MYSTICISM: Two Short Essays, by Ptolemy Tompkins

From The Sun

Those Dark Trees

Driving across America the August before I stopped drinking, I found myself in Tennessee, taking note of that big look that trees get in the East at the end of summer: a line of them at the far end of a field, like blooms of dark green ink dropped into water.  When you see a group of trees like that, it’s easy to think that you could drop everything and just head off into them, the way Robert Frost is always talking about doing in his poems, marching and marching until you arrive at the secret heart of the world.  Of course, when Frost talked longingly about disappearing into the lovely woods, he was really talking about death.  But what kind?  Death in the sense of simple annihilation, of darkness and the merciful extinguishing of consciousness?  Or death as goal, as finish line, as the fantastic adulthood for which the life we know is merely a kind of preparatory adolescence?  All trees say, Vanish into us.  But they say it in different ways.  Take the kind of trees – ragged, sinister, fringed with litter – that one sees near service stations, or in the background on the evening news.  “It was here, in this wooded area less than a mile from where they were last seen alive. . . .”  Walk into a stand of trees like that, and you risk ending up scratched and sweaty, having traveled for miles in the wrong direction, and not an inch closer to the secret heart of anything than you were when you set out.

Not to dwell on the drinking, but that’s what happened with it as well: you started with a simple, clean desire to go and go, but at some point a wrong turn was always taken, and you woke up dead and dull and about as far from the true center as it was possible to get.

Tennessee is a big state.  That summer, I was still in it hours after I figured I would have left it behind.

Sometimes in the Shower

Sometimes, when you’re taking a shower in a house where the plumbing doesn’t work so well, there will be a clank behind the walls, and the water will go cold for a moment.  Amid the steam and the white towels, the old truths will suddenly return: life ends badly; comfort and security are cruel illusions; this self of mine that feels so solid and eternal is doomed to sputter and sink, like a would-be nineteenth-century aviator in a grainy photograph, drifting back to Earth in his flapping, failed machine.

Then, just as these thoughts are really taking hold, the hot water comes back on, and all is well again.  The old truths turn out to be simple fictions created in the darkness and discomfort of other times and other places.  It’s different now; it really is.  The great transit can be made, the impossible operation performed, the football thrown from the far end of the field and caught and carried triumphantly into the end zone.  I reach past the shower curtain, turn off the light, and sit down on the floor of the tub.  Down here, the water feels like warm rain falling in a distant jungle.  And I am a stone statue, brooding in darkness, waiting for the explorers to arrive.

HEALING: Using The Lord’s Prayer To Breathe

It was an oddest assignment for contemplative prayer.

I was to take the Lord’s Prayer into the meditation, and as I let myself be guided by the vision, I was to intone the prayer.  Word by word.  Out loud.

Speaking aloud during contemplative prayer was not the most unusual aspect of the assignment, I thought.  It was using the Lord’s Prayer, itself, during such an exercise.

Not that I have not had experiences, both in visions and in life, related to the Lord’s Prayer.

In my visions of what I call, the end of the world, but what God entitles his period of Works and Wonders, the solution to chaos reigning on Earth is always the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer.  Collectively.  Globally.  Universally.

The Lord’s Prayer as the means of salvation.

Now, as an aside here, I find just this type of vision a key in understanding man’s difficulty with having a relationship with God.  God floods the Earth, wiping out sin, ostensibly, with hope anyway, and this is what God sits back and refers to as a Work or a Wonder.

We call it a disaster.  A horror.  Death.

A few people might find their deepest spiritual gift and eventually get down on their knees and thank God for such an act.

The rest of us will  pretty much just go, harumph.  And wonder not at the work God has wrought, but at God himself.

But I have “used” the Lord’s Prayer as actual redemption, if that’s the right word, in a real-life situation.

When I am working on a miracle I use the rosary to pray.  I use “my” prayer on the small beads, and on the large beads I pray the Lord’s Prayer and the Gloria Patri.  When the assignment is a challenging one, when there is a matter of getting through what feels to be a wall of evil just to make the petition to God, I use the break of the Lord’s Prayer to be the best form of relief from the struggle.

I know I am having difficulty when, during the prayers for the miracle, I cannot remember the words.  When it becomes too much, I keep the words on a card before me and read the prayer.  Over and over and over again.

But when I come to the large bead and there get to say the Lord’s Prayer, surely a prayer that I know beyond my heart – way beyond – and I flounder in finding those precious words and become confused about their order, and grasping a handy prayerbook in order to be able to utter the prayer, I feel as though I have been given a large rock to rest on between the bouts in the conflict that is the praying for the miracle.

The first use of the Lord’s Prayer mentioned above I have always seen as the ultimate petition.  Our world is under threat, about to be extinguished, please help us, Father.

The second use listed, the one in the series of prayers for a miracle, is, as I described, an oasis.  A relief.

First aid.

So that is why I blinked a bit when I received the assignment to bring the Lord’s Prayer into a time of contemplative prayer with me.  I knew what the vision was to be, generally.  I had been prepped, so to speak.  And I couldn’t find where the Lord’s Prayer would be used as an entreaty for help.  Nor did I see that it would be used as a form of temporary easement.

Instead, I was to say the prayer, out loud, word by word, throughout the vision.

Not even as a background sound effect, existing peripherally.  The Lord’s Prayer was to be my words in the conversation.

The vision had to do with a closet.

And a case inside the closet.

A case that, to my mind, in heading into this vision quickly became Pandora’s box.

(And, yes, I know that the word “box” was a mistranslation and that Pandora was actually given a jar, but for the purposes of my vision, it’s still a box.  Something with corners, anyway.)

And I was Pandora.

The other person in the conversation, in the vision, in the healing, was Jesus.

He came into the closet after me.

Perhaps now, with him there with me, it was no longer a closet but a cave.

Deep and infinitely dark.

As Jesus spoke to me and I reached inside me to find the answers, I began to recite the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father. . . . 

At first it felt like an exercise, saying it to prove that I knew it.

Just words.  Memorized.  Repeated out loud.

I noticed that I was surprised when I finally opened the box and found not shapeless echoes that flitted about me, but actual shapes.  And colors.

Evil I could actually touch.

Who art in Heaven. . . .

I knew that I could hear the questions of Jesus.

I knew that I was listening to my own words of the Lord’s Prayer.

But I was, really, frozen in the experience of the box.

Hallowed be thy name. . . .

I said the prayer over and over and over again.

Another surprise was in remembering that soon after I had opened this box in reality I was peeling carrots.  Transferring wet clothes from the washing machine into the dryer.

Stooping over with a ripped piece of paper towel to blot up the remains of a squashed bug that had been carried in on the bottom of a shoe.

Thy kingdom come. . . .

As I watched the evil in the box, lying there, fully satisfied in its existence, the questions of Jesus faded away.

The Lord’s Prayer became a slower recitation.  Jerky.

Thy will be done. . . .

Later in the night I would sing to the children before they went to sleep.

I saw that the words of Over The Rainbow had changed their meaning for me for all time.

On Earth as it is in Heaven.

On Earth as it is in Heaven.

And the prayer changed.  Its meaning.  Its purpose.

The words became sponges.

Each word of the prayer absorbed a spurt of emotion.

Like blood at a crime scene.

Soaked up.

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.

Does it really say that?

How can it possibly tell us to do that?

At the bottom of Pandora’s box lay hope.

At the base of our souls breathes God.

And deliver us from evil.


PEACEBUILDING: The Journey Toward Reconciliation, by John Paul Lederach

From The Journey Toward Reconciliation

The story of Esau and Jacob has especially shaped the way I understand and look at reconciliation.  It has provided me with a guiding framework for the other stories and ideas that I will explore.  Let me start with the narrative in Genesis, chapters 25-33.

Esau and Jacob are brothers, sons of Isaac and Rebecca.  Esau is the firstborn, the hunter, and the pride of his father’s eyes.  Jacob stays near home and close to his mother.  When Isaac is old and nearly blind, he calls Esau to bless him as the firstborn son.

Esau sets out to hunt for game to roast as the meal preceding that generational blessing.  While he is gone, Rebecca shows Jacob how to trick the old man into believing that he is Esau.  Not knowing and not seeing, Isaac bestows the revered blessing on his younger son, Jacob.

When Esau returns and brings the meal to his father, they both discover that they have been tricked.  Esau moans with an “exceedingly great and bitter cry.”  He implores his father three times, “Bless me, me also, father.  Have you not reserved a blessing for me?  Have you only one blessing, father?  Bless me, me also, father!” (from 27:34-38)  But there is nothing further that Isaac can give.  He has already released the blessing for the firstborn; like an arrow in flight, it cannot be recalled.  Jacob has stolen Esau’s birthright and his blessing.

Esau then shouts with a voice that carries out across the tent village, “I hate Jacob!  I will kill my brother!”  These are the last words we hear from Esau until the brothers meet years later.  On hearing this threat, Jacob flees in fear.  The brothers are bitter enemies.

For many years they live separately.  They have families and become wealthy.  When Jacob faces difficulties with his wives’ brothers, he hears the Lord say, “Return to the land of your ancestors and to your kindred, and I will be with you.” (31:3)  He is to return to the land where Esau lives.

Jacob turns his face toward Esau and the land of Seir.  And he is afraid.

As he progresses on his journey, he sends messengers with gifts to appease his brother.  They return saying that Esau, hearing that Jacob is coming, has set out to meet him with four hundred men.

Jacob becomes greatly distressed.  He cries out to God: “Deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him.  He may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children.” (32:11, adapted)  But Jacob continues the journey toward Esau, sending gifts ahead each day as he travels.

The night before Jacob meets Esau, he comes to a ford in the stream Jabbok.  He sends his wives, children, and everything he has across the stream and stays behind, alone.  During the night a man comes and wrestles with him until daybreak.  When the man sees that he cannot overcome Jacob, he strikes Jacob’s hip out of joint and demands to be let go.  But Jacob will not let him go until he gives Jacob a blessing.  The man then blesses him and gives him a new name, Israel.  Jacob says, “I have seen the face of God, and yet my life is preserved.”  He names the place Peniel, “The face of God,” so it will be remembered. (32:22-30)

The next morning Jacob rises to meet Esau.  After he crosses the stream, he sees Esau coming with four hundred men.  He arranges his family behind him.  Turning toward his brother, Jacob bows to the ground seven times as he approaches Esau.  But Esau runs to meet him, embraces him, falls on his neck, and kisses him.  And they weep. (33:1-4)

“What do you mean by sending me all these things?” Esau asks.

“I wanted to find your favor,” Jacob replies.

“I have enough,” Esau declares.

“No, please;. . . accept my present from my hand,” Jacob says, “for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God – since you have received me with such favor.” (33:10)

Then after several days together, the brothers separate again.  Each chooses a different valley, and they move apart.

This certainly is an amazing story of conflict and reconciliation.  It leads through a metaphorical moment.  “I have seen the face of God.”  It moves on to a powerful similitude, or point of comparison: “to see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

When we read such narratives in the Bible, we too often lose track of the genuine human qualities.  We tend to see the stories as sacred and removed from our own reality.  But look closely.  We can see and feel the real human nature woven into the telling.  What I find most intriguing are the parts left untold in the story.  We must explore them in our search for understanding the process of reconciliation.

We find two brothers, one who tricks the other.  We feel the depth of Esau’s pain in the deception.  He cries time and again for his father to bless him.  His cry turns to bitter hatred.  We see Jacob flee in fear.  His deceptive actions will haunt him.  The brothers move apart both physically and emotionally.

Here we ponder profound questions about conflict and resolution.  How and when do we surface and address the injustice that was committed?  How and in what ways is putting distance between persons, moving apart, a necessary part of the journey toward reconciliation?  How do we respond to people who are at this point in their journey?  The pain is so deep, the injustice so clear and immediately present, and the emotions so high!  Is it legitimate to separate?

Such a view of reconciliation means we must be cautious about quick formulas of “forgiveness” and being “nice” to each other.  Well-intentioned people may advise estranged parties to quickly forgive and forget.  Yet those parties may need a long time and geographical separation for healing to occur.  As in the case of these two brothers, the separation might last for decades.

One of the least-understood aspects of reconciliation is how to think about and allow for spaces of separation as an acceptable stage in the spiritual journey toward reconciliation.  At these times, we wonder and wander.  We are perplexed, awestruck by events, and groping for direction.   Where is justice?  Why me?  Where is God?

Years later, the Lord asks Jacob to return, to take the journey back to Esau.  We hear Jacob’s cry: “I am afraid. My brother, my sworn enemy, may kill me and my entire family.”

Behind Jacob’s cry is the voice we have all felt and the question we all have asked: How can I journey toward that which threatens my life and creates in me the greatest fear?  The biblical account does not give us a detailed explanation.  We are missing information at perhaps the most crucial point.

Jacob’s earlier journey took him away from Esau, and now he turns his face back toward the thing that scares him the most.  What makes this turn possible?  Is it his life experiences and maturity?  Has he suffered injustice?  Is it uniquely divine intervention?  If that is the case, how do we hear God when all of our human senses are telling us the opposite?

How can people who work for reconciliation help create conditions where this sort of turning is possible?  How can we accompany those who are in a long process of turning?

I have learned that there is no magical formula or technique we can apply to create the turn.  The mystery of reconciliation is the most significant aspect of the journey.  The turn is not something we can humanly produce or control.

We follow Jacob’s journey of fear and struggle back to Esau.  He moves toward that fear in a journey that will ultimately involve a struggle with himself and with God.  He walks to meet his enemy.  We are given no explanation for Esau’s journey or window into it.  We follow Jacob, who is guilty of manipulation, lying, and wrongdoing.

A few clues along the way tell us how Jacob’s journey proceeds.  Nothing tells us how Esau moves through his bitter anger, how he turns toward his offender and oppressor, and then embraces him as a long-missed brother.  What makes such grace possible?  Is it Jacob’s visible repentance?  How can Esau be sure that Jacob’s repentance is not another manipulation?  How would Esau have responded if Jacob had not repented?

What if Esau had not fared well over the years and the outcome of the injustice was a life of misery for him?  How do we accompany the many Esaus in their journeys toward and through bitter anger and injustice and ultimately toward their oppressors?  How do we accompany Jacob on his journey toward self-understanding, facing his fear, and returning to his enemy?

We feel the intense emotion when the brothers meet.  In great fear, Jacob finds a brother who embraces him.  Esau finds a lost brother.  They weep with each other.  Several important signposts in this story provide me with a way to understand the complex scenery that marks the landscape of reconciliation.  I will return to these signposts frequently.

Reconciliation as a Journey

The primary metaphor in the story of Esau and Jacob is setting out on a journey.  In the first journey, the brothers separate, moving away from each other.  For Jacob, the journey of separation is driven by fear and perhaps a deep inner sense of guilt that cannot be faced.  For Esau, it seems driven by bitterness and hatred, rooted in a profound experience of injustice.

We are not told in detail how each overcomes what has driven them, nor how much time it takes to change.  We are told something that is consistent with nearly every other story of reconciliation in the Bible.  The Lord says, “Turn.  Go back.  Take the journey toward your enemy.  I will be with you.”  As a journey, reconciliation is understood as both the flight away and the daring trip back.

Ultimately, reconciliation is a journey toward and through conflict.  In this instance, God does not promise to do the work for Jacob.  God does not promise to do the work for Jacob.  God does not promise that he will take care of everything and level the road for Jacob.  God promises to accompany him, to be present.

Reconciliation as Encounters

One cannot lightly set out on the journey through conflict nor conduct it without a high cost.  We see the pain and anguish in the encounters.  In general, we think about reconciliation as a single encounter bound to the time and place where enemies meet face-to-face.  Yet in the story of Esau and Jacob, there are at least three encounters during the journey.  What happens is not nearly bound up in a single encounter.

Along the way, encounters happen episodically, as metaphorical moments when we notice God’s truth breaking into our lives.  I believe there are encounters in every journey of reconciliation.  They are different, yet at points interwoven and almost indistinguishable.  They are the encounters with self, with God, and with other(s).

The journey through conflict toward reconciliation always involves turning to face oneself.  Jacob has to face his fear.  To turn toward his brother, his enemy, he first has to deal with himself, his own fears, and his past actions.  In this sense, at least, we can understand the long night of fighting alone with the stranger.  During that night he fights with his own past and his fears about the future, then sees the face of God.

The journey toward reconciliation is not a path for the weak and feeble.  Facing oneself and one’s own fears and anxieties demands an outward and an inward journey.  Along the journey of conflict, we always encounter ourselves, and in doing so, we come face-to-face with God, our maker, whose image we bear, and who calls on us to “return.”

Fear and bitterness are rooted in the experiences we have had with others.  The journey toward reconciliation always involves turning toward the people who have contributed to our pain.  As in the case of Jacob, it means turning toward the enemy.  There are two important changes during Jacob’s journey: First, he turns toward Esau.  Second, he seeks the face of his brother.  It is impossible for us to make significant progress on the journey of reconciliation without these two elements.

We turn and begin to walk in the direction of the person we fear.  When we turn, we face a new destiny.  We are not moving away from a person and a place.  Instead, we are moving toward a place of reconciliation.  That place is the face of the enemy that we seek.  The story tells of Jacob “seeing” the face of Esau.  He looks for and into that which he has feared the most.

In both actions – to turn and to seek – I find profound challenges.  The journey of reconciliation requires us to expose our faces in a way that seems enormously risky.  We feel vulnerable.  Yet we must turn toward what most frightens us in the depths of our souls: the face of our enemy.  To seek that face is to see in our enemy a person.

As we set out on this messy and quite-human journey, we find that we encounter God.  This is the paradox.  When we fight all night in the darkness of our soul and fear, we struggle with God.  When we turn to seek the face of our enemy, we look into the face of God.

This is Jacob’s journey.  He fights all night with the stranger; a long night of fighting himself and his fears, and he sees God face-to-face.  The next day he is bowing himself to the ground seven times as he approaches his brother.  Esau embraces him.  Jacob exclaims, “To see your face is like seeing the face of God.”

We will find God present throughout the journey toward reconciliation, in the depths of fear, in the hopelessness of dark nights, in the tears of reconnection.  We experience dazzling insight, defining moments that show where we are going and who we are becoming in our relationships.  The pathway through conflict toward reconciliation is filled with God-encounters, if we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the heart to feel.

Reconciliation as a Place

This journey leads to a place.  In the story of Esau and Jacob, that place involves heartfelt reunion.  We sometimes think of this as the ultimate resolution, the ending place.  But we need to understand that the journey has many places along the way.  Each of the major encounters – with the self, with the enemy, and with God – is marked by a place.  A place is a specific time and space where certain things come together in the journey.

In the story of Esau and Jacob, these places are marked, named, and memorialized.  In these places people have met their enemies, God has met people, and individuals have encountered themselves and gained new awareness.  Here again it is the extraordinary dual nature of reconciliation: It is both a place we are trying to reach and a journey we take to get there.

Usually, we, as individuals and societies, mark our encounters by remembering those aspects of conflict that have produced pain, loss, and sacrifice.  For example, most of our official remembrance markers refer to war, places of great loss, or important military victories.  But in the story of Esau and Jacob, the altars are built and the places are named to help people remember where God has encountered a person on the journey toward the enemy and reconciliation.

Once Jacob and Esau reach the place of reconciliation where they meet face-to-face, it is still not the end.  The journey goes on, but the two brothers do not stay together.  This story does not have a fairy-tale ending with everyone living together happily ever after.  The journey leads to an encounter and a place; that encounter and place lead to new journeys.  Such is the lifelong walk with self, the other, and God.

The story of Esau and Jacob leaves us with this landscape of memorialized places that celebrate metaphorical moments.  Reconciliation is a journey, an encounter, and a place.  God calls us to set out on this journey.  It is a journey through conflict, marked by places where we see the face of God, the face of the enemy, and the face of our own self.

