By some reckonings, only eleven countries in the world are currently “conflict-free.” Everywhere else civil war, rampant gang killings, foreign invasions, or oppressive police states threaten citizens’ lives. In many war zones, most of the victims are children (half of the 100,000 civilian casualties in the recent battle for Mosul, for instance); they die not just of the violence perpetrated around them, but of diseases caused by contamination where water and sewage systems have been destroyed, or by political sanctions that make medication and emergency services widely unavailable. We hear the word “war” so often, it is hard to sustain either the moral outrage or the lively compassion it ought to awaken in us.
Compassion requires imagination. One of the most compelling reasons to see films and read stories about people who live under radically different conditions than those we enjoy, who suffer differently, pray differently, celebrate differently, raise their children, cope with fear, and enjoy humor differently is to bring them into our circle of concern. We can only care deeply about those who do not remain abstractions. Though Susan Sontag raised troubling and important questions about the sometimes numbing effect of war photos or images of others’ suffering in her final, insightful book, Regarding the Pain of Others, she also acknowledges the power of such images, and the way they shape our moral imaginations and direct our sympathies.
These past months have brought more frequently to our collective attention the plight of refugees driven from home countries and threatened in ours. Violence, disease and famine have led refugees to pile into substandard boats that ferry them to their deaths offshore, just miles from relative freedom, or into trucks where some die of heat stroke where they hoped to find work. As these things happen many of us are trying to inform ourselves a little more diligently about what’s going on in those countries, how people are coping, and what we can possibly do to help. Some days it’s hard to summon even the desire to do the reading, since so much of it (though not all, because grace and goodness break through in the darkest places) is about human suffering.
Film helps. A remarkable number of foreign films are being produced and shown at film festivals, over independent media, on YouTube channels, and at gatherings in homes and churches that feature stories, factual and fictionalized, we need to hear about those who live outside our national borders and sometimes beyond the limits of what we have learned or experienced. Janelle Brown in Salon.com says of Middle Eastern films, “The cinema of this region is extraordinarily rich, with intelligent, beautiful, heartbreaking and terrifying films from countries like Iran, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco, and Israel.” Pituka Ortega Heilbron, a film festival director in Central America observes of cinema there, ““It’s a very exciting time, a bit like the situation in Asian cinema a few years ago. . . . Film is a form of expression and of protest. It’s such a powerful medium. When a population is presented on the screen, it suddenly exists.” On screens everywhere in this country, we are discovering populations with whom we share “this fragile earth, our island home,” all its beauties and dangers and life-support systems.
One of those screens is located in a spacious upper room at Berkeley First Presbyterian Church. For four Friday evenings this August people will gather there, hosted once again by New College Berkeley, for the pleasure of seeing a film that will open our curiosities and our sympathies in new directions and reflecting on it together. One is a story of native missionaries threatened by violence in Liberia; one of Israeli and Palestinian families brought together in spite of themselves; one of a faith journey in Japan that costs “not less than everything”; and one about the culture shock of relocating to the U.S. Each of them, in its way, will invite us to travel a little (or a lot) outside our comfort zones.
Movies are two-dimensional. The best of them distill, the worst simply reduce, rich, layered stories of complex human lives into two hours, more or less, cutting from scene to scene, eliding long stretches of “ordinary time.” There’s only so much even the best of them can do to bring us face to face with the suffering of a child in Mosul or the tensions of a family of Central American refugees wondering if the next knock on the door will be an ICE agent. It matters immensely that churches organize mission trips for youth or tours for elders to actual places where they wouldn’t necessarily book their next vacation. For those who can’t afford such expeditions, it matters to venture into San Francisco’s Tenderloin, or Skid Row in L.A. and have at least one or two conversations. Even people who grew up here sometimes come from far countries. Every time we can hear one of their stories we are likely to learn something about sorrow and loss. We are also likely to learn something about the cunning it takes to survive, about the deals people make with life to keep living, and sometimes about the profound ways they manage to forge community, love their neighbors in the midst of chaos, and find hope at the very threshold of hell.
