“Choose a word, no more than two syllables.”
That was our instruction for doing a session of Centering Prayer.
It’s the perfect day for this retreat, in light of last night’s horrific attacks in Paris and the beautiful weather. Plus, it doesn’t seem right to be cheery or chatty or ‘productive’ this morning. I’ve never visited Paris, but who is not broken-hearted this morning at their tragedy, which in many ways is our shared tragedy.
At this hosting church, a conglomeration of small buildings is interleaved with humble gardens and walking spaces. I’m writing while sitting around a small prayer garden with a single rose plant, a small statue and a circle of seasonal plants that apparently, given the “past their prime” condition, will never be rescued from the plastic pots in which they were purchased to be properly planted into the ground. But the informality and nearby freeway traffic don’t seem to bother the busy bees and flitting butterflies.
Earlier, in our opening session before the silence began, we were instructed to experience Centering Prayer. One word would become your personal touchstone for the next 20 minutes, “a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.” Whenever the mind wanders, return it gently to the word. Words were suggested, such as God, Love, Abba, Peace. All seemed useful, but I wasn’t happy with all of them. What’s stirring in my heart? Empathy. Empathie. With a word that cuts so close to the nerve of my feelings, my wandering mind was easily returned to its reflection.
Empathy… envisioning the Bataclan concert hall and the other sites in Paris, where so many innocents were mowed down. Young people, couples, lovers, families out for a final balmy autumn evening. It’s hard to imagine a more idyllic setting, akin to Mozart saying that ‘it is in the evening after a good dinner, riding home in a lovely carriage that I am at my most creative’… when all seems well with the world and our guard is most down. A hospital leader was interviewed…’We tried to save as many of the injured as possible.’ Meaning, more deaths in the hours that followed. And some survivors will no doubt offer lifelong disability. Les misérables.
Empathy… for parents, spouses, children, friends mourning such tragic losses. Today, the day after, trying impossibly to make sense of all of it. Politician and pundits having the unenviable task of both comforting and assuring the world’s citizenry; pretending to have answers, fighting against rash decisions, the beginning of sleepless nights of worry to come, pushing to clarify their thoughts and accelerate their actions and reactions. US presidential candidates hoping for advantage by how they position themselves between toughness and wisdom, balancing between playing to the public mood and saying something meaningful.
Like the proverbial pebble cast into a pond, the ripples of empathie continue to expand as I “consent to God’s presence and action within.”
Empathy… for the Syrian refugees, already caught in such an intractable military and political crossfire, who will undoubtedly now have fewer options, be more distrusted for events not of their making, and who are surely destined to now become bit background characters in this drama.
Empathy… for the huge majority of Muslims worldwide who find the attacks abhorrent, personally and religiously. The West largely bifurcates Islam into two monolithic but equally incomprehensible camps: Sunni and Shite. It’s much like thinking all of Christianity can be understood by focusing on the Catholics and Protestant factions of Northern Ireland. Muslims, including those who are our neighbors in the West, will not find life easy in the coming days, because of these actions of a radical fringe. I fear that many of the post-9/11 animosities will return.
Empathy??… for eight young men with automatic rifles and explosive belts who sprayed death, judgement and hateful destruction down on the City of Love last evening? God, does empathy extend that far? Isn’t my 20 minutes up yet? What did they hate so much? Is it hate? One of the hostage takers at the Bataclan “explained” to a hostage that the attack was happening because of French involvement in Syria. Why bother explaining anything? Was he suddenly struggling with the deaths he had caused, trying desperately to justify his actions now?
I don’t know how far my empathy can extend. I do know that God’s extends further. And I’m compelled to be like Jesus, who was trying to reflect who God is.
The world could quickly return to its footing in the aftermath of 9/11, and whatever else is true or false, I know that things didn’t turn out all that well after 9/11. The world doesn’t seem a lot safer, because the underlying animosities and inability to truly understand are not resolved. Any peace we currently have seems simply the momentary absence of war, a near-illusion exploded in spasms such as last night’s.
I do remember back then, in my own rush to “respond decisively,” feeling this nagging nudge that perhaps there is another way, a middle way, a via media that we collectively did not find, whether we tried or not. I for one, do not want to repeat those days and those decisions reflexively.
The prayer session ended, and we each wandered the campus silently. I went into the sanctuary at one point, sat and contemplated. Then I saw the stand of candles near the front and went up to light one for Paris. Words flooded in: “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Amen.
Whether we’ve been there or not, we all need Paris, the City of Light. Oh, that we might have light. And oh that we might seek ‘God’s presence and action within’ to truly know how to properly be empathique.
Vive la France.