World Interfaith Harmony Week

Written on: February 5, 2017

Column for Friday, February 3, 2017 by Sister Eileen White, GNSH

I was away for a week of retreat last week, in a kind of “news blackout.”  Ah! The beauty of silence, stars, even misty chilly weather, and deer tracks, fallow farm field, peace, a spiritual guide, and time for prayer.  This is one of the great luxuries in the life of the Catholic religious Sister.  We are committed to make time and space annually for a few days of retreat, to give uninterrupted opportunity for God, in a sense, to “get in”.   

When retreat ended and we all began to make small talk again (retreat time is mostly silent time), we still had no idea of all that was happening in our too real outside- of-retreat world.  A volunteer at the retreat house pulled me aside to bring me up to speed on the executive orders on refugees which, for us, seemed so opposed to our values and those of my religious community, my family, and, I thought, my country.  Hours later I learned the awful news that my niece and her husband’s oldest son, Jimmy, had died.  Too young to die, he had, nonetheless, spent many years of struggle with addiction and all the byproducts addiction brings to the victim and all his loved ones.  The refrain of a hymn I heard on retreat keeps playing in my mind and heart:  

“I am a God nearby.  I am not far away I am not far away.  I am a God nearby.  I am not far away from you.”    

If this is true, and I want to believe it is true, God must be weeping along with all of us!  So much sadness in our world! How does our faith lift us up from the sadness and give us hope?

I imagine that God appreciates fully the irony of the fact that the first week of February is World Interfaith Harmony Week.  You really have to look hard (work hard?) to see evidence of harmony in our world right now, especially interfaith harmony.  And yet, we long for it – we strive for it – and we celebrate when we do see it.  I see that thousands of people of many different faith traditions are questioning the motives, the impact, and the wisdom of the executive orders that are currently, suddenly preventing refugees from seven countries from accessing the U.S. refugee resettlement program.  I know that there are also thousands, no doubt equally sincere and faith-filled, who support the administration’s decisions.  I want to respect their thinking, At the same time I respectfully and rather vehemently disagree.

Catholic bishops, in statements published while I was on retreat, reminded us,

“Welcoming the stranger and those in flight is not one option among many in the Christian life.  It is the very form of Christianity itself.”     

Hundreds of faith leaders linked to the Interfaith Immigration Coalition stated:

“. . . we are called by our sacred texts and faith traditions to love our neighbor, accompany the vulnerable, and welcome the sojourner. . . This nation has an urgent moral responsibility to receive refugees and asylum seekers who are in dire need of safety. . . . We call on the Trump Administration and all members of the U.S. Congress to demonstrate moral leadership and affirm their support for the resettlement of refugees from all over the world to the U.S.”  

I spent a good portion of my retreat week continuing to grieve for my sister, who died in May of last year. Knowing of my niece’s terrible grief for her son, I mourn now for him and with her for her pain.  It is often easy enough to feel real compassion for those who have been close to us, those whose DNA we share.  

I believe, though, that God is a nearby God – caring so deeply for the agony of every wounded soul, and inviting us, who live in God, to imitate that caring and do whatever we can to alleviate it – whether for the nearby family member or for the refugee who longs to be nearby, truly nearby to our heart.   

In the week of World Interfaith Harmony, may we bring the women and men and children of each faith tradition to prayer, asking the God who is not far away, to help us not to be too far away from one another.   

eileen-white-ministrySister Eileen White, GNSH, is  a member of the Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart and a frequent contributor to the Bucks County Courier Times. We are grateful for their permission to re-print Sister Eileen’s column here.

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