Week of May 25, 2014


In a few weeks we will be celebrating Pentecost. The Easter Season comes to a close recalling how the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and moved them out into the world. It’s a reminder that we, too, are called to bring Christ to our world.

I have read a reflection by Gabe Huck in Celebration recently that takes a different perspective on Pentecost. The title of his reflection is “Over the Bent World, At Pentecost, the Spirit broods”. As the starting point of his reflection Gabe does not use the Scriptures of the day, but the sequence, a prayer that follows the second reading. The first line of the sequence is “Come, Holy Spirit, come!” In this column and next week’s column I will share most of Huck’s reflection with you.

Should the Gospel we profess and the liturgy we do raise in us some great unease with the political, economic, military and environmental conditions that are our responsibility as U.S. citizens and residents? If so, how do we grapple with the apparent absence of such unease in our churches?

How often and easily we take the wind out of the sails of the great notions in our scriptures and our poetry. We do this quite literally in the case of Pentecost, where that odd piece of the liturgy called the “sequence” is Come, Holy Spirit. Two of the middle verses boldly demand:

Wash the stains of guilt away:

Bend the stubborn heart and will;

Melt the frozen, warm the chill;

Guide the steps that go astray.

It seems a feast of verbs, a feast of imperatives as we shout to this Holy Spirit/Advocate/Paraclete, this “Holy Ghost” who, Hopkins imagined, “over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”

The verb is “broods.” That worthy verb and adjective “bent” do what poetry alone can do: break open our starving imaginations so we can grasp how it is. We can still walk away, but only knowingly. We are, of course, that bent world. How bent? Yesterday I read in just a few pages of the New York Times about Christians killing Christians in South Sudan. About Muslims killing Christians in Nigeria. About Christians killing Muslims in the Central African Republic. About Syrian peace talks breaking down and breaking up. About. About. About. You can finish the sentences. The bent world.

Then this morning I joined a small group at a Manhattan church to watch the film “Of Gods and Men.” It is the story of the nine Trappist monks who lived and served and prayed in a remote area of Algeria for many years. Because of ongoing conflicts in the area, about 20 years ago the Algerian authorities asked them to leave their monastery or to accept police protection against the armed militias of what are being called “Islamist” groups. This ongoing violence in Algeria followed elections where the Islamist parties won a plurality, but had not been allowed to assume any leadership in the government.

The monks refused protection, and the film is largely about their painful arrival at a decision to stay in their monastery unprotected. In part that decision hinged on what they had come to know through lives lived as neighbors to poor village people in this Muslim community. In the end, seven of the monks were taken prisoner by a militia. The full circumstances of their violent deaths remain unclear even today.

As Christian monks and local Muslim people interact in this film we ask: Why not? Why not such mutual respect among those who live in these traditions? Why not such conversations? Why not familiarity with each other’s holy books, each other’s saints and holidays, each other’s way of weaving into ordinary days the magnificence of poetry and songs and the everyday expressions that help us along our way: “God bless you,” Ishna’ Allah” (God willing)? How long and deep is this hostility that still leaves so many on various sides unable to imagine a future together? What is our “unease” here, our failing, our responsibility?

(More to follow next week)


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