In a world of competition,
in a world of predatory animals,
in a world of cruelty and heartlessness,
the only hope one can have is an act of mercy,
an act of compassion,
a completely unexpected act
which is rooted neither in duty nor in natural relationships,
which will suspend the action of the cruel, violent,
heartless world in which we live.
-Anthony Bloom, “Beginning to Pray”
There are so many things I could point to that illustrate what a cruel, violent, and heartless world it is in which we live. But rather than turn you off or alienate you by my choice of illustration and therefore have you stop reading, let me invite you to call upon your imagination and your own experience of the world to get in touch with that aspect of the world around us. (Let me also say I don’t believe that is the only characterization of the world, but just as individuals are complex and not one of us is totally an angel or totally a devil, so it is with the world, the culture, and all the systems which surround us.)
The question is, how do we cope with that “heartless” part of the world? Anthony Bloom suggests we do so with acts of mercy and compassion. But let me ask: is he suggesting that we wait for and look for acts of mercy and compassion to give us hope? Or, is he suggesting that we provide that act of mercy, that act of compassion, which suspends the actions of the cruel, heartless world?
I believe he is calling on us to provide those acts of mercy and compassion which are necessary to counteract the cruelty of a heartless world. The way we do so is by understanding that our spiritual life is lived not just for our own sake but for the sake of the world. Most of those famously known for living devout and holy lives are so known because their lives exhibited many acts of mercy and compassion which countered the heartless nature of the world. That included many who were thought of primarily as spiritual people devoted to lives of prayer and solitude. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who lived life as a hermit even on the grounds of the monastery, also interacted with the wider world in many ways. This practice was questioned by those who understood a live of a solitary hermit was to be devoted to God in prayer without the distractions of the world. But Merton explained that he understood his calling to a life of prayer and solitude to be on behalf of the world, not in opposition to the world.
In this way our prayers and inner faith struggles can lead us to wrestle with the great issues of our time. Even our deepest personal prayer struggles in the most private settings, in our closets, can lead us to new life for ourselves and for the world.
Seraphim of Sarov, perhaps the greatest of Russian mystics, said, “Learn to be peaceful and thousands around you will find salvation.” Whatever form the struggle assumes, it is finally a battle against those things which separate us from God and thus diminish our true humanity.
R. Steven Hudder
Pastor, Christ Congregational United Church of Christ
Palmetto Bay, Florida