“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.”
The words appear on top of a PBS website in white upon a black background—an over-simplified truth, smacking with arrogant certitude. At least that’s the way it feels to me when I stare at the screen just a few days after returning from pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, in Northern Spain.
“For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.” The phrase rolls over inside of me as I continue to integrate what I experienced while walking along that ancient path, where I felt how faith is mysterious and yet embodied. At some point between the meetings and the laundry and the catching up on email, I find my mind is nodding and expanding the assertion. Yes, we have been walking since forever to grow spiritually. But even more so, we have been walking to survive.
For 200,000 years we’ve been walking. A long distance walk, a pilgrimage on foot; it’s nothing new. It is common to human experience. We walk to find food, to find shelter, to find safety. We walk to escape fire, famine, natural disaster, war. I’m not special for having walked more than 80 miles on one of the routes of El Camino. Many have entered into similar journeys of inevitable suffering with hope for transformation.
The only thing strange about me, perhaps, is that… [This is the beginning of an essay I wrote for Sick Pilgrimat Patheos. Continue reading here.]
As of the writing of this reflection, Witness Against Torture, The New York Catholic Worker, and Voices for Creative Nonviolence, among others, are in the midst of a week-long fast for the victims of the recent airstrikes and ongoing besiegement of Yemen. There we see, once again, one of the poorest countries of the world pummeled by some of the richest; not an unusual circumstance, but it’s ubiquity makes it no less tragic.
I was invited to join the fast but unable as my youngest is still an insistent and aggressive breast feeder and my oldest has simultaneously forgotten his ability to listen and enhanced his capacity to test all boundaries. Circumstances being what they are, a well-balanced and consistent diet seems an indispensable tool in order to be an alert and able-bodied parent. Frankly, I felt relieved to have such an excuse. While my younger self would contrive reasons to fast, exulting in the ascetic undertaking and invigorated by the discipline, that aspect of my nature has diminished over the years to such minute stature that I am hard-pressed to find it in me.
On the other hand, I am disappointed to miss out on the communal response. Joining together in mourning, conceiving acts of creative resistance, fasting and prayer are among the few means of response we can identify in the face of escalating and seemingly endless violence and despair. As it is, I am merely one among many who hear it on the news, quietly lament, and continue with the needs and desires of the day. I am at risk of becoming inured to the pain of others, especially that of those who I don’t see in person and who exist in such overwhelming numbers. More than I can remember or recite. More than I can truly imagine.
Before I have finished writing this there will be more to count. Already, the U.S. has chosen to conduct air strikes in Syria in response to the ghastly chemical attacks there, which are a part of a larger, ongoing massacre happening through various means of human-on-human violence. Violence begetting violence. Those who’ve been following the news will be aware too of the atrocity in Mosul, yet another among the countless acts of destruction and devastation in Iraq.
For those of us who live in relative comfort and security, it is all too easy to stagnate in statistics. I often feel I can’t even write or talk about something that tears at me because then I need to mention every troubling incident. Each crisis gets lost in the many and responding feels impossible. I recently heard a poem that addresses this attitude on NPR’s OnBeing called “The Pedagogy of Conflict” written by Pádraig Ó Tuama; a poet, theologian and leader of the Corrymeela community (a place of refuge and reconciliation in Northern Ireland).
“When I was a child, / I learnt to count to five: / one, two, three, four, five. / But these days, I’ve been counting lives, so I count / one life / one life / one life / one life / Because each time is the first time that that life has been taken. / Legitimate Target / has sixteen letters / and one / long / abominable / space / between / two / dehumanising / words.”
I believe that throughout Scripture, God has sought to communicate to humanity that we were created with intention, that we are part of a holy human family, that all life is precious and inextricably interwoven. I have found it hard to know how to live out that truth as a citizen of the Western world (the U.S. specifically) where, unlike citizens on the receiving end of our war-making, I live my life removed from the death and disorder in which we are involved. I feel all the more inhibited in my capacity to respond to the needs of others as I endeavor to care for and create a stable, loving, beautiful environment for my own children.
