“An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.”
— Abraham Joshua Heschel
Wednesday night I woke from a deeply disturbing nightmare. My mom was shot and killed. She was right outside our house, the house I grew up in, checking to see what a stranger wanted. It was late at night and I’d wanted to stop her, to tell her to let my dog run out first with her snarling bark that usually annoys me but every once in a while helps me feel safe. But Mom is too hospitable for such things. Somehow, instead, I was still upstairs, looking out the bathroom window onto the scene as it happened.
When I woke, my feet were icy and tingling, the way they get when a bad dream has chilled me to the bone. My mind returned to what had initially kept me from falling asleep in the first place. Just before bed, my husband and I had read about the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Fourteen people were killed and 21 injured at a center for people with mental disabilities who were in the midst of a holiday party.
I am so heartbroken and bewildered. Why did this happen? How must the surviving loved ones be feeling? How terrifying and devastating for all those present. I’m struggling with this tragedy, not only for its own sake, but also because of the tragedies it recalls. I have read that this is the largest mass shooting in the U.S. since the horrific event at Sandy Hook Elementary three years ago. More troubling still, this is the 355th documented mass shooting in the U.S. for this year alone. And surrounding all of this is the ongoing refugee crisis, terrorist outbursts in Iraq, Kenya, Paris and elsewhere; the innumerable wars and pseudo wars wreaking havoc on the lives of men, women and children.
Dwelling on all this I am filled with despair, outrage and, reluctant as I am to admit it, fear. However, what I am afraid of is not a terrorist attack. Nor do I dwell on being caught up in the violent outburst of a mentally deranged person. And certainly not dread of foreign invasion. I’m afraid of a tendency I’ve noticed to consider purveyors of violence “outsiders.” I am afraid of a general lack of willingness to look in the mirror and recognize that the violence erupting in schools and churches, in city streets and now even in a residential home, are not about the “other,” they are about us; you and me, as individuals and as part of a community and country. Each of these acts are awful opportunities to examine our culture and ask how and why it compels and enables such violence. Yet, again and again, that opportunity is passed over and we are left with only sorrow, rage and despair at the devastating destruction of precious lives.
Most of my heart, however, is consumed by the fullness of my womb, filtering everything through the lens of an expectant mother. When I was at this place of unborn fullness with my son Eli, who will soon be two, a friend asked if I was not afraid to bring a child into this world. At the time I said no, I was not afraid. What I didn’t realize then is that being a parent would in fact cause me to be more concerned for safety, more aware of danger, more sensitive to the precarity of life.
There were many nights when I would contemplate horrifying scenarios that would end with either one or all of us dead. I would consider how absurd it is that I should expect and feel entitled to safety in my home when so many others live without it, when so many whose lives are taken had no part in inviting such violence. However, I continue to see participating in creating and nurturing life (whether through pregnancy and parenting, art, activism or other means) as the greatest act of hope, of love, of resistance to violence and despair that we can offer this world. And so I pray that fear never be what stops me from sharing in such acts.
And this brings me back to the dream. I was troubled by the dream not only because of Mom’s death, but because of where I stood as it happened. I remained removed, hiding within the walls of our house, hiding behind my dog’s ability to intimidate. It is my mom, in this dream, who is the one stepping out in an act of love. I don’t consider myself to be in the wrong for having been afraid, but I am disturbed by my choice to follow fear and remove myself or drive away whatever or whoever triggered that fear.
Fear and anger have a place. They are important signals that tell us something is very wrong. But staring at the wrong does not lead us to what is right. I am grateful for the times that I have a visceral response to tragedy, for the times that I am still surprised by violence. I’m grateful because it means in that moment I am living outside of apathy and inside communion with living beings. However, if I become overwhelmed with anger or fear, judgment or disgust, I try to redirect those feelings toward grief. Turning to mourning allows sadness to soften and open my heart, creating a pathway for the grace and wisdom of the Spirit to enter in and do it’s healing, guiding work.
There is a piece to this dream I failed to recount initially. As I am standing at the window, I am aware also of the presence of a few of my friends from Witness Against Torture who (in reality and in the dream) had just returned from Cuba. In the dream I am vaguely aware that they too have tried to get Mom’s attention, tried to ask her to wait. They, however, are not asking her to wait so they can send out the dog, but so that they can go with her.
An American Dream was originally published by Amy Nee in her blog, Amy the Show.
Note to the reader: throughout this piece there are links that have been attached to statements and ideas that I thought might require further explanation or that I would have liked to share more about but others have already collected the information more efficiently or articulately. If you are interested in or object to anything that was said, please feel free to follow the links for further exploration.
Additional note to readers from Sister Julia:
I recommend watching this video to learn a bit more about the recent fast and protest by Witness Against Torture activists in Cuba:
In today’s readings, John the Baptist is prodded past the point of despair through miraculous nourishment in the desert, St. Paul exhorts the church in Ephesus to be “imitators of Christ,” who, as Jesus iterates in the Gospel of John, is “the bread of life.” Meditating on these readings on August 9th 2015, I am moved by how poignantly they contrast to the events that happened on this same date, 70 years ago.
On August 9, 1945, the U.S. detonated their second nuclear bomb, “Fat Man,” on the heavily populated city of Nagasaki. An estimated 73,884 people were killed, another 74,909 continuing to labor under the misery of loss of health, land, resources and beloved friends, family and community. Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, brought home this seemingly distant tragedy, writing, “vaporized, our Japanese brothers [and sisters] – scattered, men, women and babies to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York, on our faces, feel them in the rain.”