POETRY: Reconciliation, by Walt Whitman

Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly
softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

POETRY: Pounding Swords Into Ploughshares, by David Wagoner

You’ll need dozens for each ploughshare,
but no matter how hard your hammer
comes down on them, pounding
and pounding blades on an anvil,
no matter how glowing they look there,
bloodred again, they’ll only flatten
to thinner and thinner, misshapen,
flabby sheets useless for anything
but the sheer noise of forging them
or patching roofs. Their crystal structure
may give in at half the temperature
of melting, but simple annealing
won’t bring their shapes together
and sharpen them to a hollow
earth-turning curve. In the meanwhile,
the dozens and dozens you took them from,
the ones not dead yet, will be demanding
you give them back, supposedly
to protect their unploughed farms
from the enemy, but much more likely
to flourish in someone else’s fields
among their abandoned ploughs.

POETRY: Late Justice, by Kay Ryan

Late justice may
be more useless
than none. Some
expungings or
or getting-backs
lack the capacity
to correct. The
formerly aggrieved
become exacting
in unattractive
ways: intolerant
of delay, determined
to collect. And shocked—
shocked—at their
new unappeasableness,
who had so long
been so reasonable.

PEACEMAKING: Forgiveness, Reconciliation, And Justice — A Christian Contribution to a More Peaceful Environment, by Miroslav Volf

From Christian Peace and Nonviolence, edited by Michael G. Long

In this essay I want to contest the claim that the Christian faith, as one of the major world religions, predominantly fosters violence, and to argue, instead, that it should be seen as a contributor to more peaceful social environments.  I will not argue that the Christian faith was not and is not often employed to foster violence.  Obviously, such an argument cannot be plausibly made; not only have Christians committed atrocities and other lesser forms of violence but they have also drawn on religious beliefs to justify them.  Neither will I argue that the Christian faith has been historically less associated with violence than other major religions; I am not at all sure that this is the case.  Rather, I will argue that at least when it comes to Christianity, the cure against religiously induced or legitimized violence is not less religion, but, in a carefully qualified sense, more religion.  Put differently, the more we reduce Christian faith to vague religiosity or conceive of it as exclusively a private affair of individuals, the worse off we will be; and inversely, the more we nurture it as an ongoing tradition that by its intrinsic content shapes behavior and by the domain of its regulative reach touches the public sphere, the better off we will be.  “Thick” practice of the Christian faith will help reduce violence and shape a culture of peace.

Will to Embrace, Actual Embrace

So what is the relationship between reconciliation and justice that is inscribed in the very heart of the Christian faith?  Partly to keep things rhetorically simpler, I will substitute the more poetic “embrace” for “peace” as the terminal point of the reconciliation process as I explore this issue in the remainder of my text.  The Christian tradition can be plausibly construed to make four central claims about the relation between justice and embrace.

The Primacy of the Will to Embrace

The starting point is the primacy of the will to embrace the other, even the offender.  Since the God Christians worship is the God of unconditional and indiscriminate love the will to embrace the other is the most fundamental obligation of Christians.  The claim is radical, and precisely in its radicality, so socially significant.  The will to give ourselves to others and to welcome them, to readjust our identities to make space for them, is prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.  The will to embrace precedes any “truth” about others and any reading of their action with respect to justice.  This will is absolutely indiscriminate and strictly immutable; it transcends the moral mapping of the social world into “good” and “evil.”

The primacy of the will to embrace is sustained negatively by some important insights into the nature of the human predicament.  Since the Christian tradition sees all people as marred by evil and since it conceives of evil not just as act but as a power that transcends individual actors, it rejects the construction of the world around exclusive moral polarities – here, on our side, “the just, the pure, the innocent,” and there, on the other side, “the unjust, the defiled, the guilty.”  Such a world does not exist.  If our search for peace is predicated on its existence, in its factual absence we will be prone to make the mistake of refusing to read conflicts in moral terms and thus lazily fall back on either establishing symmetries in guilt or proclaiming all actors as irrational.  Instead of conceiving of our search for peace as a struggle on behalf of “the just, the pure, the innocent,” we should understand it as an endeavor to transform the world in which justice and injustice, innocence and guilt, crisscross and intersect, and we should do so guided by the recognition that the economy of undeserved grace has primacy over the economy of moral desert.

Attending to Justice as a Precondition of Actual Embrace

Notice that I have described the will to embrace as unconditional and indiscriminate, but not the embrace itself.  A genuine embrace, an embrace that neither play-acts acceptance nor crushes the other, cannot take place until justice is attended to.  Hence the will to embrace includes in itself the will to determine what is just and to name wrong as wrong.  The will to embrace includes the will to rectify the wrongs that have been done, and it includes the will to reshape the relationships to correspond to justice.  And yet, though an actual embrace requires attending to justice, it does not require establishment of strict justice.  Indeed, the pursuit of embrace is precisely an alternative to constructing social relations around strict justice.  It is a way of creating a genuine and deeply human community of harmonious peace in an imperfect world of inescapable injustice.  Without the grace of embrace, humane life in our world in which evil is inescapably committed but our deeds are irreversible would be impossible.

Will to Embrace as Framework for the Search for Justice

To emphasize the will to embrace means more than to advocate learning how to live with inescapable injustice while not giving up on the pursuit of justice.  For the will to embrace is also a precondition of (even tenuous) convergences and agreements on what is just in a world of strife.  Without the will to embrace, each party will insist on the justness of their own cause, and strife will continue.  For, given the nature of human beings and their interaction, there is too much injustice in an uncompromising struggle for justice.

The will to embrace – love – sheds the light of knowledge by the fire it carries with it.  Our eyes need the light of this fire to perceive any justice in the causes and actions of our enemies.  Granted, our enemies may prove to be as unjust as they seem, and what they insist is just may in fact be a perversion of justice.  But if there is any justice in their causes and actions, only the will to embrace will make us capable of perceiving it, because it will let us see both them and ourselves with their eyes.  Similarly, the will to exclude – hatred – blinds by the fire it carries with it.  The fire of exclusion directs its light only on the injustice of others; any justness they may have is enveloped in darkness or branded as covert injustice – a merely contrived goodness that makes their evil all the more deadly.  Both the “clenched fist” and the “open arms” are epistemic stances; they are moral conditions of adequate moral perception.  The clenched fist hinders the perception of the possibly justness of our opponents and thereby reinforces injustice; the open arms help detect any justness that may hide behind what seems to be the manifest unjustness of our opponents and thereby reinforces justice.  To agree on justice in situations of conflict you must want more than justice; you must want embrace.

Embrace as the Horizon of the Struggle for Justice

As in many of our activities, in the struggle for justice much depends on the telos of the struggle.  Toward what is the struggle oriented?  Is it oriented simply toward ensuring that everyone gets what they deserve?  Or is it oriented toward the larger goal of healing relationships?  I think the latter is the case.  Hence the embrace should be the telos of the struggle for justice.  If not, reconciliation will not even be attempted until the “right” side has won.  And unless reconciliation is the horizon of the struggle from the outset, it is not clear why reconciliation should even been attempted after the victory of the “right” side has been achieved.

Pulling all four features of the relation between reconciliation and justice together we can say that reconciliation describes primarily a process whose goal is the creation of a community in which each recognizes and is recognized by all and in which all mutually give themselves to each other in love.  As such, the concept of reconciliation stands in opposition to any notion of self-enclosed totality predicated on various forms of exclusion.  And far from standing in contrast to justice, for such a notion of reconciliation justice is an integral element.  Though reconciliation may be seen from one angel to issue ultimately in a state “beyond justice,” it does so precisely by attending to justice rather than by circumventing it.

Forgiveness and the Primacy of Embrace

Forgiveness can be properly understood and practiced only in the context of the stance which gives primacy to reconciliation but does not give up the pursuit of justice.  So what is the relation between forgiveness and justice?

First, forgiveness does not stand outside of justice.  To the contrary, forgiveness is possible only against the backdrop of a tacit affirmation of justice.  Forgiveness always entails blame.  Anyone who has been forgiven for what she has not done will attest to that.  Forgiveness should therefore not be confused with acceptance of the other.  Acceptance is a purely positive concept; any notion of negation is foreign to it, except, obviously, that it implies negation of non-acceptance.  But negation is constitutive of forgiveness.  To offer forgiveness is at the same time to condemn the deed and accuse the doer; to receive forgiveness is at the same time to admit to the deed and accept the blame.

Second, forgiveness presupposes that justice – full justice in the strict sense of the term – has not been done.  If justice were fully done, forgiveness would not be necessary, except in the limited and inadequate sense of not being vindictive; justice itself would have fully repaid for the wrongdoing.  Forgiveness is necessary because strict justice is not done and strictly speaking, cannot be done.

Third, forgiveness entails not only the affirmation of the claims of justice but also their transcendence.  More precisely, by forgiving we affirm the claims of justice in the very act of not letting them count against the one whom we forgive.  By stating that the claims of justice need not be (fully) satisfied, the person who forgives indirectly underscores the fact that what the sense of justice claims to be a wrongdoing is indeed a wrongdoing.

Fourth, since it consists in forgoing the affirmed claims of justice, forgiveness, like any instantiation of grace, involves self-denial and risk.  One has let go of something one had a right to, and one is not fully certain whether one’s magnanimity will bear fruit either in one’s inner peace or in a restored relationship.  Yet forgiveness is also laden with promise.  Forgiveness is the context in which wrongdoers can come to the recognition of their own injustice.  To accuse wrongdoers by simply insisting on strict justice is to drive them down the path of self-justification and denial before others and before themselves.  To accuse wrongdoers by offering forgiveness is to invite them to self-knowledge and release.  Such an invitation has a potential of leading the wrongdoer to admit guilt and to repent, and thereby healing not only wrongdoers but also those who have been wronged by them.

Fifth, the first step in the process of forgiveness is unconditional.  It is not predicated on repentance on the part of the wrongdoer or on her willingness to redress the wrong committed.  Yet, full-fledged and completed forgiveness is not unconditional.  It is true that repentance – the recognition that the deed committed was evil coupled with the willingness to men one’s ways – is not so much a prerequisite of forgiveness as, more profoundly, its possible result.  Yet repentance is the kind of result of forgiveness whose absence would amount to a refusal to see oneself as guilty and therefore a refusal to receive forgiveness as forgiveness.  Hence an unrepentant wrongdoer must in the end remain an unforgiven wrongdoer – the unconditionality of the first step in the process of forgiveness notwithstanding.

Finally, forgiveness is best received if in addition to repentance there takes place some form of restitution.  Indeed, one may ask whether the repentance is genuine if the wrongdoer refuses to restore something of what she has taken away by the wrongdoing – provided that she is capable of doing so.

In sum, forgiveness is an element in the process of reconciliation, a process in which the search for justice is an integral and yet subordinate element.


In the later part of this essay I sought to explicate the social significance of the foundational act of the Christian faith – the death of Christ.  This step from the narrative of what God has done for humanity on the cross of Christ to the account of what human beings ought to do in relation to one another was often left unmade in the history of Christianity.  The logic of God’s action, it was sometimes argued, was applicable to the inner world of human souls plagued by guilt and shame; the outer relationships in family, economy, and state ought to be governed by another logic, more worldly logic.  At least in Protestantism, this disjunction between the inner and the outer was one important reason why the Christian faith could be misused to legitimize violence.  Emptied of their social import, religious symbols nonetheless floated loosely in the social world and could be harnessed to purposes that are at odds with their proper content.  Significantly, this disjunction is never to be found in the New Testament; instead, the central religious narratives and rituals are intended to shape all domains of early Christians’ lives.  Arguably, the central Christian rituals, Baptism and Eucharist, enact the narrative of divine action precisely as the pattern for lives of believers.

It may well be the case, someone may respond, that the Christian faith at its heart fosters peace rather than violence.  But in what ways can it do so in concrete social and political settings?  First, the narrative of divine action can motivate and shape behavior of individual actors in conflict situations.  Depending on their position, such individual actors can be significant and even decisive for the future of conflicts.  Second, this narrative can shape broader cultural habits and expectations that make peaceful solutions possible.  It takes a particular cultural soil for the seed of peace to bear fruit.  Of course, the narratival portrayal of divine redemptive action cannot be simply mirrored in human interaction, be that on individual, communal, or political planes.  Instead, one has to aim at culturally and situationally appropriate practical analogies as near or distant echoes of the divine redemptive action that lies at the heart of the Christian faith.

Finally, the narrative of divine action as it applies to human interaction can help shape social institutions.  One way to think about how this may be the case is to recall the concluding words of Anthony Giddens’s book, Modernity and Self-Identity.  After noting the emergence in the high modernity of what he calls “life politics” (as distinct from “emancipatory politics”), which demands a remoralization of social life, he writes:

How can we remoralize social life without falling prey to prejudices?  The more we return to existential issues, the more we find moral disagreements; how can these be reconciled?  If there are no transhistorical moral principles, how can humanity cope with clashes of “true believers” without violence?  Responding to such problems will surely require a major reconstruction of emancipatory politics as well as the pursuit of the life-political endeavors.

The narrative of the God of unconditional love who reconciles humanity without condoning injustice along with its intended patterning in the lives of human beings and communities, contains, I suggest, at least some resources for such a reconstruction of politcs.

PEACEMAKING: Five Principles Of A Practical Theology Of Reconciliation, by Robert J. Schreiter

From Peacebuilding

Christian theology makes a distinction between vertical and horizontal reconciliation.  Vertical reconciliation is humanity’s being reconciled to God.  It concerns the biblical vision of human sin and how that sin is overcome in Christ, especially in his suffering and death.  Because of Christ’s work, human beings are brought back into communion with God.  This communion with God is the destiny of all human beings.  The biblical touchstone for this is Romans 5:1-11.  There, Paul asserts that we have been justified before God and that this has brought about reconciliation.

Most of Catholic teaching about reconciliation that has been developed thus far focuses on this vertical dimension of reconciliation – reconciling to sinner to God.  Horizontal reconciliation – reconciliation among human beings, either individually or socially – is rooted in vertical reconciliation, God’s reconciling work.  Without the work of God, our capacity to bring about large-scale reconciliation does not reach far enough to undo the damage that conflict, betrayal, and violation have wrought.  This does not rule our human agency by any means; it simply recognizes the magnitude of what is involved.

There are two biblical passages that are the touchstones of horizontal reconciliation as understood by Christians:

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything is made new!  All of this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.  So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)

Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.  But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.  He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinance, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.  So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.  So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. (Ephesians 2:12-20)

The Corinthians passage sees reconciliation as a “new creation” wrought by God through Christ and proclaims that this ministry of reconciliation has been entrusted to us.  The Ephesians passage, looking at the alienation between Gentile and Jewish Christians, announces that this division has been overcome in Christ, who has created a single, new humanity that now dwells together, formed as fellow citizens in the household of God.  The images that guide this understanding of reconciliation are of relationships: relationships with God and with our fellow human beings.  The theology articulated here sees our capacity to bring about reconciliation as grounded in God’s activity, especially in the death and resurrection of Christ, historical events that have cosmic significance.  Because all things and all people are ultimately intended to be in right relationship with one another, everything is connected.  Although we may see reconciliation as discrete acts and events, they are all ultimately connected if the world is to be a meaningful place.

Concretely, five principles that guide a practical theology of reconciliation emerge from this biblical understanding.  I present each of these principles, noting its linkage to and resonance with the biblical tradition, what practices of reconciliation flow from – and in turn modify – our understanding of it, and the analogues in non-Christian and secular approaches to peacebuilding.

First Principle: God is the author of reconciliation; we but participate in the work of God.

This principle clearly is linked to the central insight into reconciliation: it is God who brings about reconciliation, and we participate in that process.  This belief is corroborated by much of our experience in rebuilding societies after conflict, oppression, and violations of human rights; the magnitude of the damage is such that the implications of what has happened and what will be needed to overcome the suffering endured are beyond the reach of human comprehension.

What does this mean for Christian practices of reconciliation?  It certainly does not mean passive resignation.  The Corinthians passage explicitly calls Christians into the work of reconciliation.  What it does do, however, is affect our posture and attitudes in working for reconciliation.  We realize that reconciliation is not ultimately something we bring about; it is God working through us.  Consequently, we struggle to see the situation as much as possible with a more capacious perspective than we are likely to have on our own.  This is especially important for builders of peace who come from rich and powerful countries to work in poverty-stricken areas and think they can command the resources to change anything.

What this does is make those working for reconciliation more other-centered and less self-centered.  This is extremely important, for working for reconciliation often means being able to “think outside the box,” something that will be discussed more under the third principle below.

For Christians, a spiritual discipline of prayer is important here, because it is in communion with God that we will be the most able to help restore the communion that has been broken around us.  The kind of prayer most important here is silent or contemplative prayer, where we wait for God to speak rather than sending up a barrage of words to God.  Learning to wait on God in silence also enhances our capacity to listen and to discern small, barely noticeable movements in processes of healing.

Realizing that reconciliation is ultimately God’s work and that we are God’s “ambassadors” also can help lift the onus of building peace from our shoulders in some measure.  Psychological exhaustion and burnout are not uncommon in peacebuilding, especially for those who are cast in leadership positions.  The spiritual disciplines of prayer are no guarantee that such burnout will not happen, but they can alleviate some of the pressure.  Many religious leaders have experienced such exhaustion, despite their best efforts.  Bishop Carlos Belo in Timor-Leste, Friar Ivo Markovic in Bosnia, and Father Sava Janjic in Kosovo are examples. (See Peacebuilders in Action: Profiles of Religion in Conflict Resolution.)  Nonetheless, having contemplative prayer in the repertory of preventative measures against exhaustion can not only help relieve stress, but it also helps us keep perspective.

Are there correlates to these ideas about reconciliation as the work of God in other religious, and in nonreligious, discourses about peacebuilding?  One common denominator is the notion of an “other-centeredness” as fundamental to successful peacebuilding.  Peacebuilders need to find a place outside themselves and outside their own capacities from which to envision peace because prolonged conflict tends to harden opposing positions, and things get “stuck.”  Finding a new perspective from outside the situation is one way of getting unstuck.  For theist traditions God again can be seen as the source of peace.  For Buddhism the concept of karuna (compassion) for an unenlightened and suffering humanity can serve as the fulcrum.  For secular people the concept of a single humanity or of altruism can supply an analogous insight.  Disciplines such as meditation and centering can provide a refocusing of attitude, as well as relieve stress.  Other-centeredness is vital to being able to imagine a different future, as John Paul Lederach has said. (The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace)

Second Principle: In reconciliation, God begins with the victim.

While it may seem counterintuitive to focus first on the victim and not on the wrongdoer who has wreaked so much havoc on individuals and society, Christian reconciliation turns first to the victim.  This is built upon the message of Israel’s prophets and the ministry of Jesus: go first to the orphan and the widow, the prisoner and the stranger.  It finds its most clear expression in Catholic social teaching in the preferential option for the poor.

This “victim first” approach finds experiential corroboration in the fact that, after a time of conflict and oppression or violation of human rights, the perpetrators of wrongdoing seldom if ever apologize or take responsibility for their actions.  Up to his death in 2006, Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet not only did not apologize for crimes committed thirty years earlier, but continued to declare himself savior of the nation, despite torture of fellow citizens and at least three thousand documented deaths.  If victims have to wait for an apology or for justice to be done before they can begin to heal, they are held hostage to the past indefinitely – and sometimes forever.

Again, to say that the healing begins with the victims does not mean forgoing the pursuit of justice.  It is simply a realization that justice usually takes a long time.  Christians believe that God does not suspend the cause of victims in the meantime but finds ways for the healing to begin.  If there is not healing and eventually some measure of justice for victims, a culture of peace will be beyond reach as people harbor resentment and live with unhealed wounds.

