Being a visitor in another country when events happen that have world-wide consequences provides a remarkable and thought-provoking context for viewing one’s own ‘reality.’ It was the day of the tsunami in Southeast Asia, but it hadn’t hit the wire services/newspapers yet. While staying with friends in Scotland over the New Year I read a remarkable article by William McIlvanney, called “The Art of War”, in the Review of the Year, Sunday Herald, 26.12.04, Scotland’s Cultural and Political Review, p. 5. The paragraph that struck me full in the face and deep in the heart is worth quoting. It comes at the very end of the article.
An American peace. Shouldn’t that remind us of something. Pax Americana. When Julius Caesar had completed his systematic slaughter of the Gauls in the first century BC he called it “pacification.” The Roman Empire, which you could say he more or less founded posthumously, established what it called the Pax Romana through most of the known world. Calgacus, that stubborn predecessor of Scottishness, through the medium of the historian Tacitus tells us, as he faces death confronting the Roman legions, what he thinks of their Pax: “They make a desolation and call it peace.” They’re getting there in Iraq. …”The war in Iraq is really about peace,” George W. Bush has said, with his interestingly original take on language. Not in our time, I should think.
But oddly enough it is not the war I want to write about and it is not most of Europe and other nations the world over’s take on the war that struck me about his words. It was the very last lines that has registered and made me think. He ended the article with these words.
…Maybe one of the strongest bulwarks we have against the madness of the times is the endless and amazing capacity of so many ordinary people to live meaningful lives among the debris.
He put it strongly and succinctly: people as bulwarks against madness with the capacity of grace, of endurance, of faithfulness and meaning. This is a wall to lean up against and lean into when we need it as the world seems often to crumble around us and events that are human-made and contrived create countries reduced to ruble. And even nature erupts in catastrophe (aggravated by human greed, global warming and disregard for the masses of people of the earth living on the edge of poverty and misery) beyond our experience and reckoning of its consequences. These common people, ordinary folk are the ones that die in droves—right now the formal death toll of the tsunami stands at 280,000 but from so many in the area the toll is double that because they only count bodies and whole villages are missing—with no bodies. But it is also these common folk, ordinary people, called in the early nineteen hundreds: the salt of the earth who live with dignity in the face of horror and who remind us of what it means to be human beings, body and soul and spirit together in community, come what may. What do these good people look like? How do you recognize them? Or more to the point—do we find ourselves in this company of good people? Last year Leonard Boff wrote a piece for a newspaper in Brazil. He wrote paragraphs on these good people! This is from a free translation from the Spanish by Refugio Del Rio Grande. He gives us a glimpse of what they look like—and questions us on whether we look like this too.
Who are the good people? They are not easy to define; but we find them all the time around us. They are the honest people, upright, hard workers, who take good care of their families, they are always ready to help others, decent in their everyday life. Easy to recognize, they are warm, with a friendly look, as if they had goodness written in the face. They are people we can trust. They can be found not just among the humble but also in the sophisticated strata, among those who have managed to keep their essential humanity immune to the pretenses of a conceited society. This is why to be among the good people is more a state of the soul than a social class.
The description appears innocuous, so simple (which is a word the Quakers and the Mennonites use to describe God) and, well—ordinary. And that is just the point. It matters not what position is held, or what work is done, but it is the quality of presence, of working, of relating and being that is without a doubt–human. In theological terms, it is the face of incarnation: what godliness looks like in human faces and eyes, the tilt of the head when someone listens and is attentive to the needs of others, whether they know them or not; the extra hour of work, covering for another person in distress or being there when others grieve or cope with loss, on simple and profound levels. It is the stark difference between those caught in the trap of public culture that can demean and reduce people to living shallow, self-serving and embittered lives and those who refuse to be sucked into that culture that encourages meanness, greed, corruption, lies and violence.
As Leonardo Boff says elsewhere in his short piece: “In this universe of the great majorities, we find something precious, what in the common language is known as the good people. These good people give us back the will to live.”
They are each and all individuals but that is not their way of perceiving their own lives—they are bound to and see themselves as part of a people, belonging to communities: social relationships, neighborhoods, large unnamed and usually unnoticed groups of people. They wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as belonging to political parties or factions in religion or even by race or gender. They aren’t the public leaders even in their small communities but they are the base, the foundation and the source of the lives of many people, often unknown to each other.
In January I was also a speaker/participant at a huge liturgical conference and the main speaker kept referring to people in order of importance (his version and the traditional version of who should be mentioned first). He would address the crowd: reverend bishops, priests (otherwise called clerics), deacons and men and women of consecrated life and the laity and on occasion, he’d forget to mention the laity! In Church this has long been the case: even when we pray for people and remember them before our God we begin with the Pope (by name) and the local bishop (by name) and then the other clerics and religious and then, throw in the rest of the 98% of the Church—the ordinary, common folk. Often when people call me ‘sister’ or ask if I am a nun, etc. I respond and say, “No, I’m just a POP, a plain ordinary person.” And it always takes them aback.