Amy Nee and one of her children.
Yet, even as life as a parent inhibits me from reaching out, from taking risks, it also tends to enhance empathy and conjure the questions—what if it was me in that situation? What if it was my kids?
Ever since reading a book review by Terry Rogers in The New York Catholic Worker’s newspaper I am haunted by the story of a Palestinian father who used to feel great peace watching his children sleep. Now, he gazes on them with anguished anxiety wondering if this will be the night that they wake to a bomb tearing through the ceiling, or if they will even wake at all. He writes of too many friends who have lost their children to bomb attacks and realizes he cannot expect his own family to be spared from the same fate. So to look at his children, vulnerable in sleep—each one a mysterious trove of wonder, laughter, frustration, confusion, tears, expense, effort and attention, both given and received—brings only sadness, fear, anger, despair.
One life … one life … one life … one life.
Seeing my children sleep, I am most often filled with relief, satisfaction, a wave of affection and admiration for their beauty and gratitude for our shared life. I cannot imagine what I would feel were I to hear them referred to as collateral damage, let alone “legitimate target.” I cannot imagine–having watched with amazement each new developing nuance in language and motion–suddenly seeing them fall limp and mute and forever lifeless. Each blossoming life, so intricate, so very dear, so amazingly new each day. “Each time is the first time that life has been taken.” What a gaping hole there would be in my heart, in our family, even amongst our friends. Whole communities grieving the loss of what was, of what was becoming.
One life … one life … one life … one life.
I am being interrupted in this writing endeavor. My one-year-old daughter, waking from her brief moment of tranquil sleep, insisting on nursing. I will resist for a moment and then concede. It is a comfort to so easily give comfort. I know it will not always be so easy for me, with nothing more than my own body, to bring calm and contentment to my daughter whom I love profoundly. For one life, that opportunity has been stolen.
Amy Nee-Walker grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida. Living into questions about truth and love has led her to the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church, her incredible husband, two audacious, adorable children, and (for the time being) a home in the hills of Appalachia.
Along with many people far and near, I have been terribly disturbed by images from the Syrian war recently. Appropriately disturbed.
Early last week, I felt physically ill while I watched a news story about doctors and hospitals being targeted by airstrikes.
Then, just a few days later, the images of Omran Daqneesh, the five year-old-boy who sat dazed and bloody in an ambulance in Aleppo, stirred compassion, outrage and prayers from many of us.
Here is the disturbing video of Omran being rescued by aid workers:
Since the video and pictures of his rescue went viral Omran’s older brother Ali–along with at least 148 other chilldren of Aleppo just this month–died.
Thousands of miles are between me and the people suffering in Syria. Entering into their experiences through the news, images, and videos is tough. Really though, the turmoil that it surfaces in me is miniscule compared to what makes up their daily life.
Yet, I am tempted to turn away from loving my neighbor. The challenging truth of suffering and injustice could spiral me into a state of helplessness. What can I do? I am too distant from the pain to be able to help rescue people or offer comfort, food or water. I feel like I have no power or wealth to end the conflict. I could resign, throw my hands up, “I can’t keep up! I can’t handle it!”
I am tempted to turn away from the Gospel of love and mercy, to reject hope and leave it behind me, ignore the suffering of my distant neighbors, and return to enjoying the comforts of my safe and privileged life.
War is ugly and can bring out the worst in us.
Yes, war is ugly, but discipleship necessary.
When it comes to loving our neighbors thousands of miles away, solidarity becomes a demanding spiritual practice. We unite in prayer, enter into relationship, and respond with compassionate actions. We allow ourselves to be disturbed and uncomfortable while we pray and and act, because we know that others are very, very uncomfortable.
Although ending war may be complex and difficult, living the Gospel is really quite simple: every choice is guided by sacrificial love.
So let us pray!
