The One Thing I Can Say

If you are currently alive with at least a moderate amount of functioning brain cells and you have access to media of any kind, you are aware that there is a lot of injustice in our world.

There is injustice in Syria and in Iraq and in the Holy Land. There is injustice in every community where people live without food or shelter and in every city where violence rules the streets. There is injustice in our work places and in our schools an in our homes. There is injustice in our justice system.

There is injustice everywhere, all the time. But I think we go through cycles when the injustice is quiet, there but unobtrusive, demanding our attention only periodically. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that we go through phases of contentment with our world, when we are able to believe that, on balance, there is more justice than injustice. To be honest, I don’t think we could survive any other way.

But then something, some instance of injustice impossible to explain away, bursts through our complacency, and the injustice that is always there suddenly dominates the landscape.

That’s where we are right now. Or at least, that is where I am right now. Because I can’t seem to stop thinking about how unjust our society is.

I’ve been reading a lot of articles and blog posts about what is happening in our own country, on a street in Missouri, on a sidewalk in New York, in a park in Ohio – in every part of our country where people’s rights seem to be determined more by the color of their skin than by their inherent humanity. I have been reading about racism and about poverty and crime. I’ve read facts and opinions, transcripts and OpEds. And I’ve read the comments. (I should never read the comments.)

Every time I read something I get angry and upset. In fact, I get overwhelmed. And I feel like I need to write about what I am thinking, because there are so many thoughts racing through my mind and writing has always helped me to make sense of things that seem incomprehensible.

But when I try to write my thoughts out, I can’t. There just isn’t enough of me left at the end of the day to deal with the magnitude of what is happening in our country and everywhere else in the world. I feel so small, so inadequate in the face of our problems. So I walk away from my computer in frustration, with nothing to say.

But I need to write something. I can’t stay silent. If the magnitude of injustice is so great that it leaves me feeling like I don’t have the words to talk about it, then it is far too great for me to bury in the silence of my heart.

* * *

So I will say one thing, the only thing I feel like I can say: that we, individually and as a society, need to find our compassion.

We need to remind ourselves that there is dignity inherent to all human life. And we need to remember that our own dignity — and the dignity of those who are like us — never trumps the dignity of anyone else. Not ever.

Above all, we need to care. The intrinsic worth of people who are different from us has to matter.

A wise man once asked his followers to love strangers as well as their neighbors, and to love their neighbors as well as they loved themselves. In America today, this advice is worth taking.

* * *


Questions of Faith

Book2Last night, a neighbor of mine invited me to her house to participate in a group discussion led by author and activist Kelly Bean on her new book, “How to Be a Christian without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community.”

Going into the event, I had no idea what to expect. I hadn’t read the book, and I was unsure of what I could contribute to the conversation.  But I was intrigued, because my neighbor happens to be a Christian pastor and the fact that she was hosting a discussion on a book that seemed, essentially, to serve as a guide for people who wish to leave the church without losing their faith excited my curiosity.

Also, the title of the book suggested an experiment in faith with results that were very different from my own personal experience. As I have said before on this blog, I am Catholic to my backbone. My Catholic identity is rooted in the deepest core of my soul, and I know this to be true because there were times in my life when I was disappointed enough in the Church that I tried tear it out of me. But as I explored other faith communities — and even tried for a time to live my faith without any institutional connections — I discovered that no matter what I did or where I went, I could not experience faith in any capacity without feeling the pull of its ties to my intrinsic Catholicism.

Kelly’s book is, essentially, the story of people who went through an experience similar to mine, but who ended up with a completely different spiritual result.

So I went to the gathering feeling curious and, as often happens when our minds are opened up to new thoughts, I came home feeling even more curious.  Because in discussing how people connect to a community of faith, our conversation touched on a topic that, I think, is of central importance to modern religion: the question of how we live our spirituality within the numerous layers of community that make up the fabric of our lives as individuals and, ultimately, as citizens of a broader world.

