A week ago at Mass in the Cathedral, Archbishop Hughes began his homily with “The world is a mess”. As he proceeded, he brought it into the historical context of that day’s Gospel passage, but I had drifted off with this opening statement. Why is the world a mess, I reflected. I know you all just laughed and answered that question a thousand different ways. But, here’s where I went.
There was once a comic strip called POGO, and one of the most well remembered lines from it is “We have met the enemy, and they is us”. And that just may be why the world is a mess. We may scoff and call it our human condition or human nature at its worst, but we just can’t stop getting in our own way. The world is a mess, and so it goes; it is what it is.
An awful lot of us just complain, but to those who act with a peaceful response, in a just manner, in a way that shouts the Gospel, I salute you and ask that we all try harder to learn the better ways to handle our messy world.
Two major events happened in recent days. One seems like a resurrection and another seems like a death, but they are both aspects of the Pascal Mystery we live throughout our lives.
On August 26, 2019, 13 years after the last retreat at the Dominican Retreat House in Elkins Park, PA, the 42-acre property was finally sold to a new owner who will bring it back to life. Plans include a boutique hotel, restaurant, gardens, micro-distillery, spa and other features. It will be a new economic engine for Cheltenham Township, provide jobs, and a new sense of life in the area. Here is a link to a news story that might help you appreciate the beauty and historic significance of its architecture. It cannot begin to describe the people whose lives were changed by their experience of retreat there.
Over its lifetime, beginning in 1932, over 875,000 people came through its doors. Some came every year to the same weekend retreat: mothers, daughters, and granddaughters. Our sisters, associates, promoters, and staff provided a place of welcome, of spiritual nourishment, a door to God’s forgiveness and compassion. God’s Word was spoken and heard there in a powerful way. Truly, a long-awaited resurrection is at hand. Countless prayers, and a tenacious belief that someday new life would emerge, have borne fruit.
Over the weekend of September 7, 2019, members of the Leadership Team visited the sisters at the Oxford Motherhouse to share with them the decision to close the motherhouse and St. Mary’s Retreat House. Truly, this feels like a death. For most, it is an ending that is sad, painful, and requires great courage and trust. Many of our sisters and associates have recognized there are fewer sisters, an increasing need for care, and higher costs at the Motherhouse. The retreat house is dependent on the Motherhouse for some of its internal operations. For many, the decision to close was not unexpected — rather it has been known and sadly anticipated. Plans will begin to unfold and sisters there are in the process of considering where God might be calling them along the journey. Retreatants will plan for their last retreat.
This is not an unfamiliar experience for some of us, but for those who are experiencing it as new, it is most acute. Death hurts. And promises of future new life sometimes ring hollow, when in the midst of grasping the present reality.
The important word in all of this is mystery. Pascal Mystery. We only see God’s hand in a veiled way, like trying to see through frosted glass. We know God is there on the other side of our understanding, and we naturally wish to know and see more clearly what the future holds. I can imagine Jesus felt the same way from time to time as His journey unfolded. Our journey mirrors his death and resurrection.
Sometimes resurrection doesn’t happen right away. But it will. It has. New life is emerging where once we could only see as if through frosted glass. The prayers of those who surround us give us the hope we need to wait for the next resurrection. We can bear witness to it today.
The happenings of the past few weeks, multiple layers of wars and weather tragedies and political machinations, find me with a cramp in the load-bearing muscles of body and spirit. How does a Christian, a Dominican, possibly live with and respond to the heavy clouds that bear down on us individually and corporately; how do we pray, how do we lift our voices in a Holy Preaching that brings truth and hope, how do we live and proclaim the Gospel of Peace?
Some of us have devised escape strategies, trying to ease our frustrations and anger and their contagion—we cut back on our daily dose of news and commentaries, and try to keep our conversations from “going there.” Some of us follow it all with that impulse for finding and telling the truth, though contending with the temptation to freeze into a particular focus and its blind spots, or the trap of over-righteousness. Some try to channel our energies to what action we can take, donating, writing letters or calling politicians, volunteering to drive, to collect, to distribute flyers. We are brought to prayer, all of us, all the time, because a million voices call out for help and solace, for the basics of human life taken from them by weather, by war, by dehumanizing treatment. And as Dominic showed us, we pray as we weep and mourn in sympathy and solidarity: Have mercy on us, open our hearts, hear our prayer, save your people, forgive and transform us.
Decades, centuries, millennia of history have told us that ridding the world of “problem people” has proved to be horrifying and disastrous. And we know in and through Christ that God loves and holds precious each and every person. We hear today that Jesus in Luke’s version of the “sermon on the mount” actually stood on the plain, stood level with them and among them and us (he said “You” ) and told the poor and beaten down and mourning and persecuted that God chose them and blessed them, even the very worst of them. No wars—no horses and chariots, no arrows, no guns, bombs, or missiles—no walls or barriers or ghettoes or prisons or concentration camps—are part of God’s ardent arsenal of love.
There is a story that comes from the tales and sayings of the Rabbis. The Hebrews have passed through the Red Sea. The horses and chariots of Pharoah have gotten mired in the mud and drowned in the returning waters. On the other side, there is elation, singing and dancing: ”God, Our God, has saved us from our enemies!” And as the festivity goes on God comes to the one who is to lead them into the Promised Land, Joshua, and asks him, ”Why are you so merry? Why do you celebrate the deaths of the Egyptians? Don’t you know that they are also my children, beloved to me?”
In Christ there is neither Jew, nor Greek, nor national nor ethnic boundaries, nor political parties, nor skin color. No caste or class. In this time of division and destruction, we respond most authentically as we try to fathom the largeness of the Heart of God, the vast breadth and depth of God’s embrace. And that we are part of it.
The photo accompanying this blog shows our mascot at the Peace Center. She looks so peaceful right now, sleeping with her head on her paws, lost to the world. But let a noisy car drive by or a car door slam or a small rock skitter across the sidewalk and she will leap into the air, tail fluffed out and body ready to strike.
That is what peace can be like, too. It is elusive. It looks calming, feels good, but too soon it is destroyed in the rambunctious earthly shakeups we call isms: racism, heterosexism, genderism, ageism, et al. We seek the peace that will be forever; we pray for it almost daily, but it is in the day to day that we will find it if we take a breath before we speak, if we see the face of God in someone else before we reject them, if we don’t look down on the ones we deem different but raise them up as we raise our own selves and give praise to God.
“Peace is flowing like a river”, “Make me an instrument of your peace”, “Give peace a chance”—these don’t have to be just words from a song. We can make them words to live by each and every day.