NACAR North American Conference of Associates and Religious
Ann Carr 2004 Keynote Address
Seeking Flames of Hope in a Broken World
Ann Carr, M.D., Maryknoll Affiliate
"I have come to cast fire upon the earth; would that it were already kindled." Tonight we gather together in the mystery of these sacred yet puzzling words of Jesus. We gather as Associates, Affiliates and Religious seeking to discover the fire of the Holy One that dwells within each, whether we are Passionist Associates, Sisters of St Joseph of Peace, Basilian Fathers, Associates of the School Sisters of Notre Dame or others. As we come together, mindful of the recent call of Edwina Gateley to discover this fire of Christ in the margins, I would like to explore some ways in which we might see a special hope there. As we begin, I would ask you to turn your attention to the picture of the little Cambodian girl that you see projected before you. Thavara, befriended by Jon Warren of the Child Labor Photo Project, appeared on the front cover of the Maryknoll magazine last May and her beauty and her suffering have haunted me ever since. As we, a gathering of diverse individuals and communities, seek to fan our flames into fire, I believe that Thavara, and so many people like her who struggle to find life and hope in the midst of our broken world, have much to teach us.
Thavara is a 12-year-old girl who lives in a tin-roof shack at the edges of the city’s main garbage dump in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. She spends her days sifting through the refuse, hoping to find items that she can recycle to support herself and her family. Her small stature tells us that she has endured years of malnutrition and yet her full cheeks and strong arms and legs also speak of an endurance and the wondrous, stubborn spirit of life that refuses to be snuffed out. Thavara once confided in her photographer that her dream would be to some day attend school. She does not know, however, if this will be possible given the lack of resources in her family but she still does not give up hope.
Photo supplied by Julia Dean and the Child Labor Photo Project
Why you might ask, should we begin our reflection with this little Cambodian child? What does she have to say to us about the reality of the fire, the reality of God’s love for us? Recently, we have all experienced the painful lesson of the power of images as our hearts and homes have been flooded with the pictures of tortured Iraqi prisoners. How do we continue to put our faith in God’s love, a love that is to shine through in our brothers and sisters, when we must acknowledge that American soldiers have inflicted horrible humiliation and torture upon Iraqi men and women? Robert Schreiter, a Precious Blood missioner who has done some very fine work in the area of violence and reconciliation, speaks of the evil in the world as a lie. In contrast with the Gospel truth of God’s love and peace that is ultimately expressed in the Resurrection,- in death being overcome by life,- the violence and evil of the world stand as a great falsehood. Torture, he claims, is one of the most insidious and powerful expressions of evil because it is an attempt to imprint the lie upon another person’s body. Sadly, the existence of torture has for too long been a part of human history. We know that it is there, but the reality seems so cruel and overwhelming, that we generally need to push it away from our consciousness. In our present time, however, with the tremendous power of the internet and our capability for broadcasting images throughout the world, the reality of torture and evil has touched us in a new and frightening way. These young soldiers, whose average age is only 19 years, have been drawn into a terrible net of violence and cruelty. And we, too, along with them. As the disturbing images are displayed over and over, they remind us of the potential that exists within the human heart for unimaginable brutality.
What, then, of this image of Thavara? Does she reflect only poverty and neglect or can we in anyway see the love of Christ in her? When we gaze at the photograph, we cannot escape her plight. We cannot ignore the cast off debris that surrounds her, the tattered clothing or the many sufferings that must fill her life. But if we look closely at her face, her expression is a curious mixture of trust and mistrust. She is surprised, perhaps confused, that someone would take notice of her,- a child, a non-person,- working in the smoldering fires of the garbage heaps. In fact, the photographer takes notice long enough to hear her story in addition to snapping the picture. When we look at her hair, there is an attempt to brush it away from her brow with a headband. Is this a practicality or a small, fragile attempt to bring an expression of beauty into her life? Just above this is a net that almost appears like a crown of thorns. Like Jesus, she suffers and yet she does not hate. We cannot know the many wounds which she surely must carry within her, and yet she walks with a dignity and a grace that somehow defy the burdens of her difficult life. And just as she trusted enough to enter into friendship with her photographer, perhaps she would invite us too into relationship, into solidarity, with her and all people who are forced to live out their lives at the margins.