"The light in your home has changed so much since we first
got together last fall,” observed one of the graduate students at our final
gathering for group spiritual direction. The living room was flooded with a soft evening light, which lingered in
the space. I was surprised that this engineering graduate student would notice
such a thing, and yet it seemed to reflect the increasing attentiveness to
God’s presence each of the students had experienced over the months of our
gatherings. Within the complexity of their studies, issues on campus, issues
amongst the Christian student groups, and issues in the greater world, there
was a growing sense of abiding in Jesus’ love over the months. Yes, it was the light in a home’s living room,
but—more importantly—the Light of the Loving God in our midst was aglow.
Last September I spoke about group spiritual direction with
the UC Berkeley graduate student Christian groups meeting under the umbrella of
InterVarsity and Veritas Graduate Fellowship on campus. I explained that group spiritual direction is a
small gathering of four to six people, which meet once a month for
contemplative listening and prayer, and I serve as the director. Those who
participated would join in listening deeply to one another share about his or
her real life, while also joining together in times of silent prayer on behalf
of the person who shared, believing that God was in all of it. In extending the
invitation to the larger group, I also mentioned that our gatherings were a
safe and confidential space where all were welcomed.
Having had no prior experience with individual or group
spiritual direction, the five students (four women and one man) who showed up at
my house were clearly people of strong personal faith, as well as eager and
curious folks. Perhaps due to their
lives of commitment to their graduate studies at Berkeley, they were equally
committed to coming monthly and to diving wholeheartedly into the process.
We met in my home near the campus. The lighting of the
candle and a time of prayerful silence opened our monthly times together. This time of transition seemed crucial for
these busy, pressured students to be fully present to the Holy and to one
another. They each expressed how much they “live in their heads,” and that they
were hungry for the calm, restful, attentive space of such a group as this.
Over the course of the months, we engaged in various
spiritual disciplines, such as Lectio
Divina, St. Ignatius’ Prayer of Examen
(in which a day or a month is looked back upon, noticing where he or she was
drawn closer to God, or turned further away from God), along with various other
ways of noticing God in all of their lives.
As I reflect back on the year, what was most profound was not
the words, but the sense of God’s presence in the space, in the group, in the
love and in the care for one another. It was as though God was saying to us
all, “Yes, I love you regardless of what you accomplish or how you identify.” “Yes,
less is more.” “Yes, you are mine in all of life’s circumstances.”
The seeds of this awareness grew, starting with our first
group meeting which revealed the surprise of tension and tears expressed
especially by a couple of individuals in the group. I did not know the details
of the issues bringing these people to tears, but clearly there was pain and
sorrow being experienced by some of the students. I closed that first group time by saying these
words: “I don’t know what is behind all of these feelings and the issues, but
I’d like to say again that all are welcomed here, and I believe God is here in
What blossomed over the months was the ongoing commitment
within the group to honest sharing, to caring for one another, to seeking the
Holy Spirit in his or her life, to sharing the truth of each life even amongst
differences, to listening to each other and to the growing awareness of God’s
love for each of them. In the spaciousness, quiet, patient listening, and authenticity,
each student was truly heard and knew he or she belonged to a loving God. A
simple home’s living room and a regular gathering in trust that the Holy Spirit
is present, allowed the glow of the Holy to expand within and without us all.
A few weeks ago about a dozen of us were sitting around a
large wooden table in Susie Lipps’s welcoming home in the wine country. Sharon
Gallagher and Susie were leading us in a Wine Country Memoir-Writing Retreat, prompting
us to reflect on different topics. For example, the vineyards are like
communities, the particular members sharing soil, sunshine, and flourishing.
They wondered how we have experienced community in our lives.
Not surprisingly at a New College Berkeley retreat, my mind
went to that community. These days the staff and trustees of the ministry are
meeting frequently as we plan the 40th anniversary celebration on
September 30th, at which our longtime friend Mark Labberton will
Sitting near the vineyards with my fellow retreatants as we
all wrote in silence, my mind went to a previous NCB anniversary celebration,
and this is what I wrote:
Fifteen years ago I
was in a pinch. Hundreds of people were coming to New College’s 25th
anniversary celebration, eager to hear John Stott speak, and John had just
phoned to tell me he had fallen at his country place and broken his leg. He
would not be joining us, but he was recovering well.
