With all the news this past week about the horrific conflict in Israel and Gaza, it is natural that part of the conversation at the friary dinner table has been about the conflict, Holy Land pilgrimages we have participated in, what we’ve seen, all adding to the discussions of the terrible tragedy that unfolds. Inevitably the conversation will mention the wall that separates the Holy Land in and around Jerusalem. Jerusalem, The Mount of Olives, Gethsemane, the Holy Sepulcher on one side of the wall. Bethlehem, Bethany, and other places on the other. As one travels around the area outside of metropolitan Jerusalem, you see other walls – those of the Jewish Settlements. There are settlements in hardscrabble places of Israel. But there are more that kinda’ resemble Reston Town Center only with high walls and secure entrances.
Gated communities are not unknown here in this country. In fact the number of them continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Down in Florida, the Villages is a gigantic collection of gated communities covering 30 square miles with a population of over 80,000. In their book, Fortress America, the authors talk about the trend of “the fortressing of America.” Americans of all classes are “forting up…attempting to secure the value of their houses, reduce or escape from the impact of crime, and find neighbors who share their sense of the good life.” They note it is a phenomena as old as time and perhaps a search for the ideal community in which to enjoy life.
When I moved back into Northern Virginia I was amazed at the evolution of the walled HOV lanes. Certainly a search for the ideal commute. If you stop and think about it, there are lots of walls that make up the fabric of our lives. Creating walls and thus marking boundaries is a civic and a political act that determine membership: someone must be inside and someone outside.
The poet Robert Frost wrote: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, And spills the upper boulders in the sun; And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. I might offer a suggestion of just what (or who!) that something is – the Holy Spirit.
When God created the world he breathed the Spirit upon the chaos and there was the beginning of life. When the Apostles were hiding in the Upper Room Jesus appeared and breathed upon them the Holy Spirit. One really should pay attention when God breathes upon you!! There is something big afoot. Life itself or commissioning to point the way to eternal life to a waiting world.
On that Pentecost two millennia ago, the Holy Spirit rather ignored the walls of nationality and language, gender and age, and custom and culture. Because there was something greater at hand. Throughout the Acts of the Apostles the Spirit comes to push the apostles past walls, well beyond their comfort level: upper room to temple area, temple area to the streets of Jerusalem, to Jewish towns around Jerusalem, to the Samaritans…. But surely not the Gentiles – yup, them too. The Holy Spirit pushed Philip the Gaza road where he opened up the world of black man, an Ethiopian, Treasurer to the Queen. The same Spirit blew into the lives of the Roman centurion named Cornelius and his whole family. Peter sees it all: “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35) And all the Jewish Christians with Peter were astonished that the gifts were being poured out “even on the Gentiles.” (Acts 10:45) And walls just kept tumbling.
Well…. Until we started building them again. We build them with bricks and mortar. We build them with words, slogans and labels. We build them when we wonder why so many of our fellow citizens, fellow Catholic vote the way they do. Do they have no moral compass, grasp of the facts, or common sense? Don’t worry I am not talking about you …. I am talking about the other person… the one who thinks I am talking about you.
We build walls when we think other people are rude. We build walls when we believe we are wrongly judged. We build walls when we…. When we sin in what we have done and what we have failed to do.
When we have sinned against someone we love, we work pretty hard to rebuild the relationship. When we think, “Oh well, no big deal, they’ll get over it….” Slowly the wall builds, the silence settles in, and a once warm relationship turns frosty heading towards ice cold. There are lots of other examples of the walls that appear in the narrow confines of our own life.
So, let’s review: the Spirit was given to lead us and remind us in all truth. To be Advocate, Counselor, and Paraclet. To push us out into the world. To break down walls that keep us apart that we ourselves have built. To give us the wisdom to answer the question Robert Frost asks: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out and to whom I was like to give offense.”
And should the Spirit come today and check in with us, I’d say we all have some explaining to do. Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor were the rock walls of Robert Frost’s New England. Nor was the Berlin Wall. But it came down in a day.
With the power of the Spirit the walls that each one us has built can come down in a single day. If we only turn to the Spirit and let the words of Pentecost Sequence finds its home in us:
Spirit, shine within these hearts of ours, And our inmost being fill! Where you are not, we have nothing. Nothing good in deed or thought, Nothing free from taint of ill. Heal our wounds, our strength renew; On our dryness pour your dew; Wash the stains of guilt away: Bend the stubborn heart and will; Melt the frozen, warm the chill; Guide the steps that go astray.
Veni, Sancte Spiritus.