I attended a talk this past week where the presenter challenged us to reflect on how we are promoting “right-doing” in the midst of the chaos enveloping our country and world. He asked us whether we believe the world is leaning toward what Jesuit spiritual teacher Teilhard de Chardin called “the Omega point,” in which everything in the universe is moving closer to a unity with God. Or, he asked, are we staring down Armageddon?
It would be hard to watch the news today and argue our world is arching toward mercy, peace and compassion. The hardest images for me have been those of the children in Gaza - both Israeli and Palestinian - whose bloodied bodies have been pierced by shrapnel from shells fired by both sides. Then there are the heart-wrenching scenes of lifeless bodies scattered like so many mannequins across rubble-strewn streets
It’s easy to give in to despair. Add to the Israel tragedy the sorry situation in which too many of our elected leaders seem to care more about assuaging their large egos and enacting vendettas in the struggle to elect a new House Speaker than they are in addressing the critical problems of our country and world.
What then is to be done?
When images of the horrific Hamas attacks on Israeli citizens began crossing our TV screens on October 7, I happened to be at a monastery giving a talk to its lay associates about how we are called to be “ambassadors of peace” wherever we find ourselves. My comments seemed naive given the violence unfolding. And yet, what else can we do but try to influence our small corner of the earth, try to create what the late peace activist Jim Forest called “islands of peace?”
One immediate practical action would be to support organizations that promote peace and humanitarian aid between Israelis and Palestinians (a partial list is in a link below). Additionally, in times like these, it is important to keep our eyes on what is happening that is good and decent and on those who are engaged in “right-doing.”
A few days after the Hamas slaughter and the Israeli counter-assault began, I witnessed “right-doing” up close on a visit to Maryhouse, one of the two Catholic Worker houses of hospitality in New York’s East Village. The sign on the front door reads “Housing Is A Human Right.” The building can offer shelter to some 40 people, a drop in the bucket by New York’s needs. And yet, it is how much these Catholic Workers can do with so little that gives me hope.
The place, to be sure, is rundown but the kitchen and area where people come to eat is immaculate. Still, the padding pours out of the kitchen chairs due to years of wear and the hallways are lined with plastic bags containing the only belongings of people who have nowhere else to store them or live.
Even so, each person who comes into Maryhouse is greeted by name — “Would you like a cup of coffee, Joe?” — and treated as a friend.
On this day, the staff was particularly excited to have some chocolate cookies to offer, donated by Starbucks.
One of the sights I found particularly moving was a section of a hallway where people in need could come to pick out a cane, a walker, even a set of crutches.
Another area housed donated clothing. Folks can come and go and pick out what they need. I was surprised that even young people who looked like they might be students at nearby New York University came by to pick up, say, a pair of tennis shoes.
I met with Catholic Workers Cathy Breen and Jane Sammon who have been serving people at Maryhouse for 40 and 51 years, respectively. Nearly a half century for each of them of dragging our wounded, fragmented world a little closer to the Omega Point.
Kathy and Jane showed me some photos of peace activist Eileen Egan, who had been a regular presenter at Maryhouse’s Friday night gatherings, and whose writings I have been combing through for the past two years with a view to writing her biography. Eileen was Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day’s traveling companion. She had also spent decades working for Catholic Relief Services, helping to resettle and rescue those displaced by war.
Eileen authored the seminal 1999 book “Peace Be With You,” published the year before she died. In it, she lays out clearly how war’s most devastating effects fall on the most vulnerable — children, the elderly, the disabled.
There was an interview on the PBS NewsHour last week with a young Palestinian man living in the U.S., frightened for his parents who are still in Gaza — a father who is in a wheelchair and a mother who is blind. How were they to escape, he asked, should a rocket land in their neighborhood?
After an exhaustive study of documents dating back to the early church and seeing firsthand the human cost of war, Eileen Egan concluded there can be no justification for armed conflict. She urged the practice of what she called “gospel non-violence,” a call that comes straight from the mouth of Jesus.
The folks in the streets today seeking a ceasefire to the shelling and gun battles in Israel so that some sort of sane negotiations can begin, are asking for gospel non-violence. The slaughter Hamas perpetrated was gravely evil as had been pointed out. The question is, do we meet evil with evil? Revenge with revenge?
In the most recent issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper, Dorothy Day’s granddaughter Kate Hennessy tries to distill the ways in which Day still is teaching us today about mercy, compassion and non-violence. Hennessy identifies nine major teachings, or actions, that she calls “The Nine Provocations of Dorothy Day.”
“These are not rules or step-by-step instructions. They are more akin to adding ingredients to a soup or a weaving of intertwining threads,” Hennessy writes. She quotes her grandmother as saying frequently, “There is no point in telling people what to do. It has to be a revolution from within, a revolution of the heart.”
Yet Hennessy says she sees Day’s “provocations” as “an alternative to anger, lethargy, despair, helplessness, or worst of all, indifference.”
Here are Day’s “Nine Provocations:”
Make Yourself Deeply Uncomfortable
Follow Your Conscience
Find Your Vocation
Face Your Fears
This week, can we make a conscious effort to practice at least some of Day’s nine provocations? What would change for us?
Can we commit to being ambassadors of peace and non-violence wherever we find ourselves?
Can we help inch our world closer to the Omega Point of mercy, peace and compassion?
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