Alone in my
third-floor office I prayed, called my husband to ask for his prayer, and I worried.
So many people would be disappointed. What could be done? Who else would John’s
admirers be happy to spend an evening listening to? How would anyone that
popular be available two weeks ahead of the event? Would anyone in our extended
community come to the rescue?
My eyes scanned the
books crowding my shelves. So many amazing people had come through NCB and
taught for us. The Contemplative Pastor
by Eugene Peterson caught my eye. Eugene had influenced me and many at our
school through his teaching for us and especially through his writing. It
seemed a long shot, but I dialed the number of his Montana home. I knew he was
immersed in writing and fending of all invitations, so I took a deep breath and
Jan, Eugene’s wife and
sometimes guard, answered the phone. I didn’t tell her why I was calling when I
asked to speak to Eugene, and I wasn’t sure I’d get past her to him. Jan
hesitated and then said, “Okay, I’ll get him.” Phew. My hands were clammy, but
folded in prayer.
“Hello, Susan,” Eugene
said in his warm, gravelly voice. I could almost see the twinkle of his eyes.
My sad tale blurted out, ending in a request, “I’d so love for you to come and
speak for us, Eugene. We’d all love to hear you. I’m really sorry to be asking
this of you!”
Eugene took a deep
breath, cleared his throat, and after some very long moments said, “I’m a
sucker for folks in trouble.”
Amazing grace. I
prayed again—this time in thanks!— and said to Eugene, “I think from now on
that will be my definition of a Christian.” He chuckled. And he’s chuckled
every time I’ve reminded him of it, including on that lovely anniversary night
fifteen years ago.
That’s Christian kindness, Christian community. I have been
nurtured, grown, and flourished in it.I
am grateful. I hope you’ll join our community in gratitude and celebration on
Susan Phillips is Executive Director, New College Berkeley.
Almost everyone who participates in the Spiritual Exercises
of St. Ignatius has a conversion experience.
For the past 3 years New College Berkeley has been offering this 30-week
“retreat,” based on the “19th annotation” to Ignatius’ record of his
own conversion experience, and I’ve been privileged to direct this retreat at
Byron United Methodist Church where I serve as pastor.
I made the retreat myself many years ago at Mercy Center in
Burlingame, and I’ve led the retreat quite a few times using the format used at
Mercy Center. Ignatius structured the
retreat to be given over 30 days, but he said (in the 16th century!)
that if because of family or business obligations a person couldn’t go away for
30 days, this retreat could be given over 30 weeks. Mercy Center found that sustaining the
commitment to such an intense spiritual discipline was supported by being part
of a small group. There have been 6 people making this retreat with me this
year at Byron.
I believe St. Ignatius was a spiritual genius, knowing just
what “exercises” people could do to give them an intimate, heartfelt knowledge
of Jesus,” and to grow their spirits most efficiently. Ignatius’ way of praying encourages a person
to be completely him- or herself before God, while being open to the direct
guidance of God.
A few unique aspects of the retreat are: learning how to
pray with Scripture in a new way, entering into the stories of the life of
Jesus with all our senses, and either identifying with a participant in the
passage or finding ourselves inserted as a narrator, an observer, or a
character (not necessarily written about in the text). Praying with Scripture like this creates an
immediacy which makes Jesus come alive to us, and that inspires commitment to
him in every aspect of our lives.
We have just completed what Ignatius called “the 3rd
week” of the Spiritual Exercises during which the grace we pray for is to
accompany Jesus to his death, just as we would a friend who is dying. We pray with the Passion narratives (the last
week of Jesus’ life) for the whole six weeks of Lent. Some of the group has found this very
challenging and painful, and a few find themselves wishing the story could end
People benefit from this retreat to the extent that they are
able to commit to 30-60 minutes of prayer a day, focusing on the assigned
texts, meditations, and contemplations.
