This too was written during my 2010 sabbatical…which saved my life in countless ways, large and small.
When I look into the sad face of a starving child living on the margins of a slum I find myself looking into the very mystery of life. Chronic poverty with its desperate and endless struggle for survival fills me with grief. Yet these dreadful and hopeless slums can be sacraments of transcendence that can unlock our unconsciousness and lead us to a place of solidarity with the poor. The mystery of poverty and pain, the very mystery of life and death, is too deep, too sensitive, and too fragile to be understood or solved by one person, one church, one religion, or one system of thought. But in these places of desperation I often catch fleeting glimpses of hope and the feeling that life is truly magnificent and precious. The cross is clearly visible in these nightmarish slums, but so is the joy of Easter.
For me, seeing so much suffering in the massive slums of the world forced me to forget myself, my own limitations, and hear the silent voice of God calling me to respond, not only to the shameful injustice, but also to God’s infinite mercy and love. In seeing so many starving kids with bloated bellies, I became less concerned with my own subjective needs and harmful compulsions, and more aware of the self-emptying love of Christ which I needed to imitate to the best of my ability, puny as it is. But the noise of life sometimes distracted me and rendered me deaf to God and capable of hearing only my own confused and rambling voice.
The pandemic of consumerism and busyness deadens our capacity for contemplation and causes a deterioration of our interior lives. Without the stillness and silence of solitude, we easily slip back into the mediocrity of a comfortable Christianity which is no match for the gun-toting, hopeless nihilism of postmodern life where everything is reduced to a commodity for sale, where unbridled greed has caused a catastrophic global economic recession, where materialism without qualification and sex without love are affirmed and championed, where mainstream corporations distribute pornography without shame or reproach, where dialogue has given way to vitriolic hate speech, where alleged Christians threaten to burn Muslim scriptures, where conflicts are settled by violence, where barbarous acts of terrorism threaten all, where loneliness has reached epidemic proportions, where blind religious fundamentalism passes for true faith, where drug addiction and alcoholism are rampant, where thousands of kids die every day from hunger, and where selfishness and individualism have created prisons of poverty and are destroying the earth. In stillness and silence we are able to catch a glimmer of the interconnectivity of all life, to see the sun as our brother and the moon as our sister, to see that all of humanity and all of creation as part of our family.
Even in solitude I’m powerless to create (or even merit) the desire of my heart, the desire to see the face of God. It is only by grace that God gives us eyes to see, ears to hear and a heart to understand. And the lived reality of God’s grace and presence leads us, in our own fragility, to greater and greater heights of compassion for others.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” In solitude, I want to bring all the stuff I have been shouldering for years and place them at the feet of Jesus. In a spirit of genuine friendship Jesus is inviting me, through the unplanned circumstances of my life, into a time and place of solitude so I can learn from him who is gentle and humble of heart and who sincerely wishes that my soul find rest and peace it so desperately needs. Jesus, who ate and drank with prostitutes and had the most disreputable of friends, accepts me just as I am, just where I am on my wandering journey through life during which I’ve often been troubled and sidetracked by the paradoxes and enigmas of Christianity. Though vested in divinity, Jesus took on human flesh. Though possessing all power, Jesus entered into our weakness and became powerless for us. Jesus entered into our nothingness so we could be filled with everything, with eternity. He entered into our frailty and futility, our sin-filled humanity and blessed us with countless hidden graces to help lead us to our true home with God. But, for the most part, we look away, and go our own way, just pretending to be a friend of Jesus.
Since before my teenage years, I’ve been strongly attracted to Jesus. But as a teenager growing up in New York City, I looked at life in my little slice of the Big Apple, which at the time was slowly and reluctantly becoming racially integrated, and saw that most Christians did not really take Jesus seriously, did not act according to his way of life. The same lips that proclaimed Jesus was Lord also uttered disgraceful racial epithets. My entire adult life confirmed the truth I saw then, that we don’t really take Jesus seriously. We more readily embrace war, embrace works of death, than we do peace, works of life. Why? Because the Gospel has not become flesh within us. We have not incarnated God’s word. We trust in the ways of the world not in the ways of the Word.
Solitude gives us the time and space for the difficult work of self-examination. In solitude we have the chance to reflect on just how far we have strayed from the Way. Jesus asks us to empty ourselves of everything, but we seem to only want to acquire more and more. Jesus was and is a truly counter-cultural figure. Christ is not asking us to be successful or productive. Christ is looking for us to be present…present to God (in prayer), and present to each other, present to each other in acts of love and mercy, especially present to the poor and the suffering.