You are away from your family. Your family is in trouble. You pray for the family. You hope the prayers will work. But you are still anxious. You decide to go back home. You arrive at home. You bring your full attention to the whole situation. You are there in person, with your total concern, your full involvement, your truest self. It is your home, where you began your life’s journey. It is where you belong. From within the situation you try to bring about the change you could not achieve from the outside. Beyond all your advice from a foreign shore, all your prayers at a distant shrine, your real presence is the most powerful transforming influence of all. Because then you are inside the situation, your love is released at the heart of your family, and it does its work of healing the home.
I feel it is the same with how we pray for a deeply wounded humanity, a troubled world, a ravaged earth. We are not outsiders looking on, sending transitory good wishes towards less fortunate foreigners in a weeping world. We are not unconnected to those who perish at barricaded borders, with those who are persecuted, tortured, shot for seeking safety in our western countries. They are our family. The mutilated earth is our home, our mother. Our essence has been formed by the energies of the earth. We are, in fact, the very consciousness of the world itself, reflecting back to it its sublime wonder and its ruined beauty. Pope Francis echoes St Francis when he reminds us of these precious truths in his wonderful documents – the Evangelii Gaudium Letter and the encyclical Laudato Si’.
We ‘pray our troubled world’ when we allow our understanding of it, and our relationship with it, to be transformed; when we identify with it, consciously embracing it as the source of our being. We are now present to people’s pain and their cries, to the ‘groaning’ of the earth itself (St Paul), in a new, deeper and more intimate way. In some mysterious manner we are healing the world when we see it as we see ourselves and those we cherish; when we look with compassion upon it through God’s eyes, recognising the divine presence already and always incarnate within it. A central dimension of ‘praying our troubled world’ is to get to understand more profoundly the mystery of creation and of Incarnation. What do I mean by that?
This calls for a wider world view, an expansion of the horizons of our hearts and minds, the bigger picture, a more inclusive grasp of the mystery. The Christian is becoming re-inspired by a wonderful, recently recovered theology – often referred to as a theology of creation, of ‘nature and grace’. Once we acknowledge our flawed understanding of the Adam, Eve and Original Sin myth, which from the beginning radically distorts our relationship with the universe, with each other and with God, we then begin to see all creation and evolution as a divine love-story whose beauty reflects the essence of the Creator. The Incarnation most powerfully reveals this amazing, saving grace. Just as the ever-present Word redeemed the world by becoming the heart of it, so also do we when we see ourselves not just as passing travellers in exile on an alien soil, but as the beating heart of God’s incarnate body, the earth itself, and all its citizens who suffer unending torments.
The Urgency of Pope Francis Too many of us say a few passing prayers for the wider, wounded world, contribute our loose change, blame someone or other for the situation, and feel smug about our efforts as dutiful citizens. Such shallow involvement may work wonders for personal ego-health; it does little for the eco-health of our natural home. We are called to be present to the troubles of the world in a real way. It is God’s body; it is our mother, our sister, our brother. Its inhabitants are God’s family, our family. Pope Francis writes urgently about a ‘conversion’ of our souls, a whole transformation of life-style, an ultimate dedication of our energies to saving planet Earth and the poor who cling to it in desperation.
The Pope believes that the call to a prayerful concern for our troubled world, to a conversion of our lives to save our Mother-Earth, is much more than an added-on obligation. It is a knowing in the heart, a recognising of our wider family of origin and destiny, an awakening of the divine imagination already within the human psyche. Our hearts, sacred from birth and baptism, fashioned lovingly in the divine image, somehow sense this astonishing revelation of our intimacy with the earth, and our responsibility for saving her life and the lives of those whose plight is increasingly desperate.
Our prayers are powerful when they grow from the way we see and understand the mystery of creation and incarnation. The Pope is trying to help us hold the suffering poor in a ravaged world as the greatest concern of God and of us. He wants us to live and love and serve in that non-negotiable perception. Like the artist who looks at the block of marble and sees the hidden angel, like the farmer who looks at his winter fields and sees the waving harvest, like the mystic who looks at the caterpillar and sees the butterfly, like the mid-wife who looks at the pregnant woman and sees a beautiful wee baby, like Jesus who looked into the hearts of sinners and saw their grace, so too we are called to look at our beloved, broken and beautiful earth and see the weeping face of God.
Beyond a passing sympathy we now surrender to the deepest empathy, seeing our earth and its broken-hearted family from the inside, experiencing it as we experience ourselves. We are urged to get utterly involved in a full commitment, and to do everything possible to transform Christian and universal consciousness before it is too late. In ‘praying our troubled world’ we do not stay on our knees. We need to remember in our active contemplation that Resurrection has happened. And Resurrection is about more than a miraculous moment for the crucified body of Jesus. It is the final stage of creation and Incarnation for the crucified world.
