Monthly Archives: November 2011

Etty Hillesum – life in the face of death

The Lord will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is drawn over all the peoples
and the veil that is spread over all the nations.
He will destroy death forever
and the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.
Isaiah 25: 7-8

 On November 30, 1943, at Auschwitz, Etty HIllesum, a 28 year old Dutch Jewish woman, was killed.

Not much is know of her personal life but she kept a diary that reveals her inner struggles and longings for God in the midst of the horror of Nazi Europe. She sought to preserve “that little piece of You, God, in ourselves,” in the midst of the deportations of Jews to the Nazi death camps.

Yet there is a message of hope there – but a hope that needs to be realized, actualized, in our daily lives.

“I know that a new and kinder day will come. I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing the new age, by living it even now in our hearts.”

In the midst of the tears of our world, we are called to live in hope, sharing in God’s work of destroying death, by living in love.


Dorothy Day and the peaceable kingdom

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb
and the leopard with the kid,
and the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
Isaiah 11: 6

Dorothy Day, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, died on November 29, 1980. I don’t know of any US Catholic who tried so well to live the vision of Isaiah. It was not easy as she dealt with the poor and the outcast in New York, facing the violence of those who suffered from alcoholism and drug-addiction, as well as from the violence of poverty. But she continued and called for nonviolence in the face of poverty and war.

She was one of those “little ones” who grasped the Good News of the Reign of God (Luke 10: 21).  In the September 1938 editorial of The Catholic Worker,  she wrote:

“Today the whole world is in the midst of a revolution. We are living through it now – all of us. History will record this time as a time of world revolution. And frankly, we are calling for Saints. The Holy Father in his call for Catholic Action, for the lay apostolate, is calling for Saints. We must prepare now for martyrdom — otherwise we will not be ready. Who of us if … attacked now would not react quickly and humanly against such attack? Would we love our brother [or sister] who strikes us? Of all at The Catholic Worker how many would not instinctively defend [themselves] with any forceful means in [their] power? We must prepare. We must prepare now. There must be a disarmament of the heart.”

In a world beset with poverty, violence, and insecurity, may God disarm our hearts and open them with love to those most in need.

That’s what Advent is about and Dorothy Day shows us a way to live that.

Swords into plows

“They shall beat their swords into plowshares,
their spears into pruning hooks.”
Isaiah 2: 4

The Advent lectionary begins with the vision of a world where the hungry have the tools to feed themselves and their families – and the war-makers have to give up their weapons. In a world where trillions of dollars are spent on war and weapons of war and where billions do not have enough to eat, this is a message that needs to be put into practice by the nations of the world.

This hope and prayer are found in this prayer of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, a prayer that we might pray throughout Advent:

May we see the day when war and bloodshed cease,
when a wondrous peace will embrace the world,
when nation will not threaten nation,
when humanity will not experience war.
For all who inhabit this world will realize
that we have not come into being
to argue, to hate, or to be violent.
For we have come into being
to praise, to labor, and to love.
Compassionate God, bless us
with the power of compassion.
Fulfill the promise conveyed in Scripture:
I will bring peace to the land
and you shall lie down and no one shall make you afraid.
I will rid the land of vicious beasts
and it shall not be ravaged by war.
Let love and justice flow like a mighty stream.
Let peace fill the earth as the waters fills the sea. Amen.

Advent – a time for rousing

Father Alfred Delp, a German Jesuit opposed to Hitler was hanged by the Nazis on February 2, 1945. The Advent before he wrote a profound series of meditations in his prison cell, published as The Prison Meditations of Father Alfred Delp. For many years they formed part of my Advent meditations.

This year I’m reading them in a new edition,  Alfred Delp, SJ: Prison Writings, published by Orbis Books. As today’s Gospel from Mark calls us to be alert and attentive, so Delp’s opening meditation calls us to wake up:

 Advent is a time for rousing. Humanity is shaken to the very depths, so that we may wake up to the truth of ourselves….

This kind of awakening that literally shocks a person’s whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea. A deep emotional experience like this is necessary to kindle the inner light which confirms the blessing and the promise of the Lord…. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken…. It is precisely in the shock of rousing while he is still deep in the helpless, semi-conscious state…, that  persons finds the golden thread which binds earth to heaven and give the benighted soul some inkling of the fullness it is capable of realizing and is called upon to realize.

And so, may this Advent be for us a time to wake up to the fullness of hope to which we are called so that we may be alert to the presence of God in our daily lives.

Saintly queens and the poor

“We must give God what we have,
gladly and with joy.”
St. Elizabeth of Hungary

Many medieval women saints tend to be either mystics or royalty – or both. But the royal women saints almost always are known for their care for the poor. St. Elizabeth of Hungary is no exception.

She founded hospitals, cared for the poor with her own hands, sold her jewelry to feed the poor. All this scandalized her husband’s relatives, though he loved and protected her.

She enraged them even more when he refused to eat any food that was the product of injustice or oppression!

When her husband died, she was cast out of the palace and wandered. Later she was restored to a decent home. By that time she had embraced the example of St. Francis of Assisi and become a member of the Order of Penitents, the Third Order of the Franciscans established for lay people.

But she was not a sad saint, nor one separated from the small joys of life. Reading Daniel Ellsberg’s short biography of St. Elizabeth, in Blessed Among All Women: Women Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Time, I was delighted to hear that she liked to go fishing – and then would sell the fish to feed the poor.

