Why Our Plans for Justice Fall Short

Why Our Plans for Justice Fall Short

On the journey toward maturity as spiritual people, hopefully, we move beyond mere self-concern—I’m saved—toward an engagement with the suffering of the world—how can I bring healing to others?  Certainly, Jesus was a healer and manifested compassion in profound ways.  As ones who follow the Jesus path, this same move toward healing and compassion is ours to make as well.  Think of the number of sincerely religious people who on some level try to do good in the world.  If this is true, why are good intentions frustrated in their effectiveness?  Are bad intentions as numerous and powerful?  Is it simply a matter of eradicating ignorance, or is something more fundamental going on, something which we do not see clearly?

In a paper delivered to the Catholic Theological Society of America in the summer of 2009, “From Impasse to Prophetic Hope,” Constance FitzGerald, a Carmelite prioress, explored how St. John of the Cross’ articulation of “the dark night” and “purification of memory” could guide us in our attempts at living out our faith in the world.  Most efforts at changing the world for good would not start with a contemplative’s reflections on purification of the soul and the experience of radical self-emptying.  What promise for social engagement does FitzGerald find in such painful experiences of self-emptying as described by John of the Cross?

The promise, she demonstrates, is of a new self which is able to engage the world with creativity, courage and capacity for love.  She articulates how an experience of being stripped of self, opens up the future:

Before memory is purified, we can thwart our encounter with the future, with-

out even realizing it, by relying on the images which memory has saved for us—

images of our past, joyful or sad, pleasant or unpleasant, fulfilling or detrimental.

We project these images onto our vision of the future, we block the limitless pos-

sibilities of God by living according to an expectation shaped, not by hope, but by

our own desires, needs and past experiences.

Perhaps one reason we fail to arrive at a genuinely new future is that we remain imprisoned by our pasts.

Contemporary theologian, Miroslav Volf, in The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, makes use of the insights of John of the Cross in working for a personal future freed from his own past traumas.  He recounts the “dehumanizing interrogation and severe psychic battering” he underwent in communist Yugoslavia.  He recognized that if his memory could not be purified, that these stored impressions of suffering would continue to define him and limit his future as one determined by the past wrongdoings done to him.  How could he find freedom and healing?  For him, he found these in the process of profound wrestling and letting go of the contemplative path.  In the painful work of remembering his past suffering and releasing it and his sense of identity which was tied to his memories, he was able to find a new identity defined not by human evil, but by God’s love.  The “dark night” and “purification of memory” of the contemplative path became a spiritual burning away of the energies which kept him locked in a violent and reactive pattern.

The implications for our efforts at justice are clear.  As we are awakened to the pain of injustice in the world, we experience wounding and trauma.  The stories and experiences of the suffering of injustice are necessary to wake us up and to energize us for hopeful responses.  Yet, if we are defined by unjust and abusive patterns of our past, then we will not be able to see, much less live into a future defined by the hope of reconciliation and healing.  The move out into the world is preceded by a move inward.  The planning, organizing and acting are accompanied by the inner work of allowing, seeing, experiencing and surrendering of self.  Ironically, without welcoming our vulnerability, our efforts in the world will lack power to affect something truly new.  In order for a new and more just humanity to emerge, genuinely new human beings are required—which is the promise of the contemplative path.


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