“Going Forth by Going Within: A Road Map for Connecting Spirituality, Service, and Justice”

This is a transcript of a talk that I presented to about 70 St. Thomas students on Nov. 8, 2015, at the VISION orientation/retreat for students participating in VISION immersion trips over J-term 2016.  A recording of the talk with the guided meditation is now available as a Podcast.

“Going Forth by Going Within: A Road Map for Connecting Spirituality, Service, and Justice”

We are a story-telling species. We are formed by stories. We create meaning through the stories we tell. Each one of us could tell a story for how we arrived at this moment…this breath…right here…right now. Our story is always evolving. Every place we visit, every person we meet is woven into the fabric of our story. For those of you familiar with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the end of the second book, The Two Towers, ends in near hopelessness. Frodo turns to his friend, Sam, and proclaims “I can’t go on.” And Sam respond: “It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why.”

It is no small thing that you have endeavored upon, to risk the adventure of a VISION trip. Perhaps you didn’t see it this way when you signed up. Perhaps you still don’t see it this way. Perhaps you signed up because it sounded like a fun thing to do over J-term, and why not? Yet perhaps – even if you were not aware of it – you were responding to some small prompting of grace when you signed up. By now you have heard stories from your leaders and others. And I’m willing to bet that in those stories they spoke of how they have been changed by what they encountered on a VISION trip. So whether you knew it or not, it took courage to get to where you are today. And you will be changed…in ways that you cannot possibly even imagine in this very moment.

Let me tell you my story of VISION. Two friends, both named Tom – yes, this is a true story – grew up on the same street, attended the same Catholic grade school, the same public high school, played basketball together, got in trouble together, experienced our first broken hearts over girls together. And when that fateful choice arrived to decide which college to attend, the two friends chose divergent yet parallel paths. The Tom who stands before you chose to go into the north woods, to a place run by monks in black and where we wore red, and where the football team used to beat the Tommies. The other friend choose to stay urban, to a place where they wear purple, and where the football team now dominates. I leave it to you to decide who made the wiser choice…

But despite the overwhelming odds, the great swath of I-94 that separated us, and the bitter rivalry between red and purple, these two friends have remained friends to this day. And the other Tom found his way into a room just like this, preparing for a VISION trip. He went, he experienced, he returned. And late at night – perhaps over a Guinness or two…or three… at the Dubliner – these two friends spoke of that experience. We tried to put words to an encounter which transcends words. But we – both of us – needed to weave a new story after VISION. These two rather sheltered and privileged kids from the suburbs needed a story that was larger, more global, more expansive, more aware of the sufferings and inequalities of the world; more compassionate, more willing to risk, and more willing to be changed. Our story became more open-ended. And open-ended stories are not ultimately satisfying stories. We want closure. We want justice. We want to know – just like Frodo wanted to know – that everything turns out all right, that the effort and heartache was worth it, that good triumphs over evil.

But here’s the rub. The stories that we currently live – especially the most important ones that include the pursuit of justice or truth – we have to live from within the unfinished narrative. Although the post-modern world tells us that we have the ultimate authority to write our own stories, our experience of reality will eventually force us to recognize that we are not the entirely sovereign, all-knowing masters of our stories that we once believed ourselves to be. To read the story of St. Augustine’s life in his Confessions is to read the story of a man who learned through long and painful experience that he alone was not that master story-teller; rather, he was following the thread of grace that had been laid for him to follow, even when he didn’t know it.

Each one of us has to live at the growing end of a narrative to which we do not know the final chapter. And VISION will complicate your story. Dorothy Day, the great social activist and co-founder of the Catholic worker movement, used to say that her goal was ‘to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.’ And we must be honest that in this room we are the comfortable who will be unsettled, and who will be called in turn to comfort others. We are the ones to whom much has been given, and from whom much will be required. VISION will call you to live into a new solidarity with those whom you encounter. This will seem easy at first, while on your trip, because you will have the comfort and intensity of community to surround you. But then you will return. And then what? What to do with this new experience? These are the Guinness-infused conversations that the two Toms shared at the Dubliner.

You are going to need a center, a ground, a sense of truth, justice, compassion, and solidarity upon which to continue to live your story in a new way, without falling back into the old narrative whose pull will remain strong. As John Donahue puts it in his poem (see full poem below),

Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.

And make no mistake – there will be a pull to return to the way things were, because, frankly, that way will seem more comfortable and familiar. You will feel just like the Israelites did when they complained to Moses in the desert: at least in Egypt – in their former slavery – they had the security of knowing how the story was likely to continue. But in the desert they faced the unknown, uncertainty, and doubt, possibly even death.