In a new book, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War, Susan Southard further personalizes the story of those who suffered through and survived the massacre at Nagasaki by focusing on the lives of five Hibakusha (the name given to survivors of the bombings). She tells of Taniguchi Sumiteru who, at the time of detonation, was a 16-year old boy, riding his bicycle to deliver mail throughout the city. The bomb destroyed over three square miles of the city in which Taniguchi lived and worked. It was 17 months before he could sit up, having had the skin melted off his back and arms. Because of lying face-forward in bed so long, his chest too began to rot away. After four years Taniguchi was finally discharged from the hospital. As doctors and nurses did the excruciating work of repairing his body, he is reported to have cried out, “Kill me, kill me!” preferring to die than to endure the pain any longer.
As I read the lament of Elijah in the wilderness, “This is enough … take my life!” I hear the wails of young Taniguchi and those who thought it better to have died than survive the pain of their injuries or the turmoil of radiation sickness and cancer. Yet, just as Elijah was ordered to eat and endure for the sake of those who remain, so the Hibakusha, like Taniguchi, endured their bodily and emotional trauma and engaged with life that they might be representatives for those from whom life was irrevocably stolen.
Nuclear weapons, and the radiation they emit, wreak havoc on bodies, poison waterways, and seep into the soil, sowing seeds of destruction for generations. It is a death that strikes heavily and spreads deeply, infecting the sources of life for the present and the future. The U.S. is the only nation that has used nuclear weapons as an act of war and continues to be a leader in nuclear munitions and in further development of nuclear armament and technologies.
What then are we are called to as we approach the Presence who is revealed in the Word, in prayer, in the Eucharist? What are we called to if not to be bearers and sharers of that presence; to be bread for the hungry, to proffer nourishing life in resistance to a culture that cultivates death? St. Paul, notorious for his tendency toward convoluted prose, manages to write quite plainly and eloquently in his letter to the Ephesians:
“All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.
“And so be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love.”
This Christ, very much a man with all the fears and pains that accompany life within the flesh, willingly proclaimed himself as “the living bread that came down from heaven.” “The bread that I will give,” he said, “is my flesh for the life of the world.” In this, Jesus fully acknowledges that to give bread for the nourishment of life in the world would come at a personal cost and he was willing to give it, sacrificing even his own life.
What does it mean to be followers of one who rejects self-preservation, one who would choose that his own body be broken, his own flesh be consumed for the sake of giving life to others, rather than ever being an instrument of harm?
On August 6, 1985, in a radio message to the people of Japan, Pope John Paul II said of Hiroshima and Nagasaki,
“Such a tragic destiny is not inevitable. It can and must be avoided. Our world needs to regain confidence in its capacity to choose moral good over evil … One must affirm and reaffirm, again and again, that the waging of war is not inevitable or unchangeable.”
Elijah, after being roused from despair, continued to be a prophetic voice in the name of God. The Hibakusha bore the trauma of horrific wounds and unhealable memories and went on to be a voice for those who lost their lives as well as a healing presence for those who survived. Jesus overcame death by willingly accepting it so that we all might discover the way to peace and to life abundant.
How do we walk on amidst these truths? For today, I sit in prayer with the presence of the Spirit; I hold the generations who suffer from reckless, destructive war-making—as well as those who suffer from my own careless interactions and complicity in social evils—in my heart. I ask that I might be transformed and become a true image-bearer of the compassionate, forgiving, nourishing, healing Christ.
I have asked my good friend and occasional Messy Jesus Business contributor, Amy Nee-Walker, to share her perspective on the recent events in Baltimore for our readers this week. Amy and her husband Ted presently live in the Jonah House community in Baltimore with their one-year-old son. Here are her responses to my questions.
What would you want young people to learn from the events in Baltimore in the past week?
“Observe without judgment” is a phrase commonly used in meditation. One is asked to observe–while withholding judgment–his or her own self: thoughts that run through the mind, sensations being experienced within the body, feelings rising to the surface. It is only through observing without judgment that we can begin to have a truer, fuller sense of what is happening and attain a state of peace and wholeness in body, mind and spirit.
I would like for myself, and others–young, old and in-between–to take hold of this concept and to extend it beyond the self. What I want people to learn about what has been unfolding this past week in Baltimore is not exact. I am still in the process of trying to understand and sort it out and respond appropriately myself. But I think, if nothing else, I want people to look and to listen and to do this without judgment. I want people to learn to not just perceive what is happening but also to seek to discover why it is happening; not stopping at the easy answer that some news outlet, or peer, or even parent, is waiting to feed you. If you can begin by observing without judgment, you will learn to ask questions that don’t have assumed answers already attached.
In terms of asking the deeper question, I would also like to share some words from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Beyond Vietnam” speech. Words that my husband Ted and I were recently reminded of and have continued to contemplate as events unfold:
As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent…
… I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
It is my view that these triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are the deep and wide-reaching roots that are fueling violence, not just here in Baltimore but throughout the country and the world. That is something I would like people to examine in their own lives and communities as I intend to examine it in my own.
What do you think the rest of the world doesn’t know about Baltimore?
Having lived only a year and a half in this city, there’s a lot that I don’t know about Baltimore! Living here has been a continual educational journey. This is a city with a very complicated past and present. I wonder whether the rest of the world knows that preceding the death of Freddie Gray, the Baltimore City Police Commissioner and the Department of Justice were in the midst of an investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department. In 2014, The Baltimore Sun released a long-researched exposé outlining cases of police brutality in Baltimore. Attorney Bill Quigley sums up that report well in two sentences. “Over $5.7 million has been paid out by Baltimore since 2011 in over 100 police brutality lawsuits. Victims of severe police brutality were mostly people of color and included a pregnant woman, a 65-year-old church deacon, children, and an 87-year-old grandmother.”
