On the power of remembering together

history, memory, pope francis, religion, spirituality, Syria

This week we marked a number of important anniversaries. I was reminded of the importance of taking time to stop and remember. The act of remembering together or ‘commemorating’ is something so powerful.
The fourth anniversary of the start of the ongoing conflict in Syria is one that should cause us all to reflect. The media this week has been full of pictures of families torn apart by war, mothers unable to grieve for their babies, unbearable scenes of inhumanity made all the more poignant due to today’s mother’s day celebrations. Twenty humanitarian organisations published a scathing report on the crisis and the inaction of governments to resolve it. This article by Trócaire’s director Éamonn Meehan illustrates the situation many NGOs, like Trócaire now find themselves in. They are trapped in an intractable, horrific conflict which has no end in sight, with unimaginable scale of need. Most NGOs were never designed to cope with such need. The whole crisis meanwhile seems to have slipped into the background as other crises have overtaken it. It has become a new kind of ‘normal’. It is hard to see where the political will is going to come from to start to resolve the growing regional crisis in the Middle East. No country, no leader seems prepared or able to act to stop the carnage.
This week also marked the seventh anniversary of the death of Chiara Lubich, an Italian woman whose cause for  beatification and canonisation is being considered by Pope Francis (who also celebrated an important anniversary this week!). Chiara Lubich is a spiritual hero of mine and is one of the great spiritual teachers of our age. Her message of unity today is very timely for Christians, but also people of other faiths and none given the context of conflict in Syria and across the world. Events are being held all over the world this week to highlight the political and policy relevance of her message. It is a message borne out of the utter destruction and despair of the Second World War. It invites everyone to embrace a new consciousness of being and becoming one human family.  
What appeals to me most about Chiara is that hers is not a theoretical or ‘top down’ message nor a ‘soft’ fussy message nor one of ‘charity’ as commonly understood. It is a message of sisterhood and brotherhood that is actively lived, constructed, born and reborn each day in small and big acts of heroic love. It is a pedagogy of love. Heroic in the sense that living it involves a daily commitment, an orientation – a willingness to embrace, move through or beyond the suffering, isolation, self-doubt, that is part of being human. It is this ‘discipline’ of love that Chiara saw creating something like a bridge that draws down a ‘divine’ presence on earth. It is a message of ‘synthesis’ which I reflected on here in response to Cardinal Turkson.
I was fortunate to meet Chiara on many occasions. I corresponded with her regularly since my mum first met her when I was just eight years old. I owe her a great deal in terms of the support and wisdom she shared so generously. Like great spiritual leaders before her, she was the embodiment of her message – ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, as Ghandi said. Her memory lives on in the great spiritual ‘family’ she generated, the Focolare Movement, and in the many millions of people she continues to touch by her charism.
Both of these anniversaries, in their own way, reminded me of the importance of valuing memory and historical perspective, especially for those who believe in big ideals. This is not about sentimentality, as I was reminded this week in Berlin at an event on the histories of humanitarianism. The workshop was looking at the role of religion and empire in shaping humanitarian cultures since 1945. It was fascinating to uncover the interlocking influences which shape the work of NGOs today. I’m not a historian, but I have to say I found the whole discussion extremely relevant to the complex issues that Trócaire and other NGOs are grappling with in Syria and globally. Pressure tends to result in frenetic activism, but there is a great need within NGOs to take time to remember together, to learn about our histories and play the long game. Only through understanding where we have come from will it be possible to face future challenges with confidence.

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Integral ecology and the 'interior' world

climate change, pope francis, religion, spirituality, sustainable development goals

This week I had the honour of giving a reflection at the Trócaire Lecture given by Cardinal Peter Turkson, the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The lecture was on “integral ecology” – the topic which Pope Francis’ much anticipated Encyclical will cover later this year. I have to confess that before this week I knew very little about integral ecology. After immersing myself in the subject in preparation for the lecture, I am fascinated by the idea and look forward to learning more. Three aspects of it appealed to me:

  • integral ecology demands that we put care for creation and a planetary perspective at the heart of all our decision-making. Environmental issues have to come out of their ‘special interest group’ box and become an integral part of all decisions. In the words of Pope Francis, Christians are not being asked to ‘go green’ but to ‘be Christian’.
  • integral ecology requires us to shift to a systems way of thinking. It is about integration and synthesis rather than individual, isolated perpsectives. I was really taken by this idea.
  • integral ecology means placing far greater value on ‘interiority’ – the awareness that is present within all living beings. This aspect of the concept really appeals to me – and is of huge value in a world which tends to devalue or disregard interiority.

The absence of integration and synthesis today is everywhere, especially in the political world. It results in incoherence in policies at every level, like that I mentioned in my previous blog. I see this especially when I go to the UN. It is remarkable to witness the sheer numbers and industriousness of NGOs, policy makers, officials… all fighting for very worthy goals. “I’m for disability” “I’m for indigenous peoples” “I’m for small island states” “I’m for people living in extreme poverty”… and so on. Yet everyone is so caught up in fighting their own corner. The end result is 17 new Sustainable Development Goals with 169 targets!!! This sounds fine until you realise that virtually no-one is thinking about the sum of the parts, the systemic questions which make the achievement of these goals possible. It is just too complicated, the power interests are too great. The result is ineffective action, not seeing the wood for the trees.

If we begin to focus on the ‘whole’, the ‘systems’, as an integral ecology proposes, it becomes evident that we need to rethink of our hierarchy of public values which currently puts economic growth above ecology – consumption above conservation, private gain above the universal destination of goods. As a placard at the Climate march last September put it “tell the next generation: it was the economy, stupid!” Despite so much research on human and planetary well-being, governments still define progress in terms of national and global economic growth, even when that growth is predicated on the destruction of the planet we call home. There is something seriously wrong in our accounting system! Rethinking global economic governance in a way that reduces excessive, wasteful consumption but still allows those living in poverty to achieve a decent standard of living is the major challenge today. Redistributive justice is also an ecological issue.
Developing an integral ecology is a collective exercise. This means focusing energy on breaking down the intellectual and political silos and finding ways to achieve new insights through shared knowledge. This demands a very different skill set to what is valued today. Yes, it still requires technical expertise. But above all, it requires an ability to dialogue, to share perspectives, to listen, to try to engage and understand the others perspective and appreciate what is good about it. It requires a certain humility – an ability to see that none of us has the whole truth, but many of us have partial truths.
What is most exciting about the ide of an integral ecology to me is the value it places on ‘interiority’: the spiritual and cultural renewal required to make the shift to a just and sustainable future. This transition, which prioritises care for creation and the poor, can only be achieved through a change of heart, a valuing of interiority. As Cardinal Turkson said at the lecture, ‘we will care for what we cherish and revere’. It means cultivating a sense of ‘wonder and awe’.
Western culture traditionally has placed little value on interiority, almost assuming that a rational, technical, materialist culture is adapted to address the problems of the 21st century. Religion is widely regarded as a private affair. Yet the attitudes, behaviours and values needed are far different. Rather than focusing on quick technical fixes, the key questions for society has to be ‘What is the interior world, the thought systems, the values that sustain or undermine an integral ecology?’ It strikes me that a communitarian spirituality, which is deeply attune to dialogue and mutual understanding, in this regard, becomes a critical public good. As Pope Francis points to, the horizon of hope needs to open up and be underpinned by a new interiority – a change of heart, a ‘revolution of tenderness’. In fact, the flourishing of a counter-culture which actually recognises the beauty and value of less is a profound paradox. It is a hard sell for those who are bought into the dominant culture, but perhaps not for those who have made the Gospel of love and justice the motivating force for their life!

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