Spiritual journeys are often arduous affairs. Many people who have shared about their own admit that they went places they did not expect to be, saw things they did not expect or maybe even want to see, and changed more,and in ways other, than they thought possible or even desirable (at least initially).
Mother Teresa, for example, wrote (in private diaries only published after her death) that much of her journey of caring for the poor, exhibiting what the world saw as enormous faith, was marked by a lack of faith in the presence of God. Nonetheless, she kept going until the end.
It is this kind of patience, perseverance, that so many lack. Our Western culture lives on the fast track, wanting only sound bites for answers, quick fixes that may make the fixer feel good but do not really change anything.
I am struck by how this desire for the quick fix is infecting the political arena in the United States today. It reminds me of an earlier time in our national life, a tumultuous time before the Civil War. Slavery was unsettling the nation to be sure, but there were other stresses, too.
One was immigration. Wave upon wave of immigrant from Europe–many Irish and German Catholics arriving in the late 1840’s and 50s–scared those already here. They feared the country would be taken over by the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church.
A political movement arose, under various names, but ultimately came to be known popularly as the Know Nothing Party (because members, seeking to keep their membership and work a secret, were encouraged to say, “I know nothing,” when asked if they belonged). It officially became the American Party, and other combinations of terms, designed to highlight their belief that only nativists (but not Native Americans, of course), not these Catholic immigrants, were the true Americans.
It would be easy to say the Republican candidates, and many of their supporters, today are like the Know Nothings. But in fact the Know Nothings supported many progressive measures. They often supported regulation of railroads and other institutions and free public education, and many opposed slavery and spoke against concentrations of wealth.
What does connect these Know Nothings with contemporary Republicans is fear, fear that someone from the outside is destroying the nation. Today, it is immigrants from Mexico (“build a wall” so no more come in, and send all the ones here back), and now, thanks to twenty or so state governors, it is immigrants fleeing the chaos and terror of Syria (because among their number are sure to be some ISIS-inspired terrorists seeking to come here to destroy us).
And there is another fear, namely that elites–the so-called mainstream media today is the favorite–are selling out all the good, ordinary Americans. Certainly, the anti-politician rhetoric of Messrs. Carson and Trump, and their supporters, reflect this belief. Another target of many, though not all, are the banks and other concentrations of wealth.
All of this feels very scary to many of us. Simplistic solutions to complicated problems rarely help, certainly scapegoating groups does no good, and insisting that one ideology or religion has all the answers has never worked, and will only promote totalitarianism.
Is it possible to say a nation is on a spiritual journey? I hope so. We are in the midst of great turmoil. We are being shown things about ourselves that many would rather not see (e.g., the continuing violence against African-Americans). Indeed, many refuse to even look. Instead, they apply angry rhetoric and harsh policies to avoid having to deal with complicated realities.
I continue to pray, and hope, however, that all this is leading us to a deeper place, a place where we can finally face the fact that our nation, though wonderful and beautiful in many ways and surely the land that I love, is not the paragon of virtue and freedom we claim to be–indeed that we never have been–and that we need to find ways to lower the decibels, listen more to disparate voices on the margins and work with other nations in constructive ways (even recognizing their own national needs as legitimate, not just ours).
What helps me pray, helps me to share this hope? I remember Mother Teresa who stayed the course. She wrote in her journal in 1961, as revealed in the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light
“Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. … The torture and pain I can’t explain.”
According to those who have studied her life in depth, she died with this struggle still very alive in her. Her spiritual adviser of many years, Rev. Joseph Neuner, helped her realize that her feelings of abandonment only increased her understanding of the people she helped. And she identified her suffering, and their suffering, with that of Jesus.
Our answer as a nation is not to lash out at others unlike us, to find easy fixes in blaming others, but to go more deeply in our own souls, as individuals and as a nation, and persevere in creating more justice and more opportunity and more openness everywhere in the world.
The answer to our troubles, our need, lies not so much in politics (necessary as good politics is), as it does in spiritual depth–I don’t mean religion, even though I am a deeply religious person, because we are a secular society–but I do mean in going on a spiritual journey together.
We must find a way to knit our hearts together without blame and recrimination, without scapegoating or false divisions.
One nation under God (whatever you think of, or about, God).