Tonight, I am packed. I am looking ahead to 8 days time, landing in Kigali, spending the night with the nuns at Cîteaux, and taking the bus in the morning West by Northwest, to Gisenyi, and across la Grande Frontière: and back into the Congo: and Goma, and the drive up onto the massif, to Mokoto, by the lake.
8 days from now, on May 21, but 16 years ago, seven Trappist monks, from Europe, were beheaded in Algeria. And 2 years ago, a film about the men won the Grand Prix at Cannes. And the martyrs are remembered in name and through their writings.
3 days and 16 years ago, before the incident in Algeria, but below the Sahara, at another Trappist monastery, 1000 refugees were hacked and shot to death in a basement, below an abbey church. And no movie was ever made. No names remembered. There are only anonymous graffiti drawings on the ruined walls, giving account of the incident.
6 months ago or so, I started teaching and mentoring on a Death Row in a Red state.
8 days ago, I attended the baptism and confirmation of a man, on Death Row, a man looked up to by inmates and by guards, by the chaplain, and the priest. The guards say he is one of the best. A photo was taken: and the event is remembered.
Another inmate was confirmed 3 days ago. The priest asked this man about a program he had been involved in, and the man said that the program had been cancelled; it had been deemed unnecessary on account that its emphasis was in rehabilitating an individual, and individuals on Death Row, by definition of situation, cannot be rehabilitated.
Today, my time on Death Row is over. I am looking ahead to Africa.
Tonight, I stare into a photograph of 8 days ago. In the photo there is a white wall, and a font with soft green water. And two white men in white attire. One dry, one wet. One with gesturing hands, one with hands cuffed. But beyond these bindings, the hands seem the same: the same paleness, the same age, the same softness. The faces share in a commitment and a focus and a lightness. In this moment, snapped and frozen, they are united, in veneration and celebration. In this moment in Christian life, realities are dissolved.
In a fortnight, I will be back atop a massif, back to a monastery, back to Congo, back for Pentecost, celebrating Mass and the Fête of the Fire of the Holy Spirit, above the graves of a thousand souls martyred out of the inability of fellow men to follow the tenet drawn out in the tenth verse of Psalm 46: “Be still, and know I am God.”
In our collective inability to be still in the knowledge and in the faith of God’s Mercy and His Judgment, we scramble to set up complicated systems of exclusion and separation and worse. We take on a shared hubris and we exile our own selves from the salvific mission of Christ and his commanding challenge to love as he loved. We find ways: to avoid the poor, the marginalized, the forgotten, and the imprisoned. We find ways not to value each of the sheep in the human flock with Christ-like equity. Some animals are more equal than others as observed even Orwell. And we who claim ourselves Christians choose this, despite the very clarity of Christ at the end of Matthew 25, despite the careful exhortations in the Sermon on the Mount towards love and forgiveness and against judgment. We avoid the direct dictates of our Patristic Fathers and the Desert Saints. We choose to find the loopholes and the detours. I choose to find the loopholes and the detours. The loopholes and detours appear safer in the short term: even if, in their safe numbness, they place me far from the necessary hard truth of love. The love contained in the commandment of Christ, and so beautifully presented in the First Letter of Saint John. Love tied to hope, a hope that is by its very nature to push me out of me: my comfort, my ego, out into the cohort of all those wise men and wise woman who have come before me, to encounter the Word beyond words, in the energy of praxis, in pursuing that energetic love, actualized in the encountering the neighbor, every neighbor. As Origen so clearly claims: “And I will not only hope but ‘hope beyond hope’ in the progress of love. For ‘love hopes all things (I Cor. 13: 7).’” So impossibly simple: so impossibly sound.
Tonight, I look into the photograph, and see hope, and feel a little less numb.
Tonight, I reread from the “Testament” of Father Christian, martyred in Algeria; the testament opened days later, on Pentecost Sunday, 1996:
If it should happen one day—and it could be today—
That I become a victim of the terrorism…
I would like my community, my Church and my family…
… to accept the fact
that the One Master of all life
was not a stranger to this brutal departure.
I would ask them to pray for me.
I ask them to associate this death
with so many other equally violent ones
which are forgotten through indifference or anonymity.
My life has no more value than any other.
Nor any less value…
I have lived long enough to know
that I am an accomplice in the evil
which seems, alas, to prevail in the world….
For this life lost, totally mine and totally theirs,
I thank God, who seems to have willed it entirely
for the sake of that JOY in everything
and in spite of everything.
In this THANK YOU, which is said
for everything in my life from now on,
I certainly include… also you, my last-minute friend,
who will not have known what you were doing:
Yes, I want this THANK YOU and this “A-DIEU”
to be for you, too,
because in God’s face I see yours.
May we meet again as happy thieves
in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both.
It is in this connectivity of everything in hope and in love and in life, because of and in spite of it all, that I believe I can begin to see the magnificent clarity of Christ, and through Christ, that brilliance known as the Trinity. In looking into the photograph, and in reflecting back upon six months of experiences, my mind is struck dumb, by the inefficacy of systems of justice in executing the salvation commanded by God, through the ministry of Christ. In places, where my own education told me never: I have found the presence of the Spirit moving, doing, guiding, healing. And I am awed. And I am energized. And I am complicated and perplexed and humbled. And I am hopeful.
Against it all, I have hope, for I have felt love in impossible places.
To have this hope, this love, I must throw off my own temptation to react, to judge, to strike back, to hold back, to cut off. I must reach out. I must learn to love: through humility: through knowing fully the confidence in knowing God is God, and being able, thus, to forgive. For St. Thomas Aquinas rightly points out: “Nothing makes us so God-like as our willingness to forgive.”
I must be stiller. And ready myself to be able to seek God in every next face I meet.
Writes the recluse St. Isaac the Syrian, within a homily from his cave:
Question: When is a person sure of having arrived at purity?
Answer: When that person considers all human beings are good,
and no created thing appears impure or defiled.
Instead of such a consideration of all-encompassing love, we react grossly in particularization: we show our inability to have confidence in God and in the Final Judgment, a confidence all good children of Abraham are meant by adoption to share. As such we employ manmade devices and processes to seek swift judgment and immediate vengeance for ourselves, by ourselves: our chosen acts defaming God and what God claims as His Right and His alone. In this our enterprise, we make impossible our ability to comply with the singular task of His commandment unto us: to love as He, in the mystery of the Trinity, loves. The omnipresent invisible eschatological weight behind this ease at our choice not to consider “all human beings are good” simplifies the devil’s work, fashioning for him a footstool from the readymade of our sinful sanctimony.
The devil conquers as he divides us from the Divine, and from each other.
Against feeling numb, made dumb by the Spirit, I turn once more toward Africa.