing postdoctoral research at Rutgers. She wore her nun’s habit to the lab while studying mercury poisoning and shared her stories of dead lab rats with the sisters in the evening.
Over time, she left behind this life too and began a second doctorate, this time in theology. For Delio, “Studying theology was like being a fish who had found an ocean of water.” In Franciscan thought and in the work of the scientist/theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Delio found a unifying view of science and faith, creation, and incarnation: “science and religion were not opposite or separate areas of inquiry . . . because they were . . . two ways of knowing the one world.”
Evolution formed the core of this vision because it was at the core of the universe itself. “Evolution is not a theory for discussion; it is (and has been for over a century) the best scientific description of unfolding life . . . .” As humans, we participate in this process of change. We take part in the unfolding of the universe.
As her way of understanding God changed, Delio changed as well. She took off the nun’s habit. She took off her heterosexual identity as well. She left her community and, at age 50, entered a secular world that included such novel faith experiences as mortgages, taxes, and establishing credit. Out of her own experience of change, she “stopped asking God when things would settle down because I came to realize that religious life is like a Sunday Italian dinner with the relatives.”
In contrast to this creative chaos, Delio finds the Catholic Church static and defensive, unable to embrace evolution as the way that God creates both body and soul. The Church refuses to recognize the lesson of reality: that “stability lies in change, not in remaining the same.” To become “catholic,” not in doctrine but in the sense of universality, the church must embrace a more cosmic vision of incarnation: of the emerging wholeness being born through the creative process incarnate in the universe itself.
There’s much more in this short memoir about technology, artificial intelligence, becoming Christian cyborgs, and more—and also about divine love, the inner flame that burned in Delio’s heart and would not be extinguished.
If you’ve read Delio’s books or have an interest in science and faith, you’re likely to find her journey fascinating. If you have a love/hate relationship with religious institutions, you’re likely to find her struggles familiar. If you’re a fan of Quaker journals, well, here’s a good Catholic example. After all, this is a story of discernment, of following the Inner Guide, testing Truth through experience, and testifying against empty forms. This is a book about evolution and continuing revelation: about God’s love as the driving force of change in our hearts, and in the stars.
Rob Pierson is a novice cyborg (well, I wear glasses) and Quaker, a systems engineer, a graduate of the Earlham School of Religion, and a member of Albuquerque (N.M.) Meeting.