Spiritual truth cannot be taught…it must be experienced. Once it has been experienced, one quickly realizes how much there is to learn. Through prayer I slowly learned that every sincere step I take toward God, God takes ten steps toward me. A deeper experience of God only comes through prayer and emerges from the events of our lives. A Zen Master was asked, “What is the path?” He answered, without hesitation, “Everyday life is the path.” The mundane and commonplace events of our everyday life are where we discover God. Just yesterday I became so annoyed over something trivial a friend did, I felt as if I could explode our friendship. In a moment of utter frustration, I saw how stupid I was being by allowing something truly insignificant to possibly destroy a beautiful friendship as well as my inner peace…simply because my ego had been inadvertently bruised by this person. While all of our journeys to God have many similar traits, each of our journeys is unique. Spiritual enlightenment is a solitary journey. No one else’s journey will work for you. You must make your own journey…alone. All progress on the lonely road to God only comes through much failure and many wounds. Success has never taught me anything. Paradoxically, humiliation, betrayal, and hurt, along with my own sins and failures, have been portals to growth, an expansion of my soul. Sin is actually a path to God. Only sinners need God.
The road to mystical consciousness is paved with an acceptance of our natural state of exodus, acceptance of the reality of human misery, acceptance of our limitations and fragility. The poor know about these things. And the humanity of Christ illuminated the vulnerable character of human nature. An awareness of oppression and a struggle for justice are integral to genuine mysticism. The all-embracing Christ invites us to be with Him, so that He, through us, can be with all people.
We are all migrants. As people of faith, we are migrants going from sin to grace, from earth to heaven, from death to life. Our migration is grounded in our belief that God first migrated to us in the person of Jesus and through him we are called to migrate to God. If migration worked itself into the self definition of all human beings we would not be as threatened by migrants as we often are; instead, we would see in them not only a reflection of ourselves but Christ who loves us.
While we busy ourselves striving for power and trying to control events and even people, the Gospel perpetually proclaims a far different approach to life: God has created us to live a life of dependence and receptivity, and our acceptance of that spiritual reality is required for true human growth and fulfillment.
To live the Gospel forces us to live with contradiction—for the Gospel requires a faith which believes that when one has nothing, one has everything. Moreover, it asks us to count poverty as riches and humiliation has an honor. Service to the poor and lowly is not optional…it is a requirement for the follower of Christ. To turn your back on the poor is to turn your back on Jesus. If the Gospel is not about love and justice, it has been reduced to mere sentimentality. Jesus denounced power, injustice and poverty. The core of Christianity is about the cross, suffering, renunciation and sharing what we have with others. Of course, we don’t like hearing that.
In his book, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, the 16th century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross said: “To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing.” His startling words stand in direct opposition to our American ambition for power, money, pleasure, glamour, security, and an ever increasing standard of living. The saint came to realize that an unrestrained appetite for these things fragments the soul, causing our lives to be too divided and cluttered to find the true peace and joy that can only be found in loving and serving God above all else.
On the cross, through grace, reconciliation and union with God became possible. St. John of the Cross asks us to live the Paschal Mystery, to enter the living death of the cross. He says, “The soul must empty itself of all that is not God in order to go to God.” The detached heart knows the fullness of peace, joy and freedom, and sees the face of God illuminated in all of creation. Those who struggle for their daily bread can offer great insight to those of us who struggle to go deeper into our spiritual lives.
Poverty gives birth to hunger and despair. Poverty means one bad thing after another. Worse, poverty often also means death. Death by poverty blasphemes the reign of life proclaimed by Christ. Jesus established the kingdom of God based on the Jubilee principles of the Old Testament. These principles called for a political, economic and spiritual revolution in response to human need. Jesus intended nothing less than an actual revolution, with debts forgiven, slaves set free, and land returned to the poor. Of course, this revolution threatened the vested interests of the powerful and therefore put Jesus on the road to Calvary.
Human need—be it physical, emotional, spiritual or social—was Jesus’ reason for being…and should be ours. Christ wants us to respond to the suffering that torments the poor. Jesus wants a new social order where human lives are dignified with justice, uplifted in compassion, and nurtured by peace. The ever increasing world of violence that threatens us all can only be defeated by love, by the reaching out of a hand in a moment of darkness. Compassion is the most effective response to hatred and violence. Because of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know that every birth, every life, and every death matters to God…and must matter to us.