The practices that flow from this insight aim at restoring the humanity of the victim, something that has been denied them in the violation of their human rights, as well as through the consequences of overt violence and other forms of oppression.  A restoration of communion with God, where God’s presence is experienced as a healing force, is pivotal for the victim’s future.  The wrongdoer is not omitted from this picture.  By engaging in dehumanizing practices, the wrongdoer has lost some measure of humanity as well and has become separated from the human community.  Practices of conversion, remorse, and acts of expiation through punishment or ritual separation from the community will have to be undertaken if the perpetrator’s humanity and membership in the human family are to be restored.

The analogue in public discourse for this principle arises out of the history of how current concepts of peacebuilding have emerged.  Moving from relief and charity for victims, to development, and now to peacebuilding, has involved not only humanitarian efforts, but also addressing the causes of victimization.  In this domain, as in the more specifically Christian and religious one, the victim is not the only focus of concern, but, without focusing upon the victim, the situation can at best be ameliorated but is unlikely to be transformed.

Third Principle: In reconciliation, God makes of the victim and the wrongdoer a “new creation.”

The “new creation” spoken of in this principle is a direct reference to 2 Corinthians 5:1`7.  God’s reconciling work does not restore us to some status quo ante but takes us to a new place.  This new place is usually not something that victims, wrongdoers, and those working for reconciliation would have projected on their own.  It comes as something of a surprise.

Again, there is corroboration for this in practical experience.  People who have suffered grievous harm dream about returning to where they were before all the violence happened.  Displaced persons, refugees, and exiles dream of returning to their homes.  If they are eventually able to do so, they sometimes find that it is not “home” anymore.  Sometimes their domiciles have been destroyed, or the former residents find those who drove them out living there.  It is for that reason that resettling displaced persons and refugees is so difficult.  (Rwanda has been a clear example of this.)  If exiles have been away for many years, they find their homelands so changed by intervening events that they no longer feel comfortable there.  That has been the case for those who fled Central and Eastern Europe before the Soviet troops after World War II and for Vietnamese exiles.  In these instances they discover that, indeed, you can’t go home again.

In other instances, such as dealing with the consequences of torture or mutilation, or the loss or disappearance of a loved one, there quite simply can be no return to the past; the only way is forward.

The practices of reconciliation that flow from this insight focus on the accompaniment of victims in their path of healing.  These may entail physical healing or overcoming the effects of trauma.  It may involve the healing of memories.  It nearly always entails the rebuilding of severed bonds of trust.  It must begin with recognition of the presence and dignity of victims as human beings, move through the acknowledgement of the wrongdoing and its consequences, and rebuild a world in light of all of this.

The moment of a “new creation” is met with amazement.  That South Africa could move from decades of state policy of violation of human rights to its “rainbow” society without further violence and death is one of those amazing stories.  For Christians, it is evidence of God’s graced action in the world.  For those of other faiths or no faith, it may be ascribed to an inscrutable act of God or to the deep mysteries of humanity.  That at some point one cannot remain fixated on the past, but must move into the future, is something all of these perspectives can share.

Fourth Principle: Christians lodge their suffering in the story of the suffering and death of Christ.

Rebuilding after conflict, oppression, and violation inevitably entails dealing with the consequences of suffering.  Suffering in itself is destructive to the human spirit and can lead to the disintegration of the human person.  It seems suffering can be overcome or even positively transformed only if it can be situated in or attached to some cause or reality larger than the person suffering.  Some of those attributions to something larger can lead to passivity – such as believing that it is “my lot” to suffer or that God has willed this suffering.

For Christians, placing their suffering in the story of the suffering and death of Christ is a way of making suffering a means of forging something better and stronger than was there before.  This is corroborated in the biblical tradition in Philippians 3:10-11, where Paul says that he wishes to be patterned into the suffering of Christ in his own life so that he may come to know the power of the resurrection.  Christ’s suffering and death are considered by Christians to be something he did not deserve, and that God has recognized that in raising Jesus from the dead.  It is the promise that the resurrection sets before those who are faithful to Christ that prompts them to unite their suffering to Christ’s in the hopes of experiencing the resurrection.

To be sure, the meaning of the death of Christ has been subjected to many interpretations.  But however it is construed, Christ’s suffering and death are seen to have cosmic significance that allowed him to enter into death and overcome it.

Christians call the narrative of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ the Paschal Mystery, that is, a path of transformation that leads from suffering and death into an utterly transfigured new state of life.  That transformation remains for Christians a paradigm of the process of reconciliation – a transformation that takes us to a new and unexpected place in ways we only partially understand.

In the practices of reconciliation that flow from this belief, finding a way through suffering involves trying to reconstruct the networks and webs of meaning that have been torn apart by traumatic experience.  Those webs of meaning must reconnect the self, one’ place in the community, the world, and even God.  The narratives of Christ’s betrayal, humiliation, rejection, torture, and death become sites where those experiences of victims can be lodged.  The hope is that a new narrative will emerge out of the narrative of suffering, that destructive memories will become redemptive ones.

The religious traditions of the world have different explanations for suffering.  For some, it may be a call to endurance and transformation; for others, it may be the invitation to awareness of the impermanence of all things.  In contemporary secular thinking it is a call to resistance and to a reassertion of human agency.  Overcoming suffering, however, is a theme that runs through all peacebuilding work, however it is approached.  Sometimes there is an opening that is widened by resistance and agency; in other instances coping and survival become the paramount concerns.  For many poor Christians, traditions of popular piety help provide the resilience that maintains humanity under inhumane conditions.

Fifth Principle: Reconciliation will not be complete until God is “all in all.”

There are references to reconciliation in the Christian scriptures that point to its eschatological character: complete reconciliation will happen only when all people and all things have been reconciled in Christ at the end of time, (Ephesians 1:10; Colossians 1:20), at a point when God will be “all in all,” (1 Corinthians 15:28).

If indeed everything and everyone are interconnected, the ultimate reconciliation is a cosmic event.  That, in turn, entails that we are unlikely to see full reconciliation in any situation in our own lifetime.  This again is corroborated in the experience of working for reconciliation; it is always incomplete and uncompleted.  We see this in the decision making that has to be done in transitional justice and the reconstruction of societies.  Not only can we not change the past, but we can also only prepare for the future in a limited way.  In countries that have suffered extreme loss through protracted war, the suffering to be healed and the physical needs to be met are often overwhelming.

Moreover, as much as we might try to describe the processes and “steps” in reconciliation in a linear way, the process is far from straightforward.  Any experience in social reconciliation has to attest to its “messy” character: twists and turns, reversals and setbacks, sudden surges of insight and energy, followed by enervating erosions of carefully constructed schemes.  These all remind us again of how little we are actually in control of the processes of reconciliation.

One response to this could be, of course, passivity or giving up on the building of peace at all.  For Christians, working for reconciliation engenders hope.  Such work teaches the difference between optimism and hope.  Optimism is our positive feeling about the future that is generated from our estimation of our own capacity to act.  If we come from rich and powerful settings, with a lot of resources at hand, we can be optimistic about how we are going to be able to change things.  Hope, on the other hand, is something that comes from God.  It is the experience of God drawing us into a reconciled future.  Hope often goes against the immediate evidence before us.  It is able to discern the moments of grace, able to “celebrate the small victories, because there will never be any big ones,” as a religious sister said to me years ago after the assassination of one of her co-workers in the Amazon basin.  Hope arises from discerning the hand of God gently changing things.  As a young man said to me in Vukovar some years after the siege had been lifted there, but with that Croatian city still lying in ruins: “Things are much better now.  For the first two years after the siege, the birds stayed away from Vukvar.  But last year they came back.  And this year they have started to sing.”

We find hope in sources outside ourselves, whether God or the concept of humanity or something else.  It is those outside sources that draw believers and those of no particular faith forward.  We see this fifth principle returning us “full circle” to the first: the source of reconciliation lies outside us, but we are drawn intimately into reconciliation’s workings.

PRAYER: A Prayer Of Reconciliation, by Caryl Micklem

Christ died that we might be reconciled to you, Father, and to one another.  People cannot believe in reconciliation with you unless there are human reconciliations which reflect it.  And so we pray for the healing of the broken bonds of human life.

We pray for reconciliation between nations.  We do not believe that the true interests of nations ever conflict sharply enough for war to be necessary.  And yet we know that peace has often been exploited by those who love to oppress, making war a grim necessity.  Give us true peace, founded on justice and respect for human rights.

We pray for reconciliation between races, especially in countries where different races live side-by-side.  May the principle of equal citizenship and equal opportunity be accepted everywhere.  May the laws strengthen the hands of people of goodwill.  May different races learn to speak the truth in love to each other.  May wisdom and patience mean that the day of bloody revolution need never come.

We pray for reconciliation between generations.  It is hard for parents to realize that their authority is not absolute and that their values may be questioned.  It is hard for young people to realize that they lack experience and may have no more staying power than their elders.  It is especially hard when one generation is given opportunities and choices the other did not have.  Grant, Lord, that both may learn from each other, and that the common problems of our world may be faced together.

We pray for reconciliation between the sexes.  We thank you for the new opportunities women have to follow their careers and take part in public life.  Help men and women to understand the ways in which their roles have changed and must change, and to work together on equal terms and mutual respect.  Help husbands and wives to achieve harmony in marriage, despite the stresses of modern life.

We pray for reconciliation between churches.  Break down the inertia which keeps us apart when the original causes of division no longer matter.  Help us to judge whether present differences are sufficient to be allowed to obscure the unity we have in Christ.  And may unions of churches take place in such a way that they do not become the occasion for new divisions.

We pray for reconciliation between religions.  May those who profess one faith no longer suspect and misrepresent those who profess another.  May good be recognized wherever it exists.  May all people hold to truth as they see it, and bear witness to it, but with goodwill and respect.

May the Christ who once reconciled Jew and Gentile, slave and freeman into one body continue to break down the walls which divine us.


SATURDAY READING: Blessed Are The Meek, by Thomas Merton

From Faith and Violence

It would be a serious mistake to regard Christian nonviolence simply as a novel tactic which is at once efficacious and even edifying, and which enables the sensitive man to participate in the struggles of the world without being dirtied with blood.  Nonviolence is not simply a way of proving one’s point and getting what one wants without being involved in behavior that one considers ugly and evil.  Nor is it, for that matter, a means which anyone can legitimately make use of according to his fancy for any purpose whatever.  To practice nonviolence for a purely selfish or arbitrary end would in fact discredit and distort the truth of nonviolent resistance.  To use nonviolence merely in order to gain political advantage at the expense of the opponent’s violent mistakes would also be an abuse of this tactic.

Nonviolence is perhaps the most exacting of all forms of struggle, not only because it demands first of all that one be ready to suffer evil and even face the threat of death without violent retaliation, but because it excludes mere transient self-interest, even political, from its considerations.  In a very real sense, he who practices nonviolent resistance must commit himself not to be defense of his own interests or even those of a particular group: he must commit himself to the defense of objective truth and right and above all of man.  His aim is then not simply to “prevail” or to prove that he is right and the adversary wrong, or to make the adversary give in and yield what is demanded of him.

Nor should the nonviolent register be content to prove to himself that he is virtuous and right, that his hands and heart are pure even though the adversary’s may be evil and defiled.  Still less should he seek for himself the psychological gratification of upsetting the adversary’s conscience and perhaps driving him to an act of bad faith and refusal of the truth.  We know that our unconscious motives may, at times, make our nonviolence a form of moral aggression and even a subtle provocation designed (without our awareness) to bring out the evil we hope to find in the adversary, and thus to justify ourselves in our own eyes and in the eyes of “decent people.”  Wherever there is a high moral ideal there is an attendant risk of pharisiaism and nonviolence is no exception.  The basis of pharisaism is division: on one hand this morally or socially privileged self and the elite to which it belongs.  On the other, the “others,” the wicked, the unenlightened, whoever they may be, communists, capitalists, colonialists, traitors, international Jewry, racists, and so forth.

Christian nonviolence is not built on a presupposed division, but on the basic unity of man.  It is not for the conversion of the wicked to the ideas of the good, but for the healing and reconciliation of man with himself, man the person and man the human family.

The nonviolent resister is not fighting simply for “his” truth or for “his” pure conscience, or for the right that is on “his side.”  On the contrary, both his strength and his weakness come from the fact that he is fighting for the truth, common to him and to the adversary, the right which is objective and universal.  He is fighting for everybody.  

For this very reason, as Gandhi saw, the fully consistent practice of nonviolence demands a solid metaphysical and religious basis both in being and in God.  This comes before subjective good intentions and sincerity.  For the Hindu this metaphysical basis was provided by the Vedantist doctrine of the Atman, the true transcendent Self which alone is absolutely real, and before which the empirical self of the individual must be effaced in the faithful practice of dharma.  For the Christian, the basis of nonviolence is the Gospel message of salvation for all men and of the Kingdom of God to which all are summoned.  The disciple of Christ, he who has heard the good news, the announcement of the Lord’s coming and of His victory, and is aware of the definitive establishment of the kingdom, proves his faith by the gift of his whole self to the Lord in order that all may enter the kingdom.  This Christian discipleship entails a certain way of acting, a politeia, conversatio, which is proper to the kingdom.

The great historical event, the coming of the kingdom, is made clear and is “realized” in proportion as Christians themselves live the life of the kingdom in the circumstances of their own place and time.  The saving grace of God in the Lord Jesus is proclaimed to man existentially in the love, the openness, the simplicity, the humility, and the self-sacrifice of Christians.  By their example of a truly Christian understanding of the world, expressed in a living and active application of the Christian faith to the human problems of their own time, Christians manifest the love of Christ for men, (John 13:35, 17:21), and by that fact make him visibly present in the world.  The religious basis of Christian nonviolence is then faith in Christ the Redeemer and obedience to his demand to love and manifest himself in us by a certain manner of acting int he world and in relation to other men.  This obedience enables us to live as true citizens of the kingdom, in which the divine mercy, the grace, favor, and redeeming love of God are active in our lives.  Then the Holy Spirit will indeed “rest upon us” and act in us, not for our own good alone but for God and his kingdom.  And if the Spirit dwells in us and works in us, our lives will be a continuous and progressive conversion and transformation in which we also, in some measure, help to transform others and allow ourselves to be transformed by and with others, in Christ.

The chief place in which this new mode of life is set forth in detail is the Sermon on the Mount.  At the very beginning of this great inaugural discourse, the Lord numbers the beatitudes, which are the theological foundation of Christian nonviolence: Blessed are the poor in spirit; blessed are the meek. (Matthew 5:3-4)

This does not mean, “Blessed are they who are endowed with a tranquil natural temperament, who are not easily moved to anger, who are always quiet and obedient, who do not naturally resist!”  Still less does it mean, “Blessed are they who passively submit without protest to unjust oppression.”  On the contrary, we know that the “poor in spirit” are those to whom the prophets spoke, those who in the last days will be the “humble of the Earth,” that is to say, the oppressed who have no human weapons to rely on and who nevertheless resist evil.  They are true to the commandments of Yahweh, and who hear the voice that tells them: “Seek justice, seek humility, perhaps you will find shelter on the day of the Lord’s wrath.” (Sophia 2:3)  In other words, they seek justice in the power of truth and of God, not by the power of man.  Note that Christian meekness, which is essential to true nonviolence, has this eschatological quality about it.  It refrains from self-assertion and from violent aggression because it sees all things in the light of the great judgment.  Hence it does not struggle and fight merely for this or that ephemeral gain.  It struggles for the truth and the right which alone will stand in that day when all is to be tried by fire, (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

Furthermore, Christian nonviolence and meekness imply a particular understanding of the power of human poverty and powerlessness when they are united with the invisible strength of Christ.  The beatitudes indeed convey a profound existential understanding of the dynamic of the kingdom of God – a dynamic made clear in the parables of the mustard seed and of the yeast.  This is a dynamism of patient and secret growth, in belief that out of the smallest, weakest and most insignificant seed the greatest tree will come.  This is not merely a matter of blind and arbitrary faith.  The early history of the church, the record of the apostles and martyrs remains to testify to this inherent and mysterious dynamism of the ecclesial “event” in the world of history and time.  Christian nonviolence is rooted in this consciousness and this faith.

This aspect of Christian nonviolence is extremely important and it gives us the key to a proper understanding of the meekness which accepts being “without strength” (gewaltlos) not out of masochism, quietism, defeatism, or false passivity, but trusting in the strength of the Lord of truth.  Indeed, we repeat, Christian nonviolence is nothing if not first of all a formal profession of faith in the gospel message that the kingdom has been established and that the Lord of truth is indeed risen and reigning over his kingdom, defending the deepest values of those who dwell in it.

MYSTICISM: Violence And Nonviolence, by Dorothee Soelle

From Christian Peace And Nonviolence, edited by Michael G. Long

It is beyond dispute that a child, even before it begins to write the alphabet and gathers worldly knowledge, should know what the soul is, what truth is, what love is, and what forces are hidden in the soul.  It should be the essence of true education that every child learns this and in the struggle of life be able more readily to overcome hatred by love, falsehood by truth, and violence by taking suffering on oneself. (Gandhi, The Unity of All Living Beings)

Mysticism creates a new relation to the three powers that, each in its own totalitarian way, hold us in prison: the ego, possession, and violence.  Mysticism relativizes them, frees us from their spell, and prepares us for freedom.  Those powers project themselves in very diverse ways.  The ego that keeps on getting bigger presents itself most often as well-mannered and civilized, even when it seeks to get rid of every form of ego-lessness.  Possession, which according to Francis of Assisi makes for a condition that forces us to arm ourselves, appears in a neutralized, unobtrusive form.  The fact that the very entities with which we destroy creation – namely possession, consumption, and violence – have fashioned themselves into a unity in our world makes no impact, whether by design or through ignorance.

When women, like Dorothy Day, are not fixated on their own egos, or when fools without possessions, like some of Saint Francis’s sons and daughters, live different, liberated lives, they are met with smiles of derision.  But when they dare to take real steps out of the violence-shaped actuality of our condition, they come into conflict with the judiciary or wind up in jail.  More than anything else, violence must hide itself and always put on new garments, disguising itself in the form of imperatives, such as security, protection, technological necessity, public order, or defensive measures.

Here is an inconspicuous example.  In June 1997, a member of the White Fathers, a religious community that is part of the “Order for Peace,” was fined for having demonstrated outside the Chancellor’s Office in Bonn with a picket-sign saying “Cancel Third World Debts.”  The office had refused to accept a petition, signed by 12,000 people, sponsored by the campaign “Development Needs Forgiveness of Debts.”  The harmless name of the violence behind which the Chancellor’s Office was hiding is the law of inviolable precincts; under present circumstances it is one of the many, actually quite sensible garments of state power.  But the law is abused when the office of state protects itself against democratic interventions and expects submission to or passivity in face of economic violence rather than a decisive, No! of noncooperation.

This rather insignificant example of civil disobedience illustrates how people make use of violence.  For many, it is no longer good enough to behave nonviolently in their personal lives and to submit to administrative regulations.  For in such nonviolence and submission, as the powerful of this world define them, the real violence that renders the countries of the Third World destitute is left untouched.  To exist free of violence means much more than that: it means to think and act with other living beings in a common life.  These forms of the freedom of opposition and resistance have multiplied in the last centuries also in Europe in the face of the militaristic and technocratic coercion.  An essential and new role is played here by the basic insights of mysticism, such as those of the tradition of Gandhi as well as the Quakers.

In the eighties I was occasionally asked, especially within the contexts of civil disobedience against nuclear arms, whether I did not sense something in myself of the power and spirit of the other, the enemy: “Where is the Ronald Reagan in you?”  I was in no mood to respond with a speculation about my shadow side.  I do not think that a pacifist has to be complemented by a bellicist.  Perhaps I did not understand correctly the seriousness of the question that seeks to grasp the unity of all human beings; to me the question seemed intent on neutralizing or mollifying what we were about.  When I ask myself seriously what the principalities and powers that rule over me as structural powers claim from me, the answer is that it is my own cowardice that they seek to make use of.  Those who submit to those powers also are part of the violence under whose velvet terror we live and destroy others.