What I would like to offer you today is a suggestion, and it is this: the center and the ground that will enable you to live into the wider perspective and more compassionate heart that VISION will demand of you is your spirituality. Rather than some esoteric thing, your spirituality is in fact whatever keeps you grounded, centered, and open. In other words it is that which enables you to go forth by going within. The Israelites had a gut-check in the desert: Did they really trust in this God to deliver us from certain death in this barren desert? Frodo had a gut-check in the ruins of Osgiliath: Could he truly endure the burden of carrying the ring into the heart of Mordor and destroying it once and for all? In his discussion of charity or love as the greatest virtue, Thomas Aquinas claims that as we grow in grace and charity – that is, as our ability to love increases – so does our capacity for suffering. This is the paradox at the heart of the connection between spirituality, service, and work on behalf of justice. It is not easy to wake up to injustice and to the suffering of others. The reward, however, is that in the middle of that paradox between love and suffering is also where redemptive joy dwells. Spirituality is what helps you to stay in that joyful discomfort.

Spirituality can be many things to many people. It may or may not be tethered to a particular religious tradition. It may involve solitude and stillness, such as in meditation or quiet prayer. It may involve creativity and movement, such as in writing, journaling, dance, or art. It certainly has everything to do with how we relate to others and to the world around us. Spirituality for each person is probably as unique as each one’s DNA, and what works for one, may not work for another. In the time that is left I would like to offer you a window into what is variously called “mindfulness meditation,” “contemplation,” or “contemplative prayer.” The practice itself is quite simple: it involves beginning the journey within by practicing what the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace-activist Thich Nhat Hanh calls “following your breath.” It involves only two things: observing your experience and letting go. Observing your experience, and letting go. That’s it. Because each breath is so profoundly rooted in the present moment and in your body, it may become the doorway to a whole new way of being with our experience, with each other, and with our suffering.

And so, let’s begin where we are right now with a brief practice… (I concluded the guided meditation by reading the modified version of the poem on the right).

For The Traveler
by John O’Donohue

Every time you leave home,                                                   Every time you take a breath,
Another road takes you                                                         Each inhale, each exhale takes you
Into a world you were never in.                                              Into a world you were never in.
New strangers on other paths await.                                     New realities on other paths await
New places that have never seen you                                   New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.                                              Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well                                                Old ways of being that you know well
Will pretend nothing                                                              Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.                                                Changed since your last breath.

When you travel, you find yourself                                  When you travel within, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,                                                   Alone in a different solitude
More attentive now                                                           More attentive now
To the self you bring along,                                             To the illusive self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching                                        Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you                             You within; and how what you observe
Touches that part of the heart                                         Touches the heart of being itself
That lies low at home:                                                      That lies low at home:

How you unexpectedly attune                                          How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,                                           To the texture of your experience
Opening in conversation                                                Opening inward
You want to take in                                                         Where you want to go in
To where your longing                                                    To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough                                             Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,                                        Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight                                          To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known                                             You could not have known
You needed                                                                   You needed
To illuminate                                                                  To illuminate
Your way.                                                                       Your way.

When you travel,                                                           When you awaken to each moment
A new silence                                                                A new silence
Goes with you,                                                              Goes with you,
And if you listen,                                                           And if you listen with the ear of your heart,
You will hear                                                                 You will hear
What your heart would                                                 The song
Love to say.                                                                 Your soul would love to sing.

A journey can become a sacred thing:                         Each moment can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,                                           Make sure, as you open to the unfolding of life,
To take the time                                                           To take the time
To bless your going forth,                                            To bless your going within,
To free your heart of ballast                                        To free your heart of attachment
So that the compass of your soul                                So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward                                               Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit                                                The territories of spirit
Where you will discover                                              Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,                                             More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies                                                       And the urgencies

That deserve to claim you.                                          That deserve to claim you.
May you travel in an awakened way,                           May you journey in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;                     Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations                       That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.                Which wait along the way to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,                      May you travel inspired, filled with grace,
And live your time away to its fullest;                          And live your time awake to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free                       Return to each breath more alive, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.                 To express the gifts which lie within you.

I have suggested that going forth by going within can provide a road map for connecting spirituality with service and justice. But I have only given you a small teaser of an introduction. Your leaders will introduce you to some other contemplative practices during your trip. Should you wish to learn more in order deepen a mindfulness or contemplative practice, I offer you the following resources.

[Resources from the Project for Mindfulness & Contemplation.]

What I have offered you today is a suggestion that your spirituality will provide you with a road map for remaining in that discomforting joy that you will experience on your VISION trip, for providing you a ground and a center from which to remain in service to others and seeking greater justice. I invite you take what you liked, and leave the rest. In the best of conditions, it is my hope that these simple spiritual practices may be for you what Galadriel’s gift of the light of Earendil was to Frodo. When you are confronted by fears or temptations that loom as large as the spider Shelob, perhaps you will find in the light of your next breath the courage to continue going forth by going within…

Thank you and God bless you on your journey.

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