Mary’s Song

I spent Christmas 2010 in Haiti, living in the Girardoville slum. The following was penned during that trip.

To live in Haiti within the confined context of a small, impoverished space is to confront my own selfishness. Instead of seeing the needs of others, I see only what I am lacking…such as a clean, private bathroom. It is in places of destitution I see my own true destitution. While submersed in a netherworld misery and suffering in Haiti during Advent of 2010, I began to hear more clearly the subversive and prophetic words of the Canticle of Mary. The Magnificat boldly proclaims God has “cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly.” Mary sings about the hungry, those who have been denied access to stable food supply, because she believes God promise that the weak and vulnerable will be lifted up. We may sing those words, but we don’t really take them seriously. But the reality is that the birth of God will turn everything upside down. Mary prophesies a new world in which no one is hungry or exploited, when all the lowly are lifted to a place of dignity. (The word that has been translated as “lowly” was often used in Septuagent to refer to the sexual humiliation of women.) And choosing a Virgin to be the Mother of God was no accident; in fact, it spoke loudly to God’s preference for the lowly and the outcast. In the Jewish world of the Old Testament, virginity was not seen as a virtue; in fact, virginity was held in very low esteem, considered to be useless, despised and pointless. Virginity struck a strong negative chord. But Christ, of course, befriended the weak and fragile. The deeper message here is that God makes our barrenness fruitful. And so Mary sings of a time when all who are poor will be filled with the rich bounty of God. That song becomes our song as we feed the hungry and lift up the lowly.

In John’s Gospel we read: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” As I walked St. Peter’s Church on Christmas morning, past the misery of the crowded tent city, it was abundantly clear that much darkness continues to abound in our world. Yet, we know, believe and see that there also is much Light. Holding the tension of the darkness and the light and being agents of peaceful change in the world is our primary task in life.

As I walked in the darkness past a park crammed with tents on my way to midnight Mass, the words of Mary’s Canticle in Luke’s Gospel were ringing out loudly in my mind. We are the instruments Christ wishes to use to lift up the lowly and feed the hungry. On Christmas Day in churches around the world I’m sure you will find lots of sweet and sentimental piety, but I doubt you will hear how the truth of the Gospel should compel us to speak out against the reality of the poor living in tents, going to sleep hungry. The promise of liberation is the essential message of the Incarnation, which frees us from all kinds of bondage. It is essential that we build a bridge between spirituality and social justice, which would be a true Christmas gift to the world.

Sadly, the Christmas season has become a paean to consumerism. The frenzied shopping drive used to not begin before the leftover Thanksgiving turkey was eaten, but today it begins before the big bird is even cooked. Before the agony of finding the right gift, comes the agony of finding a parking space in the mall…and then the agony of standing in a long line to use your already over-extended credit card to buy something you think is dumb but you hope will let someone know you care about them. Chances are the gift you buy will be made in a factory in China or Mexico by people who are over-worked, under-paid and very hungry.

The Elegance of Compassion

On July 4th I’ll be traveling back to Haiti to continue working on our dream of establishing the Santa Chiara Children’s Center. What follows is something I penned a few years ago, which now seems rather prophetic.

In 2010, as I filmed the people of Cité Soleil in Haiti, which is the largest and most dangerous slum in the country, I realized the poverty of my own service to the poor. I questioned if I was doing enough, and wondered what more I could do. I felt overwhelmed and inadequate. I sensed my own poverty and brokenness. Yet despite the agony I filmed, I didn’t sink into despair and could sense God’s grace mysteriously at work within me. I can’t explain it, but being in Cité Soleil somehow brought me closer to the heart of God.

Our very woundedness is waiting to be transformed into compassion. Our emotional and physical pain helps us understand and respond to the suffering of another. Compassion is as elegant as any cathedral. Through the eyes of compassion we begin to look at the world in a very different way and we slowly imagine a different world, a world where God’s compassionate presence is fully manifested in us and through us.

We view the world around us, with its spirit of self-indulgence, through the eyes of Christ, and we see things differently than our materialistic and militaristic society prefers we see them. We see, for instance, how we have turned medical care into a commodity that feeds the greed of soulless corporations more concerned about their bottom line than our well-being. We see how our culture, in blind pursuit of power and greed, has forgotten God. With God removed from our cultural consciousness, we have no need for fidelity to God’s relational way, we have no need for thankfulness to a faithful God.

With God gone, neatly put into a box labeled fairytale or myth, or worse, reduced to a comfortable, unthinking dogmatic formula, we as a culture begin to sink into a sea of self-indulgence. We slowly forget that life is a gift. We begin to live without a spirit of gratitude. We no longer see a world of abundance and life is reduced to a commodity and a series of market transactions. We even begin to leverage social goods, like medical care and education, into profit centers. And of course, we no longer hear the plaintive cries of distress from the poor. But God hears, and God is faithful and God responds and makes transformation possible. When we begin to really hear God, we too will hear the cries of the poor and become part of God’s mysterious response.