Before he found his way to nonviolent resistance, Gandhi used to describe that time by saying that it was as a coward that he accommodated himself to violence.  I understand this in a two-fold sense.  First, I submitted to external violence, which is to say I knuckled under, paid my taxes with which more weapons were produced, I followed the advice of my bank, and I consumed as much as the advertisers commanded.  Worse still, I hankered after violence, wanted to be like “them” in the advertisements, as successful, attractive, aesthetic, and intelligent as they were.  The existential step that the word nonviolence signals leads out of the forced marriage between violence and cowardice.  And that means in practice that one becomes unafraid of the police and the power of the state.

The forms of resistance that revoke the common consensus about how we destroy creation have deep roots in a mysticism that we often do not recognize as such.  It is the mysticism of being at one with all that lives.  One of the basic mystical insights in the diverse religions envisions the unity of all human beings, indeed, of all living beings.  It is part of the oldest wisdom of religion that life is no individual and autonomous achievement.  Life cannot be made, produced, or purchased, and is not the property of private owners.  Instead, life is a mystery of being bound up with and belonging one to another.  Gandhi believed that he could live a spiritual life only when he began to identify himself with the whole of humankind, and he could do that only by entering into politics.  For him the entire range of all human activities is an indivisible whole.  Social, economic, political, and religious concerns cannot be cultivated in sterile plots that are hermetically sealed off from one another.  To bring those sterile, sealed-off plots together in a related whole is one of the aims of the mysticism whose name is resistance.

In a long poem, Thich Nhat Hanh names the identification with all that lives in all its contradictoriness:

I am the mayfly that flits on the river’s watery surface.
And I am also the bird that dashes down to catch it.

I am the frog that happily swims in the pond’s clear water.
And I am the grass snake that devours the frog in the stillness.

I am the child from Uganda, just skin and bones with legs thin as bamboo sticks;
And I am the arms-trader selling the weapons that rain death on Uganda.

I am the twelve-year old girl,
refugee in a small boat,
that was raped by pirates
and now only seeks death in the Ocean;
and I am also the pirate—
my heart is not yet able to understand and to love.

The poem is entitled “Name Me by My True Name,” and the writer gives himself the most diverse names.  He is the “caterpillar in the heart of a flower,” a “jewel hidden in stone,” but also a “member of the Politboro, and, at the same time, its victim who, slowly dying, pays “its bloodguilt in a forced labor camp.”  Animals and plants become the “name” of the immersing and expanding I.  In his poems, the Zen teacher and poet who developed the concept of the “engaged Buddhist” sends his learner on their own search for names, a search which, without them knowing, can never end.  Friends and foes are distinguished; perpetrators such as the rapist are judged to be blind but not excluded – on them too does God’s sun shine, as Jesus put it.  That life has horrible, violent enemies is not denied.  But this realism of naming is overcome into the mystical sense of being one.  Difference is acknowledged but not absolutized in the destruction of community and the postmodern denial of every kind of universality.

Call me by my true name, please,
so that I may hear all at once
all my crying and laughing,
so that I may see that my joy
and my pain are now one,
so that from now on the door of
my heart may stand open—
the door of sympathy.

According to Buddhist teaching, dissociating the self is one of the four causes of suffering next to greed, hate, and infatuation.  The division of I and non-I, in other words, the delimitation of the self from others, is the onset of violence.  If I “am” not the fly – in the changed mystical sense that the word “to be” gains here – then I can also kill it.  If I “am” not the trader of arms to Uganda, then I cannot enter into a dialogue about economic alternatives or a blockade.  The trader remains for me an accomplice in murder and I remain a spectator.  The everyday question, “What business is that of yours?” lives by the dissociation of the self and allows violence to spread.  What does not concern the I does not exist, and in our culture the non-identity of the I and the non-I is virtually built-up and transfigured.  The dissociation of the I is a self-expression of actualized, legitimated, or suffered violence.

This violence is overcome when the belief in the I is expanded and transposed until, as the poem declares, one finally lives “recognizing oneself in everything.”  Buddhist wisdom teaches, “what I am, they are also; when one makes oneself thus equal with the other, one does not wish to kill or permit killing.”

The mystical foundation of the life that, according to Albert Schweitzer, “desires life in the midst of other life” is the foundation of the ever-to-be-searched-for-freedom from the practice of violence and of the at least equally dangerous habituation to violence that rules among us.  When one renounces one’s attachment to the self, the consequences are truly great: no killing or acquiescence in it.

It is high time to stop playing the part of the “willing executioners” or of the allegedly uninvolved onlookers.  The toil for possible alternatives to violence, which takes place, for example, in prison-work, in youth groups, and in the resistance against the violence of the nuclear industry, always recalls the spiritual basis of community.  Devotions and meditative elements of very different kinds are today part of blockades or protest actions.  The inner peace, as freedom from greed and the limitation of the self, translates itself into the practice of peace.  The mystical peaceableness of the many “true names” leads to new forms of creating peace.

“Our Weapon is to Have None”: Martin Luther King, Jr.

At Union Theological Seminary, during one of my seminars on mysticism and resistance, a student came to me wanting to talk about Martin Luther King, Jr.  Somewhat confused I asked, “King, terrific but – a mystic?”  He asked me whether I knew about the kitchen table experience.  I had no idea, but this is how I came to know something about the “dark night of the soul” in King’s life.

It all began on a bus in December 1955 as a forty-two-year-old black seamstress was traveling home from work.  Even though 40 percent of the inhabitants of Montgomery were black, seats on the buses were reserved primarily for whites.  Rosa Parks was seated in the section segregated for blacks; as more people got on the bus the driver told her to give her seat to a white passenger.  She was tired and remained seated.  The driver called the police; she was arrested, and, as was the custom, put in jail.  “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day,” she writes in her memoirs.  “No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”  At the time, she was the honorary secretary of an antiracist organization that had been founded in 1909, in honor of Abraham Lincoln, to provide legal assistance and voter registration.

The evening following the arrest of this highly respected woman, young Reverend King invited well-known and influential black citizens to his church.  The atmosphere was explosive.  A boycott of the bus line was decided upon, and most black citizens honored the call not to ride the buses.  For a year the buses drove their routes empty; taxi drivers took the strikers to their destinations for the price of bus fare.  In the course of time, Baptist preacher King became the spokesperson for the local civil rights movement.  At the same time, he had to cope with threats and fears that the well-educated son of a Baptist minister had never encountered before.  His father had taught him that “no one can make a slave of you as long as you do not think like a slave.”

In January 1956, Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed for the first time under the pretext that he had exceeded the legal speed limit of 25 miles per hour by five miles.  On the way to prison he became scared: the car he was being taken in was being driven out of town.  Was he going to be lynched?  A few months before, a black fourteen-year-old had been abducted and sadistically murdered; the three white perpetrators were never punished.  With good reason to be scared, King also had reason enough for relief when he was taken “only” to the run-down jail, a place reeking of urine and overflowing with homeless people, vagrants, drunks, and thieves.  “Don’t forget us,” they shouted as he was released on bail.

It was not much better at home: the family received between thirty and forty telephone calls and hate letters per day.  “Get out of town or else.  KKK.”  “You niggers are getting yourself in a bad place.  We need and will have a Hitler to get our country straightened out.”  King and Coretta, his wife, could not disconnect the telephone because they depended on calls from their friends.  They jumped every time it rang and had to listen to threats, unspeakable obscenities, and hatred.

A white friend informed King of a serious plot to kill him.  King did not know which way to turn.  He came home from a meeting exhausted, wrung out from a long day, and he went to sleep.  Again, the phone rang, he picked up the receiver and heard an ugly voice telling him, “Listen, nigger, we’ve taken from you all we want.  Before next week you’ll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.”  King could bear it no longer; he got up and walked the floor.  For the first time, he feared for his life.  He went to the kitchen table and put on a pot of coffee.  Then he sat down at the table and wondered how he could leave Montgomery without appearing to be a coward.  There was no alternative; he had to get away.  He thought about his father.  At this point, King, Jr., was just twenty-seven years old.  Something inside him said, “You can’t call Daddy now.  He’s up in Atlanta, 175 miles away.  You have to call on that something, that being, that your Daddy told you about, this power that finds a way where there is none.”  Later King said that he discovered then that religion was for real, and that “I had to get to know God for myself.”  Sitting at the kitchen table and bowed over it, he began to pray aloud: “O, Lord.  I’m down here trying to do what is right.  The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength or courage, they too will falter.  I am at the end of my powers.  I have nothing left.  I can’t face it alone.”  Subsequently, King himself told what happened to him then at the kitchen table in Montgomery.  “It seemed that an inner voice was speaking to him with quiet assurance: ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness.  Stand up for justice.  Stand up for truth.  And lo, I will be with you even unto the end of the world.”  King heard the voice of Jesus telling him to keep up the struggle.  He then heard or sang a hymn rooted in black piety: “He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.”  In that moment, King was to say later, he felt God’s presence like never before.  His fears left him all of a sudden, his uncertainty vanished, and he was ready to face anything.  He made his decision, he did not quit, and he did not take the easier route of going along.  He realized that suffering taken up voluntarily has a transforming power.

Years later King explained what this meant.  He assumed that society was diseased with racism and hatred, and bent on keeping its privileges and advantages.  These diseases are not healed if all that we do is try to make misery known, for example, by taking photos of starving children in Africa.  Such diseases become treatable when minorities actually stand up for justice in economic relations, and when they do not let themselves be defeated by failures and ridicule, by being told that they are inferior, or by being rendered invisible.

When white racists threw a bomb on the porch of the King house, enraged blacks gathered in a crowd, armed with pistols, knives, sticks, and stones.  Arriving at the house, King implored the crowd not to answer violence with violence.  Those who answer violence with violence, bombs with bombs, and killing with killing solve no problems but descend to the level of the enemy.  He told the outraged people to take their guns home or to throw them into the sea.  “Our weapon is to have none,” he said.  “When I decided that, as a teacher of the philosophy of nonviolence, I couldn’t keep a gun, I came face-to-face with the question of death and I dealt with it.  And from that point on, I no longer needed a gun nor have I been afraid.  Ultimately, one’s sense of manhood must come from within him.”  King had read Gandhi in his student days and for him also pacifism was not a “method for cowards.”  He called hooligans reactionaries because they resemble too much their enemies; he himself was a moderate radical, proud of being “badly adjusted.”  He favored methods of direct action but only after precise analysis of the situation.  Action is to be taken only after negotiating with the other side has been tried as long as possible.  Nonviolence means to forgo the desire to win and to avoid the defeat of enemies, which always includes their humiliation.  The issues of peace, justice, and – as must be added today – creation are always the enemies’ issues as well; they, too, need air to breathe.  Their issue is also ours.  Every form of the spirit of hostility has to be rejected.  King called white racists “our sick white brothers,” which angered some of his comrades in the struggle.

An important component of nonviolence for King was the unearned suffering that resulted from the conflicts.  He said that there would be rivers of blood, but we are determined to make sure that it is not the blood of the enemy.  And so the method or the different style of living out nonviolence gives precisely to the disenfranchised and powerless a different sense of their own dignity.  This was rooted deeply in the piety of blacks, more deeply than King had initially assumed.  Simplicity, clarity, depth – learned during centuries of suffering – is how King understood the Sermon on the Mount.

He had learned much from the Black theologian and philosopher Howard Thurman, who, as a teacher of the way of mysticism, spoke on behalf of the disenfranchised and underprivileged.  In his lectures on “Mysticism and Social Change,” Thurman wrote in reference to the well-known words of the socialist Eugene Debs: “It is not only the socialist but also the confirmed mystic or the man seeking the fullness of the vision of God who must say truly, ‘while there is a lower class, I am in it.  While there is a man in jail, I am not free.’  The distinction between personal selfishness and social selfishness, between personal religion and social religion which we are wont to make, must forever remain artificial and unrealistic.”  The inheritance of this humane mystical tradition of unity is what King took up and, in his admirable rhetorical talent, declared it to be valid for his own people as well as for this century.  “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering.  We will meet your physical force with soul force.  Do to us what you will and we will still love you.  We cannot in all conscience obey your unjust laws and bide by the unjust system, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good, and so throw us in jail and we will still love you.  Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hour and drag us out on some wayside road and leave us half-dead as you beat us up, and we will still love you.”

Between Hopes and Defeats

This fluctuation between defeats and hopes must be something a religious culture of resistance cannot avoid.  Religiosity borne by “positive thinking” always strikes me as being embarrassingly void of spirit and opiate-like.  This “dark night of the soul” cannot be voted out of existence, nor will buttons calling us to “Take Jesus!” help us to get over it, much less over the dark night of creation.  That we are and shall always be in God’s hand, according to the woman cited earlier, becomes credible when with Teresa of Avila we also know, mystically, that God has no other hands but ours.  To be aware of the “silent cry” in our world means to become one with it.

FORGIVENESS: An Art That Can Be Learned, by Geiko Müller-Fahrenholz

From The Art of Forgiveness

Summary of a Seminar with Body Exercises

In May 1993 I was approached by Elsa Tamez of the Seminario Bíblico Latinoamericano in San José, Costa Rica, to conduct a four-hour seminar on “forgiveness.”  She had heard of my interest in this subject and wanted to integrate it in her own seminar on “Reconciliation and Justice.”  I accepted the invitation with some trepidation; for I knew that it would be difficult to explain what perdón meant to me.  Elsa’s students – some twenty women and men – came from all parts of Latin America.  Many had already been working in their churches, most of which are very small and poor.  They bore in their lives the heavy burdens of a history of oppression and exploitation, notably by European nations.  How could I as a European speak to them about forgiveness?

To remain as close as possible to their experience, I decided to conduct three body exercises and to engage the students in an exchange.  From my earlier exposure to this type of work, I knew that what one experiences in the flesh usually has a deep impact on one’s thinking.  Body work prevents persons from merely theorizing about theological problems and enables them to situate their insights in their immediate biographical context.  Since forgiveness has to do with intensely intimate experiences and feelings, it seemed appropriate to use such an approach, even though it was unfamiliar to most of them.  But they participated with the greatest enthusiasm.

In the following summary, based on my recollections, I have changed the names of students.

Exercise 1

To create an open space in the seminar room we moved the tables and chairs along the walls.  I invited the students to move freely about the room and make contacts with the others, not by speaking but through looks and gestures.

After some brief initial hesitation, there was a lot of movement in the room.   Eye-contact was the most important medium for establishing relationships.  Some embraced each other, walked about for a while hand-in-hand, then separated.  Others were more reserved, expressing the distance between each other by merely nodding.  But on the whole there was an active exchange among all members of the group.

After about five minutes I closed the exercise and invited the students to sit around in a circle.  I asked them: “What have we done just now?”

“It was nice,” they said, “but so what?”  While it was good to be in contact with so many persons, there was nothing special about it.  It had been a very normal situation, with experiences of closeness and distance, warmth and also some reserve.

This experience of normality seems to me to be necessary to understand the two following exercises better.

Exercise 2

I divided the students into two groups and told both to move about in the room as before.  Group A, however, had the assignment of “subduing” Group B through a symbolic gesture of submission.  From that moment on, both parties were to move around the room as before, but all members of Group B had to move on their knees while Group A had to walk on tiptoe.  As in the first exercise, there would be no talking.  When a signal was given, the members of Group A turned against the members of Group B and “oppressed” them.  There was some resistance, but after a brief struggle the members of Group B were crawling on their knees and the “victors” in Group A were walking tiptoe.  Very quickly the atmosphere in the room changed dramatically.  The movements were slow, the eye contacts between members of the two opposing groups awkward and even hostile, the contacts between members of the same groups embarrassed and uncertain.  The good-humored ease of the previous exercise had disappeared entirely.

When I asked the members of Group B to share their experiences, they talked about the physical discomfort of crawling on their knees.  They needed to concentrate on their situation in order to come to terms with it.  There was anger and shame against the “oppressors.”

When Group A was asked to share, they mentioned first how awkward and stiff it felt to have to walk tiptoe.  Forced to be preoccupied with their own movements, they were less willing to have contacts with their “peers.”

I then related this experience to the theme of forgiveness, which emerges as a problem only in situations like this, when violent and unjust actions have disrupted relationships and destroyed the original equality.  Oppression corresponds with self-aggrandizement.  Walking tiptoe indicated that the members of Group A had made themselves bigger than they really were, while members of Group B were humiliated to a status that did not do justice to their original height.  The great variety of contacts which typified Exercise 1 had been drastically reduced.  Those who walk tiptoe can only look down on those who crawl on their knees.  Those who are made low can only look up to the others.  There is no chance for embraces.

Note that this new situation is felt to be painful by members of both groups.  The former spontaneity has been replaced by constrained artificiality.

In interpreting this experience theologically, we see that the kind of domination exercised by Group A becomes guilt because it is based on stolen power.  This kind of domination depends on the power that is taken from the others.  It enables the powerful to make themselves bigger than they really are.  Impotence is understood as a loss of original strength, leading to feelings of shame because one’s real height has been violently reduced.  The oppressed not only feel pain but also experience a profound sense of embarrassment and humiliation.  Poverty is more than material want; it goes along with shame and produces feelings of helpless fury.

The students related this group experience to the social and political realities in which they live.  They knew that the wealth of the powerful is built on the poverty and humiliation of the poor.  Some of the members of Group A also remarked how tempting it is to use the power to oppress others and how quickly one becomes part of situations of domination.

Exercise 3

What would forgiveness between members of the two groups look like?  I asked three members of each group to form a pair with a member of the other group and to act out possible solutions – again without talking.

In the play of the first pair, Maria (Group B) moved on her knees close to Pablo (Group A).  With desperate movements she implored him to liberate her from her painful situation.  He tried to get away from her, but she followed him with outstretched arms.  At last he turned to her, bent over and lifted her to her feet.  They smiled at each other briefly and returned to their seats.

In the second play,Martín (B) and Jorge (A) had only very scant eye contact. Martín, totally caught up in his position, stared at the ground and barely moved.  Jorge stood very stiffly, seeming not to notice the man on his knees.  Minutes passed with both actors barely moving.  The group followed this “interaction” in anxious silence.  At last I terminated this play.  Jorge and Martín sat down again.

In the third play Lidia (B) moved slowly towards Juan (A).  He did not try to avoid her.  She looked at him and he faced her look.  Then Lidia touched Juan’s foot very lightly.  Juan dropped to his knees in front of her.  They looked at each other for a long time.  Then they began to smile, embraced each other and drew themselves to their feet again.  Arm-in-arm they walked about for a short while before returning to their seats.

When I asked Maria and Pablo to interpret their play, Maria said, “I was suffering so much that I had to implore Pablo with all my remaining energies to help me get back on my feet.  That is why I insisted so desperately on contacting him.”  Pablo added, “It was embarrassing for me to experience Maria moving so close to me all the time.  So I bowed down to her and put her up again.  But I did not really want to do it.”

Then I asked the entire group to share its impressions.  Someone said, “It cannot be called forgiveness when humiliated persons have to beg their oppressors to lift them to their feet again.  Does the victim have to beg to be forgiven?  Surely it cannot be called forgiveness if the perpetrator bows down condescendingly to his victims and lifts them up.  Forgiveness must be something different from an affable favor!”

I asked Jorge and Martín to express their feelings.  Martín replied: “I was so absorbed in my pain and anger that I felt neither the strength nor the will to look at Jorge or to give him a sign that I needed his help.  The longer the scene lasted and the more I noticed that Jorge was not making a move, the more the resentment and stiffness grew within me.”  Jorge said, “I enjoyed my superior position.  I sensed Martín’s resentment and enmity, so I did not make any move in his direction.  I ought to have done something, but my pride would not let me.”