For all the children like Omran and Ali, the children living and dying in war, let us pray. For an end to war and conversion of hearts, let us pray. For peace and an increase of hope among us, let us pray:
A Prayer For The People Of Syria
Almighty eternal God, source of all compassion,
the promise of your mercy and saving help fills our hearts with hope. Hear the cries of the people of Syria; bring healing to those suffering from the violence, and comfort to those mourning the dead. Empower and encourage Syria’s neighbors in their care and welcome for refugees. Convert the hearts of those who have taken up arms, and strengthen the resolve of those committed to peace.
O God of hope and Father of mercy, your Holy Spirit inspires us to look beyond ourselves and our own needs. Inspire leaders to choose peace over violence and to seek reconciliation with enemies. Inspire the Church around the world with compassion for the people of Syria, and fill us with hope for a future of peace built on justice for all. We ask this through Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace and Light of the World, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
Let us also offer generous support to organizations who have remained present to the victims of war, even while risking their own safety and security. According to my research (and I am willing to be corrected) these are the best organizations to donate to, in order to assist the people of Aleppo in particular:
Let us join together and devote ourselves to protecting the life and dignity of God’s children everywhere—no matter how long or exhausting the struggle or how deep the heartache. Pope Francis’ wisdom that “our infinite sadness can only be cured by infinite love” can direct us.
No matter how awful the circumstances or how distant our neighbor, love must disturb us and we must keep being the people God has called us to be.
At the start of each school year I have my students fill out a survey in order to get to know them quickly. It’s a long survey with all sorts of questions about their families, what they like to do for fun, their favorites, and, most importantly, their faith. I’ve done this for at least five years, and the results are always interesting. Plus, it really helps me know my audience.
This year something in one student’s response stood out. The student admitted to believing in God. But then, in the section where they check the prayer types they do, there was a hand-written statement: “I’ve never really prayed before.”
I was fascinated. I don’t want to single out the student and cause embarrassment, so I have not asked any follow-up questions. They seem prayerful during our class prayer time now, so I’m hoping they’ve prayed some now!
Here’s the deal. We may over-complicate a lot of things, but prayer doesn’t have to be complicated or long. God just loves hearing from us. And, it’s really good for us. Here’s a video about a sister in my community and her zesty prayer life. I love what one of the other sisters says in the video about not knowing how many times a day she prays; that’s totally true for me, too.
Prayer is powerful. And, it’s effective. This blog post summarizes some of what I was thinking, about God hearing our prayers for peace for Syria. We have to keep praying. God always hears us and responds. Although we might not like the response, we can keep in mind that it is God, who sees the big picture and is a Great Parent, can make the best judgment about how to take care of us.
If you don’t know how to pray, here’s a tip: Start simple. Tell God hello. Say thank you. Acknowledge something beautiful. No matter what you say or how you say it, God will be delighted to hear from you. And, remember that God is always with you and loves you very much!!
The talk of bombing Syria is awful, just as the violence that has been happening there is horrific. I’ve been groaning a lot and praying really hard.
Arguments about war make me cringe. I especially get sick in my stomach when I hear intelligent people explain excuses for violence as if it’s the best option.
Evil is sneaky and convinces us all of lies. The truth: violence is wrong!
Peace might not always seem the most practical, but it is always possible! We do not have to give up on the power of hope, faith and love! God gives us a better way!
To avoid a ranting or preachy post, I’ll leave with you two reflections for prayer and peacemaking today that come from other sources.
First, I’ve been praying that the power of this scripture seeps into the hearts and minds of our international leaders, like President Obama:
Let love be sincere; hate what is evil; hold on to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; anticipate one another in showing honor. Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the holy ones, exercise hospitality. Bless those who persecute [you], bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Share regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil; be concerned for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible on your part, live at peace with all. Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rather, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.”Do not be conquered by evil but conquer evil with good. –Romans 12:9-21
Secondly, we all can engage in symbolic and peaceful protests that offer resistance, hope and conversion to humanity. Here’s one way:
My rejoicing in the coming of God to earth is not about candy canes or toys.
