Greeting the new year with compassion

Celebrating the mystery of the Incarnation awakens in me profound hope. It recalls that Divine Presence is with us and in us. That our world is good and holy. It speaks to me that we have within us the capacity to open our arms wide to embrace our entire Earth community as our sisters and brothers and that we are all in this evolutionary journey together.

I needed to be reminded of that as 2016 ended with a keen awareness of our political and religious differences. As I continue to struggle with how to move forward into this time of healing and understanding each other, I am reminded of the image I used in my last reflection, that of communities of cosmic sentries.

I picture us standing with arms outstretched bracing to be lightning rods for Divine Compassion. Allowing the energy of human yearning and divine blessing to ebb and flow through our bodies in a deep and purifying exchange. For me it is at once inviting and scary. I wonder: Can I do this?

With that question in mind I was drawn to "taking a long loving look," to gaze contemplatively on a few of the realities that we are facing now as a global community. To touch such human suffering and human yearning elicits compassion in me and increases my capacity to stand strong in the face of discouragement and judgment, allowing for a deep and purifying exchange.

I invite you to join me in taking a contemplative gaze on these realities. To read them as seeing sisters and brothers who desire similar things, who need access to the same resources, and who suffer from pain and stress that knows no boundaries. To allow yourself to let them enter you and teach you what you need to experience. I have chosen just three struggles: Aleppo, the ongoing Flint, Michigan, water crisis and infants addicted to opioids. I know they are a just a microcosm of all that is going on in our world, and so you may want to continue your reflection with other struggles we are facing.


Taken from an AP article by Sarah El Deeb that appeared in the Detroit Free Press (December 18, 2016)

Death in Aleppo was personal for Modar Sheikho. He lost his sister to government bombing early in the revolt. His brother was killed last month. And as they looked for a place to bury him, another air strike killed his father. Still, Sheikho held out in the besieged city as long as he could. When he finally was forced to evacuate Friday, he made a video bidding farewell to the city. 'We were asking for our freedom. This is what we get,' he said against a backdrop of bombed-out buildings and thousands of people waiting for buses to take them away from Aleppo. But even in his first hours of exile, the 28 year-old nurse longed to return. 'My soul is torn out more with each step away from Aleppo.'

Flint, Michigan, water crisis

It is almost the three-year anniversary of the start of Flint's water crisis and many people still need to use cases of bottled water to cook with, bathe in and drink. Irresponsible and immoral state and local policies are to blame. (See my GSR column from February 15, 2016, for an explanation of this situation.)

Listen to their voices today as excerpted from an essay by Ryan Garza in the Detroit Free Press (December 18, 2016):

Ivory Gipson: "When we go get water, it takes a whole day. That whole day, we can't do anything else. We have to just get water for that day."

Plato Banks: "Flint has had hard times before, but this crisis is one of the worst. . . . They kept lying about it, saying the water was safe to drink, and it come to find out the water wasn't safe to drink. . . . Why did they have to lie about it? Just go ahead and say, 'OK, we knew the water was bad, and we're going to correct it.'"

Lisa Gaines: "If I didn't own this house, I would take off." Gaines, who has developed a skin rash, is responsible for her mother, who is bedridden, and her brother, who is severely sick. "What I'm hoping is that my mother and brother can leave here. I do not want them dying in here due to this water. But I think they will, because they are so sick."

Melissa Mays: "Everyone says, 'Why don't you just move?' I've actually been called a horrible mother because we're still here. Well, poisoned water does not increase the resale value of a house."

Opioids and infants

Excerpted from a CBS report by Mary Brophy Marcus (Dec. 13, 2016)

More babies of mothers addicted to opioids are being born dependent on the drugs themselves, driven by a sharp surge in rural areas of the country. 

The number of cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) and maternal opioid use increased five-fold in the United States between 2000 and 2012, according to a research letter in JAMA Pediatrics written by scientists from five leading pediatric hospitals in the U.S.

Ten years ago, the condition was predominantly found in disadvantaged communities, often in urban settings and linked to illicit drug use, said Dr. Terrie Inder, chair of pediatric newborn medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. Now, it's touching women and newborns from all economic brackets and geographic areas.

'The increase that you see in the JAMA data relates to a more widespread use of pain medications across all social classes. Now, we are equally likely to see a mother from a middle class or upper middle class background who was unaware that taking these medicines could lead to that type of consequence for her baby,' Inder said. Babies with NAS and their mothers are separated after birth so that the newborns can be treated for withdrawal. On average, the babies stay 24 days in the hospital.

'The babies, they are really unsettled, they really suffer, just like adults do when they withdraw from narcotics. The babies are very irritable and sometimes have high heart rates, sweating, flushing, diarrhea. They cry a lot. Often they need someone to really hold and cuddle and nurture them and support them,' Inder said.


Taking a contemplative gaze, I see people longing for freedom for themselves and for their homeland no matter what the cost; the desire of persons to have access to safe drinking water and the painful results of not having policies that protect that right, and the frightening experience of having your newborn addicted to opioids, an experience that can forge bonds across class and geography to look for solutions. Embracing this energy is helping me become a lightning rod for compassion.

My hope is knowing that humanity is not left alone to drift toward greater divisions, selfishness and violence. In the mystery of the Incarnation, Jesus opened himself to the Divine Presence dwelling within and lived in ways that challenged the values of his own time. Jesus told his followers to preach the "good news" and prayed that the vision of the "kingdom" would come on Earth just as it is in heaven. In celebrating the birth of Jesus, we are reminded that God dwells with and within us. Perhaps, Meister Eckhart, a Dominican mystic, says it best: "We are all meant to be mothers of God . . . for God is always needing to be born."

[Nancy Sylvester, IHM, is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue since 2002. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, MI. as well as in the Presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that she was National Coordinator of NETWORK, the national Catholic social justice lobby.]

To read Nancy Sylvester's entire series, click on her author name above or click here to see a list of her columns.