The other students added their reactions.  “It was horrible to witness the block between the two.”  One person spoke of wanting to enter the scene and shake them into action.  There was no forgiveness in this interaction.  It was recognized that the brief eye contact between the two at the beginning was not enough to cause a change in their relationship.  Jorge ought to have made a move, but he could not bring himself to do anything.  The more time passed, the greater became the enmity between them.  Obviously one can grow immobile in one’s unwillingness to repent.

When I invited Lidia and Juan to talk about their experience, Juan said, “I sensed that I had to do something.  When Lidia moved towards me, I went to her.  Then I noticed that she gave me a sign.  She touched my foot, and I knew that I had to kneel down in front of her to get into contact with her again.  It was immensely liberating to be able to look each other in the eye again.  After that, it was clear that we would help each other to get on our feet again and to walk about awhile.”

Lidia added: “I did not intend to beg, but I wanted him to understand that I was waiting for his action and that I would be prepared to react affirmatively.  That is why I tapped on his shoes.”

When the seminar group commented on this scene they noted that forgiveness between Lidia and Juan began in the moment that he dropped to his knees and they could look at each other face-to-face.  Juan gave up his supremacy, and they helped each other to get to their feet again and then walked together.  Lidia’s small sign gave Juan the confidence that his act of disclosure would be accepted.  That is why he dared to kneel down before her.  Without this sign he might have behaved like Jorge in the earlier play.

Theological interpretation

After a break, we sat down in the circle again to discuss these three acts theologically.  “The first two scenes gave us the impression that there was no forgiveness,” I said.  “What was it in the play of Lidia and Juan that made us think that this was in fact forgiveness?”

We noted that forgiveness begins with the party who has stolen power giving up this dominant position.  It renounces false power and humiliates itself voluntarily.  The perpetrator wants to get where the victim is.  What we traditionally call repentance is the recognition that there must be a renunciation of presumed supremacy, a kind of disarmament, for it will be intolerable in the long run to live with this stolen supremacy, not only for the victim, but also for the perpetrator.  Repentance implies getting on the same level with the victim, at least for a moment.  Juan and Lidia do not remain on their knees forever.  They lift each other to their feet – which means that they help each other to resume their original stature.  Only together can they regain the human height that had been theirs before.  Only then can they walk together and do things together.  Forgiveness does not mean that Juan has to crawl on his knees while Lidia lords over him.  It has nothing to do with simply exchanging roles but has to do with regaining a genuine human dignity.

Lidia has played an important part.  Through her looks, and especially through her sign, she has given Juan the assurance that she was willing to forgive, that she would not turn away when he knelt in front of her, that she would accept his gesture of self-humiliation as the beginning of a new story together.

It is impossible to interpret the first play as forgiveness, because Pablo had not given up his supremacy.  His help was only an act of condescension in order to get rid of the nuisance Maria was causing him.  Condescension must not be mistaken for forgiveness.  Even if Pablo’s act means that Maria is no longer on her knees, it has not led to a new community between the two.  Maria owes her new freedom to his clemency, and that means she has not really gained her dignity as an equal human person.  Pablo is still on tiptoe, as it were.  Help without repentance may have some equalizing effect, but it is not forgiveness.

Finally, we raised the question of why it had gone so well in the third scene between Lidia and Juan.  Why did Jorge and Martín get stuck in their hostility?  To what extent does forgiveness depend on the disposition and character of persons?

POETRY: Ultimately Justice Directs Them, by Craig Morgan Teicher


The soldiers are coming.
The soldiers
are coming to break America.
The soldiers are dispatched
from America
and they are landing
their boats on American shores.


Why are the soldiers coming?
Not because they believe
in what
they were told
but because they believe
that ultimately justice directs them,
that ultimately
the right thing will happen.


We say they are
the soldiers, but they are not:

they have eyes and
and hairstyles and children
and expressions on their faces

that their mothers remember
on the faces
of the infants they were.


They are coming to break
everything down
to basics: America

has become too frumpy
for its pants.
Its health
care system cares not
for health.


Its laws are more paper.


Its schools are more paper.


Its schools are brick and paper.


That is what the soldiers will say.


America looks at itself
and sees
itself, not America.


Itself looks at itself
and calls
what it sees America.


America has begun
calling everything
America no matter what.


Now more than ever.


Operation America.
Operation With Extra Cheese.

Operation With Fries With That.
Operation No Child Left Behind.

Operation Enduring Sandwich.
Operation Regurgitated Eagle.

Operation Prince of Freedom.
Operation All Night Long.

Operation Perhaps.
Operation No Really.



The soldiers are here.


Operation Big Time Pause.


Operation Please
And Thank You.


Operation Paper.
Operation No More Stars.


The Soldiers are wearing
yellow ribbons
in support
of the return
of the regular guy.


The soldiers are on TV
right outside
the door.


They are knocking—change
the channel.


Operation America Go!
Operation Yes!

Operation OK, OK.
Operation Every Man
for himself
and best of luck
to the women and kids.



By part 24 it is
already done.

GOD 101: Flow And Stillness

And so I looked into the eyes of God.

Not God God, exactly, but God, the Father, who had taken shape in a vision and stood there talking with me.

I didn’t hear any of his words consciously, not enough to remember them, or even to remember that I heard them.

I remember a few of my words.  Just a few.  Nothing of significance.

But I remember looking into his eyes.

And then for an instant – not even as long as it would take to take a breath – I was behind the eyes looking out.

Right before that instant began, as I looked into his eyes, he had the look of confusion.  He was confused by my statement:

Something is wrong with this world.  It should be safe for children to live here.

And then the looking out.

At me.  At you.  At life.

And all I could see was a blur.


Not the movement of a river cutting its way through a field.

The movement of water pounding down a waterfall.

So fast.  So furious.

And then his words: You do what you do when something happens.

And then the sight, a river being blocked and the water rising up and around the blockage.  Finding a new path.

When things happen in our lives, we find a new path around it.

So what’s the big deal, Julia?

(My supplied comment.)

The whole package of the vision took but a moment or two or three.  And I was still shaking from it hours after.

But as I calmed down I realized that it made a lot of sense.

From a God point-of-view, that is.

Of course, all we are when he looks at us here is a blur.

Of course, it’s not a blur to him.  He probably perceives everything clearly.

It was just a blur to me.

Because I, like everyone else on Earth, don’t perceive our constant movement.

We don’t feel the spinning of the Earth.  Or its lap around its track.

We don’t feel the surge of blood through our bodies, or hear all the frantic yips and squawks of our thoughts.

We are, in perfect oxymoronic fashion, a puddle of perpetual activity.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past few days.

How the vision was of us as pounding water.

And yet how we, as individuals, actually perceive ourselves and others as static drops.

We know we are one, in a family, in a culture, in the world with all the others who are alive and have died.  We know this rationally.

But we experience ourselves as distinct.  Precise.



Me, the exact drop that is Julia.

And our experiences validate this perception.

The time that we first saw the face of our beloved is a frozen moment in our memories.

When we looked down and saw our baby clasping our finger, and we realize that she recognizes us even though she’s never seen us before.  That becomes a page in our mind.

How that is accomplished.

I see you.

We are the drop.

And all our experiences in life are their own drops within us.

A drop made up of drops.




But we’re not that at all, really, are we?

At the least we are a splash in life.  Or is it the most we are?

And yet in the midst of all the streaming that we really are what we find when we look for it is stillness.


It’s an illusion, of course.

No matter how long I live I am overwhelmed by our faith.

The beauty.  The grace.

We have God, the Father, all-knowing.

But then we get to have Jesus.

Lots and lots of religions have God, or a god.

Unless you’re a Buddhist and then you get to have ahhhhhhh.  (Open hands wide here.)

But we get to have Jesus.

Jesus who lets us know that he holds each one of us drops in his hand.

One at a time.




To God, the Father, we may be just this wonderful accumulation, an aggregate.

We form the whole of his creation on Earth, as our cells form our bodies.

Together as one.

But with Jesus, our cell-state drops away and I become wholly me.

Just me.

Face to face.

With eyes to look into and hold my soul.

Why is it, then, that God sees us as movement, and we only see our relationships?  Our connections?

With people.  And places.  And things.  And ideas.

There was that time, I had this insight.  Man, it was powerful!

The static drops of our lives.  That make up the even more static mosaic of our identities.

In this mist of the movement that is us.


JESUS CHRIST: Love Your Enemies?, by Ammon Hennacy

From Christian Peace And Nonviolence, edited by Michael G. Long

(Ammon Hennacy was imprisoned for being a conscientious objector during World War I.  The following was taken from the journal he kept during his imprisonment.)

That night I was nervous and tore off the buttons from my clothing in order to have something to do to sew them on again.  I paced my eight and a half steps back and forth for hours and finally flung myself on the bunk.  It must have been the middle of the night when I awoke.  I had not had a note from anyone for a month.  Were my friends forgetting me?  I felt weak, lonesome, and alone in the world.  Here I had been singing defiance at the whole capitalistic world but a few hours before and had boasted to the warden how I would bravely do my time; now I wondered if anyone really cared.  Perhaps by this time Selma might be married to someone else with a real future ahead of him instead of being lost in a jail.  The last letter I had received from her was rather formal.  Would she understand why I did not write; and could I be sure that some of the letters I had sent her had been received, with the officials opening the mail I had sent to my sister Lola?  How could one end it all?  The sharp spoon with which I had carved poems and my calendar on the wall could cut my wrist and I could bleed to death before a guard arrived.  But then that would be such a messy death.  Then the warden would be sorry for the lies he had told me and the tricks he had tried to play.  The last thing I could remember before falling asleep was the long wailing whistle of the freight train as it echoed in the woods nearby.

The next day the deputy came to my cell and said that I was looking very pale, that number 7440, a man just two numbers from me who had come in the same day with me, had died of the flu, and that thirty others were buried that week.  If I did not get out and breathe the fresh air it was likely that I would die sooner than the others, he said.  Why should I not tell what I knew and get out?  In reply I asked the deputy to talk about the weather, as I was not interested in achieving the reputation of a rat.  He asked me if it was a prisoner or a guard who had sent out my letters.  I walked up to him closely and in a confidential tone said, “It was a prisoner or a guard.”

I did not know the nature of the flu but thought that this might be a good way to die if I could only get it.  Fate seemed to seal me up in a place where I could not get any germs.  (Now that I think of it my “Celestial Bulldozer,” guardian angel, or whatever the name may be, must have been in charge of events.  In those days I believed in germs and doctors, and out in the prison I might have absorbed their fears and succumbed.  I was saved until I could emancipate my mind from medical as well as other kinds of slavery.)  Late that afternoon I was called across the hall to take a bath.  The guard accidentally left my wooden door open when he was called to answer a telephone.  I could not see anywhere except across the hall to the solid door of another cell, but I could hear Popoff in the next cell groaning and calling for water.  He was still hanging from his hands for eight hours a day as he had been for months.  As the guard came down the hall he opened Popoff’s door, dipping his tin cup in the toilet, and threw the dirty water in Popoff’s face.  Then he came and slammed my door shut and locked it.  How soon would I be strung to the bars?  How long could a fellow stand such treatment?

As soon as it was dark, I sharpened my spoon again and tried it gently on my wrist.  The skin seemed to be quite tough, but then I could press harder.  If I cut my wrist at midnight, I could be dead by morning.  I thought I ought to write a note to Selma and to my mother and I couldn’t see to do it until morning.  Well, I had waited that long, I could wait a day longer.  That night my dreams were a mixture of Victor Hugo’s stories of men hiding in the sewers of Paris, I.W.W. songs, blood flowing from the pigs that had been butchered on the farm when I was a boy, and the groans of Popoff.

The sun shone brightly in my cell the next morning for the first time in weeks.  I crouched again by the door and saw Berkman’s [Alexander Berkman, a famous anarchist] bald head.  Tears came into my eyes, and I felt ashamed of myself for my cowardly idea of suicide just because I had had a few reverses.  Here was Berkman who had passed through much more than I would ever have to endure if I stayed two more years in solitary.  How was the world to know more about the continued torture of Popoff and others if I gave up?  The last two verses of the I.W.W. Prison Song now had a real meaning to me as I sang them again.  I was through with despair.  I wanted to live to make the world better.  Just because most prisoners and, for all that, most people on the outside did not understand and know what solitary meant was all the more reason why I should be strong.  I sang cheerfully:

By all the graves of Labor’s dead,
By Labor’s deathless flag of red,
We make a solemn vow to you,
We’ll keep the faith, we will be true.
For freedom laughs at prison bars,
Her voice reechoes from the stars;
Proclaiming with the tempest’s breath
A Cause beyond the reach of death.

Two months later I heard the whistles blow and shouts resound throughout the prison.  The war was over.  The Armistice had been signed.  It was not until then that I was informed in a note from Berkman that November 11 was also an anarchist anniversary: The date of the hanging of the Chicago anarchists of the Haymarket in 1887.  I had ceased by this time my nervous running back and forth like a squirrel in my cell and was now taking steady walks in my cell each day and also hours of physical exercise.  I was going to build myself up and not get sick and die.  I would show my persecutors that I would be a credit to my ideals.

I had painted the ceiling of the Catholic chapel in flat work before I got in solitary, and had left no brush marks.  The priest appreciated my good work.  He knew I was an Irishman who was not a Catholic, but he never tried to convert me.  Now, as I studied the Bible, I was not thinking of any church but just wanted to see what might be worthwhile in it.  I had now read it through four times and had read the New Testament many times and the Sermon on the Mount scores of times.  I had made up games with pages and chapters and names of characters in the Bible to pass away the time.  I had memorized certain chapters that I like.  As I read of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, and other prophets and of Jesus, I could see that they had opposed tyranny.  I had also spent many days reviewing all of the historical knowledge that I could remember and in trying to think through a philosophy of life.  I had passed through the idea of killing myself.  This was an escape, not any solution to life.  The remainder of my two years in solitary must result in a clear-cut plan whereby I could go forth and be a force in the world.  I could not take any half way measures.

If assassination, violence, and revolution were the better way, then military tactics must be studied and a group of fearless rebels organized.  I remembered again what Slim, the Robin Hood Wobblie who was in on some larceny charge, had told me once to the effect that one could not be a good rebel unless he became angry and vengeful.  Then I heard Popoff curse the guards, and I heard them beat him.  I remembered the Negro who had sworn at the guard in the tailor shop and was killed.  I had read of riots in prison over food, and I remembered the peaceful victory that we had in our strike against the spoiled fish.  I also remembered what Berkman had said about being firm, but quiet.  He had tried violence but did not believe in it as a wholesale method.  I read of the wars and hatred in the Old Testament.  I also read of the courage of Daniel and the Hebrew children who would not worship the golden image, of Peter who chose to obey God rather than the properly constituted authorities who placed him in jail, and of the victory of these men by courage and peaceful methods.  I read of Jesus, who was confronted with a whole world empire of tyranny and chose not to overturn the tyrant and make himself king but to change the hatred in the hearts of men to love and understanding – to overcome evil with goodwill.

I had called loudly for the sword and mentally listed those whom I desired to kill when I was free.  Was this really the universal method that should be used?  I would read the Sermon on the Mount again.  When a child I had been frightened by hell fire into proclaiming a change of life.  Now I spent months making a decision; there was no sudden change.  I had all the time in the world and no one could talk to me or influence me.  I was deciding this idea for myself.  Gradually, I came to gain a glimpse of what Jesus meant when he said, “The kingdom of God is within you.”  In my heart now after six months, I could love everybody in the world but the warden, but if I did not love him then the Sermon on the Mount meant nothing at all.  I really saw this and felt it in my heart, but I was too stubborn to admit it in my mind.  One day I was walking back and forth in my cell when, in turning, my head hit the wall.  Then the thought came to me: “Here I am locked up in a cell.  The warden was never locked up in any cell, and he never had a chance to know what Jesus meant.  Neither did I until yesterday.  So I must not blame him.  I must love him.”  Now the whole thing was clear.  This kingdom of God must be in everyone; in the deputy, the warden, the rat, and the pervert – and now I came to know it – in myself.  I read and reread the Sermon on the Mount: the fifth, sixth, and seventh chapters of Matthew thus became a living thing to me.  I tried to take every sentence and apply it to my present problems.  The warden had said that he did not understand political prisoners.  He and the deputy, in plain words, didn’t know any better; they had put on the false face of sternness and tyranny because this was the only method they knew.  It was my job to teach them another method: that of goodwill overcoming their evil intentions or, rather, habits.  The opposite of the Sermon on the Mount was what the whole world had been practicing, in prison and out of prison; and hate piled on hate had brought hate and revenge.  It was plain that this system did not work.  I would never have a better opportunity than to try out the Sermon on the Mount right now in my cell.  Here was deceit, hatred, lust, murder, and every kind of evil in this prison.  I reread slowly and pondered each verse: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. . .  Whoever shall smite thee on they right cheek turn to him the other also. . . take therefore no thought for the morrow. . . therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.”

I fancied what my radical friends in and out of prison would say when I spoke of the above teachings of Jesus.  I knew that I would have to bear their displeasure, just as I had borne the hysteria of the patriots and the silence of my friends when I was sent to prison.  This did not mean that I was going to “squeal” and give in to the officials, but in my heart I would try to see the good in them and not hate them.  Jesus did not give in to his persecutors.  He used strong words against the evildoers of his time, but he had mercy for the sinner.  I was not alone fighting the world for I had him as my helper.  I saw that if I held this philosophy for myself I could not engage in violence for a revolution – a good war, as some might call it – but would have to renounce violence even in my thought.  Would I be ready to go the whole way?  At that time I had not heard of Tolstoy and his application of Christ’s teachings to society.  The most difficult animosity for me to overcome was a dislike of hypocrites and church people who had so long withheld the real teachings of Jesus.  I could see no connection between Jesus and the church.

FORGIVENESS: Nourishing The Beauty — Forgiveness and Prayer, by Carla Mae Streeter

From Foundations of Spirituality

The beauty that is human authenticity is nourished by liturgy, by sacrament, by art, by music, by human relatedness.  The consciousness drinks in what it needs.  The Divine empowers and purifies in the midst of the ordinary.  In the midst of this plethora of nourishments that feed soul making, I single out two: forgiveness and prayer.  Forgiveness I liken to a flushing out of the soul, an intentional release of toxins that could make us incapable of the nourishment that prayer is.  Prayer is coming before divine Love, clothed in nothing but faith, drawn by hope’s aching desire, and breathless on love’s bare feet.  Unforgiveness covers the ground with shards of broken glass.

Living things can be poisoned and their growth halted altogether.  Almost as bad, a living thing can be blighted, its growth crippled, twisted, and deformed.  Negatively, forgiveness is the purging that is absolutely necessary for spiritual growth.  Jesus was not kidding about forgiving seventy-seven times.  If unforgiveness is present in consciousness, it will prevent the nourishment of the soul.  It will cripple attempts at prayer.  Why is this so?

Forgiveness takes love’s temperature.  Low, the love is cool; high, the love is warm and real.  Without forgiveness, love languishes in the never-never land of the lukewarm.  With forgiveness, love holds no prisoners and as a result is itself free.  We free our prisoners not because they are not guilty.  We free them because to hold them poisons our own souls.

An allegory may help.  The entrance to one’s deepest core, one’s heart, is a gate likened in the Song of Songs to a lovely latticework.  The gate of welcome and admittance swings freely in and out.  There is no blockage, no barrier.  But when there is unforgiveness, the wrought-iron latticework at the entrance of the heart reconfigures itself into a jail cell.  There is great satisfaction and an intoxicating sense of power in unforgiveness.  We stride around the cell, the key on its ring twirling around our accusing finger.  We have our offender tucked away, and he or she is not getting out.  Unforgiveness is a subtle form of revenge; now it’s our turn.

The toxicity of unforgiveness leeches its way into the soil of our humanness, contaminating the ground water from which our love seeks to draw.  There is such satisfaction in getting even by keeping bound one who has hurt us.  It feels so right, this getting even.  Yet something is wrong with this picture.  Shouldn’t I feel elated?  Then why am I depressed?

