The following meditation is adapted from a presentation given during the Jesuits USA Central and Southern Province's Reconciliation Conference at Regis University, June 20, 2018. It makes an excellent Holy Week Reflection. It is used by permission from Christopher Pramuk, Ph.D.
If we think of reconciliation as the mending of what has been broken, the bringing together of what has been torn apart, the repairing of what has been smashed, and we begin with an open-eyed look around us at the reality of the concrete, broken, suffering world in which we live, I think we can be forgiven for wondering, in the first place, why God gave us the keys to the bus. I mean, Lord, can you please at least put your hand on the wheel and help us get off this God-forsaken highway? How about a little cosmic GPS?
But in the second place, it makes sense to me that our desires for healing and wholeness, for justice and peace, would extend toward the afterlife: if we can’t manage it here, is there any hope for reconciliation on the other side? If God is a God of the living and a God of the dead, dare we to hope that there is some kind of a healing place just over the river Jordan, and that wading through those waters we might be purified of all our fears and hatreds and violence so that we are ready to enter, not one by one, as individuals but as a whole people, indeed, as a whole creation, human and non-human animals, trees and birds, sea creatures and flora of every species - all passing through and into the promised land?
On the night before his death, Dr. King said, echoing the great story of Moses leading the Exodus from Egypt, “I may not get there with you, but I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I can tell you tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.”
What did King see that we cannot see? Was he wrong? Was he delusional?
In his classic work, The Sabbath, the great Jewish philosopher and poet Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel highlights the inseparable connection between our practices of prayer and fellowship in this world and our state of preparedness for the next: “[The] Sabbath contains more than a morsel of eternity. ... Unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. Sad is the lot of him who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath.”
It’s a beautiful insight, if a little unsettling. It the first place, notice how Heschel implies a continuity between this life and the next: that what we learn on this side of death’s veil, and what we don’t learn, will come with us. But notice that Heschel is not implying a transactional view of heaven, as in, “If I only follow these commandments, I can be assured of enjoying ‘the taste of eternity’ on the other." Picture Moses or Peter checking your name at the door of banquet hall, your record laid out in a great ledger before you get served. No. The banquet is already served, the table is overladen, and all are welcome.
Heschel’s vision of the continuity between life before and life after death suggests a provocative thought experiment:
How prepared shall we be when we are seated at the heavenly banquet table?
Will we recognize those sitting next to us? (Surely the seating arrangement will be no accident!)
Will we know their names, stories, dreams?
Will we have prayed with them?
The imagination stumbles reluctantly onto one more question: Will I need to ask their forgiveness before the feast is served?
Sad will be our lot if we arrive in heaven with no prior experience of the Beloved Community, the multiracial community, and indeed, the multi-faith community. The barriers to the feast have not been raised by God; the banquet is served, the table is overladen; the barriers have been raised by us. (Can you hear the chant? “Build that wall! Build that wall!”) And imagine how shocked and embarrassed we will be to discover how terribly wrong we had it on this side of the veil. How can we enjoy the feast on the other side if we’ve never tasted it on this side?
When Jesus asks us to pray for God’s reign to come “on earth as it is in heaven,” when he assures the disinherited that God loves them no less than the sparrows in the air and the lilies in the field, he is inviting us to live from a vision of great generosity that makes no sense to men who can only measure the world in zero-sum terms of watch-chains and ledger sheets, winners and losers, and unrestrained power. Much as Jesus overturns the market tables at the temple he also overturns a market-table picture of God—the transactional, contractual, quid pro quo God gazing over our lives with a balance sheet.
Likewise, Heschel confronts us with a God who is bountifully, irrationally generous in laying the table, a God who despairs at just how ungenerous we have been in apportioning the bounty. To approach the question of justice and reconciliation from this vantage point is to pray for strength and courage from a God who wants to make sure nobody is left out of the feast.
In sum, to speak rightly of justice and reconciliation is to begin where Heschel begins, with a sense of wonder and gratitude before God’s generosity: that we should be here at all, that we should enjoy the fruits of the garden, that we should discover what it feels like to love and to be loved by others, that we should be able to enjoy a fine wine with our friends and feel the grass under our feet and the wind on our face as it blows down from the foothills or across the waters of our favorite river.
And this, I think, is where Ignatius invites us to begin. In each day and in every encounter Ignatius invites us, in the words of Jesuit preacher Walter Burghardt, to take “a long loving look at the real,” and to discern in the concrete real the light of God’s presence, even if not especially in places of existential darkness and apparent God-forsakenness. From an Ignatian point of view, there is no moment or place, so long as there is life in it, that we can give up as God-forsaken.
Ignatian spirituality, as Jesuit theologian Jon Sobrino suggests, is a call to live from the Fourth Week, under the light of resurrection, and though we remain pilgrims under the shadow of the cross, the Third Week, Sobrino asks us to consider what it might look like to live as resurrected beings—not from sheer force of will, nor from a list of ethical mandates, but because we have found ourselves in God’s love and mercy, and it is our deepest yearning and joy to share the bounty with others.
It sounds beautiful, doesn’t it, but how difficult it is to live from the Fourth Week! One of the things that most struck me in reading the documents of GC36 on reconciliation is just how radically the Society has taken Pope Francis’s teachings and his pastoral witness to heart. The Fourth Week compassion and joy of Francis seems to serve as a kind of measuring stick against which the Society critically examines its own consciousness and commits itself to the work of justice and reconciliation, bridge-building and hope.
In the words of GC36, “While we speak of three forms of reconciliation [with God, with one another, with creation], all three are, in reality, one work of God, interconnected and inseparable.” The Society embraces Francis’s critique of the global economic system, describing it as “predatory,” a system that “discards natural resources as well as people.” Disproportionately, the victims of that system are indigenous peoples and women, all expendable before the rapacious forces of development. “We are called to support these communities in their struggles, recognizing that we have much to learn from their values and their courage.”
“Mercy,” Pope Francis reminds us, “is not an abstraction but a lifestyle consisting in concrete gestures rather than words. For us Jesuits, compassion is action, an action discerned together. Yet we know that there is no authentic familiarity with God if we do not allow ourselves to be moved to compassion and action by an encounter with the Christ who is revealed in the suffering, vulnerable faces of people, indeed in the suffering of creation.”
Dr. Christopher Pramuk is Regis University Chair of Ignatian Thought and Imagination and an Associate Professor of Theology, which means that his work at Regis is a kind of beautiful hybrid of Jesuit mission-related initiatives as well as teaching courses in theology and spirituality. He is the author of six books, including two award-winning studies of the famed Catholic monk and spiritual writer Thomas Merton, as well as Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line, a meditation on race relations in society and church. Dr. Pramuk's latest book, The Artist Alive: Explorations in Music, Art, and Theology, draws from his many years of using music, poetry, and the arts in the classroom. Dr. Pramuk lectures widely around the country and has led retreats on topics such as racial justice, Ignatian spirituality, and the witness of Thomas Merton.