THE PARISH OF THE EPIPHANY
CALLED TO CARE: a Seminar Series on the Care of Our Planet and Each Other
PRESENTATION 1: WHAT IS OUR ESSENTIAL MISSION?
This is the first of two presentations or, more accurately, conversations on mission. The word is one that we associate with church or the military or certainly with a deliberate project, like an expedition of some sort, but it also applies to the journey of our own lives. I thought it would make sense, therefore, to reflect first on what our essential mission is and then – next time – take a look at how we can serve it, what I would call ‘a spirituality for mission.’
So what is our essential mission? What are humans for, my old mentor, Thomas Berry, used to ask, meaning, I suppose, what do we contribute to the great work of life, which suggests that our mission is related to our sense of purpose.
Two thoughts: one is that this mission is both individual and collective; and two is that it is a work in progress, in the sense that it is evolving. It evolves through our expanding awareness, both individual and collective. Thus my sense of purpose and mission as a child isn’t exactly my sense of purpose as an adult (though it is hopefully consistent with it).
If you are a religious person there is usually a parallel mission which you have integrated or at least personalized: loving your neighbor, for example. This too has evolved, not only over your lifetime, but over the centuries, shaped by our expanding collective awareness. Thus, our sense of mission and purpose today as Christian people is beginning to include and integrate our growing empirically-based awareness of an infinitely interconnected world. And the reason that Pope Francis is touching so many people is that he is giving voice to this evolving sense of mission and purpose.
As a way of illustrating this but also as a way of engaging all of you in exploring your own sense of mission, I will share with you the story of how my sense of mission evolved from childhood to adulthood and from missionary priest to post-institutional priest and how that process reflected a parallel collective process in the world, including the world of religion. I’ll then invite you to do the same, beginning today but continuing between now and when I return in a couple of weeks.
So here is my story: I was born into a post World War II Belfast that was excited and energized by the gift of a new life but also still caught in a prison of old conflicts that we are all familiar with. I was the child of a mystic: my mother, who struggled all her life with difficult health, was in touch with other dimensions of life, and people came to her to help them make sense of painful experiences like the loss of a child or a depression.
My Celtic heritage added to my own sensitivity to an invisible inner continent. Even as a ten year old I would lie in the heather on the mountain behind our house and feel myself one with the birds and the animals who lived there. I was drawn to mass in our morning candle-lit church of St. Teresa by the same sense of an inner world. And once, when I was about thirteen, I had a profound experience of interconnectedness in a monastery I was visiting with my uncles that defined my first sense of mission and purpose as exploring this vast inner world, what I came to call ‘the infinite place’. Mary Oliver captures a little of this mission:
..It is what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
to lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself
over and over
My first challenge was to find a way to live this mission. In the defensive Catholic world of N. Ireland in the ‘60s some kind of religious life seemed like the only option: so I went to a seminary to become a missionary priest. The challenge then became, how to hold onto this personal somewhat animistic mission in the world of institutional religion with all its rules and structures. One rather humorous example of the many clashes I experienced throughout those seminary years happened when I had been in the seminary only a few weeks and we had been introduced to the regulated – monastery-like – world of formal prayer and structures: like ‘solemn silence’ which meant complete silence after night prayers until after breakfast the following day. I smoked in those days and so, one evening, after night prayer I went out to sit under an October moon with a prayer in my heart but also a cigarette in my hand. The following day I was called into my spiritual director’s office and asked why I was smoking during ‘solemn silence’ when I should have been praying. ‘I was praying,’ I said. ‘But how could you pray when you were smoking?’ asked the director. My response probably labeled me for years to come: ‘Well, sometimes I pray when I’m smoking; last night I was smoking when I was praying….what’s the difference?’
Not only did the exchange label me as ‘too independent’ but it began a new stage of my mission as preserving the independence of an inner life in the face of an intellectual journey – the eight years of the seminary – that challenged and often dismantled much of what I had taken for granted (in religion as well as everyday life). The saving grace was the Vatican Council in the ‘60s whose documents began to percolate down to our little Irish seminary world: documents that spoke of a new era, of a church of the people that would liberate the poor and challenge systems of injustice. It was these messages that allowed me to stay with the hope of a church that was changing and would eventually address the inconsistencies of righteous exceptionalism (‘outside the church there is no salvation,’ for example) that I had begun to find increasingly inappropriate, and make room for the many ways people had developed for making sense of the mystery of the ‘infinite place’.