For those who wonder why there is so much tension between protesters and police, I hope this shines some light. For those who think the only reason someone might resist arrest is because they are a criminal, I hope this helps them begin to realize there are times when people evade police not because they are afraid of getting caught in wrongdoing, but because they are afraid for their life.
But I also think the world does not know enough about the positive, creative ways that people are trying to take back their streets from the rioters who trashed them, the wayward pockets of police who torment them and the political leaders who frankly didn’t seem to give a damn about this particular neighborhood until it hit national news. First of all, most of those taking action are advocating for peace and collaboration–some who want to have the opportunity to mourn and grieve for the loss of their friend, son, and brother–Freddie Gray. And there are many who want to both confront the oppression they have experienced for generations as well as show there is more to this city, and more to these neglected neighborhoods, than crime and destitution.
What do you love about Baltimore?
One of the things I love about Baltimore is how easily identifiable it is as a city, it is itself and nowhere else (unless you go to the inner harbor which, sadly, has become a cookie-cutter middle class shopping district with the usual chain stores and restaurants). The city strikes an awkward balance between crowded row houses and expansive green parks and forest space. It is teaming with locally-owned businesses, a love of fried fish and crabs, pockets of incredible historical sites that include civil war memorials as well as the birth places of Billie Holiday and Edgar Allen Poe. And there are many community-based initiatives from planting trees and community gardens, to providing after-school activities, to street festivals and art fairs.
But more than that, I have been so moved by the hospitality, kindness and humor of the people we have encountered. We help with food distribution for those needing grocery supplements, and though the people come here in deep need they also come with great patience as we bumble our way through the long line of recipients. They come with a generous interest in us and a concern for one another; sharing when they’ve been given more than they need, bringing things back for neighbors and friends who couldn’t make it down themselves due to illness or other impediments.
When I was pregnant with my son, Eli, we were on WIC; a food assistance program for pregnant mothers and infants. It is a wonderful program but can be complicated when it comes to shopping. More than once a long line would form behind me as the cashier examined my grocery selection and compared it to the approved items on the WIC check. I would turn to the line that had formed behind me, mostly women, all African-American, blushing and apologizing. Not once did I get a rude or impatient comment; more often I would hear, “that’s all right Honey, we’ve all been there.” Similarly, when we started going to a local church where we turned out to be the only white people, we were afraid of being seen as interlopers. Instead, we were quickly and warmly embraced, invited to events and meetings and welcomed to return. Since his birth, our son has been cooed over and doted on wherever we go, even when he tackles the other children with his overly-enthusiastic hugs and kisses. “Don’t worry about that,” one mother said to me. “That just shows he’s loved and loving.”
These are not aspects of Baltimore likely to be recognized by folks who drop by the Inner Harbor for seafood, or who have formed all their ideas of the west side of the city (where we live) through watching The Wire, but to a young mother and new folks in town, it means the world.
What’s the story the media isn’t covering?
I think we can agree that the media loves bad news. For some reason, bad news is what gets a majority of us to tune in. Because of that, most of the reports on what’s happening in Baltimore, beginning with Saturday’s largely peaceful demonstration, flash images of smashed cars, burning buildings, looting stores. In fact, when everything is calm or when groups are gathering for prayer or just standing and talking, even “live” reports will flash back to images from earlier in the week that are more dramatic and scintillating. I don’t want to indicate that the damage done has not been real and impactful. Many of the people who came to our food pantry the day after Monday’s riots were saddened and frustrated by the damage done to their streets and businesses. One man commented that he doesn’t know where he will get his elderly mother’s medication now that all the nearby CVS stores have been looted and subsequently closed. Another said he lost his job, one of the few available in this area, because the building was burned down A friend reports that in their zip code, unemployment is at 50 percent (8.4 percent city wide). Several of the men commented that they didn’t leave their houses, not because they were afraid they would get hurt in the riot, but because they were afraid of being accused of participating in it just by stepping outside.
But there is so much more happening! Because schools were closed, the high school drumline (which we hear practicing almost daily from our house) marched through the streets with the school’s cheerleaders dancing before them. Churches held outdoor prayer services (some in front of their own buildings, others surrounding those places that had been burned down), seeking to bring healing to a traumatized space. Local clergy are meeting with local gangs, discussing ways of reaching out to the community and beginning to work together to seek not just calm but real enduring peace. Throughout the week our local Josephite church, Peter Claver, has been a hub for organizing–to meet the needs of people lacking food or other resources, to help with neighborhood clean up and to engage in the more long-term work of confronting social structures which are precariously imbalanced.
How has living the Gospel been a messy experience for you in the last week of your life?
Probably that hardest thing for me living in the midst of Baltimore’s present turmoil has been fielding the reactions of those who live outside of it. I guess that belies my privilege in that, because I have a car, I am not cut off from access to food, toiletries, or medications when drug stores and convenience stores in the neighborhood are burnt down. And frankly, because I am white, I am not afraid of being falsely accused of participating in destructive actions or being badgered or beaten by law enforcement.
