By Sullivan Oakley
It has been a tumultuous year.
Alton Sterling is shot at point blank range. Philando Castile is fatally shot in a routine traffic stop. The UK votes to leave the Europen Union in the now infamous Brexit. Three bombings in Brussels kill over 30 people, injuring hundreds more. Dozens of other bombings and mass killings get significantly less media coverage in places such as Lahore, Pakistan; Iskandariya, Iraq; Ankara and Istanbul, Turkey; Grand Bassam, Ivory Coast; Ben Guerdane, Tunisia. The refugee crisis surges. The Philippines elects Rodrigo Duterte and he begins his brutal war on drugs; extrajudicial killings ensue. Donald Trump becomes President-Elect of the United States of America.
It has been a tumultuous year.
Stepping away from the world stage into a much smaller corner of existence, 2016 has also been turbulent for me personally. I graduated from a Jesuit seminary in May, and in late July, boarded a plane to the Philippines to work with a study abroad program in the Jesuit tradition that invites students from the U.S. and the Philippines to study together, live in simple, intentional community, explore spirituality and be immersed in local Filipino communities who experience economic, political, and social marginalization.
It is beautiful and challenging work that opens me up often to the brokenness of our world. In any given day, God is both palpably present and mysterious elusive.
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’
Do not be afraid. The Lord himself will give you this sign.
I look for signs; I try not to be afraid, but in this world of violence, fear mongering, and myriad beams in my own eye, the incarnation can feel like an illusion. As we enter this fourth week of Advent, a season of waiting for light to rupture the darkness, I am reminded that our God is one who chooses to be with us, chooses to pitch a tent in this broken world and experience the depth of our suffering and joy just as we do, in human form.
But some days I wonder—where is God?
Has God decided—amidst all of this violence, racism, xenophobia, and hatred—to pack up that tent and abscond from the world? Asking this question—where is God?—calls to mind a prayer of mine from a few years ago. I was living in Manila then, as I am now, and accompanying a community in Tondo, Manila Bay once a week. The community scavenged on the city’s largest trash dumpsite as their main livelihood, finding plastic to sell or old wood to burn into charcoal. I found much life, resilience and hospitality there, but
I also encountered deeply inhumane conditions that clashed with the humanity and generosity of the people whom I met.
One day as I was speaking with a woman from the community, I looked over and saw a little girl, Johanna, lovingly feeding her little brother. In my time there, I had never seen Johanna look so tender and was deeply moved by how she was helping her brother. The woman with whom I was speaking began to explain to me that Johanna and her little brother had been abandoned by their parents earlier that week; no one knew where their parents had gone, and it was likely that they would not return for their children. Johanna was 7; her brother was 3.
Stories like this abounded
stories of children scavenging at the dumpsite and getting limbs ripped off by garbage trucks, stories of traumatic physical and sexual abuse for so many women and children. I wasn’t sure how to hold this level of suffering. I felt helpless and angry.
That day that I found out about Johanna’s parents, I was heavy with my own thoughts, and I felt a deep sadness wash over me. When I arrived at my house that evening, I went immediately to the second floor, which served as our chapel, and I allowed everything I was feeling to come to the surface; I lost it. Eventually, fresh out of tears and stuff to throw, I began to pray, expressing to God all of this anger. My heart is broken.
How the hell can this be happening?
I see people that I love dying too early, being abused, barely surviving, and I am indescribably sad. I will never forget, as I laid on the floor of the chapel in the fetal position, the small voice that responded: “Me too.” And just as the disciples in the gospel of John, I didn’t dare ask ‘Who are you?’ because I knew it was the Lord.
I knew in that moment that we were not alone in all this. I felt the weight of the incarnation, the weight of the God of Exodus, who hears the cry of the poor. I also knew with that prayer that God was my ally in the struggle for justice; God wanted it even more badly than I did, and He had certainly cried more tears over it, as his memory reaches further back in time than my own.
Jesus came into this world not only so that he could enter into our suffering and our jubilation, not only so that he might pitch his tent with us and understand fully this human life, but
God also sent Jesus so that we might have access to God, that we might be able to take on parts of God’s very self just as God took on human form.
Dorthe Soelle, in her book The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, describes the prayer of a medieval woman mystic, Mechthild von Hackeborn, who once begged God to “give her something that would always cause her to remember him.”
God responded by giving her God’s own senses—eyes, ears, mouth & heart—in order that she might see how God sees, that she might hear “the cry of God’s children who are in slavery in Egypt,” that she might “cry where God cries,” and that she might “speak with God’s mouth.”
This, for me, is the image for the life of discipleship.
This is what God was communicating in my prayer. This is the beauty, and the implication, of the incarnation.
In this Advent season, we wait in joyful hope, knowing full well that the incarnation is not an illusion, and neither is the darkness. This Advent, after such a year as we have had, I ask God for eyes to see the world in all of it’s splendor and all of it’s shadows, for ears to hear the Cry of slavery anywhere and everywhere that it exists, and for the heart to feel it all and to somehow keep praising.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sullivan has been involved with the Casa Educational Network and immersive, praxis-based education in the Jesuit tradition since studying with Santa Clara University's program, Casa de la Solidaridad, in 2009. After graduating from Marquette University with a Bachelor's in Writing Intensive English and a minor in Theology, she went on to work as a community coordinator for the Casa de la Solidaridad program in El Salvador (2011-2012) and served in the same role for Casa Bayanihan in Manila the following year (2012-2013). Sullivan returned to the United States to pursue a Masters in Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, which she completed in May 2016, and has returned to Casa Bayanihan in the role of Assistant Director. She is thrilled to be back in Manila offering academic, spiritual and community support to the students, staff and partner communities of Casa Bayanihan.