By Percy Bacani, MJ
Perhaps Pope Francis is bringing back to us what it means to live the spirituality of Jesus in our times. He says in his proclamation of the Year of Mercy:
The call of Jesus pushes each of us never to stop at the surface of things, especially when we are dealing with a person. We are called to look beyond, to focus on the heart to see how much generosity everyone is capable. No one can be excluded from the mercy of God; everyone knows the way to access it and the Church is the house that welcomes all and refuses no one. Its doors remain wide open, so that those who are touched by grace can find the certainty of forgiveness. The greater the sin, so much the greater must be the love that the Church expresses toward those who convert.[i]
More than what the Pope says is his action. His visit to the US and his address at the U.N. puts him at the center of power politics. An article from Washington Post “The paradox of Pope Francis’s power” states what is captivating:
What’s fascinating, watching Xi, Obama and Putin on the same global stage with Francis, is that the political leaders seem to crave the authenticity that the religious leader commands so effortlessly…He disdains the trappings of power, the pomp and fanfare, and thereby enhances his real power. All of his words and actions seem to be going in the same direction… This bishop of Rome has unusual impact because he disdains the throne.[ii]
Another person that captures the humanity of Jesus is Mary Ann Finch. The sabbatical program at the School of Applied Theology (SAT), an affiliate of the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), in Berkeley, gave us the opportunity to have a day of immersion at the Tenderloin, which is the locus of San Francisco’s homeless and victims of drugs. Prior to the immersion with them, Mary Ann shared her life story of wanting to provide a service to the poor as a qualified massage therapist: “I realized that this was an area that I didn’t really know that much about. I decided to travel to India, to work in a leper colony, hoping to increase my understanding of the work I was drawn to do. When I arrived I was confronted with a group of women covered in scars and bandages. I thought, ‘My God, how do I touch them?’ There was this moment of terror. I glanced over at the director and he indicated that they wanted me to put out my hand. Hesitantly I did. One by one, the women gently took my hand and softly kissed it. That gesture took down a wall of fear for me. In a sense, they anointed me. They opened me to my heart.”[iii]
The day came for the exposure, and the first place to go to was the Church of Saint Boniface, a Franciscan parish in the heart of the city. Moving inside I saw poor and homeless persons sleeping on the pews. There were many and one was loudly snoring. I felt bothered and I smelled something unpleasant. I needed a place to keep my fears under control and feel safe. I went near the altar and a white male person was sleeping with his head resting on the front side of the pew. Looking back, I saw an old black woman reading a note and murmuring. To her opposite side was a young black woman staring at the altar. I looked too and saw the cross of Jesus. All of a sudden a troubling question took hold of me and I asked “Lord are these homeless not your crucified body today?” Silence enveloped my heart, grappling not with answers but with the dissipation of my fear.
Afterwards, we went to the dining hall to eat with them. Fr. John, one of the priestson sabbatical with me took our trays as we looked around to find a place and have a moment of conversation with anyone at the dining hall. Initially there were three adult males talking together. An Asian-looking person joined in and immediately I sensed he was, like me, a Filipino. We began talking in Tagalog and he is from Cubao, Quezon City. His name is Rico. He is forty years old and working in the city. When I asked him “why don’t you go back to Sacramento where you parents are?” He said “I am working here.” I did not push my query sensing that he was ashamed to share more about his plight. He looked haggard, trodden, and rumpled. He ate his food and gently smiled and said “bye Fr. Percy.” I said “bye” even if deep in my heart I wanted to know more about what happened to him. It was a moment with a Filipino homeless in the midst of prosperity bubbling at the heart of the Silicon Valley, the technological wonderland of the world.
