At the end of the 5-day march from Selma to Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Some days we may feel the curve of this arc but many days we sense only its length. “And how long?” they had asked. It was a dignified version of the question every tired child knows too well: “Are we there yet?”
We’re not there yet. It appears to be, as Mandela would say, a long walk to freedom…and even longer still to justice and peace.
During our many years of Jesuit formation our Constitutions require us annually, in addition to an 8-day retreat, to take a few days of silence and prayer to renew our vows. It’s a strange thing to do since our vows are perpetual and they don’t, technically speaking, require renewal. But the wisdom of our founder Ignatius is evident in the fact that we — work-addicted Jesuits, like all mission-driven people — need the rest and the reminder that these retreats provide.
We need to remember, even and especially, the things we know to be permanent. We need to remember what we’re living for, what’s worth fighting for. We need to remember our fundamental call to love and to serve and we need to ask for the grace necessary to fulfill it.
For this, we need time and space. We need renewal and rest.
On the first day of our retreat I took a short walk to a small outcropping of rocks up the hill behind the retreat house where I stumbled upon the foundations of an old castle watchtower. This happens when you live, as I do, in a place like Spain where an old pile of rocks isn’t always just an old pile of rocks. There was a wide view and plenty of solitude. There was a strong breeze, some hardy shrubs, and a few lone pines gnarled by years of, well, simply standing their ground in this rocky and windswept place.
Among the scrub brush and the boulders I noticed an impressive collection of trash, the usual detritus one finds in the transitional places between our great cities and the wilds that surround them. The trash in these liminal places is always medicinal — cigarettes and beer bottles, condoms and junk food. There is a hint of desperation in every piece: a butt, a bottle, a bag, and a bang. I don’t mean to be crass, only to acknowledge that this trash was carried here by someone in want of something. What had been a watchtower was now a field hospital for the urban soul.
Here was something human. Here were traces of cravings and the quest for their relief. Here were hidden love affairs and lonely acts of self-destruction too shame-ridden to be shared. Here was someone looking for something or running from it. Here was a person on the long walk to freedom hoping for a bend in the road.
The second day I walked a bit further on than the first; just a few hundred yards further up the trail, but here there was no more trash, only the cold breeze and the brush. I crushed some dried lavender buds between my palms and held my hands over my nose and mouth drawing the first few deep breaths I can remember taking in months. I let my fingers rake down through the full length of my beard which is now too long or not long enough – I’m not sure. And then there were tears. For no reason at all. Or tears for every suffering yet unfelt yet suffered still. And yet, it wasn’t sadness that I sensed, but a kind of freedom — serenity.
I found the sunny side of a boulder to lean against. Between the light of the setting sun and the cold breeze, the tears and the lavender, something very much like peace came over me. I sat there without urgency or concern. I sat still for a moment and received something lovely, something worthy of the name Spirit. I sat with a heart full of gratitude for the life I’ve been given to live, for the labor I’ve been called to undertake. I sat there until I felt ready to stand and walk again. How long? It wasn’t long. But it was enough for me.
We need rest. We need hard work and creativity and struggle and sweat, but we also need rest. If we’re going to respond to the challenges before us, if we’re going to heal the wounds behind us, we need rest. The world is a weary place of late and we could use a break, a few deep breaths and a moment of silence. We need a place to get off of our feet for a while. We need to set our eyes on a distant horizon. We need to sense again the arc in this long road that bends towards justice.
During the final night of our retreat it snowed. Light flurries continued throughout the morning as I walked along the same path as the days before. Soft flakes had fallen on the hard places and the barren, on the trash and on the trees. All was blanketed with snow. There is no better word for this than ‘blanketed.’ There is a tenderness to it — something of the heavens reminding us to be still, reminding us that sometimes conditions are perfect for the magical, the tranquil, the beautiful, and the free.
This is not only a convenient metaphor. As my drought-stricken Californian friends will understand, snow is also water in reserve for the dry months ahead. I hope the memory of this moment sustains me like the snowpack sustains our urban life. But even so — even as a metaphor, a reminder of serenity — it was a turn towards peace, and that was enough for me.
I returned to the over-heated retreat house full of retired nuns and young Jesuits. We gathered together in the chapel. We knelt before the consecrated bread and wine and we spoke again the formula of our vows: “Almighty and Eternal God… you have given me the desire to choose this life…I ask you now, again and always, only to give me the grace I need to fulfill it.”