She died at the age of twenty four in 1231. Even though she was royalty, we have much to learn from her devotion to the poor.

As the prayer from today’s Mass reads (from Benedictine Daily Prayer):

 Kind and loving Father, you inspired St. Elizabeth of Hungary  to recognize Christ in the poor. In response to her prayer, enable us to serve the needy and distressed with unwearying love.


The impoverished

In October while I was in the US I gave a presentation at St. Thomas Aquinas in Ames on “Why are the people I work with in Honduras poor?”. That was the original title I had suggested, but as I began to prepare I realized that the title was wrong. It is better to ask why they are “impoverished.” Poverty is not so much a state as the result of a process of impoverishment. The impoverished are not poor by nature; conditions and structures have brought them to poverty.

This is an insight that is often hard to understand and to accept, since it asks questions about wealth, power, and privilege.

On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests and two women were killed on the grounds of the Central American University in San Salvador, El Salvador. They were killed because the Jesuits had been asking questions about wealth, power, privilege, and oppression.

One of the Jesuits killed, Father Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J., expressed this very clearly:

 “Basically the poor are impoverished due to hoarding and exploitation by the rich; and the rich are enriched at the cost of the impoverishment and misery of the masses. To free the poor by giving them access to living conditions consonant with their dignity as human beings and children of God entails sacrificing the privileges of wealthy oppressors. Hence, when faced with the news that the Kingdom of God is coming, the rich feel challenged and called to accept God’s justice and kindness, by allowing themselves to be re-created and changed by that justice into brothers and sisters, and persons in solidarity. ‘Be converted and believe the good news’ (Mark 1:15). Only conversion, metanoia, change of mentality, new eyes in order to see reality with love in solidarity with which God sees it, can enable the approach of the Kingdom to ring out as good news in the ears of the rich — conversion to God who comes in gratuity and kindness to remake things, the God of the Kingdom.”

The greater gift

“An egg given during life for love of God is more profitable for eternity than a cathedral full of gold given after death.”
St. Albert the Great

November 15 is the feast of St. Albert the Great, who lived from 1206 to 1280. A Dominican friar, he was also a bishop, philosopher, and was declared a doctor of the church. He is especially known for his efforts to reconcile faith and science. He is buried at Cologne where he taught his fellow Dominicans, including St. Thomas Aquinas, the Dumb Ox, whom Albert prophesied would be heard throughout the world.

We sometimes think that theologians and philosophers as stodgy, heady, and not connected with the realities of daily life. But he saw the infinite value of love:

“That you weep one tear of love: that is more pleasing to God than that you weep tears of regret or self-pity, even if they would flow as abundantly as the waters of the Danube.”

May we learn to love as St. Albert did – and use our learning in love to bring others to Love!


Salvation of the whole person – in the face of massacres

On November 12, 1991, over 250 people were massacred at the Santa Cruz cemetery, Dili, East Timor, by Indonesian troops. They were, for the most part, supporters of independence for East Timor.

A few years later many people were killed by the occupying forces from Indonesia. One of the forces that sought justice was the Catholic Church and especially the bishop of Dili Carlos Filipe Ximenes, S.D.B. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996. On receiving the prize he said:

“As a member of the Church, I take upon myself the mission of enlightening and denouncing all human situations which are in disagreement with the Christian concept and contrary to the teaching of the church concerning all mankind..

“The Catholic bishop is a pastor of a part of God’s people. Such mission is spiritual. Such mission is incumbent upon him ally as a dispenser of spiritual resources for the salvation of persons and consolidating them in faith in Jesus Christ.

“But mankind is not limited to a spiritual dimension; one should be saved as a whole, human and spiritual. In this aspect, anyone shall never be indifferent when a people’s possibilities for human realization, in all dimensions, are not respected.”

Armistice Day

Today is Armistice Day, celebrating the end of World War I. It is also the feast of St. Martin of Tours, a bishop known for his charity for the poor, who died in 397.

When he was a soldier of the Roman army he cut his cloak in half for a beggar. That night he had a dream of Christ wearing the cloak he had given the beggar.

But Martin is also known as an objector to war. When he was called upon to actually engage in battle, he refused, saying, “I am a soldier of Christ; I cannot fight.” His superiors considered him a coward, but he offered to walk unarmed at the front of the army. He didn’t have to, since that night the opponents sued for peace.

Many centuries later, a retired US general, Omar N. Bradley, spoke out strongly about war.

“With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world with its moral adolescence. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have too many men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. [Humanity] is stumbling blindly through spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death….

“…the world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience, Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace; more about killing, than we know about living.”

Today is also the anniversary of the death of the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, in 1855. His biting critique of bourgeois Christianity is at the center of his “existentialist” philosophy. He once wrote, “What this age needs is not a genius, but a martyr.”

Ours is an age of martyrs who sought justice, without revenge and without violence. They are the true geniuses of our day.

The Church Community

On November 9, the Catholic Church celebrates the dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral church of Rome. Too often we think of the Church as merely a building, but it is a community of faith. As Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche communities of those with special needs, wrote in Community and Growth:

“A community — and especially a Christian one — will always be running against the tide of society, with its individualistic values of wealth and comfort and resulting rejection of the people who get in the way of these. A Christian community constantly calls its members to share, welcome, become poorer and go beyond their own resources to a truer love.”