Before the day ended, we had time fora processing of our experiences together with our teachers - former homeless and addicts who painfully recovered and were still recovering from their brokenness – who toured us around the city showing where the homeless go and the different services provided to them. During the sharing, what struck most was the sharing of Walter, one of the teachers. With stuttering voice, he said “do not sugar coat what you have seen. Do not sugar coat what is.” Deep within I was struggling to feel what he was feeling, I was allowing myself to let suffering be, letting hopelessness seep in without any cause, letting his narrative speak for itself not needing any intervention and interpretation except to listen and be part of his story and those who have no home to rest. Maybe by listening for a moment, I provided a home.
Another homeless and teacher-guide was Valerie. Her lot is difficult to image – sleeping on a chair in a crowded room of forty homeless women for the past three years. Her “descent to hell” is when she lost her job. She ended among the homeless of San Francisco and found herself wandering on the streets. She said a finding a shelter every night can be a nightmare. Her sharing was calm and not bitter. What led her to discover her dignity was when Mary Ann gave her a massage. The touch was not just a familiar physical touch; it was a profound spiritual experience of belongingness and acceptance. She felt worthy and loved. She felt she got back her dignity and her wholeness. Mary Ann provided a home she was longing for; she gave more than a room; she offered a room for her heart to rest and dwell. The touch is holy. The heart of Mary Ann is God’s heart. Is this not a visible experience of the mystery of Incarnation?
What Mary Ann does with people who are homeless and addicts, symbols of marginalization and brutality of the 21st century market economy, parallels that of Etty Hillesum, a young Jewish woman who died in Auschwitz on 30 November 1943 at the age of 29. Carol Flinders reflecting on the life of Etty writes: “Because she learned how to let go of the merely personal, she could fully receive the sorrows of others without holding on to them – she knew in effect how to lift the gate and let the grief flow on out of her. Everything could circulate through her. Joy, grief, anger, despair and of course love above all must be able to circulate through ourselves and one another and all of life.”[iv]
Etty Hillesum’s writings articulate a remarkable experience of God during times when many just abandoned a faith that seemed so useless. Who could still talk about an almighty God in Auschwitz? In the same way who could speak about a Compassionate God where people who are homeless and the despised are considered deadweights of a prosperous society? Why would we need a God apparently so indifferent, or perhaps helpless in a world of massive poverty from Africa to Asia? Etty Hillesum writes with hope against hope. She believes that at the heart of inhumanity, the Divine is like an ember that we need to kindle. Without kindling that fire, we would find ourselves in despair and in hell.
I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold You responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. (12 July 1942)[v]
My immersion at the Tenderloin, though a glimpse of the anguish and suffering of humanity, gave me a picture of what the cross of Jesus means. The cross means a lot but this this time I saw the gift and the challenge to my life as religious and missionary. As a gift, I saw the “back of God” manifesting compassion for the poor and the marginalized, not above, not below, but deeply being one with them, homeless and without security. As a challenge, I saw the back of God inviting me to provide a home by touching their lives in many ways but more in terms of listening to their sacred stories and taking their stories as my own. And as we share the same scarred-sacred humanity, that we can hold and nourish God’s presence in our hearts and not drowned by numbness and indifference. Etty Hilsum insight in life’s meaning is tied to our relationships and becomes a corrective to our feeling of isolation and loneliness. She writes:
I know two sorts of loneliness. One makes me feel dreadfully unhappy, lost and forlorn, the other makes me feel strong and happy. The first always appears when I feel out of touch with my fellow human beings, with everything, when I am completely cut off from others and from myself and can see no purpose in life or any connection between things, nor have the slightest idea where I fit in. With the other kind of loneliness, by contrast, I feel very strong and certain and connected with everyone and everything and with God, and realise that I can manage on my own and that I am not dependent upon others. Then I know that I am part of a meaningful whole and that I can impart a great deal of strength to others. (9 August 1941)[vi]