What I do struggle with (as someone with a network of friends and family who have widely disparate takes on world events as well as philosophies of right living) is trying to bring a balanced perspective and to reveal what may otherwise go unseen. I think those who very sincerely and understandably want to be on the side of the oppressed are quick to rationalize and validate any actions. This is also true of certain forms of violence (such as property destruction)– long-suppressed reactions from people who have experienced many painful forms of violence throughout their entire life–even the lives of the generations preceding them. On the other hand, there are those who want, without question, to dismiss and criticize any behavior that is disruptive, uncomfortable or that defies their sense of what is appropriate. They are quick to have a scathing review of unruly protesters yet are ready to ignore the economic and social violence that has been far more enduring and harmful to peoples’ lives.
I find myself truly challenged to live my own exhortation to “observe without judgment.” I am challenged to observe what is happening on the streets, first with curiosity and compassion, before slipping into criticism and assumptions whether I am observing protesters, police or politicians. I am also, and perhaps all the more so, challenged to observe the comments and viewpoints of others that are pouring in with patience and humility, looking to the Spirit to help form my response and not simply relying on my reactive feelings. This is a struggle for me as I feel very deeply the turmoil of my community (even as I am aware of my own status as somewhat of an outsider); tucked away in this 22 acre-cemetery of which we are stewards, where the sounds of helicopters and sirens compete with the song of birds enjoying the shade of our blossoming apple trees.
I am coming to a point where I find the need to quiet my own roiling thoughts and emotions, my fast-forming opinions and judgments. Coming to a place of inner stillness, I ask myself to imagine “Where is Jesus in all of this?” With that question, lines of police in riot gear melt away, a disinterested mayor takes the backseat, burning buildings fizzle out. With the question comes tears: tears of a devastated mother who lost her only son, a mother who is representative of many and yet who is deeply immersed in her own very real and individual loss; tears of Jesus as he holds her grief-stricken body in his own wounded arms and mourns a multitude of violent deaths and broken hearts and the loss of even one precious child.
“Eternal God…You know that these men have testified falsely against me. Would you let me die, though I am not guilty of all their malicious charges?”
This week the daily mass readings begin with the cry of Susannah, unjustly accused by corrupt officials, sentenced to death in the presence of the people. We read that God hears her. But Susannah is not saved by a bolt of lightning striking down her foes, or by being mysteriously transported to safety. God arouses the Holy Spirit stirring a “young lad,” Daniel, a witness in a crowd of impassive witnesses, and this small person shouts, “I will have no part in the death of this woman!”
People in the crowd are startled. Many had been grieved by the proceedings, but this was out of their hands, the elders, the leaders had decided. Yet here is this stirring, “What did you say?” they ask.
And Daniel says to the people, “Have you become fools, you Israelites, to condemn a daughter of Israel without due process and in the absence of clear evidence?”
In this story, the people respond, turning the tables by turning the accusers over for questioning. It is now they who must prove their case, which they fail to do. So Susannah is delivered, back to her family, and the accusers take her place in receiving the full penalty of the law.
I am struck by how clearly this story illustrates that God moves by moving people. Would this providential delivery have been possible had Daniel not responded to the spirit stirring him to speak? What if the people had not listened? What does all of this mean for us in our time?
Hearing this story for the first time, my thoughts immediately went to an outcry that is currently falling on deaf ears. There are 166 men being held at Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba. They are held there without due process, accused in the absence of clear evidence. Their detention is indefinite, a torturous reality. Adding insult to injury, the sacred texts of these men of faith are being tampered with and desecrated, letters from their wives and children are censored or withheld. At Guantanamo, more men have died (9) than have been convicted of a crime (6). The men are experiencing a living death, confined to their tomb until the day that their corpse can be released to their family without fear that it will speak of what it has suffered.
Yet the men there are finding ways to cry out, to God, to their captors, to this crowd of people in the United States, to us. They are using the only tool they have left, their own body, hunger striking. They are not demanding release, only humane treatment, just procedures.
As a woman of faith, I sense the Holy Spirit seeking to arouse a voice in the crowd. We are given the example of Daniel for a reason. God desires compassion and justice and these divine gifts come through people who respond. But what can we do, when the prisoners are not standing directly before us, when the crowd is not crushing about us?
We can still adopt and adapt Daniel’s words, “I will have no part in the death of these men,” “Have we become fools, to condemn men without due process and in the absence of clear evidence?” And we can find the crowds to speak it to, and draw a crowd to speak it with us.
Witness Against Torture (WAT), a group of men and women from across the United States, has been seeking an end to indefinite detention, due process and resettlement for those detained, and the closure of Guantanamo Bay detention center since 2005. Together we are responding to the hunger strikes with tangible actions. Beginning March 24th (Holy Week, for those in the Catholic tradition) we will hold a seven day solidarity fast. Throughout that week we encourage people to call the White House; send letters to the prisoners acknowledging that they have been heard by the public, even if officials have yet to respond; join us for vigils (see witnesstorture.org to find out if there are any happening in your city, or start your own); participate in the fast for a day or more; spread the news in any way you can.
Adnan Latif, a Muslim man who, after eleven years of detention, died at Guantanamo wrote a poignant poem in which he asks, “Who will save the hunger striker?” He died, without ever having been proved guilty of “all their malicious charges.” How many deaths before the cry is heard?
“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” – Isaiah 43:19
Last year, when I heard these words at the start of Lent I felt as though God was proclaiming them directly to me. Holding them in contemplation, I was met with another word: compost. At first I took it as an intrusive thought, but soon found it to be my mantra for Lent.