My belonging to the bottom, to the ordinary people is what I am most proud of—of being lost, held and taken in by ordinary people, because as I have traveled especially among indigenous peoples in South America and in the countries hit so hard by the tsunami of Southeast Asia it is these people who have taken me in, made me part of their families, shared their food and faith with me and taught me how to live as a believer, a human being in horrific situations of indifference, of intolerance, poverty, misery and violence. And they have done it with graciousness and regard, generosity and sharing that shames me and stuns me with gratitude for them. They tease me often, when we talk of God and the scriptures and ethics—saying: “don’t worry, gringa, megancita—if you don’t get in, make sure you’re wearing our clothes when you die. We’ll vouch for you and tell the angels you really are one of us—see, we’ll say—she’s wearing our manta, our huptil, our serape that we make and give only to our friends. And if you still can’t get in, don’t worry—wait til night fall, go around the back and we’ll throw a rope over the wall and haul you in! No one will notice you, among the crowds of so many folks in heaven. You’ll be safe with us forever.
I have often thought that the liturgical prayers should be changed to reflect the reality of who actually is church—start at the bottom mentioning the people who are the church, not the hierarchy or the leaders or the ministers, but the rock solid base of ordinary people who pray, live, break bread, share home and sustenance with others and trust God by trusting one another and caring for all, even total strangers they find among them, even from countries that bomb them, steal their natural resources, destroy their economies, demand payments of exhorbitant interest fees on old debts and are intent on making them clones of the United States in culture, food, democracy and all the attendant problems that accompany the US taking notice of your country.
As is the tradition in many Latin American countries when the community gathers to pray, they start with a litany of the saints—not the ones from two thousand years ago, or even one hundred or two hundred years ago, but with those of the last decade and months who serve their communities in life and in death, in witness and martyrdom, in truth-telling and support and when each name is sounded out, there comes the response: “Presente”. The Church is then accounted for and present and the liturgy can begin. And their gathering of the Body of Christ does include Oscar Romero, Rutillo Grande, and Maura, Ita, Dorothy and Jean and the Jesuits of San Salvador and Julia and Celina and so so many of their own, others they know by name and spirit as the backbone and heart of their church and life.
For us in the US, we need to remember Dorothy, Tom, Philip, Walters, Marys, Barbaras, Phyllis’ and Margarets, the Johns, Tims and Jims, our Romeros and Sandovals and Smiths, Engdahls and Murphys and Freemans and O’Loughlins, and all the folks from the local neighborhoods and parishes that are the Church, the real human beings and common folk that save us all, accompany us on the Way and form a wall that we can lean up against when we need to breathe and remember who we are really.
At the end of Boff’s article he says:
I would suggest that the value of a society is measured by the number of good people that it is capable of producing. Brazil functions thanks to these good people, in spite of the corrupt and of the politicians who, in general, lie about the true reality of the country. Norberto Bobbio left us this wise lesion: the value of a society is not measured by its good judicial order, but by the virtues lived by its citizens. The good people live by virtue, that is why they do not let us despair, and give us good reason to continue trusting. The good people are, thanks be to God, the immense majority of this country.
And this reflection would apply to our country and our national church in the US and in our parishes and neighborhoods. There is a story told in India, written/told by Rabindagath Tagore called “Into Exile” that bears remembering and telling. Once upon a time there was a holy man who would sit in the groves and along the roads teaching the people and praying with them and they would come to him in huge crowds for advice, for his words that encouraged them and gave them hope. The king looked disapprovingly upon this intinerant preacher and met with the leaders of his temples. It was decided that he would build a huge gorgeous temple so the people could meet there instead and then they could listen to the priests and leaders who would preach to them. The work was begun and for years, even more than a decade it was built. It was duly dedicated and opened for business, but the people didn’t come, because that holy man and his followers weren’t invited to speak and didn’t come to the temple. They stayed in the groves and fields.
Finally one day the king went to visit him, and asked him why he would not come to the temple. They were all seated on the ground looking up at the king and his entourage of priests, leaders of the city. One spoke: your temple of gold, jewels and marble is as hard and cold, as unrelenting and ungiving as you yourself are in life. The king was furious. What? What do you mean? Another spoke: over the years while you built your temple there were floods, famine and disease that wrecked havoc among the people. They came to your temple, seeking help, aid, medicine, just shelter from the storms, mud and lack of water and you barred your gates and locked your doors, continuing to spend huge sums of money on your temple. No matter how much you bless that building—God will never visit there.
The king was livid with anger. You, you! he sputtered out—get out of my country. And never return or you will be arrested immediately and executed publically to teach others a lesson. The man and his followers, men and women, just ordinary folk, arose together. They bowed to them and he spoke for the last time: I go gladly into exile. Long ago you exiled God from your country—I go into exile with the people, for that is where God hides out. But I will not leave your borders. If you want me, come look for me among the people—where God chooses to dwell, and make his temple.
In these days when we as Americans think we are generous when we give 15 million, then 35 million, then 350 million to the ordinary people who found themselves in the wake of the tsunami. All the while knowing that when the hurricanes hit Florida, we immediately gave 16.3 billion dollars to one state. In light of what we gave to ten or more countries and 5 million people in desperate straits, without water and food, it is enough to make one weep and wail about the country we live in. But it is time to take heart from all the common folk, the good people, the ordinary, plain old people and make sure that we are at home among them—it is core to the state of our souls, to our being human beings. It is these people that our God calls his friends. We must pray to live so as to be counted as ‘the friends of God’ and friends to all the common people and the world. May we live so that they take us in and help us disappear into the masses of just ordinary people, where God has come to ‘pitch his tent among us’ and stays, very much at home. Amen.