Buried unforgiveness is like a toxic dump.  Unsuspecting hikers travel in the location and wonder why they feel ill when they get home.  The unsuspecting pilgrim needs to check often for the unfinished business of unforgiveness.  Nothing is more lethal to love.  What are we to do when it is clear we are holding someone hostage?

Active imaging can be very helpful to bring into consciousness what has long been buried and forgotten.  The psychic memory needs to be healed, and active imaging can confront the consciousness with what it would rather avoid.  But imaging also needs to bring healing.  We might picture an image of the risen Christ with the wounds of his victimization clearly visible.  Seeking entry with us into the home of our heart, he finds the way blocked by the jail cell of unforgiveness.  The heart’s door is blocked.  The offender will wield continuing power over the victim’s memory, which rehashes the injury over and over.  The risen one holds out a wounded hand, requesting not only the key but custody of the prisoner.  The click of the key must be felt more than heard, the jail cell door swung open, and the prisoner released into this one’s custody for truly just handling.  Empty, the cell reconfigures itself into a gate of welcome, barring no one.

Forgiveness is a form of divestiture.  It peels from love the last vestiges of arrogance, of control over another.  Without forgiveness, love is making believe.  With forgiveness, love rings true.

With forgiveness clearing the way, prayer also nourishes beauty.  Much is written about prayer.  Communal prayer takes various forms, from the rich sacramental celebrations of liturgical traditions to the stillness of Quaker sitting.  Personal prayer can engage the body through voice and dance, with words, song, and movement.  The psyche can be engaged in guided imagery.  The intelligence can be focused in reflective meditation.  The intentionality of the consciousness can be simply focused on the divine with helpless longing.  There is scripture-based prayer, the rich framework of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, the exuberance of charismatic prayer, and the prayer of quiet.  It is clear that one aspect of prayer is that it is something one does.

Prayer is also something one is.  It is coming as one is and being who one is with another.  It is being intimate with the holy.  It is being full of tears, spilling over with compassion with those who grieve.  It is being in communion with a groaning world.  Praying is something the divine is about secretly in the soul without it being aware.  Prayer is sitting in darkness and letting divine love have its way with a cluttered consciousness.  Contemplative consciousness is modeled for us by the child.  Crouched over, eyes wide with wonder, the child watches intently while the ants file in and out of the anthill on the sidewalk.  This attentive wonder can be turned to more than ants on the sidewalk.  Mystical differentiation of consciousness is a developed human awareness of the divine present in the horizon of our consciousness.  It is an ongoing way to be.  Clothed in nothing but the homespun of faith, we turn our soul’s face to the Son, like sunflowers standing in a field.  Our soul stands on tiptoe, face uplifted, lips all puckered up, waiting to be kissed.  Prayer that has become a differentiation of consciousness can become a constant posture of the soul.  Contemplative consciousness is what we are made for.  It is a differentiation of consciousness that is brought about by the refinement of loving.  It is something one becomes, as surely as a log, at long last, becomes the fire that engulfs it.  When prayer becomes more than who one is, than what one does, mystical differentiation of consciousness becomes the capstone of the beautiful person.  Like the aesthetic differentiation of consciousness that characterizes the pianist, or a scholarly differentiation of consciousness that marks the scholar, mystical differentiation of consciousness points to holiness at work in the human.  It is being touched by the holy.  It is a humble welcome, a making space for God.  The transformation caused by deification is at work.  Human beauty is the result.

Prayer is intensely personal, more personal than one’s sexual activity.  The more one moves from the doing stage to the prayer that begins to pervade the consciousness, the more difficult it becomes to talk of prayer.  The stages of this growth are recounted by masters of the spiritual life.  What is of importance for us in this brief consideration is to realize that contemplative consciousness is open to everyone.  Not dependent on technique or cleverness, it is developed by desire and love and is often found highly developed among uneducated, humble people.  When it is developed it will make one a formidable minister, often pointing the ministry in the direction of the prophetic, with all the persecution that comes with it.  Because love is at work in us, we might find ourselves drafted into a role we didn’t plan for ourselves.  It might be priestly self-sacrifice poured out in coping with false accusation.  It might be the regal and royal dignity we see in the dying who amaze their nurses, or in the faithful janitors who go about their cleanup day after day, or the friendly cabbies who manage to make a living haunting airports and trying to scare up passengers.

The divine is in relentless pursuit of the human.  The human, captivated yet terrified, is always running off yet hoping to be caught.  Like a sophisticated game of hide-and-seek, the game goes on.  Never tiring of our childishness, the divine pursued and waits as we come bounding around the corner of yet another pipe dream.  We need to come of age, to grow up to be a child.  That aging is the maturing of our loving.  The loving comes about in the integration of spirituality’s foundations, human and divine.  The result is the human clothed in beauty.  It is the weaving of the wedding garment.

PRAYER: A Litany Of Confession, by Peter Nott

O Lord, open our minds to see ourselves as you see us, and from all unwillingness to know our weakness and our sin,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From selfishness;
from wishing to be the center of attraction;
from seeking admiration;
from the desire to have our own way in all things;
from unwillingness to listen to others;
from resentment of criticism,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From love of power; from jealousy;
from taking pleasure in the weakness of others,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From the weakness of indecision; from fear of adventure;
from constant fear of what others are thinking of us;
from fear of speaking what we know is truth,
and doing what we know is right,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From possessiveness about material things and people;
from carelessness about the needs of others;
from selfish use of time and money;
from all lack of generosity,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From laziness of conscience;
from lack of self-discipline;
from failure to persevere;
from depression in failure and disappointment,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From failure to be truthful;
from pretense and acting a part;
from hypocrisy;
from all dishonesty with ourselves and with others,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From impurity in word, in thought, and in action;
from failure to respect the bodies and minds of ourselves and others;
from any kind of addiction,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From hatred and anger;
from sarcasm;
from lack of sensitivity and division in our community;
from all failure to love and to forgive,
Good Lord, deliver us.

From failure to see our sin as an affront to God;
from failure to accept the forgiveness he offers,
Good Lord, deliver us.


SATURDAY READING: Jesus Reframes Forgiveness, by Michael Frost

From Jesus the Fool

king christ the world is all aleak; and
life preservers there are none
—e. e. cummings

If laws like the Ten Commandments serve only to remind us of our terrible inadequacy, what hope is there for the human race?  The answer is that Jesus also reframes how we find a way out of our impasse and it is not through an increased commitment to some external set of regulations.  In this regard, Jesus is running contrary to every belief in the Ancient Near East, whether educated or not, that religion is the regimen by which we purchase the deity’s good graces.  For Jesus, religion is an expression of devotion to a deity who has already bestowed his good graces upon his people.  Watch carefully and see how cleverly he accomplishes this.

Jesus and a repentant woman

In Luke 7:36-39 we find the following disturbing story.  Jesus had been invited to the home of a Pharisee named Simon, one of the conservative religious leaders of the Jewish community.  This was no ordinary social gathering; Jesus’s reputation was growing and he was beginning to be perceived by the common people as a champion of their cause, a religious teacher who spoke the language of the street, who gave their faith some practical application, thus making sense of the relationship between religion and daily life.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, were revered, even feared, as men of unattainable holiness, keepers of the ancient traditions, separated, disconnected, and esoteric.  They were the orthodox guardians of the faith.  To them, Jesus would have been disdained in the way some academic theologians today might disdain popular Christian literature or in the same way professors of psychology might pooh-pooh many of the self-help books currently available.

Jesus did not share their training, their heritage, their general concerns.  He was certainly literate (and many in his society would not have been), but for the most part he was not formally educated in theology.  He taught with word pictures.  He associated with common people.  He came from Nazareth.  He was unconcerned with minute and specific interpretations of the Torah or with the teaching of the priests.  Jesus was, to the Pharisees, a pop teacher, useful only insofar as he supported the concerns of the Pharisaic community.

Jesus was potentially quite dangerous to the religious authorities.  If a group’s power is derived from mystery, from fear and uncertainty, from its role as a custodian of ancient secrets, then nothing strips that power more effectively than the shedding of the hard light of day on its esoteric machinations.  If Jesus was making Jewish religion more accessible, if he was making the Law more sensible, then he was undermining the degree to which the Pharisees could maintain their mystique.  In fact, towards the end of his short life, the Pharisees had secretly declared out and out war against him.  They began, however, by expressing their contempt for him far more civilly.  They began with dinner invitations to “discuss” with Jesus his uncommon approach.  Invariably, these were really intended to be opportunities to humiliate and embarrass him.  And invariably, Jesus’s sense of the moment triumphed magnificently.

We must be aware of the type of world Jesus was entering when he accepted such invitations.  The Pharisee had committed himself to a life of holiness, of separation from all things impure.  However, unlike the Christian monks centuries later who remained holy by physically separating themselves from the world in monasteries and hermitages, the Pharisees expressed their distinction from impurity through an arduous allegiance to ritual purity rules.  They ate their meals with the general community, but did so only after ritual cleansings had been completed.  In this way they remained an example to the community of what real holiness looked like; they were to have nothing to do with impure food or impure people.

Their conduct at meals was also to be an example to the community.  They were not given to carousing, coarse language or frivolous discussion.  In fact, they often formed religious societies, and engaged in religious debates over meals.  Often a visiting teacher or notable thinker was invited to speak.  So you can see how it would not be unusual for a man of Jesus’s increasing popularity to be asked to the home of a Pharisee like Simon.

In Luke’s account of the event so much is assumed by him and not explicitly mentioned that we, who are not Middle Easterners, miss much of what is really happening.  Luke refers to Jesus accepting the invitation and “reclining,” (verse 36), at Simon’s house.  The only meals at which people reclined were formal banquets that had precisely dictated traditional roles of guest and host.  The gates and doors were always left open to allow anyone, including the uninvited, to enter.  A guest, especially a rabbi or a notable person, would be greeted with a kiss and much fanfare.  A long, low table was placed in the center of the meal room, and the great wooden dishes were arranged along it or sometimes simply on the floor.

The guests would recline on low couches around the table in order of rank, leaning on their left elbow with their feet turned away from the table.  They would have removed their sandals at the door and servants standing behind the couches would pour large basins of water over their dust-covered feet and wipe them clean.  Behind the servants members of the community would gather to observe the feast and eavesdrop on the conversation.  They would not have been thought obtrusive for doing so, as the whole occasion was as much a community event as a private meal.

For a host to omit any detail of this ritual would have been unthinkable and a gross insult to the guest.  In particular, washing the feet (unclean feet were a symbol of great unworthiness) and kissing the cheek were indispensable aspects of the banquet.  To refuse to offer them would be to show contempt for your guest.  H. B. Tristram, the intrepid nineteenth-century traveler, wrote how once in Tunis he was attending a formal banquet when his companion leaned over and whispered in his ear not to trust the host because he had not kissed them on entering.  As it turned out, Tristram found that the advice was particularly perceptive.

When Jesus arrived at the home of Simon, he was not kissed, nor were his feet washed.  Neither, in fact, was he anointed with oil.  This last omission would have been less offensive than the other two, although anointing with oil was a reasonably common procedure.  It is hard for us from our vantage point of less formalized Western culture to conceive of the affect of such a snub, though we do have our traditional greeting customs which if avoided create offense.  Imagine turning up at the home of someone who had invited you for a meal only to be greeted at the door without a handshake or kiss – no welcome, no invitation to enter, no offer of a drink or a seat, no introduction to the other guests there.  It would be the height of rudeness.  You simply wouldn’t tolerate it.

Some people suggest that Simon’s behavior was merely an oversight. And yet so basic to the very fabric of the Middle Eastern banquet were these pleasantries that to omit them must have been intentional. Simon’s rebuff of Jesus was clearly calculated. He had invited the upstart rabbi from Nazareth to his dinner party precisely in order to humiliate him, to entice him into the cultured and elegant circles of the Establishment in order to scorn, mock, and embarrass him.

A guest might respond to such humiliation in one of two ways.  First, he might express his outrage at such a snub.  He could rant and rave and storm out of the banquet.  However, this would have been unheard of in the Middle East.  No matter how atrociously a guest was treated or how meager the food offered, one would never shame the host by mentioning one’s dissatisfaction.  Or second, the guest might silently endure the rebuff and later refuse any relations with the offending host.  If Jesus took either course of action, Simon still expected to score points against him.  If Jesus chose rage, Simon might thereafter recall his encounter with the young, hotheaded, arrogant rabbi.  If Jesus chose submission, Simon had the whole night to demean and abuse him before everyone in the community.

HEALING: The Seven Last Words — Measuring Stick of Forgiveness, by Matthew Linn and Dennis Linn

From Healing Life’s Hurts

To forgive as deeply as Christ forgives, you must be stretched by Christ’s mind until you can speak as he did his seven last words, his final attempt to forgive.  If a person has hurt you, Christ waits to say today through you the same words he spoke two thousand years ago at the cost of pain and life.


A. Pick one person who has hurt you (one you are not grateful for and would like to change).

B. Recreate in your imagination the scene of the hurt until you can feel anger, fear, and the
reaction you had when first hurt.  Share these feelings with Christ.

C. Take the first of Christ’s seven last words and ask forgiveness for any way your forgiveness
doesn’t match Christ’s forgiveness.

D. Looking at a crucifix, continue to say that last word until you can say it as Christ hurt within you
says it.  When you have the gift of being able to say that word as Christ does, fill in the cross for
that word and take the next one, until the entire cross is filled in as a sign of gratitude for your
life’s cross being transformed into the redeeming cross of Christ.


1. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

For the times I hated the sinner in another or myself rather than loved the sinner and prayed for the Father’s care, Lord, have mercy.

For being blind to the pressures and past hurts that make people unintentionally hurt me, Lord, have mercy.

For being more concerned about how others hurt me rather than how they hurt the Father, Lord, have mercy.

For not taking Christ’s initiative to forgive but waiting until others had earned my forgiveness by changing, Lord, have mercy.

2. This day you will be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:43)

For relying too much on my own efforts to achieve the paradise of acceptance rather than asking and depending on your power, Lord, have mercy.

For allowing pain, criticism, or the projection of my own faults to blind me to the good in another, Lord, have mercy.

For the times my forgiveness did not begin “this day,” but days later, Lord, have mercy.

For not wanting another with me, closer than ever before, and sharing all I can give, Lord, have mercy.

 3. Son, behold your mother.  Mother, behold your son. (John 19:27)

For focusing on my own pain and loneliness rather than on my responsibility for the pain and loneliness that others feel, Lord, have mercy.

For treating other like strangers – judging, ignoring, hearing their words but ignoring their feelings, seldom asking for help – for being so slow in extending my family, Lord, have mercy.

For the times I ran from insults, humiliations, and hurts rather than standing on Calvary grateful to suffer with Christ and offer his love in return for abuse, Lord, have mercy.

For failing to change structures and utilize the gifts of others so that love is given even when I am gone, Lord, have mercy.

4. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)

For feeling sorry for myself and failing to make forsaken times an opportunity to trust more in God and know that I could be closer than ever, Lord, have mercy.

For failing to see my own limitations in overreacting to the hurt, failing to build bridges, and acting coldly due to a history of other hurts, Lord, have mercy.

For equating closeness to God with feeling close rather than finding closeness with him in my neighbor, Lord, have mercy.

For trying to hide from God feelings I didn’t want to face – anger, fears, depression – and choking off my cry, “My God, my God. . . .”  Lord, have mercy.

5. I thirst. (John 19:28)

For not being tortured by a thirst for Christ’s view, Lord, have mercy.

For a thirst to escape pain rather than a thirst to love unto death and be hurt again and again in taking new risks to love, Lord, have mercy.

For failing to hunger and thirst for justice enough to prevent the hurts that happened to me, Lord, have mercy.

For adding to Christ’s thirst to love because closing my heart has closed other hearts and spread distrust around the Earth, Lord, have mercy.

6. It is finished. (John 19:30)

For feeling that forgiveness was accomplished if I felt comfortable rather than sensitized to others’ suffering and driven to heal their hurts and repair my destruction, Lord, have mercy.

For thinking I was finished when I asked God to forgive the evil in others and failed to see the same evil in myself or failed to forgive as much as God has forgiven me, Lord, have mercy.

For finishing a day without healing it so that my life tomorrow has direction and power to love without a backlog of hurts, Lord, have mercy.

7. Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. (Luke 23:46)

For failing to trust your hands by praying to release the spirit and heal to the degree that you alone can heal, Lord, have mercy.

For failing to see that Christ’s passion continues in my life and that the Father’s hands are always present drawing greater good from all suffering that I face with Christ’s view, Lord, have mercy.

For failing to let my hands become your hands to change what should be changed and for not letting your hands take what cannot be changed, Lord, have mercy.

For not seeing your hands everywhere and not thanking you for the growth and possible growth in loving you, others, and myself, Lord, have mercy.

FORGIVENESS: Finding Ground With Evil

As much as we would like it to be, it is not unusual to either experience personally or through someone else’s story evil spitting in our faces.

What I am referring to is opening ourselves up to someone who has hurt us badly, in order to advance forgiveness on our part, and being told by that person that we are wrong to be upset by what happened.

In the first place, it might begin.

And then might finish up with, How can you blame me for what happened to you?

This may come from rapists.  Or from someone who beat us.  Or degraded us for years.

Or betrayed us.

Betrayal can come from so many directions, and affect us profoundly.

It can be found anywhere.

And when we become aware of our reaction to those serious injuries that we wish with all our heart never happened, when we commit ourselves to right action in response to our aching, and we pick up our willingness to forgive, accomplish the distance between our enemies and us, we find no ground underneath us to stand on.

We find that not only are we not going to receive an apology, to witness tears of shame and remorse, to become the object of compassion, but we are going to be blamed for for the incident and for feeling resentful against this enemy.

The true teeth of evil is to convince us that we, ourselves, are the evil ones.

We are the ones who sinned.

We are blessed as Christians to receive Jesus’s teachings on sin, its shape, its reality, its consequences.  But we are even more blessed to be given an understanding of innocence.

It is not only in his words, in his respectful treatment of others, it is, most importantly, in his own example.

He, himself, is innocent.  And yet he is blamed.

He is denounced as evil.

He is the ultimate example of one who having reached out in love and graciousness, has this same love and graciousness turned around and used against him as a weapon.

So, we learn from Jesus that when we approach someone evil and contorted with sin, that it is important to own our own innocence in the matter that lies between us.

Our culture, for some perverse reason, just loves to strip that away from us as best as it can.

There is no such thing as innocence.  You are always to blame for something in the situation.

But this is actually not true.

There are occurrences  when we are, in fact, wholly blameless.  And not only that, there are times when we are attacked just because of our holiness, our goodness, our sinlessness.

The light we may have around us at the time may even be the draw for the attack.

This self-awareness needs to be the first weapon that we carry with us when we approach evil for the purposes of forgiveness.

(And I don’t mean self-righteousness.)

Humility is such a key to so much in our work.

The second strongest weapon we have in our sheath is the word, “no.”

When we find ourselves wondering if God hates us because he “let” this horror happen to us in the first place, the word to use is, “no.”

When we find ourselves mocked for the suffering we have experienced, accused of weakness and self-pity, the word to use is, “no.”

The more we are capable of employing this weapon, the stronger we are in keeping our balance in any confrontation – real or in our prayers – with our enemy.

Forgiveness, in my book, is the motion to close the separation between us and him.  (Or her.)

Nevertheless, one distinction in dealing with evil is that pushing back against the onslaught, expected or not, is key to accomplishing our goal.

Another unique factor in reaching out with forgiveness to an evil one is by starting at the end and working backwards.

That probably doesn’t make any sense.

I apologize for that.

Most of the times we find ourselves lacking in forgiveness, we start from that point and move forward toward the target.  I don’t forgive you for what you did, so I’m beginning with a prayer to be able to do so.