As I looked forward to what was new, I felt encouraged to see what had come before as compost. Not as garbage, but as something that was good and that will continue to be good, so long as it is put in its appropriate place. Like fruit in its season that is good to be eaten fresh, but will grow rotten if it is kept into the next. Yet, it will continue to be good and nurturing in a new way if it is returned to the earth. It will feed and inform what is to come.This year, what I pray for in Lent is a me that is also always changing. Not in a way that is fickle, but flexible –a tree that remains rooted even while transforming with the season. A me that is fresh, that is able to receive and to hold all the good that is bewilderingly and beautifully so continually poured into me.
A prayer book that was given to me says “Lent invites us to get back to the basics.” I think it’s a good time to not worry so much about what is new, what may or may not happen, whether or not I will respond skillfully or shabbily and to consider the base that feeds my responses and ways of being.
The Ash Wednesday reading this year is from the prophet Joel. God asks, “Return to me, with all your heart.” – Joel 2:12
I think of repentance as a turning and as a returning – not unlike how the seasons are always turning and returning to what was before but in a new way that is particular to the present. And I think too about how much I have drifted into trying to resolve my struggles through analyses, through making a project of myself, through creating unfair expectations that other people or places in my life meet my needs and desires.
The Gospels help me know the basics. I must love my neighbor and I must serve others as directed in Matthew 25 – the Works of Mercy. Whatever else changes, these remain. And I can choose to remain with them. They are very particular, specific actions that can be practiced anywhere, with anyone. Both practical and impossible, they reveal principles I can practice whatever my surroundings. They also show principles I can use to measure new practices I’m invited into, so long as I continue revolving back toward the center, returning to God in prayer and practice. I daresay the basics are enough to keep me busy, to be both the fruit of and fertilizer for a sacred life!
And with all this in mind, I offer a reading from Rumi (a 13th-century Persian, poet, jurist, theologian and Sufi mystic):
The One Thing You Must Do
There is one thing in this world which you must never forget to do. If you forget everything else and not this, there is nothing to worry about, but if you remember everything else and forget this, then you will have done nothing in your life.
It is as if a king has sent you to some country to do a task, and you perform a hundred other services, but not the one he sent you to do. So human beings come to this world to do particular work. That work is the purpose, and each is specific to the person. If you don’t do it, it’s as though a knife of the finest tempering were nailed into a wall to hang things on. For a penny an iron nail could be bought to serve for that.
Remember the deep root of your being, the presence of your lord. Give your life to the one who already owns your breath and your moments. If you don’t, you will be like the one who takes a precious dagger and hammers it into his kitchen wall for a peg to hold his dipper gourd. You will be wasting valuable keenness and foolishly ignoring your dignity and your purpose.
I am in D.C. again, continuing the tradition of gathering each January with men and women of the community called Witness Against Torture. The group gathers each year, and works throughout the year, toward the closure of Guantanamo, appropriate legal trials for those detained, and freedom for those who are innocent. We gather out of love for one another and for those unjustly bound; we gather hoping that dreams of justice can be come reality.
In September 2012, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif – a Yemeni national who had been imprisoned in Guantanamo since 2002 – was found dead.. This man, cleared for release three times by the Bush Administration and again by the Obama Administration, was a poet, a son, a father. With hunger strikes, Adnan protested his unjust imprisonment. His actions led to brutal – and illegal – force feedings, beatings, and further mistreatment by the hands of his American captors. Below is a poem he wrote while living in the detention center:
Hunger Strike Poem
They are criminals, increasing their crimes.
They are criminals, claiming to be peace-loving.
They are criminals, torturing the hunger strikers.
They are artists of torture,
They are artists of pain and fatigue,
They are artists of insults and humiliation.
They are faithless—traitors and cowards—
They have surpassed devils with their criminal acts.
They do not respect the law,
They do not respect men,
They do not spare the elderly,
They do not spare the baby-toothed child.
They leave us in prison for years, uncharged,
Because we are Muslims.
Where is the world to save us from torture?
Where is the world to save us from the fire and sadness?
Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?
But we are content, on the side of justice and right,
Worshipping the Almighty.
And our motto on this island is, salaam.
We entered singing at seven a.m.on Monday onto the designated protest grounds of the Pentagon Building. Early in the hour-long vigil I began to notice things. I noticed I was tired from waking at 5:30 a.m. I noticed my throat was irritated, but less so than yesterday. I noticed my wrists were feeling cramped from helping hold a large black canvas banner with white lettering, “Close Guantanamo.”
Behind me the names of detainees were being read with steady reverence, interspersed with a chorus of “Courage, Muslim Brother,” and poems composed by the detained men. I tried to focus on the names, on the distant, aching lives for which those names are a small symbol that we grasp. But I could not feel their presence this morning. Before me was a steady stream of men and women, so many, so varied, and I noticed that I had not been attending to their presence either, more absorbed in the looming building, our agenda, myself.
As a young child, I would avert my eyes from people’s faces. I suppose it stemmed from an anxiety of being seen, not looking was hiding. But instead of providing me a safe view, my hiding eyes hid others from me, and my world was very small. Gently, firmly, patiently, my parents taught me to expand that world. Taking my face in their hands, they taught me to make eye contact with them, then, gradually, to look to others who were speaking. I began to practice, to become attentive, to take people in and to give myself with a gaze.
