Beckoned by the Big Hearts! Where to Begin

BY Anna Brown

Honestly, I am not sure where to begin writing about organizing in a post-Trump world. The appalling spectacle of armed white rage loosed on the Capitol on January 6th makes one hard-pressed to claim that “Trumpism” is going away any time soon. Also, I find that I never moved beyond the brutality of Attorney Jeff Session’s “Zero Tolerance Policy,” a policy that directed government agents to rip screaming immigrant children, toddlers, and babies from the arms of their parents. To this day, there are over 600 such children whom we have not reunited with their parents. The reality of inflicting that kind of brutality – along with an accompanying callous indifference – on other human beings is the stuff of nightmares.

We are living within a failed state where 15,000 National Guard members will be present for the “peaceful” transfer of power to the Biden administration, where likely 400,000 Americans have already died of Covid-19 and where immigrant children and their families are locked in profit-making cages. Determined in a hell-bent kind of way, the federal government just executed the severely mentally-ill and sexually abused Lisa Montgomery. Our police are still gunning down unarmed black men, and our climate scientists are practically screaming at us to awaken to the potential of human extinction means of human-caused climate disruption. Three dear Kings Bay Plowshares friends now hunker down in Covid-filled prisons because they courageously stood up to the murderous menace of nuclear weapons. Jeff Bezos, an iconic figure in the capitalist world, lives in the economic stratosphere sitting atop billions of dollars.  At the same time, his Amazon workers endure prison-like work conditions on the job to earn a barely liveable salary – and at least they have a job, something which millions have not had since March of 2020.

At a recent session of the University of Orange’s Reading Group: Dead Epidemiologists: On the Origins of COVID-19, Roderick Wallace claimed that future pandemic viruses had the potential to wipe out half of the human population. Despite his stunning and sobering prediction, Wallace also claimed that his sincerely held religious beliefs viewed despair as a mortal sin; we must not allow ourselves to give up at this moment. While I needed to learn about how “big farms and big capital” spawn deadly viruses like COVID-19, what electrified me was the hearing from an elder not to despair and not give up. It jolted me awake, and it is the resultant energy of that command which informs this brief essay.

The Big Heart

I tend to dwell within communities that live in and move under the radar; we are not the stuff of big-budget affairs. One of those communities is the Kairos community, founded close to fifty-years ago by Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. and Sister Anne Montgomery, RSCJ. Kairos members meet every two weeks to pray, study, and nonviolently act as an ecumenical peace community. Due to COVID restrictions and the predominance of elders in the community, our primary activity lately has been to publish Some, an in-house journal. Dina Awwad-Srour and Rabbi Emma Sham-ba Ayalon, a Palestinian and an Israeli, lead a community that I have recently joined devoted to finding its way in the world through the inspiration and life of Etty Hillesum. Hillesum was a young Dutch Jewish woman who, during the terror of the Nazis, cultivated an extraordinary spiritual life, wrote numerous journals, and tended to the Jewish people who were suffering in internment camps. She, along with her family members, was deported to Auschwitz and died there. When Srour participated in a Zen Peacemaker Retreat in Auschwitz, she heard the voice of Etty Hillesum while she was meditating: “I did not die so that you could hate each other.” Motivated by this clarion call and the mutual love of Hillesum that she shared with her friend Rabbi Emma, the two women direct an international sharing circle based on Hillesum’s work that meets every month. These communities are like bread for me; they nourish and replenish the deepest parts of my soul in these darkest of days. My beloveds, bound together in the sacred work of building a community, keep me from the brink of despair and energize my efforts to keep going. 

When I think of Daniel Berrigan these days, and I often do, I remember that he came to our Kairos actions and risked arrest in his late eighties. I recall that he attended an Occupy Wall Street demonstration when he was ninety. I think of him at the monthly feasts that his Jesuit community held for those of us in the extended lay community and how he would be present there, still celebrating the Mass, still at dinner, even though his voice was faint and in a lot of pain. Berrigan was always present to us in so many ways; he gave everything he could. He did precisely the opposite of what the current neoliberal practice of hyperindividualism would have us do: he staked his ground in the beloved community, and he stayed there.

In the opening pages of Ten Commandments for the Long Haul, Berrigan commends the development of the inner life, something without which he believed we could not survive in America (13). He also recalls questions that he is typically asked: What are we to do? Where are we going?” Even worse is what he called a cry of despair: Come save us. Then, there is another question: how can we become activists? To which he responded: “But that is not the question at all. Here’s a better one: ‘Can we uncover the contemplative springs that are the source of our humanity? Moreover, can we clear the waters of our soul, that the streams may run free? This Zen trust in nature – first nature to be sure, undestroyed, uninhibited, unpolluted – can we discover it, allow it scope and free play” (14)?

When Berrigan was celebrating a wedding or when he was talking with us in the Kairos community, he would often say, “may your life be interrupted.” By use of that phrase, he referred to An Interrupted Life, the journal entries of Etty Hillesum. Hillesum was a young Dutch law student. She was a tutor in the Russian language, had a degree in psychology, and loved Rilke’s poetry. Hillesum had everything going for her in life, except she was a Jewish woman living in the time of the Nazi regime and death machine. Though she could have opted-out, Hillesum opted in. She decided that she would be a balm for all wounds, the thinking heart of the barracks. She was going to develop an intense inner life, keep a journal, and pray. Perhaps, a modest effort of resistance, and yet here was a woman who the counternarrative to the hatred embodied by the Nazis; she refused to hate and decided to love. She spoke of the jasmine blooming within when she was walking in the desolate camp of Westerbork and on the train to Auschwitz. Her heart was so big that it included her killers. Here was someone who could write, “That I should die next week, I would still be able to sit at my desk and study with perfect equanimity, for I know life and death make a meaningful whole” (Kidder 132). Those who met Hillesum in the camps recall a woman who, even though she was giving you a half cup of lukewarm coffee, it was as though she had just handed you a pot of gold.

Berrigan and Hillesum summon us to join the tribe of the big-hearted people. We can do this –take a look at the lovely person and bearer of great light next to you! Despite all, we must do it! Listen, Berrigan says in Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears, “They will beat their swords into plowshares … like a command echoing in the tomb of Lazarus, the words beckon into light our insipidity, our acceptance of dumb fate, our rehearsals of death. You are not helpless; you are not objects of fate; you are not dead. Despair is to your shame. Come forth” (14)!!

So let us get that inner “big-hearted” practice going; let us root ourselves in communities that are pulsating with love and radiance. In so doing, let us also learn how to be human and hopeful. Let us know how to pray. In Isaiah,Berrigan writes: “we come to realize that prayer is simply an activity of those who would be human. Prayer befits and honors the human, as does breathing, eating, loving, rejoicing, mourning. The effect of such prayer of the morning is simply that life goes on; the effort goes on. Perseverance is the only answer. There is nothing spectacular, no breakthrough. But for all that, prayer will not be silenced. Even by the silence of God” (83).


Works Cited

Berrigan, Daniel. Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears. Fortress, 1996

Berrigan, Daniel. Ten Commandments for the Long Haul, Abingdon, 1981

Hillesum, Etty. Essential Writings. Selected by Annemarie Kidder, Orbis, 2009

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