A Shimmering Ocean of Love

“We learn to see the face of Christ – the face of Christ that is also the face of a suffering human being, the face of the crucified, the face of the poor, the face of the saint, and the face of every person – and we love each one with the criteria with which we will be judged: ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat.’” –Oscar Romero

Our journey through life is littered with struggles. Distress and suffering seem to always be lurking around the next corner. God sees and cares about all our trials and tribulations, each of which prompts an outpouring of compassionate grace. No matter the dire circumstances in which we find ourselves, we have no need to fear…for God is always there, always ready to respond. Trust in God helps us persevere through tough times. As I look at my life, I believe what I have written so far in this paragraph. But then I look at the lives of the poor in Haiti and Uganda, and suddenly what I have just written rings false.

In Uganda I was stunned to see so many people walking many miles along dusty roads and under the blazing sun just to get the bare essentials of life. Dressed in tattered rages, they hauled large jugs of water and heavy bundles of firewood long distances. This endless parade of misery overwhelmed me. One night, I penned the following in my journal:

A small empty begging bowl holds the great void of life. Flowing along with birth and death, so many people hauling water and carrying firewood. So many people walking so far for the basics of life, being so far from the elixir of hope. If the human species could reach a place where there was neither lack nor excess, we would be entering a place of inexpressible light, we would entering a place of lasting peace, we would be entering a place of immeasurable grace, we would be entering the Kingdom of God. But we seem unable to discard greed and anger, unable to live without grasping, unwilling to embrace the other. And so we are unable to sail on the shimmering ocean of love that is God.

Part of the Lord’s Prayer is a request for the bread we need to sustain life. Even though we work to obtain the bread we need daily, our daily bread is a gift and a grace. For many people, having bread every day is not something they even have to think about or pray for: their cupboards are full. But for countless millions of people, having bread every day is a rarity: they live with hunger, with barren cupboards.

Bread is about relationship. It comes from the earth and from work and is for everyone. The earth produces the grain, we harvest and produce the bread, the bread is distributed, we give thanks for it and consume it. Bread is meant to be shared, to give life to all. The earth sustains humanity, and is in a life-giving relationship with us. We need to respect and protect “our sister, mother earth,” as St. Francis so poetically called her, so she can continue to produce our daily bread, bread meant to sustain the kingdom of God.

In his wonderful little book Three Prayers, Olivier Clément prays: “Give us – all of us – the bread we need, and may it also be the bread of the Kingdom, the bread of fraternal benevolence and of beauty.” Our praying for daily bread brings with it an obligation to share the bread. An essential part of Eucharistic communion is the obligation to share the Bread of Life. As St. John Chrysostom would say, the sacrament of “one’s neighbor” cannot be separated from the sacrament of “the altar.” We participate in the sacrament of “the altar” and easily forget the sacrament of “the neighbor.”

Part of the very Eucharistic mystery is the fact that the consecrated bread already contained the sacred before the words of consecration were uttered. Nurtured by the sun and watered by the rain, the unconsecrated bread is the fruit of the earth and the work of human hands. Bread is the gift of God’s benevolence and, like all of life, it is therefore sacred and a manifestation of God’s presence and love.

Change comes slowly: hunger will not be wiped out in a heartbeat. But if more and more people’s hearts beat with love and mercy for the poor, hunger will slowly disappear. Each of us might consider consuming our daily bread in moderation so we can share more of it with those who have none of it.

The Hasidic Jewish tradition suggests that only someone with a broken heart is a whole person. Some interpret that to mean that when a person has a broken heart, the presence of God rushes in to heal and love the broken heart. While I believe that to be true, I think there is more to it. When my heart was broken by the sight and reality of the desperately poor in Uganda and Haiti, I was taken out of myself and was made whole by virtue of my realization that I was connected not only to these people but to all of creation. I am whole when I realize I am part of the whole creation of God.

In the wholeness of my humanity I can see more clearly the huge gap between human misery and human compassion. In reference to the civil rights movement and the war in Vietnam, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel never tired of saying: “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” While we waged war in Iraq for oil, millions were dying from a lack of water.

The people I filmed in the refugee camps of Northern Uganda and in earthquake devastated Haiti had only one agenda: survival. Seeing so many people nearly half dead from hunger filled me with sadness. I was distressed and ashamed. And yet for most of my life I too was half dead from my own hunger…hunger for power, status and money. I was half dead to the suffering world around me.

There are no easy answers to the endless questions that arose from what I saw in Uganda and Haiti. There are no quick fixes, no good theological excuses either. Answers and solutions will only come from a broken heart. We need our hearts broken in order for us to truly step outside of our own ego, to strip ourselves of our own need for comfort and security and enter fully into the pain and suffering of our African and Haitian sisters and brothers and to walk in solidarity with them, demanding that they be set free from poverty, hunger and disease and be allowed to live in peace, simplicity and dignity.

As they walk with all their fears and hopes, the people of Uganda and Haiti breathlessly await our response to their unjust plight. We need to be the incarnation of God’s love and mercy. In stillness, we can hear God calling us to a more self-emptying life.

People of faith seek divine mercy, yet we often fail to extend human mercy. We seek forgiveness of sins and eternal life with God. The poor seek food and a better life on earth. Christ tells us that when we extend human mercy on earth to those who are starving, God extends divine mercy to us, offering us heavenly manna. When the poor are starving, Christ too hungers. Give to the poor, feed Christ, and Christ will feed you. Don’t be poor in love; share generously what you have with those most in need and be granted a seat at the divine banquet.

We need to transform an empty begging bowl into a shimmering ocean of love.

“In the economy of divine charity we have only as much as we give. But we are called upon to give as much as we have, and more: as much as we are. So the measure of our love is theoretically without limit. The more we desire to give ourselves in charity, the more charity we will have to give. And the more we give the more truly we shall be. For the Lord endows us with a being proportionate to the giving for which we are destined.”
-Thomas Merton

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