This hope carried me to Africa as a young priest with a mission that I began to see as a dialogue between different experiences of life that would deepen our collective exploration of the ‘infinite place.’ In the drought and famine-ridden world where I worked in Eastern Kenya this mission translated into an attempt to integrate the Christian message into the culture of the people but also to integrate the beauty of their indigenous culture into Christian thinking and ritual. I vividly recall an amazing ‘harvest festival’ in the middle of a famine when people came together to express gratitude for the famine foods – the root crops like cassava and yams – that sustained them when the harvest failed as it often did in that world. There were many such examples of the sense of mission that these people had that sustained them in the face of life’s challenges. However, one powerful example of this dialogue-mission that impacted me deeply was my encounter with Martha.
Martha was an elderly lady who was a member of our remote parish of Kimangao. She came to mass every Sunday and during the week she would often drop by the house to say hello, especially if she heard music playing on our radio. Then she would dance, rolling her shoulders in a movement that caused her substantial breasts to rise and fall like waves on the sea. In fact, this was how Martha prayed when she was moved during mass, approaching the altar dancing in this wonderful way. And I, in my youthful exuberance, would come out from behind the altar and dance with her.
Martha was my friend, in other words, who taught this young missionary more than I ever taught her. One day, when I had been in the country about six months I experienced my first famine. Famine, I learned, was part of life in that region of Africa where crops failed often. People marked time by these famines, each of which had a name: Yua ya Mbua’ – the Famine of the Rains – was the famine that was remembered because of the ironic flooding that challenged famine relief efforts. In famine times, people simply tightened their belts and sent the stronger ones off to find work in neighboring regions where there was food in order to bring it back home. They were not the horrendous tragedies created by war and corruption that we came to know. Nonetheless, they were painful times for the people; they were also painful for me, for I found the exercise of distributing food to beautiful and intelligent people like these heart wrenching and depressing.
One day during this famine period I was out on my motor-cycle, heading somewhere through the bush when I saw a figure waving me down, and recognized Martha. The first thoughts that came into my mind were not thoughts that I’m proud to share with you: ‘I’m too busy to stop and chat…she’s going to talk about the famine…she’s probably looking for help…she feels she has an ‘in’ with me and can get special treatment…’ This theater was playing out in my mind as I pulled up alongside Martha, keeping the engine running to demonstrate my busyness. And, the conversation began as it always did in Africa with what I came to call a connecting ritual: ‘where are you coming from, where are you going; how is your family, how is the other priest; etc.’ Meanwhile I was feeling increasingly impatient as the conversation turned to the expected focus of the famine: ‘yes, the crops had failed and there was a shortage of everything; and my family is all grown and gone to the city and my husband is dead…’ And so on, as I waited for what I thought would be the inevitable request for a handout.
But just as I felt my patience could hold no longer, Martha reached out her hand. However, she didn’t reach it out the way I expected – with her palm upwards – but instead with her hand clenched facing downwards. Reflexively I put out my own hand and Martha put a Kenya shilling into it with the words, ’It is very hot today Danny; go and buy yourself a soda…’ I almost fell over with surprise and, probably because I was so shocked, I don’t remember the details of what happened next. What I do remember is that the encounter changed me at some fundamental level that I have never forgotten. It also changed – or more accurately – confirmed my evolving sense of mission as mutual exchange and learning: a dialogue that engaged and served both sides. Certainly, not the neo-colonial process, albeit well-intentioned, of traditional missionary efforts, but a true dialogue that generates new meaning that touches both sides, like the quality of mercy that blesses him that gives and him that receives.
The next stage of my evolving sense of mission and purpose was a period that supported but also threatened the direction I was taking. Partly because I was good at this dialogue-mission – though partly, perhaps, as a strategy to straighten out a rebellious soul – I was sent to Rome, the heart of the beast, to study what was going on in the world of mission. There, two things happened: one was meeting wonderful religious people from all over the world and seeing the amazing potential for enriching the lives of everyone on our planet home; the other was the election of a new pope who quickly emerged as an obstacle to the process of autonomy building and dialogue that I was fostering as my missionary method. In fact, when I returned to Africa after Rome I found there had been a sea-change in the world I had left a few short years before. I also began to realize that this was part of a reaction to the energies of change that the ‘60s had catalyzed that was happening all over the world in the person of leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. For me it meant another stage in my missionary evolution process.
I began to advocate for strategic withdrawal of missionaries, partly in order to highlight the way things were already changing – fewer new missionaries and the development of an inadequate western-like local church – and partly as a way of sparking a movement to foster a real transition to a local church that was not simply a replica of the western one. At the end of three years of making my case I made the strategic withdrawal myself and came to the U.S. to explore a new framework for mission.
