It was a suffocatingly hot afternoon in West Africa’s Freetown, Sierra Leone. 60% of the country was still controlled by the rebel forces, but the 10-year war over blood diamonds was slowly coming to an end. Soldiers were being disarmed and brought into UN Peace-keeping camps.
Refugees from all over the country were pouring into the capital city— survivors of brutal amputation and children displaced from their parents. Both the government and rebel forces used amputation as a tactic for fear and control of the population.
There seemed to be no mercy for this horrific demonstration of war. Young and old people alike were subjected to having one or both arms chopped off. In some cases, sons were forced to commit the grotesque act on their parents.
The only consideration given for some was the audacious choice between “short” or “long” sleeve—indicating where the sever would take place on the arm.
These brave and broken people struggled with basic daily chores like washing, dressing and embracing loved ones. Many of the men farmers—needing both hands to work the land—were facing the despair of not knowing how they would ever provide for their families again.
As if meeting the adult survivors of this brutality wasn’t enough, I met children who also suffered under the wicked knife of their oppressors—one child was only three months old when the soldiers brutalized her. We met her when she was two, struggling to open the shell of a peanut using her one hand pressed against the nub that was left of her other little arm.
While at the camp for the war-wounded, we met a number of teenage girls who wanted to share their story with us—so the world would know what had happened to them. They were desperate for someone, anyone to do something to respond to their unbearable circumstances. So I bolstered up the courage to listen and bear witness to their pain.
I heard detailed accounts of how the soldiers came to their village, rounded up the people and systematically raped and amputated their mothers, and murdered their fathers. I heard how the soldiers then raped the young girls, often gang raped repeatedly, and forced them to be their “war bride”; meaning they’d be subjected to domestic and sexual slavery.
As the girls recounted the sordid details through glassed-over eyes, some of them held their babies—offspring from the sexual violence they’d endured.
Photo credit: John Atherton / via Flickr
I left the camp in a daze. I couldn’t believe the horror my new friends had survived. Before that day, I thought I’d seen it all.
For many years I had helped establish communities of justice and hope all over the world among impoverished children with HIV and AIDS, destitute youth living on the streets and survivors of sex trafficking. But I had seen nothing that compared to this kind of human brutality and suffering.
Immediately I looked for someone to blame: the government and warlords whose greed led to such human atrocity. And certainly there were systemic structures of injustice at play that were to blame—much like the systems of global economic disparity with which I had grown familiar.
But as I recalled the stories of the soldiers who brutalized these young girls, I found particular human faces who were responsible and should pay for their crimes. Anger and judgment stirred in me toward the soldiers who had committed such unspeakable brutality.
And then I visited the camp for young soldiers who had just recently been disarmed.
Photo credit: Brian Harrington Spier / via Flickr
Boys of all ages, and as young as five and seven, gathered together to meet with us. That’s right—child soldiers. And like the young girls, they too wanted to tell their story.
In moments, a few teenagers were directed to us. How could I bare to sit down with the soldiers who were responsible for the horrific suffering of the girls I’d met just the day before?
Somehow I did.
And the boys began to recount similar stories of solider invasions of their village, the murder of their parents and being conscripted into war. They remembered being drugged and forced to cut off arms and legs, and to take up weapons that were too heavy for them to carry. And as the war dragged on, they remember being given girls to rape.
It was all too much for me to bear. Soldiers. Just children. Forced to grow up under the parental authority of warlords.
As I listened to my brothers, to the suffering they’d endured and the guilt they lived with, and as I remembered the suffering of my sisters, I was struggling to now find someone to blame.
The soldiers I had so easily judged and convicted the day before were now sitting in front of me with a sea of pain in their eyes. It was now not so easy to demonize them.
Photo credit: Annabel Symington / via Flickr
As my heart tore open, I wondered, “Who is responsible for all this suffering?” And not only this suffering, but who is responsible for all the pain in the world? I wanted someone to blame.
Having run out of people to project my judgment, I subconsciously directed my anger toward God. I wondered, “If people are basically victims victimizing one another, and God created us, than surely God must answer for this. God must be to blame.” I thought, “Perhaps God is not all that good after all.”
Have you ever felt that way? In the face of suffering have you doubted God’s goodness? Have you ever dared to doubt God?
Those many years ago, in the sultry heat of West Africa during the aftermath of a brutal war, I found myself plunged into a crisis of faith. What I had learned about God growing up in the pews of Middle America was being radically challenged in the face of human need.