We live in a world of cruel poverty, terrible injustice, and iniquitous inequality. We must give hope to the suffering. We cannot worship God and be indifferent to the poor. Worship without justice and charity is blasphemous. When we are focused solely on our own needs and desires, we are unable to hear the cries of the poor, to see the pain inflicted by acute poverty. An awareness of suffering and affliction, both your own and others, is the key to wisdom. If we are unable to hear the powerless voices of the marginalized, spiritual growth will be impossible.
To be in communion with God compels us to be in communion with the poor, becoming ferments of love, striving to alleviate their suffering. Christ gave us an understanding of divine justice that is based on divine mercy. The heartbeat of the Incarnation is generosity and love. In Christ, we see a God so generous he throws everything away out of love. Christ moved beyond justice to generosity. Jesus took pity on the crowd’s real need and called on his disciples to feed them. Jesus prayed for “daily bread.” Jesus defended those who, in their hunger, ate the grain growing in someone else’s field.
Thanks to one candidate for the president of the United States, the issue of undocumented migrants has become a central issue in campaign for the White House in 2016. The debate has turned ugly, vitriolic, and mean-spirited. It prompted me to look the script for a film I wrote and directed in 2004 which focused on the plight of undocumented migrants. Titled Endless Exodus, the film explored how we can learn to see the face of Christ in the face of the migrant coming to the US in search of a better life. Making the film was a real eye-opener for me, and taught me more than just about any other film I’ve made. I filmed in Mexico and El Salvador, as well as in Arizona and California. Over the next few blog postings, I will share little snippets of my narration from Endless Exodus, which is still available on DVD from Pax et Bonum Communications. Here are the first selection of quotations.
Migration is part of the very fabric of human life and has been so throughout human history. Escaping poverty is one of the main reasons people migrate. Globally more than 1.5 billion people are forced to subsist on less than a dollar a day. Every year some six million kids will die of illnesses that are directly or indirectly attributable to malnutrition. Such conditions are what push people to migrate, to leave their homes and even their families behind for a more dignified life…or even more basically—a chance to survive. Today more than 100 million people are migrating around the world.
The story of the migrant is ripe with biblical symbolism. The story of the Exodus and the passion of Christ are at the core of migrant spirituality. The story of Exodus is a story of liberation and journey to the Promised Land. The way of the cross is a journey that reminds us that Jesus is with us in our most difficult times. The road to the resurrection goes through the desert, through the cross. Christ asks for conversion every day, that every day we surrender more of ourselves to the all-embracing love of God. This is hard, very hard indeed. I need to reject the false security I seek, and accept my inability to control the future. The truth is we are all migrants, we are all poor…we just don’t see it.
In the face and presence of the poor we can learn to see the face and presence of Christ. God is at home among the poor. Jesus was born in the midst of their poverty and rejection. Like the poor and oppressed, Jesus was despised and rejected. Like the poor and oppressed, Jesus was hungry and discouraged. Jesus did not come as a royal ruler, as king of the universe. He was born into poverty and lived among the poor. He was an outcast, living among outcasts, living among people with no privilege or rights. His message was so radical, so unsettling, he was quickly put to death for threatening to turn the established power structure upside down.
Spirituality is only real to the extent that it is attuned to the material world.
The sustainability of earth and all living creatures is intertwined with spirituality.
Following Jesus requires a lot more than learning abstract ethical and moral principles; it requires a change in heart, a change in the way we look at life. A heart transformed by the love of Christ is a patient heart, a heart that takes the time to be still and to listen. To see with the eyes of Christ is to see the beauty of all creation, to see the beauty within ourselves, and within each other.
We are all in such a hurry, rushing from here to there, from this to that, an endless treadmill of movement going nowhere. Anxiety is as common as a cold. We are anxious about the future, our jobs, our relationships…we are anxious about virtually everything. Our anxiety breeds a drive to acquire more and more of everything. Nothing is enough. We want more of everything. More money, more prestige, more clothing, more contacts, better cars, bigger houses, faster computers.
In our endless movement, our constant rushing, we do not see our own loneliness, our brokenness. We are all wounded. But as our hearts become more transformed by the presence of Christ, we are able, in our weakness, to feel the love of God and to trust in the abundance of God’s love. Our relentless drive to acquire more is fueled by our deep-rooted sense of scarcity, our inability to trust that God wants to give us all that we need.