Monday, August 29, 2016

Vulnerability (Or, Warsaw, Part II)

In the last post I outlined some of the concrete factors of our visit to Warsaw. Poking around at these experiences and noting my reaction prompts me to realize I'm hardly done paying attention to what was important there.

The word "vulnerability" stands out as the key. Two years ago my annual retreat revolved around this theme (see "The Gift of Vulnerability"). At that point, I had learned to move out of a place of absolute dread of the sound of that word to a healthy respect for its necessary role in the spiritual life. But in Warsaw (and during the whole pilgrimage, really) it was not a time for me to learn about, pray through, or explore vulnerability conceptually. It was a time of raw experience, generally with little chance to catch my breath or feel any sense of control over it. That's really the point of pilgrimage. It is success. Strange, Christian success.

The first way I was conscious of this vulnerability in Warsaw was in terms of how vulnerable I am to sin. While I don't mind making a personal confession, I'm not saying this so much as a personal confession as I am saying that this is the human condition, for all of us. There is a certain type of person that I can meet who has the potential to tempt my soul to trade my neediness (key component of becoming vulnerable) for comfort that requires, well, you know, at least a mental denial of God, but who's really looking after all, and hey, that comfort looks really good, and I deserve it, and it's really nothing. Except a soul snare. A sin! And I met this type of person as we arrived in Warsaw. And while I was aware of the battle that ensued, I was even more aware that God's grace for me to win the battle was present and stronger. It was what first put me on high alert that it was by no means a moment to forget we have an enemy, poised to steal and destroy.

Another factor in vulnerability is how we feel small. Few people like feeling small, because when we are small we have little control and little power. Most of us have memories of damage done to us under those conditions. I noticed again and again that my daughter and some of the teens, and even some of the adults at times, would ask questions about what was happening, what we were supposed to do or where we were supposed to go, when there was no way I could have known any more about the situation than they. Sometimes those questions were not really the pursuit of facts, I think, as much as they were a search of a way out of feeling so vulnerable, so keenly aware of being needy and dependent. Especially with my daughter, I felt that sometimes I was breaking hard news to her that her mother whom she trusted to show her the way in life in general simply had no answers for her. I hope I did it with enough peace and patience in my voice to convey that it really is OK to be in this vulnerable situation. We were in it together, and we would find a way through together.

Personally one of the hardest things about foreign travel, something that makes me feel most vulnerable, is not understanding the language, and listening to other people conversing around me and having an infant's understanding. My time in Japan wore me down in that regard. Because of that, I had more patience and peace with hearing Polish, but still, it was difficult. In Warsaw, I was speaking with one new Polish friend about my gratitude for her speaking English to me, and I again started weeping. We had heard a homily about hospitality around that time, and to me, the combination of being at the mercy of another person -- a person who has power to welcome me with a gesture of love, or who can leave me standing separate, feeling discarded -- and having that person make what for her was a simple, easy act of mercy... it just meant the world to me. I think of an account of a local homeless woman who wept at receiving the gift of brand new underwear in the packaging from the store. Sometimes we just have no idea how a simple gesture can affirm another's human dignity in an area where they feel deeply vulnerable. That was me, crying in front of the portajohn, thanking my friend for speaking to me in English.

Then there is the whole vulnerability of Poland itself in its history, and of the Jewish people. I can't even adequately comment here. When we left the PopieĹ‚uszko museum that I spoke of in my last post, I told the aforementioned new friend that my gut reaction was that "it is such a waste if you (Poles) don't all become saints." That was perhaps not very eloquently stated, but here's how I understand my gut reaction right now: There is a typical human reaction to evil, and it is to question where God is and why He would allow these things to happen. That can appear either as depression or as anger, or both. I've been down that road of rage at God, and of even momentarily setting aside the possibility that there even is a God, and thinking instead that life is meaningless. But at this point in my life, the response of my heart is drastically different. I know that God is Love. And I know that He witnesses the atrocities of our choices for evil. He bore in Himself the atrocities of our choices for evil, and gave to those who receive Him His victory over death and sin. 

We are never so vulnerable as when we love. It is true, from one perspective. But when our love is God's love purging us and coursing through us, we are never so powerful as when we love. We are powerful to gain according to the kingdom of God. The real question is whether in the face of the tests of life, we actually want Love, or if we will choose a soul anesthesia that will take the question off our radar screens. 

Human evil made me want to flee to Love. Love says "I have overcome, and I will make you an overcomer, my way, if you want it."

It seems the Christian response to our human vulnerability is to band together, turn our faces to the Lord, and say, "Yes, Lord. I want that transformation."

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