One of my favorite teachers is a 90-year-old Cistercian monk named Thomas Keating. He says if we stay on the spiritual journey long enough, eventually we’ll reach a point where the practices that used to sustain us in our faith fall short. They don’t support us like they used to. When this happens, though it can be incredibly disillusioning at first, it’s actually an invitation to go deeper with God, to draw nearer to God.
In the face of agony in Sierra Leone, my faith fell short. Forgiveness for such horrific wrongs seemed like an impossibility. Healing for my friends and their nation seemed completely out of reach.
In a season when I felt terribly raw, as if I was carrying in my body the wounds of the world, contemplative prayer, in the form of centering prayer, became the only way in which I could attempt to encounter God. There in silence, solitude and stillness I could just show up—just show up as I am with all my doubts, questions and pain. And over time, the gentle, secret, grace-filled presence of God began to reveal a Love so enormous that it absorbs and transforms all the pain of the world—beginning with my own.
After nearly 20 years leading Word Made Flesh—an international non-profit that cares for the most vulnerable of the world’s poor—my husband and I have noticed a few things about social justice types:
Many of us do in fact succumb to burnout and some of us grow very disillusioned with our faith. And there’s just too much need in the world for such short-lived attempts to make the world a better place.
So in 2012, my husband Chris and I set out to do good better. We started Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism to ground social engagement in contemplative spirituality. Gravity is for people who care about their spirituality and want to make the world a better place, and exists to nurture the integral connection between mysticism and activism.
Gravity grounds social engagement in Christian contemplative spirituality by offering contemplative retreats, spiritual direction, and pilgrimage to places of historical religious significance as well as places marked by profound pain and hope.
People can do good better when their active lives are rooted in contemplative spirituality, because contemplative prayer dismantles our ego-driven illusions and allows for the Spirit to flow more freely through us to heal the world.
Contemplative prayer is a gateway to encountering real transforming Love. Sure, there are still problems in the world and in my own life, but contemplative prayer helps me access the love of God in the midst of those problems and opens me to ongoing transformation, leading to joy-filled, creative ways to engage the world. There’s no room to be grumpy when one accesses the Divine Love that penetrates our humanity and is present in even the most horrific of circumstances.
Contemplative prayer and social action must go hand-in-hand for effective change. Otherwise our social action too often ends up being our imperfect will imposed on the world. It’s too easy to unconsciously project our own wounds or ego-driven desires onto other people and projects. Contemplative prayer dismantles our unconscious motivations. One who is committed to contemplative prayer has awakened to his own need, making him much less toxic as he engages others and seeks to offer some good in the world.
Jesus said the greatest command is to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. If we’re putting all our effort into taking care of others and neglecting our own self-love, then we’re disobeying the Great Command and headed for dysfunctional relationships—with God, with others, with work. Social justice works well when we love others as we love our self. Contemplative prayer practice is a commitment to loving our self so we can love others well.
A commitment to contemplative prayer is a commitment to authenticity—being real with the fact that we ourselves are in need—in need of love, in need of transformation—that we don’t have all the answers and sometimes our greatest intentions inadvertently cause harm.
We delude ourselves if we think we hold the answers to the world’s problems. If we’re honest, we have trouble tending to our own personal, relational, communal and national problems. Tending to our personal story of transformation must go in step with our desire to see the world transformed. The two go hand-in-hand. This is contemplative activism. Contemplative activism grounds us in Divine Love and allows us to be a channel of that love. When we’re grounded in Love we won’t burnout, because Love is an ever-burning flame that directs our life with passion if we’re tapped into it.
An effective response to social, economic and political injustice originates from within a soul who is awakened to her need and is committed to being transformed by Divine Love. As we are transformed through committed prayer practice, the world around us is transformed.
Contemplative prayer practice effectively keeps us humble and honest. And humility and honesty are essential to building a just world. The more of us who commit to such practice, the more peaceful our world will be.
Phileena Heuertz is the author of Pilgrimage of a Soul: Contemplative Spirituality for the Active Life. She is the founding partner of Gravity, a Center for Contemplative Activism. After 20 years of grassroots social justice work, she and her husband, Chris, now work with all kinds of people who care about their spirituality and who want to make the world a better place, by offering contemplative retreats, spiritual direction and pilgrimage. Connect with Phileena and their work at gravitycenter.com and on Twitter @phileena.
The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.