And then we achieve our desire by working on it.  Or by letting God work on us.  We move, as on a people mover in an airport, until we find ourselves talking with this person as though we are finished with holding resentment against him.

Because we are.

Through our sincere prayers and actions, we have literally changed our internal dynamic concerning the hurt.

However, with evil, when we find ourselves in the situation of wanting to forgive, we need to start at the end.

To have healed sufficiently to be able to get on with our lives, and, most importantly, to have found new happiness.

When this occurs, if it does occur, we are in a much better position to hold what happened to us with better understanding.

Wisdom does wonders for taming chaos.

For learning how to stand before a dragon.

Because, when our lives are restored, we can let go of so much of the fury that had kept us spinning around the incident.

And I realize that the most common thought concerning forgiving one who refutes all that is good in the universe is, Why bother?

Why bother trying to forgive evil when he is only going to try and make the wound deeper when you attempt reconciliation.

So, I offer you this challenge:

Find out for yourself the answer to the following questions:

Does the prayer to forgive an unrepentant sinner change the world?  Is such a prayer a form of intercessory prayer?


FORGIVENESS: Transformation And Deliverance — Repent And Help Each Other, by Glen H. Stassen

From Living the Sermon on the Mount

When he says, “Take the log out of your eye,” Jesus is calling for repentance – acknowledging our own need for change, and actually making the change.  The way of repentance is central to Jesus’s announcement that the reign of God is at hand: God is present, graciously delivering us; repent and believe the good news.  When we repent and allow Jesus to loosen our defensiveness, stop hiding our real selves from others, admit that we have a problem, and allow God’s grace to bring about a turning in our lives, that is participating in grace.  The reign of God then breaks into our lives.  When we allow Jesus to convert our judging into openness and gratitude, it really is the grace of God breaking into our shame.

Transformation and deliverance correct the vicious cycle of self-righteousness by grace.  Grace teaches peacemaking, not putting all the blame on others and building up hostility against them but acknowledging our own contribution to the problem.  Acknowledging that I have a log in my own eye, that I need forgiveness, and that I must forgive others is one more practice of the just peacemaking ethic.

This kind of peacemaking practice began with Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He had the opportunity to leave Germany and become a professor in the United States, and thus avoid the threat of death that hung over him.  But he decided he needed to acknowledge his part in Germany’s guilt for its support of Hitler.  He returned to Germany to lead churches in opposing the Reich.  He was imprisoned and eventually executed, but first he led others in making a courageous witness, leading some Jews to safety in Switzerland, and writing an acknowledgement of the guilt of Germany’s defection from Christ.  The confession of guilt is remarkable, coming from the person who arguably did the most to oppose the evil and who, one would think, had the least cause for guilt.

Bonhoeffer wrote that this confession can be made only by the miracle and the grace “by which Christ holds fast the fallen and preserves community with them” in the church.  It is not the confession of individual misdeeds by comparison with the misdeeds of others, but confession of guilt toward Christ who has taken our guilt upon himself and freed us from its burden.  “I am guilty,” he wrote, “of cowardly silence when I should have spoken.  I am guilty of untruthfulness and hypocrisy in the face of threatening violence.  I am guilty of disowning without mercy the poorest of my neighbors.  I am guilty of disloyalty and falling away from Christ.”  He confesses at length the guilt of the church for not speaking clearly, for not opposing the idolatry, for being sucked up into the ideology of the powerful: “The church confesses that it has witnessed the arbitrary use of brutal force, the suffering in body and soul of countless innocent people, that it has witnessed oppression, hatred, and murder without raising its voice for the victims and without finding ways of rushing to help them.  It has become guilty of the lives of the weakest and most defenseless brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.”  He then confesses the guilt of the nations that have failed to prevent this horrible guilt.  The justification and renewal of the West, he believes, “lies completely in God’s renewal of the church, which leads it into community with the resurrected and living Jesus Christ.”  This “can happen only in the restoration of justice, order, and peace in one way or another and then by the forgiveness of past guilt.”

After the war, Bonhoeffer’s confession of guilt for himself, for other individuals, for the churches, and for nations became a movement among many German churches to repent and confess guilt, and to dedicate themselves to a truer following of Jesus.  It was eventually taken up by President Richard von Weizsäcker and Chancellor Willy Brandt, when they publicly confessed Germany’s sins.  The world was amazed and impressed; there was scant precedent for leaders ever to confess their nations’ sins.  The movement has grown: the prime minister of Japan, the prime minister of Great Britain, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and others have acknowledged shortcomings that contributed to massacres and serious injustice.  Acknowledging responsibility has greatly decreased bitterness and prevented subsequent outbreak of vengeful war.  Repentance is for individuals, for churches, and even for nations.

Why does Jesus say “your brother” three times in Matthew 7:1-5?  Why does Jesus conclude by saying that once you remove the log from your own eye you will see clearly enough to help your brother get the speck out of his?  Is it irony, poking fun at our always wanting to correct someone else, with the implication that we should never try to correct someone else but concentrate instead on our own program?  Some do interpret it that way, as only ironical.  My criticism of someone else’s shortcomings frequently reflects the same flaw in myself.  The only correction needed is my own repentance, and the shortcoming I think I see in someone else will clear up automatically.  Robert Guelich, a writer whom I respect greatly, interprets Jesus’s teaching this way.  He says it redirects attention from a false desire to correct a brother to the need for personal repentance.  Jesus does not mean that if we take the beam out of our own eye then we really should take the speck out of our brother’s eye.  Rather, he intends to focus attention on our own self-correction.  Nevertheless, Guelich concludes that Jesus’s teaching does not preclude “the desire or the need to aid another who is in the wrong by humbly seeking out an awareness of one’s own great failings and God’s mercy to correct or discipline a brother.”

I believe that besides calling for repentance Jesus actually calls for help for “the brother.”  In the New Testament, “brother” usually means fellow community member, fellow follower of Jesus.  Healthy community requires the practice of forgiveness, and it also requires mutual, loving correction.

We have already noticed that Jesus confronts the powers and authorities of Jerusalem for their injustice thirty-seven times in the first three Gospels.  Every reader of the Gospels knows that Jesus lovingly confronts others for their sins, seeking to lead them to repentance.  He wants a community where we really do help each other with our biases.  The help we give to our fellow disciples is based in forgiveness.  It is the help of forgiveness, encouragement, and correction – all offered mutually – that we are to render to our fellow disciples.  This is not judging; it is taking seriously the reality that everyone needs a few blunt friends to tell us the truth honestly and lovingly.

After all, Jesus gives clear instructions about what you are to do “if another member sins against you.”  Then “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you,” and try again.  If that does not work, try bringing it before the larger community. (Matthew 18:15-20)  The key is to go talk with the brother only after repenting oneself, and to do it in a spirit of love and mutual forgiveness.

POETRY: The Layers, by Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

POETRY: The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made this grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean—
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

FORGIVENESS: Forgiving As A Reconciling Practice, by Terrence W. Tilley

From The Disciples’ Jesus

And then they brought him a paralytic lying on a stretcher, and having seen their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, “Cheer up, child!  Your sins are forgiven.” (Matthew 2:4)

Sin is essentially the creating of separation, of fissure, between sinner and sinned against.  One can sin against oneself, one’s relatives and friends, one’s community, strangers, the environment.  In any and all of these, one also sins against God.  The forgiveness of sins is the restoration of right relationships.  It is a crucial practice of reconciliation.

Mathew 9:2-8 (and parallels) portrays Jesus’s forgiving sin – and the accusation of blasphemy by some scribes.  To show that he has the authority to forgive sin or at least to meditate or announce the forgiveness of sin, Jesus tells the paralytic to rise and walk, as if to say, “That’ll show ‘em.”  And the paralytic walks home.

This story, however, doesn’t quite “work.”  The story doesn’t spend time saying why Jesus first forgave sins before healing the paralytic.  The situation seems to call for a practice of healing, not of forgiveness.  After all, the obvious problem was paralysis.  Nor does the Gospel spend time discussing why the newly healed person could go home; most of us assume that it is simply because the paralysis was cured and the sufferer could now walk.  But if that was all the paralytic needed, why should Jesus forgive the paralytic’s sins?  Perhaps the healing practice was not sufficient.  Perhaps it had to be connected with forgiveness of sin so the paralytic could return home.  The unexpected action of Jesus and the unexamined action of the paralytic make for a good confrontation story.  However, the odd order of events suggests that more is at play than first meets the hearers’ ears.

Forgiveness of sin is one of a set of compassionate reconciling practices.  Jesus heals both sin and paralysis.  His compassion is for both a sufferer and a sinner.  Here the healing practice is nested with another reconciling practice of the reign of God, forgiveness.  Forgiveness and healing have a real connection.  And when God reigns, fissures of sin do not open up and swallow the community into the fiery depths.  Sin is not merely a separation; it is also a social (or psychological) disease that needs healing; sins are not only offenses, but causes of ruptures.

It is clear that Jesus was remembered as forgiving sins.  That he may have claimed divine power in doing so is possible.  However, the Gospels never report the disciples’ forgiving sin.  While the Gospels report preaching, exorcising, healing, and other reconciling practices of the disciples, forgiveness is omitted.  If forgiveness is so essential as a practice of reconciliation, if it is a practice of those who live in and live out the reign of God, how could Jesus not have taught them how to engage in the practice of forgiving?  We can look at four texts to show that forgiveness is a distinctive practice not only of Jesus but also of the Jesus-movement.

Practicing Forgiveness

First, forgiveness is mutual.  The Lord’s Prayer implores God to forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. (Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4)  Mark has a similar injunction, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father also who is in Heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” (Mark 11:25)  Those searching for historical-Jesus material could argue that this multiple attestation (the Lord’s Prayer in Q, Mark) at least suggests that Jesus himself was remembered as urging his followers to engage in the practice of forgiveness as well as of prayer.  The centrality of the Lord’s Prayer in the life of the community meant that this injunction would often be repeated.  Praying for forgiveness, as one forgave others, would be reinforced repeatedly.  The Jesus-movement certainly remembers mutual forgiveness as a key practice.

Second, forgiveness is not a one-time thing but an ongoing practice.  The Q material preserves sayings of Jesus urging repeated forgiveness, (Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 18:15, 21-22).  In the Matthean version of the saying, the sinner is to be rebuked until the sinner “hears” it.  Matthew then introduces Peter to ask how often he must forgive – seven times?  No, Jesus replies, “seventy times seven” times.  In the Lukan version, Jesus instructs the one sinned against to rebuke the sinner.  But then he adds that if the sinner repents, the one sinned against is to forgive him – even seven times a day!

Interestingly, only the Lukan context notes that repentance is a condition of forgiveness.  This fact, along with the other differences, leads James D. G. Dunn to note that the tradition is fluid and that the tradition frozen in Q is just one stage of that fluid tradition, a tradition Matthew and Luke did not simply copy.  Dunn also suggests that the Matthean version, at least, is shaped by consideration of tensions in the emerging community at the time Matthew was writing.  This concern, with repeated attempts to forgive, at least makes clear that the evolving tradition remembered Jesus’s practice and urging of forgiveness as central to his work.

Moreover, in his teaching how to forgive, Jesus is remembered as urging repeated forgiveness.  The members of the Jesus-movement should not be stinting in forgiving.  Forgiveness is an ongoing practice of reconciliation, repeated again and again.  Nor is repentance merely an apology and a firm purpose to mend one’s ways; repentance is reorienting one’s life by shifting away from the woeful practices to engage in the blessed practices taught by Jesus.  Both repentance and forgiveness are ongoing practices.

Third, Luke’s Gospel puts a saying about forgiveness at a most crucial moment.  In doing so, the evangelist highlights the significance of forgiveness in Jesus’s work, and hence in the work of the Jesus-movement.  Jesus’s final words on the cross are, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.” (22:34)  What they were doing, of course, was executing a criminal, guilty of rebellion.  Or so they thought.

Luke’s Jesus pled for forgiveness of the perpetrators without their confession or repentance.  This powerful remembrance is another piece of the memory of Jesus’s teaching how to forgive: forgive freely!  L. Gregory Jones has noted that this pattern of forgiveness without repentance is a motif in Luke’s work.  He also noted that this form of forgiveness of “those who know not what they do” is remembered later by the Jesus-movement, (Acts 3:17).  Forgiving freely, however, is not a call to masochism, that is, a demand that victims repeatedly forgive repeating victimizers.  The Jesus-movement is not a haven for abusive relationships.  However, forgiving freely reminds us that in some cases the overwhelming grace of being forgiven can bring even compulsive sinners, especially unwitting ones who know not what they do, to repentance and reconciliation with those who forgive them again and again.

Fourth, John’s Gospel records the risen Jesus appearing to the disciples and instructing them to forgive sins.  Jesus says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:22b-23)  Luke’s post-resurrection narrative also mentions forgiveness: “Metanoia to the forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all peoples, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47)  The interpretations of these texts vary widely.  Few, if any, would ascribe them to historical-Jesus material if for no other reason than that they are remembered as a postmortem, post-resurrection communication.  However, just as the narrative of the transfiguration is thought by many scholars to be a “retrojection” of a post-resurrection appearance to an earlier point in the story, so the post-resurrection sayings of Jesus may be memories of something Jesus taught, however adapted, that are “projected” to a time after the resurrection.

Some see John’s Gospel as authorizing the disciples to be agents of forgiveness – and withholding of forgiveness.  But it is also possible to read this verse not merely as a commissioning but as a warning: the disciples’ refusal to forgive sin is a terrible thing, for they indeed may not be forgiven.  On this reading, the notion of mutual forgiveness can be seen as the form of forgiveness that is a constitutive practice of living in and living out God’s reign.

Some suggest that Luke has arranged his material specifically for use in preaching.  First is forgiveness and then repentance is to follow.  But it is also possible to see in Luke a preaching not to the sinners but to those “sinned against” to “repent” to (eis) the forgiveness of sins.  In harmony with the words from the cross in Luke, it is not necessary to read a sinner’s “repentance” as a condition for forgiveness.  It may be the sort of change in the injured party and the injured’s relationship to the injurer that leads to forgiveness.  One has to learn how to accept forgiveness as well as give it.

Despite the fact that the other members of the Jesus-movement are not portrayed as forgiving sin, the centrality of this practice in Jesus’s reconciling work is obvious.  That the movement is to carry on his work is also obvious.  Hence, these texts imply that the disciples were to engage in this reconciling practice – not merely forgiving but freely and repeatedly forgiving.

PRAYER: For The Forgiveness Of Sins, by Thomas Aquinas

To You, O God, Fountain of Mercy,
I come, a sinner.
May You wash away my impurity.

O Sun of Justice,
give sight to the blind.
O Eternal Healer,
cure the wounded.
O King of Kings,
restore the despoiled.
O Mediator of God and man,
reconcile the sinful.
O Good Shepherd,
lead back the straying.
O God,
have pity on the wretched,
show leniency to the guilty,
bestow life on the dead,
reform the impious,
and give the balm of grace
to the hard of heart.

O most merciful God,
call back the one who flees,
draw back the one who resists,
lift up the one who falls,
support the one who stands,
and accompany the one who walks.

Do not forget those who forget You.
Do not desert those who desert You.
Do not despise those who sin against You.

For in sinning,
I have offended You, my God;
I have harmed my neighbor;
I have not even spared myself injury.

I have sinned, O my God,
against You, almighty Father,
because of my weakness;
against You, all-knowing Son,
because of my ignorance;
against You, merciful Holy Spirit,
because of my malice.

Thus have I offended You,
most high Trinity.

Woe to me, a pitiful soul!
How many,
how great,
and how diverse
are the sins I have committed.

I abandoned You, Lord
I question Your goodness,
by yielding to evil cravings
and weakening myself with harmful fears.

By such things, I preferred
to lose You
rather than abandon what I desired,
to offend You
rather than face what ought not to be feared.

O my God,
how much harm have I done
by word and deed,
and by sinning
secretly, openly, and defiantly.

out of my weakness I beg You
not to pay heed to my iniquity,
but rather to Your immense goodness.

And I beg you mercifully to pardon
what I have done,
granting me
sorrow for my past actions
and precaution in the future.


SATURDAY READING: My Journey Towards Wholeness And Forgiveness With The Aid Of Therapy, by Joy Green

From Forgiveness and the Healing Process, Cynthia Ransley and Terri Spy, ed.

Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive. (C. S. Lewis)

At 50, after working for 30 years in children’s homes, I started a social work training course and found myself in a place of fear and depression, questioning my abilities.  My self-esteem plummeted and my Christian faith, somehow, became less fulfilling and available to me.  Psychotherapy started me on an unexpected journey to self-discovery and ultimately forgiveness. In this chapter I will offer my journey in order to encourage others to find what is hidden within their lives and to give therapists an understanding of the complexity of any process towards forgiveness.


My father was an officer in the Air Force, and spent more time overseas than at home.  I have a brother two years younger than me.  Because of the war, he was three years old before he met my father for the first time.  My grandmother lived with us, so we were raised by her and my mother.  My mother was a powerful woman who ruled us with a rod of iron.  I seemed to take the brunt of her wrath.  I don’t really remember much affection being shown but I do remember the cane kept at the side of the kitchen cupboard.  My grandmother shared my bedroom.  She was a gentle soul who said very little and did not argue with my mother.  My father retired from the services when I was 14, and it was only then that I really got to know him.  We had a great time together.  He died of cancer when I was 25.  I deeply regret the years I missed being with him.

What I do remember of my childhood is school, activities at church, writing weekly letters to my father and all the goodbyes when he left after holidays or weekends.  Church played an important part in my life, even as a child.  We would go to church three times on Sundays.  I would be entered for scripture exams and elocution and singing competitions organized by the church.  But I did miss out on fun.  I was never allowed to collect the prizes I won, nor receive presents on my birthdays.  We were not even allowed to play outside with other children.

I went to work in a children’s home, and, over the next three decades, mainly cared for young children who had been abused or had multiple disabilities.  As a matron for 17 years, I was used to carrying responsibility.  I saw my work as a practical expression of my Christian faith and as where God wanted me to be.  I found it challenging, fulfilling, and it was my life!  I enjoy being with people and believe I was seen as compassionate, sensitive, fair, and with a sense of humor.  I have patience and fought injustices faced by children in a responsible and professional way.  I was known for this and gained respect.  I had been brought up not to show anger as this was not Christian.  The emphasis was on loving your enemies and forgiveness.  I had to struggle with this as my role was also to care for the parents who had abused their children and I would have liked to have seen them suffer the full consequences of their actions.  I worked hard and all hours but towards the end, having given so much of myself to so many, I had little more to give and was almost burnt out.

After the death of my mother, I started to think about my future and the path I would take.  To move on, I needed further training and I was accepted on a social work course.  But I was exhausted and I found it difficult doing the course at the same time as coping with the loss of both caring for the children and my mother.  I knew I had to do it for my own satisfaction and career development: I thought of it as a chance to stand back from all the pressures, look objectively at my life and work, find out “who am I in all of this?” and move on.  However, it produced new challenges and suddenly things I would normally have handled capably provoked different responses which I could not understand.  I particularly remember becoming upset in a seminar discussion talking about child abuse.  I had spent years attending court for the most horrendous cases and caring for children who had suffered serious consequences of abuse.  I had experienced little emotion and saw it very much as part of my professional life and work.  Suddenly, the feelings were overwhelming.

Therapy was suggested by a college tutor whom I trusted.  Although I had no idea what this would involve, I agreed to consider it but made the stipulation that I work with a Christian therapist whom I hoped would understand where I was coming from and why certain aspects of belief were so important to me.  She suggested someone and after meeting together and feeling reasonably comfortable with her, we agreed to begin the journey.


I had buried so much of my past to enable me to lead a relatively happy and fulfilled life and was, certainly, not aware of anything I needed to forgive or let go.  It was only in the course of time that I became aware of how affected I was by what had happened to me.  I had no idea what therapy would entail and thought it would be a short journey, more of an excursion.  But, what started as an excursion ended up as a long haul lasting a total of five years.

