One fall, I was on retreat with other ministers, and our retreat leader was a priest, Rev. Ray Tetrault. He was a friend of one of my colleagues and known to us as a passionate advocate for social justice. Our task together was to reflect on the politics of our time, in light of our role as spiritual leaders.
He started us off with an unlikely reference from the gospel of Luke, familiar from the Christmas story. Luke tells us that a census was called during the time when Herod was the king of Judea, Augustus was caesar of the Roman Empire, and Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Ray reminded us that they were the politicians in charge of the regional and imperial governments some two thousand years ago.
“But what was really going on?” he asked. Something mysterious. In a small town, a baby had just been born—we know him as John the Baptist—and something new was beginning that would literally transform the world. This new thing emerged, not from those at the top, but from underneath, from an unexpected and hidden place.
Since our retreat was happening just before the national elections, all of us were sitting there with many stirred up feelings about the issues facing our country. It would have been easy to talk together about our political leaders, our concerns and our analysis. But Ray invited us instead to be silent, to listen deep in the quiet of our hearts, underneath our thoughts and feelings. He invited us to reflect on the question: “What is really going on?” What else might be happening here in our own time and country, underneath, unseen, and yet full of potential significance? What is really going on?
We kept the silence for an hour, and then we shared from our hearts. The next day we went back into silence, and then shared again from that deeper place. When I went into the silence, I felt something like a seed in my heart that was swelling and expanding, and also something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.
I remembered an email that I had sent a few days earlier to my family members. I am the oldest of nine siblings, and my parents are both still alive. I have family living in Michigan, Texas, Montana, and West Virginia. I remember that my family was excited when John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president, but mostly we had not been very involved in politics. Now we have vast disagreements among us. In fact, the deep religious and political divisions in our country are directly mirrored in my family.
I had been moved to send an email to my family members about my feelings and concerns about the elections, and about the spiritual beliefs underlying my hopes and fears. Then others started replying: several of my sisters, my father, a niece and a nephew sent emails to all the others. Many began by expressing fear that if they shared their beliefs, others might reject them, but still they wanted to take the risk. And even those with very strong views kept repeating that, in spite of these differences, they loved each member of the family and hoped that everyone still loved them.
Somehow, in the midst of the cultural divisions facing our nation, we had ventured across the walls of politics and religion, painfully but hopefully, to share our truths with love. Our differences were deep, and our emails did not make them go away. But we were touching each other at a deeper level than our differences. And that gave me hope for facing the divide in our nation. In the silence of the retreat, I was realizing the mysterious unfolding that had taken place in our email conversation. It felt something like a seed in my heart swelling and expanding, something like a shell cracking open, something like an old husk.