It has become a proverb: ”Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” 31 years ago Pope John Paul II gathered leaders from different religions and cultures in Assisi, and a candle was lit and has spread light to many corners of the world. The power of darkness is still looming around us and in us. But we confront it, not by curse, but with the words of John the Evangelist: “Light shines in the darkness, and darkness has not overcome it.”
The theme of this conference is: “Paths to Peace”. Our panel has been asked to focus on “the Spirit of Assisi: a Prophecy for our Time?” Three words continue to describe these Sant’ Egidio conferences in the spirit of Assisi: Prayer and Dialogue for Peace. Can these words become a Prophetic call for our time? Here I will try to discover the prophetic dynamic in this move from prayer to dialogue on our path to peace.
Prayer – listening to God
In prayer we come to God with what is on our hearts, even simply saying: “Abba, Father.” Prayer is at the same time a response to God who always first takes the initiative. On the first pages of the Bible there are two questions posed to us. God calls for Adam, for man, and says: “Where are you?” He addresses Cain and asks: “Where is your brother?”
God wants to talk with us and share with us what is in his heart for us and for the world. Listening to Him cleanses eyes, minds and hearts and brings our lives and surroundings into new light. Prayer is an act of conversion, in the sense of the Hebrew Teshuva: a coming home, a return to God like the prodigal son in the parable of Jesus. In this return a redirection and new beginnings take shape.
The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel has written: “(To) the prophets … God is compassion, but not compromise; justice, but not inclemency… Their intense sensitivity to right and wrong is due to their intense sensitivity to God’s concern for right and wrong. They feel fiercely, because they hear deeply.” The prophets listened deeply to God, they listened deeply to their surroundings, and then they spoke and acted.
I believe this is what happened to Saint Francis in Assisi, and it has been my experience with Sant’ Egidio in the last ten years. Prayer is the first word. We begin by listening to God before speaking and acting for the sake of the world and people around us. To me the prophetic spirit of Assisi begins with this call to return to God in prayer. In listening to God, we discover again who we are, where we are, and the dignity of every sister and brother.
God of Grace and Mercy
This call to conversion and to listen to God includes substance in our vision of God, in our faith in Him. With the words of Psalm 145: “The Lord is gracious and merciful … good to all, and He has compassion on all he has made.”
The Spirit of Assisi is deeply rooted in the overwhelming realization of God´ grace and mercy. This marked life of Saint Francis, and the popes from John XXII have again and again pointed to this heart of our faith. In his book “The Name of God is mercy” Pope Francis emphasizes that this is the key to the Bible, to Christian faith and living. The grace of God was also at the heart of Martin Luther´s theology, and Catholics and Lutherans have in recent years found common ground on this point.
Today we live in a global society that too many find merciless and without grace. Our societies have developed complex structures to care for their citizens and to restrict the evil of crime and terror. Grace and mercy go beyond these structures and systems. It also goes beyond our religious structures. Religion is not for their sake, but for the sake of God, his grace and mercy among us.
As Christians we believe that God´s mercy has been revealed to us through Jesus. But already Moses was told on Sinai that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (Exod 34,6), a key element in the creed of the synagogue. In their daily prayers Muslims also constantly profess that God is merciful and gracious. Despite our differences, mercy and merciful living is at the heart of most religions.
To me the prophetic voice of Assisi is a call to give grace a chance and let mercy prevail among us. Most often this happens in the quiet – a prayer in the heart and outstretched hands, a merciful act and a gracious word. But think what would happen, if we together let the powerful spirit of grace and mercy renew and penetrate our lives and societies?
From prayer to dialogue
With this in mind I see the significance of the rhythm of these Sant’ Egidio conferences. First we pray, then we dialogue. We do not pray together and mix our traditions in syncretistic fashion. There is a deep respect for the integrity of faith and the differences among us. But we all pray, and we pray with words from our holy scriptures before we enter into mutual conversation.
There are various guidelines for dialogue and interreligious encounters. A Benedictine monk once said: “When you go into dialogue, you should first listen with all your heart, mind and strength. Then you shall speak with all your heart, mind and strength.” Probably you also here recognize the echo of Deuteronomy 5: “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your mind and all your strength.” First prayer, then dialogue.
In this rhythm there is a fundamental freedom, but also a common obligation. Prayer obliges us to respond to the call of God and listen to Him, and then we continue with the obligation to listen to one another. This obligation is also our freedom. Prayer cleanses hearts and minds and opens our eyes for one another and the world around us. With this freedom friendships are fostered, and when we then listen and speak to one another, we are free to discover paths to peace and living together.
Prophesy, Poverty and Paths to Peace
Finding paths to peace is not easy. Today there are few who would repeat the claim of the false prophets at the time of Ezekiel. He said about them: “They lead my people astray, saying ‘Peace’ when there is no peace” (13,10). Today, rather, too many young and old suffer from a lack of hope. Or worse, that we close our hearts and distance ourselves from those who suffer – the millions of refugees from war and famine and the poor in our own societies.
But the biblical prophets were persons of hope. Part of their hope is inscribed in stone at the UN in New York: “Nation will not take up sword against nation. They will beat their … spears into pruning hooks.” (Is 2,4; Micah 4,3) But this hope is preceded by a vision of people saying: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord… that we may walk in his paths.” Their hope was expressed in their call to return to the paths of God, a return to His compassion for the poor, for widows, father- and motherless and the strangers.
Saint Francis chose to live as a poor among the poor. When Pope John XXIII issued his invitation to the II Vatican Council, he spoke of the Church as “Church of the poor and for the poor”. My own walk with friends in Sant’ Egidio has also been such a process of conversion. They have helped me to discover anew the compassion for the poor in the ministry of Jesus, and that the path to peace has to be with the poor and for the poor.
Religious faith begins with the heart of God and the heart of man. From this point it may penetrate societies, also across conflicts on paths to peace. Like the biblical prophets and the Man from Galilee, the Spirit of Assisi is a gentle whisper touching our hearts and redirecting our daily living. At other times it is a public testimony challenging authorities and political powers. It is both a quiet and a forceful voice. It confronts darkness, not as a prophecy of doom, but lighting a candle of hope:
- It begins with a call to return to God in prayer,
- In listening to God we again realize that the power of evil only can be overcome by His grace and mercy.
- In this encounter we also discover one another and go forth in dialogue and friendship.
- This dialogue is in itself a sign of hope in a suffering world and may lead us together to find paths to peace with the poor and for the poor.