Reconciliation in Ordinary and Extraordinary Times
Mary Jo Iozzio
I was driving back to Boston from North Jersey recently after another heart-wrenching set of tasks related to my mother’s death and sorting through her personal effects. Sooner rather than later her condominium space will be occupied her sister, my Aunt Janet. On the familiar drive, I use the time for reflection and conversations with God, admiring the scenery, the changes of seasons revealed in the flora, and the watchful eyes of majestic birds and occasional deer. In the background favorite music plays and breaks into my thoughts, inspiring introspection and an examination of conscience. Perhaps because it is Lent, that examen turned in an ordinary kind of way to reconciliation and my hopes that I have been reconciled with family, friends, co-workers, others I encounter including the drivers in their cars near and far; I wondered if and hope they too have been reconciled and received consolation. Then I turned to the nation and, with uncharacteristic pessimism, my reflection ended with doubts about prospects for either hope or reconciliation. I am unaccustomed to such negative headspace and want to move on, yet, the daily barrage of hate speech, distrust, and insults left and right toy with my sympathies and antipathies. Befuddled, I mull what manner of reconciliation mocks thus?
In these tumultuous and extraordinary times in the US, reconciliation may be needed arguably now more than ever. With daily expressions of contempt challenging calls for justice and mercy, many wonder how to negotiate the acrimonious impasse between a populist, autocratic president, democratic rule, and prosperity (an agenda for peace has all but disappeared). Today’s political climate is unbelievably remarkable, bitter, and threatening against a nation often admired internally and abroad for its protections and exercise of constitutional rights as well as its promises of a better tomorrow. However, regardless of party affiliation, civility is required in the commons if the nation is to surmount this impasse. Reasoned considerations of the issues that prove especially divisive and seemingly irreconcilable –healthcare, migration and immigration, sex and gender, race, military funding and endless war, foreign policy, national security, gun control, social security, religious freedom, housing, education, climate change, poverty, etc.—must not be relegated to news outlets, twitter feeds, or late night comedy, they must be engaged from the grass roots all the way to Congress and the White House.
One way forward can be found in the work of Constance FitzGerald, OCD, who notes the particular urgency for an integration of contemplation and social commitment, a socially conscious and adept education, conversion from the dangerous temptation to give up, and the failures of imagination in the presence of personal and societal impasse (“Impasse and Dark Night,” 1984). FitzGerald questions optimistically, “What if, by chance, our time in evolution is a dark-night time—a time of crisis and transition that must be understood if it is to be part of learning a new vision and harmony for the human species and the planet?” FitzGerald instructs her US audience to embrace impasse in what can be a movement toward reconciliation. While impasse imprisons participants in their respective ghettos, she reminds us it is only in the process of bringing the impasse to prayer that we will be “brought to paradoxical new visions and freed for nonviolent, selfless, liberating action, freed, therefore, for community on this planet earth.” Impasse challenges and, post frustration, can inspire the development of something new, more rightly ordered, and reconciling thereby.
Where, then, are we to turn to address the experience of this dark night? We have the tradition of sacramental reconciliation for our personal sins. Yet, given Catholic Social Teaching illuminated by Liberation Theology, we can and must broaden the sacramental exercise to include social sin, the avalanching effect of personal sins operating in institutional settings that have been subsequently and purposively embedded in the construction of policies that prejudice and divide us. Following that confession, we can move forward in the hope that we would not only avoid the near occasion of sin but that we would positively engage our neighbors in the reconciling work of justice and mercy for all. Reconciliation of the social sins that divide us beckons beyond the confines of affiliation comfort zones. Reconciliation requires encounter, especially between others with whom we have little common experience or thinking about the future of today’s fractured nation and of the relationships known (or acknowledged) and unknown (or, worse, denied) with our sisters and brothers on the other side of US Border Patrol. In The Atlantic, Eric Liu advises these deliberately reconciling encounters follow three humanizing steps: compassionate listening, volunteer service, and smarter arguing (Post Election Reconciliation, 11/1/2016).
Liu and FitzGerald offer hope, but hope, like faith without works, requires positive engagement across this extraordinary suffocating impasse. Morally imperative, sacramentally attentive, and in keeping with Lenten observances, Pope Francis reminds us in his Ash Wednesday Homily (3/1/2017) of the singularly common origin of those with whom we agree and disagree from the dust of the earth:
True, yet, we are dust in the loving hands of God … giving us that breath of life that saves us from … the stifling asphyxia brought on by our selfishness, the stifling asphyxia generated by petty ambition and silent indifference –an asphyxia that smothers the spirit, narrows our horizons and slows our beating hearts. The breath of God’s life saves us from this asphyxia that dampens our faith, cools our charity and strangles every hope. To experience Lent is to yearn for this breath of life that our Father unceasingly offers us amid the mire of our history.
During these ordinary and extraordinary dark nights, let’s strive in ways ever bold to breathe concern for others with justice and mercy.