This is a question with many faces. Most basically, it asks people of faith, whether they are deeply connected to an established and structured religious organization or whether they are flying on their own wings, how they live their beliefs. Is our faith something internal, which provides us with hope or inspiration but which isn’t a part of our outward lives? Is it a ritual, or a routine, that shapes how we spend our time more than the person we are? Is it something we share with others by simply participating mutually in liturgy, or is it something that enables us to form powerful spiritual bonds with others?

But this question also forces us to consider what our spiritual life means in the more extensive context of our existence in this world. On the simplest level, does our faith make us better people? Does it empower us to live gently, in service to others? And more esoterically, how does it affect the way that we participate as citizens of our larger non-faith communities? In a heterogeneous world, how do our beliefs affect those who don’t share them? How do we know when the expression of our faith hurts others, and where do we draw the line between living our faith and living in a group in which there are those who feel that their freedoms are curtailed by our beliefs?

This may come as a shock, but I don’t have the answers to any of these questions. Many of them weren’t even formed in my mind until last night, and there are many more brewing beneath the surface. But I think reading Kelly’s book is a good way to start thinking about what is at the heart of our faith, what inspires us to celebrate it, and how we can be more aware of the way our faith communities affect both the individuals who comprise them and the greater world around them.

On War and Peace

Over the past week I have been reading about two things: Syria and World War I. The crisis in Syria is everywhere, headlining the news and popping up in church, on social media, and even in overheard conversations at the gym. I couldn’t avoid it if I tried. WWI comes to me by way of an audiobook mystery novel, which has turned out to be a much more worthwhile read than I anticipated when I chose it as this week’s soundtrack for my long-distance training runs.

Because I am a Google addict, all the reading I’ve been doing has had me link-hopping through the last century, from the War to End All Wars, to the war that came after it, to the creation of Israel, to the current conflicts in the Middle East, then back to the Holocaust, and then back again to the invasion of Poland (which, as a former Wujek, is close to my heart) until one night I found myself weeping silently in bed at a 1939 photograph of a young Polish girl kneeling over the body of her sister. The endless internet access given to us by the iPhone can be a great or terrible thing.

It hasn’t been cheerful reading. It hasn’t made me all that proud of my human DNA. It’s hard to keep believing that love wins and that people are essentially decent when it feels like we have spent the last 100 years with the collective fingers of humanity hovering just above the DESTROY button.

In bad times, stories about the helpers — the people that Mr. Rogers tells us about, the people who are, in fact, always there when life is at its worst – usually bring me moments of clarity when I know that goodness overcomes evil. But this week, those stories just haven’t been enough. I can’t stop thinking about the mud of Passchendaele, or the cold of Auschwitz, or the heat of Iraq, or of all our empty repetitions of “never again.”

This is one of those times when the world is too much with me and I feel overwhelmed by the weight of our cruelty toward one another. I feel overwhelmed, but not overcome.

This weekend at Mass, in a ritual as simple as the closing prayer, our priest reminded me that even when it feels like we are just a pebble in a rising tide, and that there is nothing we can do to stop the forces of violence and suffering, we can never be overcome. He ended Mass with the prayer of St. Francis.

He reminded me that I can be an instrument of peace. That where there is hatred, I can sow love. That where there is injury, I can forgive. That where there is discord, I can bring harmony. That where there is doubt, I can inspire faith. That where there is darkness, I can bring light and that where there is sorrow, I can bring joy.

He reminded me that even if these changes happen only in my own heart, I can make them happen.

The prayer of St. Francis may seem on the surface like a submissive prayer, but really it is a prayer of empowerment. It is a prayer in which we open ourselves up to love, so we can use that love to conquer pain and darkness. It is a prayer that gives us a strength that can’t be weakened, not by anything.


The Prayer of St. Francis

“O Lord, make me an instrument of Thy Peace!
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is discord, harmony.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sorrow, joy.

Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not 
so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.”

The prayer is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but was most likely written by a French priest shortly before WWI.