To have company

I knew there would be common ground as the therapist was a Christian.  But she was not of the same denomination and I recognized we would not have exactly the same beliefs.  I didn’t know my companion and had to test the relationship and build up trust.  This was not easy for me.  I had been very independent and in control of my life and now, unusually for me, I was on the receiving, not the giving, end of being helped.  I was aware there were three of us on this journey: God, myself, and the therapist.  The therapist and I needed to be open to God and seek his guidance and help.

But my faith was also a barrier to the therapy.  I had to trust someone else other than, or as well as, God.  I felt guilty and an enormous sense of failure as a Christian that I needed to ask for help.  There was also a sense of shame, so much so that I felt unable to tell people that I was in therapy, for fear of their reaction.  The church gives out ambivalent messages about therapy.  This was highlighted in an address given by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Amsterdam (July 2000) where he said, “When therapy replaces faith and when therapeutic techniques are seen as the total answer to humanity’s deepest needs and longings, another idolatry is introduced.”  This is an example of the suspicion felt by many church representatives and it perhaps prevents a number of Christians having therapy.

I guess I was very unsure of what I was getting myself into and a little battle went on as I was testing out how skilled my therapist was and whether I could trust her.  I was determined not to use the tissues provided!  I had built up a defensive wall to protect myself and to conform to the type of person people wanted me to be.  Poor therapist!

POETRY: North, by Thomas Merton

(Based on Dr. James Laws’s Journal of the Kane Relief Expedition – 1855 – in Stefansson Collection at Dartmouth)


Morning came at last
The storm over we sighted
Quiet mountains green and
Silver Edens
Walls of an
Empty country—Near?
(We were deceived—30 miles at least)

You can tell when Sunday comes
Everything on ship-board
icebergs like Churches
Slow sailing gifts
A sailor intoned
An Anglican hymn

“One iceberg on our port bow
Resembled a lady dressed in white
Before her shrine”
(Dazzling whiteness
gemm’d with blue-green)
“In the attitude of prayer”

“As if some magician etc. . . .”


A huge berg between us
And the green shore.
“As we were gazing it grounded and the shock
caused one end of it to fall over upon the other
and both burned over. A terrible sight. Crashed like
thunder. Spray flew mast-high”

The whales came
And played around us all day.

Black parapets
Of Disko conjured
Out of cold rain
Something like a sentry box
On a tall summit

A boat shot out
Suddenly produced
From behind that rock
Came for us
With six eskimos
And Lieut Saxtroph
Of the Danish army.

Our pilot took over
Headed straight for the rock
A crack in the cliff
Ninety yards wide
Secret basin land—
Locked dark
All stone straight up
Two thousand feet
Into the rain
Not a spot of green
I inquir’d where to
Look for the town
He pointed to
Twelve cabins.

Then kayaks all around us
Offered fish for sale
You could obtain
A duck for a bisquit

“The Lieutenant had been in the wars between Denmark and
Schleswig Holstein; he spoke English very well and during
our stay at Lievly done everything in his power to make our
time pass pleasantly. He was a splendid dancer and sang
the national songs of his country with much spirit.”


We climbed to a graveyard
High on the wet rock
There bodies sleep in crevices
Covered with light earth then stones
Some were sailors from England
And America
Now asleep
In this black tower
Over Baffin’s Bay
Waiting, waiting
In endless winter.

We left them to their sleep
Ran down to meet the living girls.

“I would have given almost anything for a daguerreotype of
that room. Voices soft and clear eyes light blue or hazel.
Not one bad tooth. Their hair is all combed up to the top of
the head and twisted into a knot and tied with ribbons, red
for the unmarried, blue for the married ones. Jumper or
jacket lined with finely dressed deerskin trimmed with fur
and a band of ribbon. The most beautiful part of their dress
is the pantaloons of spotted seal, very soft, with an embroi-
dered stripe down the front which says: “ready for marriage.’”

We called for a Polka. The band
“Struck up Camptown Races we had taught them
the previous night”
Seizing our partners
We all commenced

Better dancing
I never saw at home.

“The space between the pants and boots is filled with a
legging of linen or muslin edged and lined with deerskin.
They were all scrupulously clean.”


75 N.Melville Bay
July 29.
“A conical island in a bay of ice to starboard. It is the
Sugar Loaf island of whalers. It tells that on rounding the
headland now in sight (Wilcox Point) we shall see the far
famed Devil’s Thumb the boundary of dreaded Melville Bay”

July 30.
“Toiling slowly through the leads with plenty of bear tracks
around us.”

July 31.
“A good lead opening. Towed twelve miles. The much talked of
Devil’s Thumb is now in sight. It appears to be a huge mass
of granite. . . . Here begins Melville Bay.”

Bay of ice and gales
Grave of whalers
Where “in one disastrous year the whaling fleet
Lost twenty eight sail.”

From the Devil’s Thumb northward
Vast glacier
“One of the manufactories
From whence the huge ice bergs
Are given off”

Fifty miles wide.

8 days driven to and fro
By masses of ice.
To be crushed
“All provisions on deck
Ready for a run
At a moment’s warning.”

The bark was thrown over on her beam ends
Our batteau lashed to the bulwark
Was ground to atoms
In a couple of minutes.

“All hands on the qui vive for a smash.”

(Must we go 200 miles over ice
Dragging our boats
To Upernavik?)

Finally clear of pack ice on the 13th
We stood for Cape York
Red snow on the rocks. Open water
Finally out
Of Melville Bay!


Cape Alexander.
Here K. promised to leave a Cairn
And a bottle with a clear account of his proceedings
To tell us his intended course
A small mound
A homeopathic vial containing a mosquito
Covered with cotton
A small piece of cartridge paper
With the letters “OK” written on it
As if with the point of a bullet.


78N.Cape Haterton and Etah.

Two Indians on a rock
Like an owl’s cry

“We landed and found a village of tents in a valley with
a lake of fresh water. A large glacier over the edge of
which a cataract was pouring into the lake. Grass almost
knee deep, full of flowers. Indians in dogskins and the
skins of birds collected around us and examin’d our fire-
arms with the greatest attention.”

“We soon found unmistakable signs of K’s party having been
there. Knives and cutlery bearing the mark of the Green
River works. Pewter cups and part of a microscope. Preser-
ved meat and pemmican cans, baking pans, forks, spoons,
a piece of shirt with the initials H.B., spools of cotton
marked N. York, curtain material, the top rail of a berth,
red velvet and an ivory handled carving knife. . . .”

“By signs they gave us to understand that the vessel had been
crushed in the ice. This they done by taking a clay pipe and
crushing it between their hands.”

“They pointed to a child and made signs
That K was a small man
Bald and without whiskers.”

O hairless Kane
Lost in ice
How long gone?
They do not understand
But he cured
One of their children.

They catch birds on the rocks by means of nets
Eat the birds raw
Give anything for a knife.

That ivory handled carving knife
Probably stolen.


Possession Bay

“Moonlight among the ice presents a scene that none but
those who have sail’d in Arctic regions can form any
conception of. It glances from the floe ice with a
blinding glare and gives the ice bergs the appearance of
mountains of light.

“Light streaming through a tall archway in a berg
Like scenes in the showy fairy pieces
At the theaters.”


Pond’s Bay

Rookery of loons
“Greatest sight of bird doings”

Cliffs terraced notched every projection

Wheeling over us in moon-
Light so tame
You could knock them down with an oar.


“We entered a cave at the foot of the cliff and found it
filled with young loons and gulls.”

So we shot 500 weighing 1172 lbs.


Sept 4th 1855


“Get up Dr we are rushing down on an iceberg.”

As I reached the deck
We crashed

A huge ice berg
Four times as high as the mast
Overhangs our ship
More of the same
White mass
Driven head on we
Beat against it
Bows staved in jib
Boom carried away we
Recoil swing star-
Board beam smashes
Into small end of ice-
Berg quarterboat in splinters
All bulwarks driven in
Catheads bumpkins and the rest
Swirling around angle of ice
Like a hurricane
Rush for boats driven back:
“We fired minute guns but the gale was so high the noise of
crashing ice so great the steamer could not hear us. . . .”

(The account ends here. Both expeditions reached safety.)

FORGIVENESS: The Process Of Healing, by J. Norman King

From The God of Forgiveness and Healing in the Theology of Karl Rahner

Both the forgiving grace of the mystery and the responding conversion of man occur at the center or spiritual nucleus of the person, at the deepest roots of his being.  The challenge and task of an authentic conversion is to progressively extend that core decision to every sphere and layer of one’s existence.  One must integrate more and more all that one has and all that one is into a total “yes” to that freely forgiving presence which we call God.  Indeed, the radical decision of conversion involves by its very nature the will to achieve this integration.  According to Karl Rahner, the gift of conversion is intended to draw into its sphere of influence the whole nature of man including its physical side, in order that all might be healed and sanctified.  Conversion should also leave its impact upon the whole physical and social environment.

The fundamental unifying force in this process by which man is matured is love.  Guilt is a failure and refusal to love.  It is a rejection in some fashion of the intrinsic worth of one’s neighbor which implicitly contains a betrayal of the self-giving mystery.  The reversal of this process can only be achieved through love.  This love, however, is not to be understood as a “mere sentiment,” an attitude of mind, but as a power which gradually permeates the whole reality of man in his concupiscent and hitherto sinful nature, and orients him to God.  The very process of integration constitutes the mode in which love grows and develops in the direction of fullness.

The process of integration is usually slow and painful and never complete during one’s lifetime.  In seeking to embody itself in the more outer levels of one’s person and in one’s environment, the original, central act of freedom meets with painful resistance.  It meets with concupiscence and original sin, as well as with the lingering after-effects of previous negative courses of behavior: egotism, hardness of heart, pharisaism, cowardice, and other ingrained dispositions.  These remain despite conversion or the level of integration attained within guilt.

From this point of view, God may be conceived as the infinite presence which enables and summons to this integrating task, to the purifyingly painful struggle toward a love which accepts, gathers, and gives itself fully and definitively, and which does so without falling into despair at the incompleteness and painfulness of the task.

This precisely is a fundamental facet of asceticism, “the long period of ascetical striving” to overcome “all the secret roots and impulses of his sin” which remain even though repented.  These include not only “those which simply belong to his lot, the circumstances in which man finds himself placed from birth onwards, but also those which effectively owe their existence to his own fault.”  We may simply point out here a few aspects of the task of integration, not previously mentioned, which Rahner notes in his ascetical and spiritual writings.

As a gradual struggle, never complete during one’s lifetime, this integration entails much more than associating a vague thought or pious wish with whatever a person may be doing.  Such velleities are readily divorced from a person’s real life and have little or no effect upon the actual motivation and performance of the concrete action.  Nor should a person unduly dwell upon self, attempting to analyze and dissect his or her own motivations.  Rather, says Rahner, “it is better to try to purify and refine one’s motives by looking away from oneself to things, and by letting oneself be occupied by life, others, and their needs.”  He greatly stresses the ascetical and purifying role of human life itself, both in its crucial moments, and in the humdrum of daily existence.

People should give themselves to the multiplicity of the demands, tasks, and challenges of their daily life in the world, in accordance with valid moral norms and their unique personal situation, even though they cannot seem to harmonize fully this diversity, but must bear it in hope.  They must attempt to respond to and live this “secular life” with integrity, constancy, and fidelity, and be guided and educated by the inner motivation contained within the tasks themselves.  They may be borne up on occasion by zest, interest, enthusiasm, and a sense of the value of what they are doing.  At other times, they will be tried in the crucible of aridity, boredom, weariness, and futility, through which their complexity of motives may be tested and refined.  Rahner sums up this task and relates it to the question of God in the following way.

He who responds to the world with genuine love, whose life in the world is lived joyfully, eagerly, earnestly, and bravely, with unreserved honesty, even without any explicit reference to religion, encounters in it the Cross of Christ and the inconceivability of God, if he practices the virtues of the world and suffers himself to be educated by it in joyfulness, courage, devotion to duty and love, such worldly virtues will one day open to him the innermost mystery which they contain, namely God himself. (Christian Living Formerly and Today)

At the depths of any of the virtues of life, therefore, one finds God.  God is present behind the moral responsibility inherent in the tasks of everyday life.  A person will grasp this matter more clearly, affirms Rahner, if he or she engages in solitude, silence, serious reflection, and prayer.  The blending of activity and withdrawal, of speech and silence, which we only mention here, does reflect the discovery of God both in one’s own inwardness and in the historical dimension; the discovery of God, in Christian terms, as Spirit and as incarnate Word.

Besides the realm of the everyday, Rahner draws attention to the fundamental phases of life and its critical moments, which he sees as so many forms or situations of conversion.  Puberty, marriage, entering a profession, the beginning of old age, a profound friendship, proximity to death, and the like, all provide special occasions for deepening one’s conversion or positive fundamental option and integrating it more fully into one’s life.  These are the key moments in which the underlying transcendental experience of God presses more irresistibly into one’s awareness.  Both in the ordinary and in the special moments of life, we are enabled and summoned to grow in the integration and healing process, by acting from the core of our being with a greater intensity and existential depth, and by (or better through) responding fully and appropriately to the demands of each situation.

This response to the moral demands of life is not merely a patient and passive acceptance or endurance of the circumstances, events, and trials of one’s existence.  The asceticism of today, in the service of integrative love, includes active social responsibility, “an increasingly effective responsibility of the individual within a society as such.”  One characteristic of contemporary man is the capacity to exercise a greater mastery over his natural environment and even over himself, through the remarkable developments in the natural and social sciences.  He has the opportunity, the task and the responsibility of more fully shaping his own Earthly future.  According to his or her situation and condition, each person should participate in the attempt to build a better and freer world that is more worthy of mankind, more expressive of and responsive to personal dignity, more conducive to peace, justice, and love, and more restrictive of arbitrary power and exploitation.  This is a fundamental way in which people today are called to embody their response to mystery and extend its healing power into their environment.

POETRY: Christian’s Poem, by Jorge de Lima

(Translated from the Portuguese by Dudley Poore.)

Because the blood of Christ
spurted upon my eyes
I see all things
and so profoundly that none may know.
Centuries past and yet to come
dismay me not, for I am born and shall be born again,
for I am one with all creatures,
with all beings, and with all things;
all of them I dissolve and take in again with my senses
and embrace with a mind
transfigured in Christ.
My reach is throughout space.
I am everywhere: I am in God and in matter;
I am older than time and yet was born yesterday,
I drip with primeval slime,
and at the same time I blow the last trumpet.
I understand all tongues, all acts, all signs,
I contain within me the blood of races utterly opposed.
I can dry, with a mere nod,
the weeping of all distant brothers,
I can spread over all heads one all-embracing and starry sky.
I invite all beggars to dine with me,
and I walk on the waters like the prophets of the Bible.
For me there is no darkness.
I imbue the blind with light,
I can mutilate myself and grow my limbs anew like the starfish,
because I believe in the resurrection of the flesh and because I believe in Christ,
and in the life eternal, amen.
And possessing eternal life I am able to transgress the laws of nature:
my passing is looked for in the streets,
I come and go like a prophecy,
I come unbidden like knowledge and Faith.
I am ready like the Master’s answer,
I am seamless like His garment,
I am manifold like His Church,
my arms are spread like the arms of His Cross, broken yet always restored,
at all hours, in all directions, to the four points of the compass;
and I bear His Cross on my shoulders
through all the darkness of the world, because the light eternal is in my eyes.
And having in my eyes the light eternal, I am the greatest worker of wonders:
I rise again from the mouth of tigers, I am clown, I am alpha and omega,
I am fish, lamb, eater of locusts, I am ridiculous,
I am tempted and pardoned, I am
cast down upon earth and uplifted in glory, I am clothed in mantles of purple and fine linen,
I am ignorant like Saint Christopher
and learned like Saint Thomas. And I am mad, mad,
wholly mad forever, world without end, mad with God, Amen.
And being the madness of God I am the reason in all things,
the order and the measure,
I am judgment, creation, obedience,
I am repentance, I am humility,
I am the author of the passion and death of Jesus,
I am the sin of all men,
I am nothing.
Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam!

MYSTICISM: The Remarkable Lack Of Edges In The Unseen World

We define ourselves by running into things.

We begin our lives by feeling hunger.  Then discomfort.  Then the shock of separation.

It’s all new.  And very quickly, it becomes who I am.

There is a cat in the house at this time – not mine, none of them are mine, but they are here nevertheless – who must have been sadly treated before he was adopted.  It has taken quite a bit of time, but he has discovered that he can actually communicate with me.

So he has begun a routine: he jumps out of the open window and walks quickly to the door, scratches on it, and waits excitedly for me to come and open it, give him a great, big, friendly welcome, and pet him a bunch.  And then he does it all over again.

And again.

We shape our thinking by smashing into facts and beliefs that leave their imprint on our minds.  I believe we spend our twenties picking out thoughts we find in our own heads that we discover really belong to our mother.  Or our father.  Or the priest who was getting old and muttered impatient insults under his breath.  Or the junior-high teacher that wrongly thought we would never understand math.

Almost everything we are comes from reacting to someone or something else.

It’s why contemplation is such a significant factor in our lives.  It’s the breath of nothing.  The complete letting go of all that we hold onto so tightly.

It’s the moving into the realm of possibilities.  Without anyone else watching or having the ability to comment on such a move.

Our difficulty in finding God in our lives comes from this difference between the seen world and the unseen world: we keep expecting something tangible to run into, to slap us across the face, to mold us.

But that is not how the unseen world works.

Instead of walking on land, feeling the bite of the rocks and the grit of the sand beneath our feet, dragging our hand across the bark as we round the tree, kicking up the water in the puddle before us, maneuvering in the unseen world is more like being in the ocean.  The currents are there, to be sure, and we can even learn to find our way just on feeling the subtle differences in the water temperature.

But it’s our responsibility to get about.  It’s no longer a process of starting and stopping all the time.  Responding to the activity that surrounds us.  Even when we are alone.

For some odd reason, recently I’ve been treated to hearing (or reading) the following knot in life: I’ve been going three steps forward, and two steps back.

Or the even darker: I’ve been going two steps forward, and three steps back.

And I see the conflict in our understanding of God in just those lines.

In a dance, we may move forward and back.  Our partner may spin us around; or, if we are the lead, then we can do the directing.

In an exercise class, we may step here and there, march up and back, step to the side, bend over.

But in God, there is only ahead.  There is only the path at our feet that leads us forward.

In God, there is no back.

There may be returns, however.

We may return to something that we experienced once before.

Or many times before.

But that’s not a going backwards.

That’s a return.

And we return in order to deepen our understanding of the event.  The person.  The place.

We are there to pull yet something new off the burgeoning Tree of Knowledge that always has something for us.

Life, whether we like it not, is always a gift.

The challenge with working with prayer is to come to an understanding of this edgeless reality.  That answers to prayers can slip in beside you silently and sit there until you get around to noticing it there.  And knowing how to work with it.

We want to apply our living standards to God.  We want to apply value judgments and critique the outcome of everything.

This isn’t what I prayed for, must be the most common prayer that God hears.

And yet, in God, it is all a gift.

A gift for which we are responsible.  To unwrap.  To understand.  To utilize.  To be grateful for.

To manipulate ourselves around in the unseen world, we must hone our ability to pay attention.  To every little thing in our lives.  Even to those things that we are accustomed to sweeping out the door.

In God, it is all a gift.

It is all our reality.

Our real reality.

Attentiveness isn’t just a spiritual practice that sounds cool when we read about it.

It’s the assumption of the role that angels have in the universe.

It’s the taking on the divine responsibilities that came with us as we entered our bodies.

If we know that we are always facing God, that God is always there before us, no matter what, would we learn to step more gently in our lives?  To progress in a less jarring manner and allow our worst nightmares to become our inspirations?

With practice, perhaps.

With hope, perhaps.

With faith, most definitely.