All creation is moving towards completion Humanity, in its evolution, is moving inexorably towards the final Omega in God. Even on this weeping, warring planet we still believe in that divine dream for it. Incarnation establishes this belonging and evolving as the very purpose of our being. Deeply, essentially we are the vital voice of the earth, calling, yearning for completion. Only when we truly realise this, and live our lives with an eternal vigilance for the well-being of our Mother-Earth, will our prayers for her be salvific and transformative. Our pleas and wishes will come from the depths of our earthy hearts and bodies. These were already, and always, the living promise in the womb of the earth. When we pray for a troubled world we are praying for our own future, for the survival of our children, of all humanity, and of all creation – for all we call the incarnate body of God.
The troubled world we pray for is not out there, of course – anymore than God is. We, and the Holy Spirit who moves us to pray, and the world we pray for, are inextricably bound up together. All creation is moving towards fulfilment. It is a slow, vulnerable becoming, with terrible birth-pains. And the crucifixion continues. But so does Resurrection.
In his Evangelii Gaudium Pope Francis sees a silent ‘eastering’ at work in the evolution of the planet – the same evolution that is transforming our own sense of participation and responsibility, in an unfolding future. ‘The kingdom of God is already present in this world’ he writes, ‘and is growing here and there in different ways – like the small seed that grows in a great tree . . . the kingdom is here, it returns, it struggles to flourish anew. Resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of history.’ Words such as these reveal to our hearts the depths of the mystery we are part of, and the urgency of our desires for its completion.
‘Praying our troubled world’ is now resounding from the heart of the universe. It is our own voice, no longer chanting from a disconnected, elevated and remote plateau but passionately pleading, on fire at the core of life, joining in the lamentations of the Indwelling Trinity, bereft with the sorrowful Mother of Life we call God. Pope Francis sees the emergence of a timeless, universal resurrection gestating at the core of the earth, like an eternal Spring. He believes in the Good Fridays of our existence, in the irrepressible birthing of Easter. He sees all evolution, all the slow growing of the world, in terms of incarnate redemption, in terms of the saving and blossoming of the earth. ‘Each day in our world,’ he reminds us, ‘beauty is born anew; it rises, transformed, through the storms of history . . . Where all seems to be dead, signs of resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force.’
All of this brings us to a new way of being, a new way of seeing, a new way of praying. In the Christian tradition this revelation has been called ‘the sacramental vision’, the ‘catholic imagination’. It springs from the orthodox theology of nature and grace, from the mystical spirituality of humanity, from the astonishing implications of Incarnation. It reveals to us the nature of the ultimate intimacy of God with all created beings, the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in all that lives. In this truth and context we begin to realise, at the core of our being, the praise in bird-song, the adoration in each new dawn, the cry of the ocean, the lament of the earth. It is then that our prayer is in deep communion with the wounded earth; our anxious voices are in time and tune with the longing of life, with the desire of the Holy Spirit. The Irish poet Joseph Mary Plunkett wrote;
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes;
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
Children, of course, unknowingly have that grace of seeing, being and belonging. They somehow sense their place in the world. And just as they heal us all, they heal the world too. Their very lives of wonder bless the earth. In ways we cannot understand, they are the fleshed prayers of Incarnation, priestesses and prophetesses of life, small sacraments of divine presence to protect their suffering sisters and brothers, and Mother-Earth herself. The land silently reverberates with the perfect passion of their innocent prayer and presence. They know that an un-prayed for world will die. Physicist Brian Swimme wrote, ‘Say this to every child – you come from the energy that gave birth to the universe. Its story is your story; its beginning is your beginning.’
When we ‘pray the troubled world’, the troubled world is praying for itself. Why? Because we are its beating heart. We are its mind, soul and voice. And when the troubled world is praying for itself, it is God incarnate, also at the heart of her own lovely, ravaged body, that is praying and listening to its ‘groaning’. Christians are challenged to hold together the mystery of creation, of evolution, of suffering, of incarnation, of Christianity, of Eucharist. This love-story captivates us with a different lilt, logic and language to the destructive, dualistic ‘fall/redemption’ doctrines that are still suffocating the Holy Spirit of freedom and intimacy.
At the dynamic, evolving centre of it all, is the love called God. This Love, pulsing in the dance of the Blessed Trinity, continues to beat out its pain, prayer and praise in the heart of the cosmos and in the cosmos of the heart. It is the wild energy of the Holy Spirit of the Risen Christ. It is the beginning, and the middle, and the end of God’s love-affair with humanity, with every creature. It is that first sacred thrust of Being into the Alpha of space and time, finding its invincible, healing, loving way towards the Omega of God’s all-embracing, all-welcoming, all-completing heart.