Faces of Faith: A judge speaks from the heart
(POSTED: 2/11/13) Charles Reynard, who considers himself a practicing Roman Catholic, has served as a circuit court judge in Illinois for the last 10 years. He’s a former state’s attorney of McLean County and previously practiced law for several years, including a brief stint in Chicago.
Reynard is also a poet and co-authored with his wife Judith Valente “Twenty Poems to Nourish Your Soul,” a collection of work that reflects themes of spirituality.
An Indianapolis native, Reynard attended Catholic schools from second grade on through law school. Now a resident of the Bloomington-Normal area, Reynard spoke over the phone with ChicagoCatholicNews.com about his faith and how it plays a role in the courtroom. Below is an edited transcript.
Were you raised Catholic?
My first six years I suppose I would have been Presbyterian, if anything at all. . . . By the time I was in first grade, my folks had divorced and when my mother moved into a different neighborhood, I met a young fellow my age who was attending St. Joan of Arc. We became best friends and I said, “Mom, I want to go to school with Mike.” That’s how I became enrolled. . . . [My mother] had fallen away from the faith and she saw that as a sign that she should return. So that’s how I became a Catholic.
What impact did the Catholic schools have on you?
I remember somebody giving me the line one time, and it usually gets a lot of laughs, that my Catholic education allowed me to function perfectly in the middle of the 15th century. The reality is my Catholic education after a few years, perhaps by the time I was in high school, was beginning to fade in terms of my fidelity to the religious faith. After college . . . I became inactive. I never neglected to consider myself Catholic but I didn’t practice. Then in the late ‘70s, I came back, in a manner of speaking, to [John Paul II Catholic Newman Center] at the campus of Illinois State University and was a much more regular practitioner of the Catholic faith, but it was a fairly open-minded brand of Catholicism, which was not favored by the then-bishop of the Diocese of Peoria, so there were struggles then with the hierarchy.
What sorts of struggles?
In general, I have a lot of concerns about the debilitating influence of the hierarchical church. I am just mortified at the ongoing character of the clergy abuse scandal, which just is not going away because of the chronic “ostrich in the sand” approach that the bishops have taken and that hypocrisy just confounds me to no end. I am also concerned that over half of the Catholic population is ineligible for the . . . priesthood.
I think so much of that ideological approach to religion is alienating and my faith is much more focused on the one-to-one relationships that help us connect with the rest of the human community, instead of those things that divide us.
What makes you stay Catholic?
The essential mystery of the Eucharist, which keeps me coming back. The meal that the Christian community practices within the Catholic tradition has a miraculous influence on me. I think it’s a very authentic part of the Catholic tradition and I participate in communion. My wife is considerably more devoted . . . and we do attend [Mass], and I get a sense of meaning from that experience with her.
In what ways does your faith play a role in the courtroom?
I think it has a daily, minute-to-minute influence on my courtroom work. My courtroom work sensitizes and positively influences my faith as well. Several years ago [my wife] was reading [Thomas] Merton and handed me a piece from his journals that is most famously referred to as his “Louisville epiphany.” I read that and was very moved by it and realized that before I had read that, only a few weeks before, I had a similar experience on the bench. His epiphany was coming to Louisville. . . . He was in downtown Louisville and it was a chaotic experience. Here was a man who . . . hadn’t been out of the monastery in maybe about a decade. . . . He was completely struck with the street chaos and the excitement and all of this humanity with whom he had this deeply felt connection in which he characterized them as being a part of him and he a part of them. He realized at that point that there was a role and a life outside of the monastery, which was as every bit as essential to human development as the monastery. . . . It was not really as profound as that, but in the courtroom, it was a Friday, and I was looking at the lawyers and the defendants and visitors in the courtroom. I came in quietly; my clerk didn’t even announce me and nobody really even noticed me. . . . People were doing business . . . and I noticed them talking and the anxiety on the faces, and it was a very emotional moment when I felt connected to all of them. . . .
It’s reality that we are all part of this much larger existence and it’s important for us to function that way and pay attention to each other. There’s a poem that my wife introduced me to . . . called “The Summer Day” [by Mary Oliver]. . . . [Oliver is] relating how she is studying a grasshopper on the palm of her hand on a sunny afternoon in the summertime, paying very, very close attention to it. In the middle of the poem, she says I don’t actually know how to pray, but I do know how to pay attention. . . . She articulates an equation between prayer and paying attention – the kind of totally selfless attentiveness that connects us to each other. I try to recover that frame of reference whenever I am in a contentious courtroom battle.
So you try to really focus on the listening component?
I think that’s probably the most important thing that I can do to be an effective judge. A good judge is a good listener — to be there for people who want and need to be heard. And I find that to be a very prayerful experience. To be able to know and hopefully let them know that I heard what they had to say. Pain is the main narrative that comes into the courthouse. There are not too many happy narratives that come into the courtroom. If I can make that connection, that I’ve heard and they know I’ve heard, . . . it’s almost a divine experience because were are connecting not merely as humans, who biologically appear by all accounts as separate creatures, but when we connect at that level of hearing and being heard, the realization is that we are actually attached.
Does your religion affect the way in which you decide cases?
I would confess no. . . . My faith counsels me to remain open and to listen. And as a process that enables me to contribute humanity to the interactions that go on in the courtroom. I’d say that’s very close to, if not one and the same, with a religious experience. I suppose it’s not religion in the sense of a system of beliefs. It’s the prayer of paying attention, not the prayer of petition to some god that is above us in the clouds.
How does your faith relate to your poetry?
I do think there is another equation between poetic discipline and prayer. Poetic discipline is a very focused sense of being attentive to the details. Mary Oliver looks at this grasshopper in her hand and doesn’t immediately shriek in fear and throw it away . . . but she notices the jaw and the way they work and the mini eyes, and there’s a patience to that. . . .
Poetry has sharpened my attentiveness. I guess it shouldn’t be particularly surprising that I write about courtroom subjects from time to time. I don’t write about very many grasshoppers, but I do write about folks I meet in the courtroom so there’s an interchange there. My poetry focuses my prayer life and my paying attention improves my working with the incredibly challenging scenarios that walk into those courtroom doors. So it’s a circular feeding frenzy. I feel very special about it.
Faces of Faith is an occasional feature on ChicagoCatholicNews.com. This interview was conducted by Katie Drews. To contact her, email email@example.com.