What separates us are all the artificial boundaries and hollow walls created by human insecurities and shadows fêted and sanitized at the altar of technological power and indecent wealth of the present socio-economic system. All these constructed barriers intensify our alienation to who we are. We begin to own manufactured desires. It is captured by the dictum “I buy, therefore, I am.” The ubiquitous gadget is the smartphone; it is the symbol of our busy and emotional world of instant and constant communication, of amusement, of distraction, and of nourishment 24 hours a day. Ronald Rolheiser comments on the machines and shopping malls that rule our lives today: “While that has made our lives wonderfully efficient it has also conspired against depth. The danger, as one commentator puts it, is that we are all developing permanent attention deficient disorder. We are attentive to so many things that, ultimately, we aren’t attentive to anything, particularly to what is deepest inside of us.”[vii] We end up disconnected to what gives direction and meaning to our lives as persons in a web of relations. Isolation and alienation become the dominant expressions of who we are. There is a homelessness in a deeper sense as having no soul at all. Pope Francis says:
Technology tends to absorb everything into its ironclad logic, and those who are surrounded with technology “know full well that it moves forward in the final analysis neither for profit nor for the well-being of the human race”, that “in the most radical sense of the term power is its motive – a lordship over all”. As a result, “man seizes hold of the naked elements of both nature and human nature”. Our capaci¬ty for making decisions, a more genuine freedom and the space for each one’s alternative creativity are diminished.[viii]
Richard Rohr in his meditation about “Power and Powerlessness” says: “When you are aligned with Empire, you are forced to prefer a spirituality of achievement, performance, worthiness, and willpower, and surely not any talk of “all people have sinned” and “fallen short of the glory” (Romans 5:12, 3:23). There is no longer room “for the last to be first and the first to be last” (Mark 10:31). Conformity to cultural virtue becomes much more important than love of littleness itself or love of any outsider (read “sinner”).”[ix] The narrative of the dominant culture becomes the center of any discourse. It proclaims constantly the values of technology and progress. Those who find themselves outside this vortex are simply left behind. There is no room for them in a globalized cold world. Queen Rania al Abdullah of Jordan writes about the impact of technology in our lives for the next 10 years, the digital divide in the modern world and what is the challenge for us today:
…the pace of innovation will accelerate at a dizzying speed as the world’s best creative minds try to sate the demands of our insatiable appetite for progress and an insta-lifestyle that’s faster, cheaper, easier and better -- whatever ‘better’ might mean. Right now in my region, the Middle East, men are beheaded for sorcery while children are forced to watch. Women are enslaved and abused for belonging to ‘another’ religion. Around five million children are out of school -- missing out on the a,b,c’s and the 1,2,3’s of their future and the future of our region. Elsewhere, the ugly scenes in Ferguson and Baltimore remind us that below the surface and, too often, above it, injustice and prejudice simmer across the US. We’ve seen religious intolerance manifest itself in terrifying massacres in Kenya. And already this year, around 1,500 refugees, in search of a better life, have drowned, in part, because of the global community’s indifference to their plight. As long as progress is exclusive and not inclusive, shared by some and not all, the more we’ll see incidents like these. And the more we’ll see lone wolf terrorists and groups, such as ISIS, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram feed off people’s sense of injustice and seek perverted fulfillment. To go forward, to write a narrative of real and lasting progress, we must go back. Back to basics. We must return to the roots of our common humanity and to the universal values that connect us to each other. And we must be as hungry and restless for them as we would be if they were the next smart phone or Fitbit or video game. [x]
With the egoic consciousness having become so dysfunctional, and now having at our disposal all these enormous technologies and scientific advances, if nothing changes the ego will use those things - as it already has been doing - and will amplify the technology that we now have. The scientific advances, to a large extent, will be used in the service of the ego, and they will become more and more destructive. - Eckhart Tolle
Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition and myth frame our response. – Arthur Schlesinger
The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human. – John Naisbitt
Fr. Percy G. Bacani,mj
Antipolo City, Rizal
[iii] Mary Ann shared this story at SAT (school of applied theology) October 26, 2015. Her program “Care through Touch is documented in the Kindred Spirit issue 50, Spring 2000.
[viii] Laudato Si,108.
[ix] Richard Rohr’s daily meditation, Center for Action and Contemplation.