Nope, Christmas Every Day is all about peace and peacemaking and it’s not necessarily cozy and sweet. Christmas peace is challenging and communal.
My life seems pretty peaceful nowadays, and it is a bit awkward for me to enjoy it. I know others are oppressed, hurting and victims of the injustices of war, violence and poverty. Yet, my life is full of a lot of calm. At work, my students are pretty well-behaved and cooperative, making things almost easy right now. At home, I live in a really grounding community where I feel very safe and loved. Around the region, there is an abundance of phenomenal natural beauty. Last weekend I went camping and enjoyed some quiet and breathtaking scenery of stars, woods, and overlooks. My life is packed with many moments of quiet and gladness.
When I was hiking and stargazing last weekend, I sure did feel happy and calm. Yet, in the back of my mind, I kept thinking about those who were suffering because of wars and violence. It felt a bit unfair that I could enjoy God’s beautiful and natural designs, while others suffered because people don’t cooperate with God’s good order. Maybe what seems peaceful to me isn’t really peaceful, after all because true peace is something a bit more subtle and inclusive.
Martin Luther King, Jr had some good insights about peacemaking in a Christmas sermon in 1967 that are still incredibly relevant today, especially in light of the international debate concerning Syria. I am reminded why war is always wrong today:
“This Christmas season finds us a rather bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without. Everywhere paralyzing fears harrow people by day and haunt them by night. Our world is sick with war; everywhere we turn we see its ominous possibilities. And yet, my friends, the Christmas hope for peace and good will toward all men can no longer be dismissed as a kind of pious dream of some utopian. If we don’t have good will toward men in this world, we will destroy ourselves by the misuse of our own instruments and our own power.” -Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967 Christmas sermon
Peacemaking can be haunting as our power is haunting. All of us are capable of being healers or hurters at any minute. The power of our choices can be dangerous. Although it might be easy to come up with justifications and excuses for using weapons and reacting to violence with violence, but it doesn’t make sense.
The first Christmas–the birth of Jesus Christ who is the Prince of Peace– was an event that happened during a time of some brutal oppression. With Christ’s coming, the brutality didn’t actually halt. Instead, God transformed and empowered the marginalized of society. In the Christmas story, God chose to tell some poor and humble shepherds about Jesus’ coming, and they got to join in on the party. Here’s how it happened:
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” –Luke 2:8-14
The shepherds were transformed by the good news and then empowered to experience the tough stuff of true peacemaking. As the shepherds showed us, if it’s peace we’re after, we must act in peace.
Great peacemakers of history acted humbly like shepherds. As stated by Mahatma Gandhi, “The day the power of love overrules the love of power, the world will know peace.” Gandhi also said “There is no ‘way to peace,’ there is only ‘peace.”
The Christmas message is a message of peace, a peace for all. Let’s all celebrate and spread that peace in the way that shepherds modeled for us: in obedience to God’s love, with wonder, as communities, and powerlessly.
Loving, powerless, and global peacemaking: this is the type of Christmas celebrating I’m doing and this is the Christmas celebrating to which you’re also invited.
The laments are also thick in Iran where there was an awful earthquake just a few hours ago. Christ hear us.
The laments are constant in hospitals and funeral parlors where intense suffering is often too sudden. God have mercy.
Thanks be to God we are not alone in all this. The good news is that God hears our cries and that God is intimately with us as we suffer.
Thanks be to God that Jesus taught us what to do. This is what Jesus said:
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. – John 14: 27
We can have faith. We get to take care of each other. We need each other. We really can only do this together. In community with Christ we can make peace, pray and help one another. With Christ in community we can offer healing and hope. This compassion is the heart of peacemaking and Gospel living.
Mr. Rogers, with his simple wisdom, understood this well. If we look around within the human community, we can quickly recognize the peace of Christ alive and well. We don’t need to be afraid.
Thanks be to God Christ is alive and well and among us. Christ hears our cries and knows our pain. Christ is with us, helping us and healing us through the arms of our loving neighbors.