Thanks to a friend's recommendation, I've just finished John Irving's acclaimed novel, "A Prayer for Owen Meany." This powerful story, tracing the friendship of two young boys through adulthood, leaves much to ponder on several levels. First, there is the obvious theme of faith. Owen Meany is possessed of an unwavering belief in God, a belief that moves him without shirking toward a destiny he believes is God-ordained. What do we do with this brand of faith? Is it helpful, hindering, ridiculous, necessary? Owen's friend, John, the narrator, struggles with this question throughout much of the novel.
But along with the discussion of faith, there are also questions regarding the legitimacy of war, and of the ability of the United States to effectively plan and execute the liberation of the Vietnamese people. The boys come of age during the Vietnam war, and John's wrestling with the administrations that shape and respond to this conflict occupies a large part of the story. Yet Owen's self-prophesied vocation is intertwined with the war. It necessitates him pressing forward to active duty, while going to all lengths to keep his friend from being drafted into service.
Here is another set of conflicts. How does one commit to sacrifice in the context of a situation that seems untenable? Owen seeks to make things clean cut for those around him (including, of course, his solution for John's upcoming draft recruitment). And yet for himself, life is complicated, even paradoxical. Near the end of the book, Owen and his friend John, are visiting a trailer park, filled with people who teeter on the verge of mental illness, degraded by incest, alcohol, poverty. They have come to be a presence at the wake of a soldier who's been killed in action. "What's wrong with this country?" Owen Meany asked. "We should all be at home, looking after people like this. Instead, we're sending people like this to Vietnam?"
I rarely subscribe to either/or scenarios. I don't believe that we should only look out for ourselves, and not be concerned about the welfare of those around the world. But I am struck by this question and how it shines a light on our vocation as a nation, especially as we approach the commemoration of September 11 and our response as a nation. Are we living out here at home what we are trying to influence abroad? As we talk about encouraging democracy in nascent countries, what does it mean that our political system is slowly grinding to a halt? Do we participate in our capitalistic economic system in a compassionate way, as a means of generating meainingful employment and income for all people of all walks of life, or are we succumbing to greed, putting self interest before the interests of the community?
On a personal level I am challenged to "practice what I preach." If I write a daily blog about choosing joy, am I living a life that is worth emulating? If I call myself a Christian, do I take Christ's admonitions to pray for my enemies seriously? As American forces headed toward Iraq, I consciously prayed for the Iraqi people, but never seriously considered praying for Saddam Hussein, and I never dreamed of praying for Osama bin Laden and the rest of Al-Qaeda. Refusing to take vengeance is only the first of Christ's teachings. Pouring out blessing on our enemies is even crazier. And yet it is the only way to move towards reconciliation. If we desire our enemies to cease becoming our enemies, then we need to imagine them as future friends and begin to desire their best.
September 11 gives us a chance to remember those who died because of hate. It allows us to honor all of those who offered and continue to offer themselves freely for the lives of others, whether in full or just partial agreement to the cause they are enlisted in. But it also can prod us toward honestly evaluating whether we are living up to the ideals that we espouse. Are there ways in which we contribute, either by omission or comission, to the state of our world? "A Prayer for Owen Meany" challenges us to act from a deep-seated belief in our vocation to live and love well, even in the midst of confusion and paradox, showing the better way.
Reflections and commemorations of the events of September 11 are proliferating this week. I thought it would be appropriate to take this and the next post to reflect as well. When the twin towers came crashing to the ground on that bright fall morning, our family was not residing in the United States. We were living in Costa Rica, and I had just returned from a walk with a friend in the hills above San Jose. Her husband was watching the news when we entered the house. I remember watching the smoke rising from the impact of that first plane and wondering if I were watching a country in the mideast, Lebanon, perhaps? The rest of the day was spent waiting for updates, praying for those affected in New York, DC, Pennsylvania, and wondering what impact, if any, the events would have on Americans living abroad.
Occasions such as the attacks of 9/11 have a tremendous impact, personally, nationally, globally. After the personal loss of those families most directly involved, the shock wave is felt by those connected by proximity or nationality. These tragedies challenge our sense of self, our ability to trust, and collectively, our nation's political and economic choices. They can also offer an opportunity for reflection. In today's blog I have permission to share some personal reflections that inspired the creation of two quilts, an age long tradition of art as a means of articulating what the soul is processing.
Christiane Meunier, a friend of a friend, started her quilts in October 2001 and recently finished them in time for the anniversary of September 11. Described as "prayers of hope," the quilts will be hanging at the Arch Street Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia in time for Sunday's prayer gathering. I am impressed by the complementary nature of the Christiane's art. The quilts encourage us to think on an individual level and also on a corporate level. Together they address the reality of our own brokenness and offer a path to our healing.
The Solzhenitsyn quote is one I had happened upon the evening before I encountered Christiane's work. I was struck at the time with his insistence upon refusing to create categories, even if it means we are left with discomfort. Taking ownership of our own shadow means that we acknowledge our "enemies" are no different from ourselves. We all have the capability of great evil. Jesus himself pulls the wool off our eyes when he tells the crowd around him, "You have heard it said, 'Do not murder'. And yet I tell you, someone who looks at another and calls him "fool" is guilty of murder." How many people have we slain, innocent or guilty, friend or child with our own anger?
The second quilt explores the means that we have to nurture those around us. Both our physical and our emotional resources are necessary to build a healthy community. The coupling of economic stability with relational stability may seem like an unusual pairing, but in bringing together the two, we can create a sustainable world. Finances, which can be seen as devoid of life ("barren"), can be filled with compassion when used with equity and wisdom. And like a mother whose children have left the nest, one can move from emptiness, from a sense of personal loss, to generously offering their gifts upon those outside the nuclear family, seeing every human being as a member of one's own family.
"If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously
committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being." ( Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956))
In the quilt,most blocks are divided in half, half light and half dark. It is impossible to tell which one is which. (for ex.: look at the yellow and black circle in a square block on the right side).The quilt is a picture of a world where each individual/country/culture/religion owns their own shadow.
Window on a New World
The Towers of trade emerge between fields of water and fields of fire. Water and fire create a very unstable environment: the Towers grow out of that instability. The resources that human beings need to live are not evenly distributed on the planet and that creates instability. Trading is the way to even things out. If it is done out of compassion and love for each other, the focus is to keep the distribution of goods fair and even. Then the Towers keep their balance. The thirteen moons fill the arch, the over-arching vision of the new world. The thirteenth moon is the last period in a woman’s cycle, a time where she cannot conceive a child anymore and turns her gift of motherhood toward the world at large. It is this ability to love and care for everyone as you would your own child that lights this new world and is symbolized by a big fiery sun-like shape.