What does all of this mean for us gathered here tonight as NACAR, a loosely-knit community or group of communities that seek to discover the fire of the Spirit? If, as Schreiter suggests, the ultimate truth of the Gospel story is that life has overcome suffering and death, we as Associates, Affiliates and Religious, have an important role to play in proclaiming this message. How do we, far removed from the everyday life of this little Cambodian girl, allow our truth to be shaped by her? I believe one very important way is that we have risked coming together to form communities of faith. By joining with each other, we have said that we will risk the love and the work,- the sacrifices, struggles and blessings that come with creating community. In this moment in history, we are aware of the many shiftings that are taking place in the life of the church, particularly in religious life. As older forms change and perhaps appear to be diminishing, it is very easy to become discouraged and to give up on communities grounded in faith. Yet in our perseverance, in our willingness to explore the new models that may be emerging at this present moment, we take seriously the call to partake in the great mystery of Christ’s body. Schreiter offers an important insight when he claims that we can only face the overwhelming presence of evil in the world if we ground ourselves in the hope of the Resurrection. Our faith also speaks, however, of the mystery of the Incarnation. The Incarnation reminds us that God has loved and blessed the entirety of creation and ultimately desires that we shall all dwell in the mystical body. In this mystery, we trust that we are in intimate union, not only with those immediately known to us, but with all those hidden in the shadows and smoldering fires of forgotten places.
How then can our lives reflect this truth? In responding to the challenge and grace of an encounter with someone like Thavara, some of us might choose to labor on behalf of abused children or those who live in poverty in our local areas. Others will be drawn to work for international social policy and structural change and still others will find that their prayer life needs to embrace, more and more, the bruised and suffering of the world. Each of us present for this NACAR weekend is seeking to live out of a particular spiritual charism and with a unique spiritual community. We will all be called to certain demands for prayer and contemplation and certain needs for action. In the Maryknoll Affiliates, we often say that our identity is based upon four fundamental pillars: community, prayer, action and, because of our work in other cultures and countries, global vision. Each Affiliate, and each Affiliate Chapter, balances and expresses these pillars in a unique way and yet all of us are united in having them shape our fundamental relationship to Maryknoll. I am certain that this must be true for members of the various groups gathered here tonight. Each one of us must discern how the charism of our particular community is to be expressed and celebrated in our lives.
As we approach the Feast of Pentecost, I am struck by the beauty of this feast in relation to the model of community that NACAR is trying to bring forth. As Associates, Affiliates and Religious together,- each with unique strengths, heart wishes and vulnerabilities,- we are called to wait in the upper room just as the Apostles did, not knowing when or in what manner the Spirit would come to them. Catherine of Siena, a 12th century mystic and Dominican lay woman, claimed to have received from God a wonderful reflection on this feast. Her words still have much to say to us some nine centuries later and I would like to share them with you:
" If you wish to rise above a life of imperfection, you must, like the apostles, prepare yourself for the coming of the Holy Spirit. Remain watchful and persevere in humble and continual prayer. When you are ready, my Spirit will come to you as She did to the apostles waiting in expectant faith in the upper room. You will be given the courage to leave your safe house of prayer and fearlessly announce to the world what you have come to know of my truth and my love, not fearing pain and rejection, but seeing the glory of whatever comes to you…It is necessary to bear with others and practice continually the love of your neighbor together with true knowledge of your self. Only in this way can the fire of my love burn within you, because love of neighbor develops from love of me. It grows as you learn to know yourself and my goodness to you. When you understand that you are loved by me beyond measure, you will be drawn to love every creature with the same love with which you yourself know to be loved."
