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July 2021 Vol 60 No 3

Grace in a World of Suffering

Ecological conversion and discernment in the socio-economic sphere

The Christian Churches are increasingly aware of the need for what Pope John Paul II called an ‘ecological conversion’. Here, using case studies from Chile and Madagascar, Séverine Deneulin and Yvonne Orengo, who both work in international development, use this idea to address the needs of those who most suffer the consequences of environmental and social degradation.

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Being Connected: Laudato Sě and the Spiritual Canticle

Towards the end of his ecological encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis quotes from the Spiritual Canticle of the Spanish Carmelite St John of the Cross. Ian Matthew shows how this work emphasizes the connectedness of the whole of creation, and the responsibility of human beings both to live in harmony with this interdependence, and to safeguard it.

Mary's Crucifixion

The Gospels picture his mother, Mary, being one of the few to stand alongside Jesus as he dies on the cross. Empathy suggests how she must have shared in his suffering. Magdalena Randal moves from a mural in Campion Hall in Oxford to the scene of a massacre of indigenous people in Canada, in order to develop this aspect of an adequate contemporary Marian theology.

The Crucified People: Óscar Romero and Martyrdom

During his lifetime, and particularly in his years as archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Romero became the voice of the ordinary people of El Salvador, a country torn by a bloody civil war. Ambrose Mong shows how Romero’s violent death set a seal on his teaching and witness, in a way that can powerfully guide others caught up in situations of conflict.

Miriamic Presence in Pandemic Times

It is unsurprising that those for whom the Bible is an important tool for interpreting the world have been led by the current pandemic to read scripture stories with fresh eyes. In an article reprinted from Thinking Faith, Karen Eliasen presents the story of Miriam that unfolds in chapter 12 of the Book of Numbers, finding in it a hopeful message in the midst of ‘crisis, emotional upheaval, disease and isolation’.

How Did Jesus Do It?

In the fourth chapter of his Gospel Luke tells an odd story of how Jesus, having enraged the people of his home town by his preaching, simply slips through the crowd who have set out to attack him. In a short contribution to The Way’s ‘Spirituality and Living’ strand, Eric Jensen learns from two dogs in a Canadian retreat house something of how this situation might have been resolved.

Thomas Merton: Seeds and Fruits of Contemplation

More than fifty years after his death, the US Trappist Thomas Merton remains one of the most influential spiritual writers of our time. For Robert Doud, Merton combines ‘the silence of the monk and the volubility of the literary celebrity’. In this article Doud considers some of Merton’s poetry, focusing particularly on what it reveals about his contemplative experience.

Humour as a Concrete Expression of the Principle of Analogia Entis

Hans Urs von Balthasar once suggested that maintaining a sense of humour was the best antidote to deal with polarised positions within the Church, since it made for a flexible and pliable approach to faith, marked by an appropriate humility. Here Riyako Hikota develops these ideas, drawing on the work of Balthasar’s mentor, the German Jesuit theologian Erich Przywara.

The Conditions of Christian Hospitality

The Christian scriptures present an understanding of hospitality that is far richer than current ideas focused solely on table-fellowship or philanthropy. Kuba Walczak sketches the complex web of benefits and responsibilities connecting guests and their hosts, concluding that these provide fruitful topics for discernment in answering the question put to Jesus: ‘And who is my neighbour?’

The Nativity in view of the Cross and Resurrection

In his presentation of the story of Jesus’ birth in the Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius stresses the poverty that the new-born Christ endures. Recent scripture scholarship links this with both the circumstances of Jesus’s death on the cross, and those of his resurrection. Gerald O’Collins traces these links, suggesting that together they can enrich a retreatant’s appreciation of the nativity account.

From the Foreword

A NY FAITH IN GOD must always face the challenge of why an all-powerful and all-loving God permits human suffering. No single answer to this conundrum has been found to be adequate, but one avenue worth exploring is the fact that grace can be experienced as present even—perhaps especially—in the most difficult of times. The articles gathered in this issue of The Way bear witness to this, in situations ranging from environmental destruction to civil war, from the struggle to live a contemplative life to coping with the polarisation of views within the Church.

If at times the concepts of conversion and discernment have been presented in ways that seemed individualistic and detached from wider social and political engagement, this situation is changing rapidly. Séverine Deneulin and Yvonne Orengo, two researchers in the field of international development, use case studies from across the globe to illustrate the idea of ecological conversion, pioneered by Pope John Paul II. Ambrose Mong shows how the outspoken Archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador underwent his own conversion to become the voice of an oppressed and suffering people, and of the price that he paid for this. Riyako Hikota reaches the perhaps surprising conclusion that it is by maintaining a sense of humour that it becomes possible to avoid the lure of entrenched positions and demonizing opponents.

Many stories in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures illustrate ways in which the experience of suffering can lead into a deeper reception of divine grace. Mary, at the foot of the cross, shared her son’s passion, an idea developed by Magdalena Randal. Miriam, a key figure in the Exodus narrative, undergoes disease and isolation in ways which, for Karen Eliasen, speak directly to our current experience of pandemic. Jesus himself is born into poverty, foreshadowing his death and resurrection, as Gerald O’Collins shows, and has to cope with violent rejection by the people of his home town, a scene contemplated by Eric Jensen.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the experience of suffering will lead to a deeper awareness of the grace of God. If it is not simply to produce bitterness and resentment, certain conditions will need to be met. One is perhaps an openness to others, rather than turning in on oneself, a virtue outlined by Jakub Walczak as he considers the meaning of Christian hospitality. Another is the cultivating of a contemplative attitude by which one is better able to recognise the signs of God at work, an attitude that Robert Doud finds present in the poetry of the US Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

Even so, no matter how spiritually fruitful the experience of suffering can be, there are times when the correct response is to oppose, rather than simply accept, it. This is as true at the social and environmental levels as it is at the personal. The Spiritual Canticle of St John of the Cross gives poetic expression to the unity and interconnectedness of the whole of creation. According to Ian Matthew, this presents humanity with the task of combating environmental degradation and restoring the harmony which was part of the divine plan since the beginning.

Paul Nicholson SJ

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