At Easter, we proclaim in song that “Christ is risen.” And he truly has. But yet, when we look at the reality of the world around us, we see death and destruction, revenge and retaliation. Our culture of death dominates our spirit of life. We have lost our prophetic voice and we no longer defend the stranger, the widow and the orphan, those who are hurting and have no voice.

In the slums of Girardoville (where I lived) and Cité Soleil (where I filmed extensively) the mystical dignity of the poor as emissaries of God is abundantly clear…if you take the time to really look. Cité Soleil and places like it exist because we as the human family have forgotten God and turned our backs on God’s children.

The Very Work of Hope

Madeleine Delbrêl was a young French poet and atheist who underwent a radical conversion to Catholicism when she was 20, and that led her to found, in 1933, a gospel community of lay women dedicated to poverty, chastity, and work among the poor. She’s often compared with her American contemporary, Dorothy Day. The introduction to her extraordinary book of powerful reflections, We, the Ordinary People of the Streets, contained an observation of a poor woman of the streets who offered a vivid description of her:

“If you are destitute, broken, wounded, or if you have suffered an injustice, her eyes widen and grow dark blue, almost black; her entire body stiffens, as if getting ready to make a move, to act, to defend.” The woman goes on to say, “And you have to give your assent, because what she does is truly the most important activity in the world, and you yourself have already been its beneficiary: she is digging holes with a child’s pail in the vast sand of human suffering, in order to bring forth springs that will never run dry. It is, indeed, the very work of Hope.”

In those words I hear an echo of Pax et Bonum Communications’ mission: to make films that defend the destitute, broken and wounded…and to offer hope to a suffering world. Despite that lofty goal, I’m fully aware of how insignificant we are. We are so small and inconsequential we don’t even have to try to be humble. We work very hard and with inadequate funding in order to change a few hearts, to offer a little hope. We have no big distribution deals, no TV broadcast dates. We have only enough funds in the bank to cover the next five months of operating costs. We live by faith, on the edge of extinction. Besides making films, I give about a dozen presentations a year at universities and churches. For instance, in 2012 during the last four weeks of Lent, I gave my “poverty and prayer” presentations at churches, high schools and colleges in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rochester, New York, Bloomington, Illinois, Los Angeles and Chicago. During those nine events, about 3,325 teenagers and adults heard our message. Still, sometimes I think it’s not worth the Herculean effort…and all the time spent in airports and on planes. But I quickly realize our job is not to judge the fruits of our labor, but simply to work, to faithfully and diligently plant seeds…and leave the rest to God. For me, these films, including the new films set in a refugee camp in Kenya, in the slums of Honduras, and in a home for sick kids in Peru, are the most important activity in the world, because I believe God has called me to make them, to give voice to the voiceless, to give hope to the hopeless. The struggle against injustice is intertwined with our own struggle to enter into a true and full relationship with God. I pray that when people look at the work of the PetB, they may say, “Theirs is the very work of Hope.” And our work will be judged not by how many films we sold (only about a thousand in the last four years), but how faithful our films were to the Gospel. The Gospel is an urgent call to radicalism: to love all, without exception, without counting the cost.

And now we will be doing more than putting the power of film at the service of the poor…we will actually be serving poor children in Haiti. We are about to expand our ministry by opening a day care center in a slum in Port-au-Prince, Haiti which will be named the Santa Chiara Children’s Center. During research trips to Haiti in May and June, we have determined the location and found a building that will house this exciting new outreach to the impoverished children in one destitute neighborhood. I will be returning to Haiti on July 4th. We hope to be able to open the center in the Spring of 2016. Between now and then, there is much work to be done and money to be raised. Meanwhile, in early September we will be releasing our epic film on the life and spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi which is based on my new book, The Loneliness and Longing of Saint Francis, which recently was honored with an award from the Catholic Publisher’s Association. By God’s unmerited grace, we continue to be a voice speaking out on behalf of the poor. Your prayerful support is needed and deeply appreciated. We are a 501(c)3 public charity.

A Mustard Seed

The following comes from a journal I kept will in Haiti a few weeks ago:

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Gospel for today (the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time) was the familiar parable of the mustard seed found in the 4th Chapter of Mark’s gospel. Jesus compares the kingdom of God to “the smallest of all the seeds on earth,” yet the insignificant mustard seed grows into “the largest of plants,” whose branches attract all manner of birds and provide shade for all. The lowly mustard seed is very easy to overlook, yet it is filled with life-giving potential. In Haiti, mustard seeds abound, in the form of easily neglected and abandoned people who are being swept away by the ill-winds of severe poverty. But each person, Jesus tells us, contains possibility and purpose. I can’t help think of all the small kids in Haiti who are not given a chance to grow into the person God created them to become. My prayer is that the Santa Chiara Children’s Center we hope to establish in Haiti becomes a place where those who are small and forgotten are given a chance to grow.