When I first read Catherine’s reflection on this story of the apostles in the upper room, I was struck by her sense that they waited in "expectant faith". For some time, I have had an impression that the experience of the upper room preceding the entrance of the Spirit was primarily marked by fear and chaos. The words of Scripture would have us believe that the trauma of Jesus’ death had indeed left this fragile community of followers quite broken. Even those who had been to the tomb or encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus were still uncertain and grieving the loss of their beloved Rabboni. Perhaps both accounts, that of Catherine’s and that of the Gospels, have something to speak to us as we make our way in our own life journeys and attempt to build community in a world so filled with suffering and despair. Perhaps this upper room of our spiritual ancestors was ripe with both fear and faith. Then or now, what seems to be most important for God is that our waiting is done with attentive hearts and with one another. Even when we are lost in our waiting, or when our vigil is marked primarily by fear, we somehow mysteriously co-create a space with God into which the Spirit can enter in Love.
This is why, I believe, Catherine places so much emphasis on the waiting and remaining watchful. In our modern globalized culture, it would seem that there is something for us to be ‘watching’ all of the time. In fact, many of us speak of being overloaded with too much sensory input,- 24 hour news programs, the information highway of the internet, satellite dishes constantly beaming bits of data back and forth. We have become, as Thomas Merton once said, "lost in our own nerve endings." But this is not the watchfulness of which Catherine speaks. Catherine would have us cultivate a contemplative awareness to see ourselves and our world as we truly are, - deeply loved by God.
As the fire of the Spirit fills us and emblazons the truth of God’s love upon us, Catherine believes that we will naturally be led from our experience of contemplation to witness and action on behalf of our brothers and sisters. Her sense of this movement probably reflects her own personal history. As some of you may know, Catherine’s early life was one of solitary contemplation. In her early twenties, she came to believe that love of God could not be separated from love of humanity and left her contemplative cell to work with the sick poor, with prisoners and to serve as a mediator in local and ultimately international disputes. In the midst of her work, however, she never lost sight of the centrality of prayer to all that she was and did.
Each of us in someway is called to make Catherine’s discovery of the need for both the contemplative and the active. Some of us may move, as Catherine did, from a life solely devoted to contemplative prayer to one of tremendous service. Others may labor for years with deep commitment and effort on behalf of humankind and face a growing awareness of the need to be still and rest in the arms of God. And most of us, I suspect, will find ourselves moving back and forth between the two, at times finding that our lives reflect more one than the other.
If we allow the Pentecostal mystery to touch us, as deeply as it touched Catherine, we will begin to live with the awareness that the various fragments of our faith journey,- its contemplative whispers and its active endeavors,- unite in the fire of God’s love and must ultimately be grounded in community. This, I believe, is why our gathering here tonight is an important expression of the fire. In our present day North American culture, there is much that would tell us that our identity should be shaped individually. But in the moment when the Spirit descends at Pentecost, the moment of the birth of the church, the message is that we are to discover our deepest sense of self in communion rather than isolation. We can draw inspiration from the witness and courage of the first Pentecostal community and yet we can also take comfort in its shortcomings and failures. The Gospels make it clear that an array of characters had been drawn to this Jesus of Nazareth. As we look to our own particular communities, I am sure that we have experienced and, at times, struggled to embrace the impulsive Peter, the grieving yet faithful Mary Magdalene, the doubting Thomas, the beloved and mystical John and all the others. Community, when we truly attempt to create it in faithfulness to God, is filled with both grace and strife. It is almost never predictable but always messy, delicate and full of surprise. Though we may not fully understand how the Spirit is at work in our various associations or the larger NACAR movement, we sense that we have been particularly blessed to experience the love of God shining through in this communal experience. Would that this might bring Catherine’s prophecy to a greater fulfillment in us: "When you understand that you are loved by me beyond measure, you will be drawn to love every creature with the same love with which you yourself know to be loved." If we, like Catherine, can begin to live out of this, we will not rest until the margins of all creation, those places currently imprinted with the lie of poverty, deprivation, neglect and even torture, are touched by the Fire of the Spirit. As we seek to discover the many ways in which our flames can be fanned into the one great fire, may we ask God and all the Thavaras of the world to bless us.
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