Some people find it really challenging to dedicate this much time to
praying “for themselves,” and not praying for others as they’re used to
doing. It’s part of Ignatius’ “genius”
that he teaches people how to pray contemplatively, asking what messages God
has for them personally in each of the passages and meditations.
Ignatius (in his “Principle and Foundation” of the Spiritual
Exercises) made a most challenging statement: I want and I choose what better leads to the deepening of God’s life in me. This prayer is the life-giving result of making the Spiritual Exercises
of St. Ignatius and carries over into our lives beyond the retreat as we seek
to “find God is all things.” Thanks be
Rev. Christine Shiber is a minister at Byron United Methodist Church and a New College Berkeley spiritual
When they arrive,
they leave their phones in a basket by the door and grab a bite to eat. We
light a candle that's in the center of the table within our circle, a reminder
of God in our midst. We pray for God to enlighten us.
"How are you, and what's true for you right now?"
This is the question we start with, and one evening I had them illustrate their
answer by choosing an item to place on the table. The person who chose a photo
of a compass said she felt a growing certainty about the road ahead. Our "camel"
felt burdened. Our "lone wolf" was worried about the future—would
leaving Berkeley after graduation mean unwelcome solitude?
Each month as I've
offered group spiritual direction to these UC Berkeley undergraduates, they've
had the opportunity to place their hopes and fears on the table, so to speak,
laying them before God and each other in a contemplative setting.
We often use the prayer of lectio
divina, a technique of prayerful reflection on a piece of scripture,
poetry, or art. One evening, one of the students chose Rublev's Trinity as her focus for prayer. This
icon shows the three persons of the Trinity encircling a table. The Creator
gazes at the Spirit, the Spirit gazes at the communion cup that sits on the
table in their midst, and Christ points to the cup and bows his head to the
Creator—a circle of loving interconnectedness. After spending time with this
image in silence, the student noted that the bodies of the three figures face
towards the viewer, and the table between them is spacious. "It looks like
there's room for me in the picture," she said.
It seems to me that life with God is nothing less than an
invitation to that table. God is willing to include us in that mysterious
circle of love and relatedness—a circle that's beyond our comprehension. And
spiritual direction can be a representation of God's table for us, a table
where we have freedom and space to lay out the pieces of our lives, and where
there's room for us to join the circle just as we are.
In the group we also use the prayer of examen, in which we focus prayerful attention on everyday life
looking for signs of the Spirit's presence and action. One of the questions we
sit with is "Where has God been showing up?" and it turns out God's
been showing up everywhere for this group: In a trip to see family that helped
one person remember who she is; in a conflict-filled project that turned out,
in the light of prayerful reflection, to be a gift; in listening to music for a
class; in meeting a prison minister and becoming inspired about vocation.
Over time, patterns can emerge in the prayer of examen, and this can help with
discernment about life decisions. Praying like this can also bring up
questions. For example, one person had spent retreat time with the group
instead of doing a school assignment, and the assignment had turned out not to
count. "Was that God, or just luck?" she wondered. "How does God
Nobody in the group tried to come up with an answer, and I'm
grateful for that. It's the kind of question every person needs to puzzle out
for herself. In a way it's the
question we explore in spiritual direction—how does God work in my life? What's
my lived theology?
We sometimes close our group spiritual direction time by
having each person share what the gift of the evening was for them. One student
said she appreciated having me read scripture and poems aloud during our time
together rather than reading them herself. "I'm trained to analyze and
make connections when looking at words," she said, "and when I don't
have a piece of paper in front of me, my mind doesn't need to start jumping
around." Another person had been sick and said that although the extra
sleep and time away from class had been restful, our spiritual direction group
provided a "different" kind of rest. This "different" rest
is what contemplative prayerfulness brings. It's the kind of rest that’s
possible when we slow down and use the spiritual tools of the heart, letting
the sharp tools of analysis stay idle for a little while.
After our final prayer, we say amen and blow out the candle,
and the students collect their phones and head off to potlucks, movies, study,
sleep. My prayer for them as they leave is that they'll find themselves often
at God's spacious table, more and more aware of God's many gracious invitations
in their lives.
Katarina Stenstedt is a professional editor and
writer, and a New College Berkeley spiritual director.