For the past week-and-a-half I’ve been travelling the same route to and from work, through the densely populated outskirts of Accra, Ghana, via bus or taxi each day. There’s a tedium to it, yes, but it’s counter-intuitively captivating at the same time. Through the quiet of my window, I watch. Life is truly visible. So many people, of all ages, going about the business of daily life. Selling foods. Cleaning clothes. Taking children to school. Fixing vehicles.
This splendor of the ordinary brings to mind Fr. Thomas Merton’s recollection in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968):
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people…that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate…now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun….If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.
But we can’t. At least not yet. See, these busy streets of Accra I travel are what the United Nations defines as a slum. Lack of toilets. Water shortages. Make-shift housing. Too many people crammed into small rooms.
Poverty in no way changes a person’s inherent dignity. No lack of resources makes a person any more or less made in God’s image. But poverty does obscure that image of God in the eyes of others. That “shining like the sun,” as Merton described it, that reveals our true origin and destiny can become obscured through our own sinful eyes.
Our sins “give rise to social situations and institutions that are contrary to the divine goodness” and “pervert” our social climates (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1869, 1896). Our sins create a lens through which we struggle to be in communion with the poor, to experience love and joy together.
For Christians of the first millennium, sin was understood “as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division” (Spe Salvi, 14). Pope Benedict observed, “Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence ‘redemption’ appears as the reestablishment of unity, in which we come together once more in a union that begins to take shape in the world community of believers” (Spe Salvi, 14).
Begins to take shape. What powerful words! When we see the world as Merton did, redemption begins to take shape. God’s plan “to unite all things in Him” moves forward (CCC 772, cf. Ephesians 1:10).
Yet how can I–a resident of the United States with vastly greater material wealth and quality of life in terms of healthcare, education, security, etc.–be in union with people in the outskirt slums of a city in the developing world? I can’t answer for unjust practices of the past and present. I can’t answer for “social sin” (CCC 1869). And as Pope Benedict reflected, “No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering” (Spe Salvi 42). A unity, an undoing of Babel that was purely spiritual, purely in my mind or heart, simply would not be complete. “God is justice and creates justice. This is our consolation and our hope. And in his justice there is also grace” (Spe Salvi 44).
This sense of void or yearning for something more points us toward God. We experience that dissatisfaction human divisions, that yearning for perfect union with all because it’s what we’re made for. Each of us is made in God’s image. Created in the image of perfect love. Living in eternal life with God “presupposes that we escape from the prison of our ‘I’” to freely love (Spe Salvi, 14). To see God “as he is” and to see one another the way God sees each of us (1 John 3:2).
As we continue to prepare for a greater outpouring of the Holy Spirit during this week leading up to Pentecost, let us be open to the fire of God’s love. To let Love burn within us, clearing away the sinful obstructions that prevent us from seeing others as they really are, all the time.