Dios es todo. God is everything.

Johannes_Vermeer_-_Christ_in_the_House_of_Martha_and_Mary_-_WGA24603

Johannes Vermeer,
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary

That single phrase brought me to a standstill. I had to pause to try to take it in, to absorb the full weight of it. I am still struggling to do so.

We were gathered at Beatitude House, the Catholic Worker House in Guadualupe, California, listening to the testimony of two fieldworkers, Thelma and Victor. It was Thelma who had spoken these words in response to a question from a student. He wanted to know about the importance of her spirituality to the life she was living. Thelma waited while the question was translated from English to Spanish, then responded quickly and forcefully: Dios es todo. She looked up at us, her eyes flashing, as if to say: you understand, yes?

Well, yes and no. I cannot speak for the others who were gathered there that evening, but in that moment I became acutely aware of my inability to offer such a wholehearted affirmation to that question in relation to my own life. Perhaps in particular moments I can do so. But rarely with the utter conviction and deep feeling I heard in Thelma’s voice and saw in her eyes. I was so grateful to receive this gift from her. But I also felt pierced by the realization of how far I am from being able to live with and from this awareness.

How ironic. Those of us gathered there that evening–students and teachers alike–had been spending the semester pursuing these very questions in relation to the Ignatian spiritual ideal of “contemplation in action.” What would it mean, we asked ourselves again and again, for awareness of the divine presence to be integrated into every facet of our lives, in particular in relation to our efforts to work for justice? How could we learn to avoid the trap of dividing these two dimensions of experience from one another, of making prayer and action two distinct moments of experience rather than parts of one continuous reality? Could we come to inhabit our lives and our work with a simple, wholehearted awareness of divine presence? Yes, these were the questions to which we had given ourselves so assiduously, initially in the classroom, then during several days spent at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur and now here in Guadalupe. And suddenly, unexpectedly, embodied in a particular life, we had been given this simple, eloquent and beautiful response. Dios es todo. God is everything.

The force and meaning of these words in that moment had everything to do with the person who uttered them. And with the experience underlying them. By now, we had heard the broad outlines of Thelma’s story: how she had fled from an abusive marriage in Mexico; risked the treacherous passage through the open desert and across the border into the U.S. with her two young children; made her way first to Los Angeles and then, eventually to Guadalupe where for many years she had worked in the fields, six days a week, ten hours a day, in order to support her children. For many of us gathered there listening to her story that evening, the gulf between her experience and ours feels enormous: she is undocumented, speaks little English, is a single mother, works under immensely difficult conditions in the fields with few if any rights to protect her. We, on the other hand (most of us anyway), come from so much privilege. We are of course bound by our common humanity. And some in our company have suffered their own very real losses and dislocations. Still, for many of us, it is the differences in our experience and our lives that stand out so sharply in this moment. And with this awareness, a growing sense of the difficulty of crossing from one world to another, of the limits of empathy and imagination. Perhaps these limits are not absolute. We are here after all in the hopes of learning what it might mean to accompany one another more deeply and fully. So we strain to listen, to feel and to take in the story we are hearing, and the presence of the one telling the story.

That moment when Thelma answered the question was for me deeply unsettling. I could feel the power of her words, the simple assurance of her expression, the joy that flashed in her eyes as she gazed at us. There could be no doubting the truth of what she said. This is her experience. This is the ground of her life. Listening to her bear witness to her experience, I felt pierced by a new sense of what it means (and might mean) to live with a continuous awareness of the presence of God. In the midst of life and the struggle and loss and suffering that so often shape our lives.

I have had glimpses of this before, in my own experience and in the lives of others. And I have found myself drawn to those witnesses from my own spiritual tradition who give expression to this whole, integrated vision of living in their lives and their work. Jerome Nadal, one of the early companions of Ignatius of Loyola, described this vision of life as simul in actione contemplativus, which can perhaps best be translated as “contemplative while at the same time in action.” Nadal and the early Jesuits struggled in the initial period of their new experiment to find a way of balancing and integrating the different dimensions of living that to them comprised a life of genuine spiritual integrity: prayer and meaningful work on behalf of others. Spiritual practice not removed from the world, but unfolding within and on behalf of the world. Also, contemplation and action not as separate or distinct dimensions of a life, but united within an indivisible whole.

It is a simple vision of life, a vision in which one is invited to live continuously out of the ground of divine presence, for the sake of one’s own soul and for the sake of others. A way of practicing accompaniment. Yet, for all its apparent simplicity, this vision is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Certainly this has been my own experience. And considering the long tradition of reflection on this question among Christians, stretching back to Origen of Alexandria, Augustine of Hippo and forward to Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, Ignatius of Loyola and other contemporary figures, this is clearly something that many others have struggled with also.

Often the struggle to balance these different dimensions of life has been framed in terms of the relationship between the biblical figures of Martha (the practical person of action) and Mary (the contemplative)  (Luke 10:38-42). The tendency in the tradition has been to distinguish sharply between these two figures and to elevate Mary (who chose “the one thing necessary”) over Martha. This has too often resulted in an unhappy and unnecessary separation of dimensions of living that deserve to be seen as elements of a whole. And it has also contributed to our inability to see and honor the presence of God amidst ordinary, daily living. There are exceptions to this way of conceiving of the relationship between contemplation and action, Meister Eckhart’s surprising reversal of the relative status of the two women (Martha now understood as the one who lives truly–day to day, amidst the constant demands of her life–from the ground of her existence which is also God’s ground) being among the most important and surprising. But it has not been easy to overcome the habit of imagining Mary as aloof from and superior to Martha and to imagine contemplative practice as somehow removed from the struggles and challenges of ordinary, embodied, daily existence.

So: not contemplation and then action. Or action in light of contemplation. But contemplation in action. Suffused within every breath, every gesture. Which is, it seems, what Jerome Nadal and the early Jesuits had in mind when they spoke of cultivating an ethos of being simul in actione contemplativus. An awareness of the divine arising in and through everything, informing everything, separated from nothing.

Dios es todo. God is everything.

Listening to Thelma tell her story and utter those words, I feel myself brought to ground, challenged to respond in a way that somehow honors the truth and dignity of these words and of the person in whose presence I now sit. I do not yet know all that it will mean to do so. But sitting here in her company and in the company of others–my wife, my friends at the Catholic worker house, my students–it seems clear to me that it will surely involve a deeper grappling with and commitment to the work of accompaniment. Thelma’s own testimony, after all, reflects the profound effects of such accompaniment in her own life: all those who have walked with her along the way and continue to walk with her now. Also all those she has accompanied. This, I sense, is so deeply woven into her awareness of God’s presence at the heart of everything and her ability to live within that awareness.

Here is a vision of the whole worth remembering, worth honoring with a whole-hearted response.

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