This month’s spiritual reflection is an excerpt from a “bearings letter” that is part of JustFaith Ministries’ “Engaging Spirituality” program, which helps participants deepen their prayer life and spirituality for the work of justice and compassion. This reflection has been shortened from its original version. For more information about Engaging Spirituality, click here.
The author, Marie Dennis, is a mother of six, a grandmother, a secular Franciscan, and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, DC. She also serves as a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. An active participant in international movements for peace and social justice, she was the first lay person to be elected co-president of Pax Christi International. She has traveled extensively in Latin America, Africa and Asia. A founder of the Jubilee Movement in the U.S., she holds a degree in moral theology and has authored several books on peace and the spirituality of social justice.
Touchstones for the Life of Faith
As a U.S. woman trying to follow Jesus in the chaos of these early 21st century years, I am haunted by the story of Lazarus – hungry, in rags and unnoticed – sitting at the gate of a rich man’s opulence. Believing that Lazarus’ story is a painfully accurate metaphor for our own times locally and globally, I struggle to live in a manner that narrows the gap between my own location in life and the dwelling place of the majority of God’s children – and to walk lightly on the earth. Maintaining a lifestyle that is authentic and consistent with what I claim to believe about social justice and the integrity of creation is my greatest challenge.
One of the most wonderful gifts of my life has been the opportunity to visit Maryknoll missioners in different corners of the world. There I’ve seen great beauty and strength – and life on the edge of survival from miserable poverty, violent conflict, brutal repression and, increasingly, from the local consequences of global warming and environmental destruction. I’ve tried to bring the stories I’ve heard there, and the reality I’ve seen, back home to impact the way we live and the way we, as a nation, are present in the world.
Closer to home I’ve seen a similar – if less extreme – reality: rural and urban poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, homelessness, lack of health care. A few long-term relationships with neighbors who are trapped in unrelenting poverty keep me acutely aware of my own privilege and of the danger that I will drift off into an unthinking and unseeing space on the wealthy and comfortable side of the chasm.
The fundamental challenge in my life has to do with right relationships, personal and societal. What does my lifestyle have to look like if I am going to build and maintain right relationships with people on the margins of our world? Do I give quality time and attention to maintaining these relationships and other important relationships in my life?
Over the years I have come to think about this challenge in terms of four characteristics of life: accompaniment, relinquishment, solidarity and community. These are the answers that seem most evident to questions about how white, middle-class people of faith in the U.S. should respond to the just demands of impoverished people around our world – and to the cry of the earth.
By accompaniment I mean the holy practice of walking with people who are afflicted and vulnerable– individuals for sure, but also communities, ethnic or racial groups and societies that are on the receiving-end of systemic injustice or war. I mean crossing all kinds of borders and boundaries to experience life with others– stepping out of familiar places and being uncomfortable in order to see with new eyes. I mean moving to the cadence of an impoverished person’s step to understand better their challenges and ideas– without immediately proposing solutions or dampening creativity.
Occasionally, I have had the opportunity to really accompany others– in Central America during the civil wars there– or in our neighborhood at times. I received the gift of accompanying my mom in her last difficult years of life. But so much of the time I visit the troubled places of our world, including war-zones and places of extreme poverty, visiting Maryknoll missioners or as part of a delegation. So much of my time is spent in places of privilege and centers of power, like Washington DC, that I struggle with the disconnection and worry whether I have drifted off the discipleship path.
By relinquishment I mean the next step– letting go of what we have in excess of need, to break the vicious cycle of accumulation and waste in a world of want. Gandhi admonished his followers to “Live simply so that others may simply live.” To figure out what that means is difficult, when new goods that we “cannot live without” come over the horizon every day, and we are told so often how much our economy depends on us “shopping!” Too much of our “essential stuff” is made on the backs of workers on the other side of the world. Too much “essential stuff” is depleting and destroying the earth, our only home.
Relinquishment, I think, also means letting go of privilege and destructive power that accumulate too easily for some of us and undercut our capacity for right relationships with those on the margins.
This is the highest mountain for me to climb. No matter how many times I think I have finally pared down to the bare essentials, in terms of what “stuff ” I have, down the road a piece I inevitably find myself with more than I need to live simply. And I am constantly aware how much my way of life rests on privilege. The tragedy is that just being a “white-person” makes that so.
Solidarity is a much more developed concept. It was a favorite virtue of Pope John Paul II and is most appropriate and possible in our shrinking world. Solidarity is active engagement in struggles of other people for a more dignified life and for a more just and sustainable world. It is, I think, grounded in our encounter with the reality of a broken world and, for followers of Christ, it is shaped by the values of the Gospel.
Solidarity grows out of accompaniment and is nourished by relinquishment. And while it is easy to stay busy, responding to one social or environmental concern after another, genuine solidarity is much rarer. I wonder sometimes if the virtue of solidarity really permeates my own work for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation. Do I give careful enough attention to the experiences, ideas and strategies for social or environmental transformation coming from impoverished communities? Do I reflect deeply enough on the actions I promote, to ensure that they are in harmony with the vision of marginalized peoples? Do I integrate theological reflection into the action planning I do?
The challenge to accompany human beings on the margins, and our now threatened earth; the challenge to relinquish what we have in excess that breaks our relationships with these people and the rest of creation; the challenge to move beyond lifestyle changes to act in solidarity with others for a more just and sustainable world; the challenge to live in community– these are the challenges with which I struggle the most as I strive to live a life of integrity.
Our experiences of reality, where life is made vulnerable by injustice and violence, open us to the Spirit moving in ways unique to each of us. Seek out those experiences by crossing borders. Let go of whatever separates you from forming right relationships with impoverished or marginalized people. Accept invitations to action on behalf of justice toward a better, more sustainable world. Nurture friendships. Join a community– pray together, act together, learn together, discern together, maybe even live together. Take one step at a time. Keep your life firmly rooted in the reality of life on the margins and open your ears to the cry of the earth.