“Keep hope alive” was a popular slogan in the Eighties. I thought of that phrase after several friends mentioned recently how exhausted they feel from the lingering pandemic and festering divisions in the country over politics, mask-wearing and vaccine mandates.
Then I heard a wonderful talk this weekend on “The Hope to Which You Are Called” given by Sister Esther Fangman, the prioress of Mount St. Scholastica, the Benedictine monastery in Atchison, KS where I am a lay associate. Sister Esther is a wise woman whose insights are grounded in her extraordinary life experience. For years, she counseled people who had endured extreme trauma.
Among those she worked with are Bosnian refugees who experienced unspeakable horrors during the civil war in the 1990s between Serbia and Bosnia Herzegovina. One was a woman forced by authorities to flee her home with her husband. When the husband fell ill, the two stopped by the side of a road. They were confronted by a soldier who said he knew how to help. Then he proceeded to shoot the woman’s husband in the head.
Such atrocities were a regular part of the stories Sister Esther heard. She began to question where is God in all this? Where is God’s mercy? Neither praying nor spiritual direction offered answers.
At one point, the sisters at her monastery heard Scripture readings over several weeks from the Book of Judith. It tells the story of a dark period in Israel’s history when the nation is under threat from the brutal Assyrian army. Judith reminds the Israelites of how God has intervened in their history many times before, in periods of famine, oppression and exile. Remembering gives the people courage and Judith hatches a plan for beating back the Assyrians.
(That Judith’s plot involves a bloody episode in itself is a regrettable aspect of the story, but that’s what war gets you).
The story reminded Sister Esther of how many times in Scripture God enters a story at its lowest point, providing mercy and grace. It occurred to her that this is one way to move through trauma — to review our lives for those moments when grace comes unbidden.
She calls it a “blueprint for healing from crises.”
After Sister Esther’s talk, I looked at my own largely blessed life. I remembered instances when what seemed like unsurmountable obstacles or setbacks turned into opportunities. I remembered people who entered my life unexpectedly, like invisible angels, just when I needed their help.
I have been reading about the life of the great African American spiritual teacher Howard Thurman. Thurman’s journey contained more twists than a mountain road. In one story he tells, he was about to take a train from his segregated community in Florida to the city of Jacksonville, where he had been accepted into an academic high school for black students.
When he tries to board the train, he is told he has to check the trunk he is carrying, only he doesn’t have enough money with him for the unexpected expense. Devastated that he might not get to his school, he sits on a bench with his head in his hands and begins to weep.
A stranger in work clothes comes by and asks what’s wrong. Then the man directsThurman to follow him into the station. He pulls out a small rawhide bag and counts out the amount of money Thurman needs.
Thurman took the train to his academy in Jacksonville that day. He eventually went on to Morehouse College and divinity school to become an adviser to Martin Luther King and one of the most inspirational spiritual writers of the 20th century.
Thomas Merton was another person who lived through tumultuous times with seemingly non-stop crises. Still he writes in his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain:
“It is only the infinite mercy and love of God that has prevented us from tearing ourselves to pieces and destroying [God’s] entire creation long ago … Consider how in spite of centuries of sin and greed and lust and cruelty and hatred and avarice and oppression and injustice … the human race can still recover, each time, and can still produce men and women who overcome evil with good, hatred with love, greed with charity, lust and cruelty with sanctity.”
This week, let’s take time to review the timeline of our lives. Where have mercy and grace entered unexpectedly? Who are the human “angels” who took us by the hand at just the right moment? Can we be thankful for both the difficult and joyful times?