High in the wide windows of the Pentagon, breaking dawn was being revealed. The sun began to shine behind us, police officers facing us donned sunglasses to shade their eyes, and I opened mine. Faces of every shade and shape passed by, old and young, in formal and casual and military attire. I was surprised at the diversity. Some looked toward us, seeming to read the signs, though their face offered no acknowledgement of our presence. Others turned their heads. Those who swerved to the far side of the walkway to avoid nearness put me in mind of passersby on a New York City sidewalk, afraid of the man on the corner who might laden them with unwanted coupons, the woman in the doorway asking for money. A few—pale, sharp-faced men with clipped gaits and military garb—looked toward us (though not at anyone in particular) with large, leering grins, sardonic and spiteful. I felt reflexively sick and chilled at the sight of these men. I saw them as disturbing, even disgusting, and I wanted them to be disgusted at themselves. And then I realized what I was doing. I was not looking at these people to see who they were, recognizing their humanity and wholeness. I was seeing them as I felt, worse than looking away, judging them from my small world.
Behind me, the program of readings continued and I heard the words of Luke Nephew’s poem, “There is a man under that hood…” His poem beautifully and concisely encapsulates the spirit of love, active-compassion, and respect for life that draws me to Witness Against Torture, and to the Catholic Worker; a spirit that I hope to embody. It is love, active-compassion, and respect for all lives –
Mr. President, I want you to know, that if it were you hooded and chained We would be standing right here, demanding the same basic human rights for you… If it were you facing indefinite detention Mr. Senator, We would march in these streets with your name on our backs We would fast In solidarity with your hunger strike, Mrs. Congresswoman Even while months of breathing through black cloth made you cough We would speak for you Mr. Newsman, Mrs. Citizen, we would be here for you… –knowing that individuals are more than the images we see, whether that image be a black hood, a white face, or our own face in the mirror.
During the Fasters Meeting after the vigil, Jules commented, “hearts and minds were hard to change there.” Each year that I come to D.C. with WAT, each day that I put on the hood, I am challenged with the recognition that I am still hiding, guarding myself with quick judgments of another that makes less of us both. I find that the one heart and mind I can know is my own, and it too needs changing, stretching; gently, firmly, patiently stretching and seeing that we are all far more expansive and complex than eyes can perceive. In this, community is both a comfort and a constant chastening. Ever revealing and reminding us of one another’s beautiful, bewildering, cruel and kind, fragile and sturdy, contradictory, mysterious being; and giving us the chance to practice again and again how to respond in love and truth.
Advent is drawing to a close, Christmas is almost upon us. Once again, I feel that the days have passed all too quickly. I seem to have been too busy to attend to advent. Now Christmas Day is around the corner and I have this uneasy feeling that I’ve missed something, that I’m not ready yet.
How often this is the case! I imagine that having a time for waiting is equivocal to having extra time. So much time that it’s common to talk casually about “killing” or “wasting” it. Then, as I do verbal violence to time I wound all that lives within it; killing and wasting the potential waiting to be born in every moment. Momentous events that were meant to come as presents become a presentiment for which I am un or under prepared.
But it’s not too late! Advent is not over yet! And really, is advent about waiting through a patch of time or practicing a way of being, practicing and paying attention, learning to listen. I am beginning to think of advent being akin to waiting on a table. An active stance, attending to a particular table and to its place in a larger room; listening, watching, anticipating, understanding, acting according to what has been seen and heard.
Advent being a time of waiting that precedes Christmas gives context for the attention, a framework, a particular story, instead of a particular table, and how that story stands in the context of time, historical and present. This story reveals Mary, minding her own business, surprised by an angel who tells her not to fear, an angel to whom she responds with acquiescent boldness, “May it be done unto me according to your word.” Joseph too is taken by surprise, no doubt. Before any angelic intervention he discovers that his betrothed is with child (and it is evidently not his). Analyzing the situation, channeling conviction, and perhaps affection, into a generous, socially acceptable action, “unwilling to put [Mary] to shame, [Joseph] resolved to divorce her quietly.”1
And this could very well have been the last we hear of Joseph. Indeed, we may not ever have heard of Joseph accept that, though he had “resolved” in his mind the action he would take, he was waiting. Despite his logical, even loving resolve, “he considered these things.” Joseph too heard the voice of an angel, speaking to him in a dream, saying “do not fear to take Mary as your wife,” he paid attention, overcame the constraints of his anxieties and in so doing entered a new life.
“Do not fear,” continually accompanies the angelic announcements. Indeed, it would require a love that casts out fear to hear, receive and act on the words these angels delivered. Had God’s messenger not intervened, had Joseph been preoccupied, he may have inadvertently been excluded from being a key player in God’s remarkable plan. What God desired of Joseph was not that he follow the law of the land (which would have allowed Joseph to divorce Mary publicly), nor to be politely philanthropic (to show continued care and preserve Mary’s life and some shred of dignity). He was being invited as Mary was (dare I say, as we are?) to move from memory to imagination, to enlarge reason with faith, to take a counter-cultural stand, to stand with God.
The invitation is to participation in Incarnation, an it is an invitation continually extended, even today. That is what the waiting is for and it is not just about a baby born in Bethlehem (but oh what a beautiful image of vulnerability and interdependence – what tender, bold risk!), it is happening everyday; God with us, in us, around us. To receive and respond to such an invitation we need to listen and allow the spirit to supplement and surprise our intellect with the impossible possibilities of God; we need courage.
Advent is almost over, but it is ultimately a reminder, and one that does not lose its relevance with the changing of the season. The waiting is not wrapped up once Christmas arrives, nor is it an indication of empty time standing in the way of a day that is grander than that which is present. The waiting is a reminder to attend to this moment, to recognize Emmanuel, “God with us.”
