The greatest misunderstanding that people have about the USA until they live here is that it’s a country. I’ve been here for ten years, and the most surprising shift in my perception has been that the place might be better seen as really fifty nations, each with their own culture and laws, connected with their neighbors only as tightly as they want to be. This fact carries tension, of course, if you value coherence; but the liberating consequence is that if the first step to healing a place is knowing it, it may be much easier to know a state than the nation. The handful of key cities and rural communities that make up a state are conceivably knowable by a handful of people who care enough to steward the earth, nurture the people, and imagine “the next stage of good.” That phrase, coined by Bob Woodward to refer to the role of US American Presidents, is spacious and inviting. It’s a way to live. Looking out my window, seeing trees, but imagining the neighborhood and the city behind them, and the region behind those is a beginning of knowing. That knowing is vital to rootedness, and rootedness is the beginning of hospitality, and hospitality will save the world.
On the Camino in Spain recently, I saw a piece of graffiti, written in French by a delicate hand. What it said loosely translates to:
There are flowers everywhere, for those willing to look for them.
This is a difficult moment, if the moment only includes politics. It’s also a beautiful one, if we know where to look. It’s also just a moment - not an era, or an epoch, or a generation. Just a moment. Some of us are suffering terribly. Some of us are working hard for the common good. Some of us are realizing that we have lots of opportunities, right now, to devote ourselves to love - of the transcendent, of ourselves, of our neighbors, no matter who they may be?
I just returned from walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Humans have been walking the Camino for hundreds of years. My people. Your people. Our people. Five hundred miles, from St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago in Northern Spain. Three hundred thousand people walk the road every year, or at least the final seventy miles or so, the distance required to cover if you want to get an official certificate at the end. But the imprinting on the soul that occurs on the Camino means more than a piece of paper.
It’s much easier to know what’s wrong with the world than how to fix it. Or at least to think we know what’s wrong with the world. There’s no quick fix for the problem of how to discern what’s truly real, especially amid the bombardment of images and words that have given birth to the idea of fake news and alternative facts. Wisdom takes its time. Living in the present is best done with a reflective eye to the past. Looked at through the lens of how far we’ve come, then the current moment of confusion and challenge can be seen as an opportunity, not a catastrophe.
Silence, Martin Scorsese’s film from the novel by Shûsaku Endô, is about two young Jesuit priests, searching 17th century Japan in hopes of finding their mentor who, it is rumored, was tortured for his faith. Beneath this surface, it is about the question of finding meaning in life, and showing mercy on that path - to each other, to ourselves; the evolution of religion - as an oppressive power or a way of understanding the nature of life and the common good; and about the possibility of being transformed from within by love, even amid a swirl of noise and aggression that aims to terrorize all dissent. Scorsese was first made aware of the novel when promoting another film based on a story by a challenging spiritual seeker, The Last Temptation of Christ. That movie, released in 1988, was met with protest by folk whose experience of Christianity skewed toward repressing doubt, lest the recognition that someone else might think differently somehow pollute your own faith. But not all Christians felt that way - a helpful bishop, pronouncing The Last Temptation “Christologically correct" sent Scorsese a copy of Silence; for nearly thirty years now, he’s been trying to make it a movie. It’s an astonishing work, fully alive, a portrait of faith and love, willing to confront rage and terror, refusing anything other than the most disciplined path, taking seriously the question of just what life is. I imagine I will never forget it.
Because shaming, scapegoating, and aggression have become go-to modes of cultural exchange, I think we should declare those who ask for help to be the heroes of our time. The very request for help should be an occasion for rejoicing, for another human being is setting themselves free from the death-dealing oppression that says we are alone and must fend for ourselves. This is the gift of innocence battling with fear of the authorities. For when external authorities seem to threaten, the trick would then be to see this as an opportunity for liberating inner work.