It was here that my own deep transformation of personal mission occurred with a vengeance. For it was here that I went through my own dark night, caught between a world that did not want me to come here – my superiors had insisted I return to Rome to deepen my exploration – and a world (the U.S.) that was struggling with and reacting to change at multiple levels. I had protested that, in order for us missionaries to keep our mission relevant I/we had to go and learn where the world was addressing change more directly.
In the U.S. I found myself living in a parish world but studying and then working in the much bigger arena of ecology with Thomas Berry. With Berry I found language and form for my long-time awareness of the ‘infinite place’ but also an insight into how this comes together with religion in an ecological spirituality. I wrote a Ph.D dissertation entitled: ‘Emerging Theological Consciousness and a Spirituality for Mission’. The consciousness was of an infinitely interconnected universe – and earth – while the spirituality for mission was a dialogue between the multiple forms of this universe that would generate new meaning that would enrich all of us, Christian and non-Christian, human and non-human.
My sense of our essential mission then became: to be the self-reflective consciousness of the universe, since in us humans, the universe comes to awareness of itself. The universe has evolved to self-awareness in the form of human beings. As one poet puts it, through my eyes the stars look back on themselves in wonder.
In this framework, my missionary work took the form of developing an Environmental Sabbath project for the UN Environment Program in the late ‘80s, to engage the religious world in this mission; the creation of a non-profit organization to develop an explicitly spiritual Earth Charter for the UN Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992, and the proclamation of this Charter as the new – expanded – Universal Declaration of Human Rights to include the rights of all forms of life and the particular responsibilities of humans as the self-reflective consciousness of the universe.
For obvious reasons, perhaps, I realized I had to make another strategic withdrawal: this time because the gap between my mission and the organization I was part of had grown too wide. Or, as I used to say when asked to explain why I stepped out of formal priesthood, ‘the suit had become too tight.’
However, I soon realized that, as in the world of traditional missionary work, it was not enough to proclaim truths, no matter how self-evident; the real work was about helping people to address the challenges they faced and to integrate the expanding consciousness that had produced the Earth Charter principles into their everyday lives. It was this realization that inspired me to explore the skill of Dialogue with some folks at MIT who were using it as a way to enhance the capacities of corporate boardrooms. I developed programs to bring the skill initially to State and County Health Departments through the Centers for Disease Control, later to human service agencies, and today to a wide range of efforts that are trying to live and do their work in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. These include hospitals, social service agencies, schools, and various non-profit groups. I also brought Dialogue to my local community in New York in the form of Conversations for Action about Climate Change. These dialogues resulted in a Climate Action Plan which has won many awards, and a non-profit organization (Bedford2020) which was formed to implement the Climate Action Plan which has also been adopted by the Town Board as a set of fundamental criteria for its work of governance.
I will speak more about the art of Dialogue as a spiritual practice – a spirituality for mission – for today’s complex world in the next session. Suffice to say today that my sense of mission has evolved but has also continued to maintain a basic theme – a thread if you like. The American poet, William Stafford, describes this thread:
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
The thread is essentially awareness – the cultivation of awareness – on behalf of the world from which we have evolved.
So, I would close by suggesting that our essential mission is to participate, through the cultivation of awareness, in the continuous – infinite – emergence of meaning. I might even describe it as giving birth to God.
We cultivate this awareness in all kinds of ways – immersion in other worlds, meditation, research – but in a special way through dialogue: dialogue with each other – other humans of all persuasions – but also dialogue with all life – the earth and all its creatures. Our essential purpose and mission is to learn to work WITH things in what one poet calls, ‘the indescribable relationship.’ In this way – perhaps only in this way – we will survive as a species but hopefully also thrive. I believe that this is what Pope Francis is saying when he calls us to take care of our common home.
So, there you have my story – my (still evolving) sense of mission and purpose – that has evolved a lot from childhood through adulthood and from formal priesthood to what I do today which I believe is still consistent with the original impulses of childhood, and, perhaps, still priesthood. I would like to invite you to share your story or at least begin to, for sharing our stories with each other is the first step in any true dialogue. I realize that this takes more than the time we have now; so for two minutes each in pairs, let’s share one thing that struck you as I talked. It may serve as a catalyst for your story.
SHARE for 5-10 m
By way of linking today’s session with my next visit in two weeks, I would invite you to make a date with someone for a half hour over a coffee to share your stories of your evolving sense of mission and purpose: what you believed as a child, things that changed that, what you feel now which may not yet have developed into clear thoughts or concepts. When we come together next time we’ll integrate this into my second presentation which I’m calling Dialogue as a Spirituality for Mission.
THE PARISH OF THE EPIPHANY
CALLED TO CARE: a Seminar Series on the Care of Our Planet and Each Other
PRESENTATION 2: Dialogue as a Spirituality for Mission