So I am learning to listen to God who is always with us, not only on a particular day or in a particular place, but on every day, in every place. And to listen to my heart, attending to its quakes and whimpers. What voices are countering the echoing instruction, “do not fear”? What inhibitions obstruct from taking part in God’s extraordinary vision? Where am I blinded by lack of imagination? What sights and sounds are keeping me so distracted that I’ve no longer eyes to see and ears to hear?
This is the time. Wait, be still, listen.
Footnote: 1. Scripture references from Matthew 1:19-20, ESV.
One evening in May I sat on windowsill in the room I’d recently moved into at New York’s Maryhouse Catholic Worker. With legs folded into the frame, I watched a little window of sky that subtly made the dramatic shift from pale yellow to blazing pink without comment. I was sitting with the thought that while I had spent my day absorbed in preparing for, hosting and cleaning up after a memorial service at Maryhouse, my Chicago-area White Rose Catholic Worker friends were participating in a nonviolent uprising that swelled in response to the NATO summit.
These two communities, offshoots from the trunk of one movement, are sustained and shaped by the life and writings of the same woman (the venerable Ms. Day), and have at different times been home and church and classroom to the same woman (the ephemeral Ms. Nee). Yet, to the untrained eye, these sister houses can look almost opposite.
White Rose: a half-dozen, highly educated, fair-skinned youths with the occasional overnight guest, all dedicated and devoted to sustainable living, social justice education and nonviolence not only in every action but in every word and expression as well.
Maryhouse: twenty-five folks, a majority over fifty years old, of varying color, creed and acumen together in a household that day after day admits dozens of women and offers showers, clothes, a balanced meal and company (not guaranteed to be cheerful, but ever-present, nonetheless).
At the former I would spend three hours in a meeting (the results of which would be revisited, rehashed and revised the following week). At the latter I spend three hours folding clothes that the following day will be stashed in bags, tossed on the floor and probably, eventually abandoned on park benches. I often find both tasks more maddening than enlightening. All the same, I consider the time well spent.
At the former, each day, we concerned ourselves with the issues of the world – war, torture, environment, oppression of all kinds. And, we sought to educate (ourselves and others), create alternatives and partake in nonviolent demonstrations, open the door to others that we might eat and talk and play and pray together. At the latter we concern ourselves with individuals in our community and neighborhood: the hungry, sick, lonely, weary in innumerable ways. We cook lunches, wash dishes, offer clean clothes and showers, visit hospitals, celebrate and mourn.
I am often astounded at how two communities of the same movement could be so different. One might be tempted to compare: which is better? which more successful? which meets the greatest need? These questions, I think, are alluring as forbidden fruit that promises the knowledge of good and evil upon ingestion. The end result, as our first parents demonstrated, is not an answer that reveals truth, but a blade that cuts apart holy wholeness, introduces shame and accusation and ultimately separates the seeker from the Word of Truth, that is to say, Love.
“ ‘In the end, the only thing that matters is love,’ those are the last words I ever heard from her mouth,” a woman shares at the memorial for Rita Corbin held at Maryhouse on Sunday. Hers was one of many stories remembering the life of this prolific artist whose woodcuts, since the 1950s, have oft adorned the pages of the Catholic Worker newspaper and whose life infiltrated and enriched far more than just our readers.
The gathering elicited reflections that evoked both laughter and tears. Rita’s now adult children played folk music. We served coffee and punch and huge platters of fried rice and salad with Wasabi-citrus dressing that had been specially prepared at St. Joe’s for the occasion. I alternately filled and washed plates, introduced the food and myself, listened to reminiscences from Rita’s brother and showed visitors to the bathroom. All the while members of the White Rose, along with thousands of others, marched and sang and maintained a peaceful presence outside (some eventually inside) Obama’s campaign headquarters, amidst an anxious crowd of activists and likely more anxious officers in full riot gear ready to make use of their training and tazers.
A critic of one persuasion might consider Maryhouse mundane and trifling, while one of another might consider the White Rose naive and dramatic. Neither assessment is accurate, nor is the assessment that their actions are so very different. Both are engaged in attending to matters of life and of death (which one might argue are themselves part of one whole), both are engaged in practicing, to the best of their ability, the Works of Mercy. These seemingly separate houses seek the same revolution, a revolution of the heart where “stranger” becomes “neighbor” and we learn to love our neighbor as our self; that self that is a divine vessel, bearing the very image of the God who is Love.
Scripture Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent (December 11, 2011)
Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11
Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28
When truth is spoken it illuminates more than just the person. The light stretches its filamented fingers, lacing them through history and pointing toward what is to be. Mary, a young unwed woman, accepts the impossible announcement that she will carry not only a child, but the Christ-child. Affirmed by her cousin, Elizabeth, that this strange pregnancy is an act of God, Mary goes beyond the exultation of trusting that her own reputation will be restored and indicates another restoration: the “mighty are brought down from their thrones…the hungry filled with good things…the rich sent empty away.” She joyously reveals God’s plan for a transformed social order.
Was Mary aware of how closely her words echoed those of the prophet Isaiah? Or was this spontaneous outpouring of the spirit, of joy, simply an irrepressible desire to magnify the God who desires good for all even, perhaps especially, the oppressed. How often the prophets speak of “glad tidings to the poor,” and “release to the prisoner,” of freedom from captivity and healing. I cannot believe that they were only announcing metaphors. These words reveal the vision of God, the image of a Kingdom in which we are called to be co-creators.