A Living Tabernacle

Jesus is sacramentally present in the Eucharist; He is also present, in a different way, in the poor. St. John Chrysostom saw the connection between the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and His presence in the poor. In a homily on the Gospel of Matthew, the great saint of the Eastern Church wrote:

Would you honor the body of Christ? Do not despise Him in His nakedness, that is, in the unclothed poor; do not honor Him here in church clothed in silk vestments, and then pass Him by unclothed and frozen outside…. What is the use of loading Christ’s table with gold cups while He Himself is starving? Feed the hungry, and then if you have any money left over spend it on the altar table. Will you make a cup of gold and withhold a cup of water? What use is it to adorn the altar with cloth of gold hangings and deny Christ a coat for His back?…Adorn your house if you will, but do not forget your brother in distress. He is a temple of infinitely greater value.

The once visible Christ who walked on earth, while now present in the Eucharist, has existentially passed to the poor, and to all those whom Jesus referred to when he said, “You did it to me.” Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM, Cap., in his powerful, little book Poverty makes this clear when he writes:

The poor person is Jesus, still roaming the world unrecognized, rather like when he appeared in different guises after the resurrection to Mary as a gardener, to the disciples on the road to Emmaus as a traveller, to the apostles on the lake as an expert fisherman standing on the shore – waiting for their eyes to be opened with a cry of recognition: “It is the Lord!” (Jn 21:7). If only that same cry of recognition – “It is the Lord!” – could issue from our lips even once, at the sight of a poor person.” [Staten Island, NY: Alba House, 1997].

St. Francis, who strove to combine radical detachment with loving care of the downtrodden, learned to see the poor person as a living tabernacle of the poor and despised Christ.

A Delicate Balance

After being in Haiti for a week working on the development of the Santa Chiara Children’s Center I’ve been so busy digging out from the pile of mail that arrived during my absence that I have not had the time to pen a new posting for today. So I’m dipping into something written a few years ago that deals with the subject of over busyness. I published the following on my blog on August 2, 2013; it was included in an unpublished book titled Mysticism and Mercy: Reflections from Along Poverty Road.

Whenever things in my personal life turned sour during the last eighteen years it could be mostly blamed on my failure to maintain the delicate balance between contemplation and action. How stupid it was of me to think that “my” work on behalf of the poor was more important than tending to my own inner poverty.

First, it was never “my” work; it was work given to me by God. I was doing God’s work. And to perform at the highest level of effectiveness I needed to have the work be more fully rooted in the grace of God. It seemed the more my former ministry grew in size, the more I erroneously felt it was dependent on my tireless effort in order to sustain the growth. Whenever I became truly exhausted by the effort, I too frequently succumbed to my weaknesses instead of nourishing myself on the bounty of God’s tender love and endless compassion. The demands of the ministry were overwhelming. Yet I didn’t need to carry that burden by myself…or think it all depended upon me. No film, no book is going to save the world. Only love will save the world. What I did on behalf of the poor – and what I am doing – is not that important, nor will it make much of a difference. But God’s work is not subject to a cost-benefit analysis; it freely gives itself away without counting the cost or expecting a reward.

My books and films, all rooted in Franciscan spirituality, no matter how many people they have deeply touched, are irrelevant unless they becomes more real inside of me and it continues to be written afresh in my heart. As I penned these humble, stumbling words, I realized I knew a lot about the life and spirituality of St. Francis. Big deal. What’s important is that after eighteen years of immersion into the Franciscan charism I have not yet allowed the saint’s insights to truly enter deeply into my being and radically transform who I am; instead, I tinkered around the edges. It really does not matter if I write another book or make another film. The only thing that matters is that I surrender my heart more fully to God…and begin to really love. All the words and images in the world are all but useless if they are not animated by the Word that speaks of evolving life and increasing love.

Don’t look to me for answer—I don’t know anything.

An Invitation

Freedom comes from seeing ourselves the way God sees us. God sees my sin but does not want to crush me because of my sin. God sees my weaknesses and loves me anyway. God softly whispers an invitation for me to become holy without ever making me feel guilty. This is inner freedom. I can sin if I wish. I can also not sin if I wish. There is not pressure, no judgment from God. There is just love…and an invitation to become one with that love. Somehow religion traveled down the path of guilt and fear rather than the path of freedom and forgiveness. Jesus invites us to let him help us carry our load. When we walk with Jesus, we can stop pretending to be who we are not. Day by day, I’m slowly becoming more at peace with who I am, despite my stumbles. And day by day, I’m slowly growing stronger in my desire to be more holy. This I think must please God. God wants to help sinners become saints…because that would be good for us, and for all of humanity. Love is the only thing that can heal our wounded humanity, our wounded planet. But here’s the real deal: no matter how much good we do, we can’t make God love us any more, and, more important, no matter how much bad we do, we can’t make God love us any less. Of course, this is beyond our comprehension.

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