A consciousness of this Kingdom is shaped in Mary, as Jesus, the one who would embody it, takes shape in her womb. As Mary, Joseph and Jesus faced the hardships of poverty, heard the news of innocents slaughtered, met the continual challenges of daily life, the joy present when Mary proclaimed the Magnificat was likely not so readily felt. The promise that this little boy was the messiah even as he had to be fed and changed, that the hungry would be filled even as stomachs rumbled, that the mighty would be brought down from their thrones even as they abused their power with as much might as ever, are promises that could not have been easy to believe. Mary no doubt had to draw on the prophecies and experiences that she had treasured up; carrying within her the truths of the Kingdom just as she had carried within her the one who would reveal them.
If advent is a time of preparation, how do we, like John, “prepare the way” in keeping with God’s revealed intention for a world of justice, peace and joy, more a Kin-dom, than a Kingdom, where the disparity between the powerful and the oppressed is leveled? How do we, like Mary, say “let it be with me as you have said” and trust that by the power of the Holy Spirit we are being filled, made whole and holy – spirit, soul and body? As Christians we are called not only to carry, but to become the Body of Christ. What an incredible mystery! Recognition of this compels us toward Paul’s seemingly impossible directives to “rejoice always,” “pray without ceasing,” and “in all circumstance give thanks.” (This from a man who was jailed and persecuted continually; – how keenly he must have felt the hope of liberation!) Such mystery awakes the need to “test everything,” using the tools of prayer, action, honest communication – continually “experimenting with truth,” as Gandhi called it. Taking care to refrain from making assumptions as to what is good and to always be surprised, to always resist evil, even when it seems to seep into everything around us – including us. Rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “An individual dies when they cease to be surprised. I am surprised every morning when I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil I don’t accommodate, I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere. I am still so surprised! That is why I am against it. We must learn to be surprised.”
In a world that seems so fixed in cycles of violence, it can be difficult to believe that the promised Kin-dom is coming, let alone that it already is. When we see that drone bombs are dropped on children, that dumpsters overflow with food while millions go hungry, and houses stand empty while millions are homeless; when we cut each other apart with our words, and pollute the earth with careless or even intentional consumption – how difficult indeed to hope for healing, for liberation, for full stomachs and joyful hearts! It is difficult to face all this and believe that we can live in a way that challenges the corruption and mends the brokenness that surrounds us; that we can embody a transforming way that sets not only the oppressed but the oppressors free. It seems very difficult, impossible even to enter into Kin-dom living. Yet, we wait for Christ to be revealed. As we wait we create communities of faith where we can challenge one another to affirm God’s vision, spoken by the prophets, incarnate in Jesus, and just possibly, in us. As we live amidst the tension of the Everlasting Not Yet we are offered this hope: God has already accomplished things beyond belief, God is with us; with God, nothing is impossible.
Last week I was invited to speak as a panelist at the National Religious Vocations Conference in Franklin, Ill., and offered this prompt: “Could you describe two key aspects of your faith life right now? In what ways do you feel called by God?”
Directly following that event I joined my community-mate and fellow beekeeper, Regina, in harvesting our first batch of honey from the two hives of bees we’ve been tending since early spring.
The fact that I would be sharing in the bounty of the bees after responding to that prompt seemed a coincidence of the providential kind. It shaped my answer. My relationship with the bees is part of my relationship with a farm, which is part of an experiment that arose from a growing desire to participate in healthy food-systems. That desire grew from a slow wakening realization that what we eat can be life-giving or destructive to both our bodies and the earth. My well-being is dependent on the well-being of the earth. The earth’s well-being is dependent on the quality of my relationship with it. Interdependence: a key aspect of my faith, and a calling.
I went to the conference with the egotistical assumption that I had a challenge for these religious men and women gathered to learn how to connect with youth. I would remind them of the gospel call to justice, attentiveness to the poor, relationships of nonviolence with neighbors, enemies and the earth. Before speaking I had the opportunity to join them for lunch. I learned of their various missions and ministry which ranged from immigration to prison to spiritual direction. They tended to a broad spectrum of needs, and reminded me of how quietly some serve, how necessarily they narrow their focus in order to live in accordance with the calling they’ve received.
The harvest is great and the laborers are few. I often find myself dwelling on this phrase that Jesus shared with his followers – whispering it resentfully when I see the work piled before me – whether it’s dishes to wash, weeds to pull, corrupt systems to confront or guests to serve – entertaining the idea that because no one is tackling the same task I am they are not heeding God’s call, not laboring in the field. The harvest is great indeed, extending beyond my own vision. If we all focused on the row of carrots, who would bring in the corn? If we all risked arrest to make a statement, who would prepare a meal for the hungry? If all were busy feeding, who would ask why they hunger?
I am almost painfully conscious of the way the many needs are weaved together: humanity’s poor health to the way we disrespectfully garner the energy of the earth; the accumulation of wealth to the deprivation of the poor; the obsession with security to the abuse of the other. I am conscious, too, that when I try to engage with every angle of these issues, I am stretched thin, little able to support the weight of each. Conversely, when I wear blinders that allow me to focus only on one angle, I am blinded from the intricate relationship between the part and the whole.
This is a lesson the Trinity is continually, quietly teaching – a whole is made of many parts – to be holy is to be whole. We depend on one another and on other living things. Every action we take affects the earth and those who inhabit it. We are one mystical body of interdependent parts. Any time we isolate ourselves, any time I am only Amy, only human, then I am diminishing other people and living beings and I am diminished; then I am not holy. What is actually me, wholly me, is also you, is also the colony of bees we’re sharing honey with, is also men indefinitely detained in Guantanamo, is also the soil that gives and receives life as the bodies of plants, animals and people rise from and fall to it.