The deadly massacre in Paris on Friday evening, Nov. 13, called to mind two recent personal experiences. The first took place in Salt Lake City at the Parliament of World Religions, which I had attended in October.
The Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative of the Washington based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) sponsored a luncheon conversation on Countering Extremism in the Age of the Islamic State. CFR Fellows Farah Pandith and Graeme Wood were to discuss the ideological roots of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, political and economic drivers of radicalization, and international efforts to combat extremism. Wood began summarizing his March 2015 article which appeared in The Atlantic, "What ISIS Really Wants." He offered his opinion that the United States would be wise to "take out" the self-declared head of the caliphate Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The discussion continued for an additional five minutes or so, when a woman unknown to me raised her hand.
She questioned Wood, "Did you mean 'take out' as in a drone attack?"
"Yes," he replied.
She then raised a follow-up question, "Don't you think that is an inappropriate comment in a group like this?"
He replied, "No."
He seemed not to like the question. It was followed by several more of a similar type. He appeared to be getting rattled. So did the moderator of the panel who brought the event to an abrupt conclusion as one frustrated guest who felt ignored stepped up uninvited to disagree vociferously with Wood's analysis.
The second incident was a recent episode of "Madame Secretary." I very rarely watch TV. I had given a weekend retreat and felt the need to unwind a bit. So I stayed for the show. I was shocked from the very first moment. It began with an orchestrated version of the horrible video we have come to know as preceding a beheading by the Islamic State. The beheader, it turned out, was the estranged son of a State Department employee. With all kinds of intrigue in between, the show concluded with "President Dalton," Madame Secretary and few others staring at a screen in the situation room in the White House. They had tracked down the beheader. He was "in the bull's eye." What to do?
"Bring him in," the Secretary suggested since, "we could learn an awful lot."
"Take him out," others urged. A weighty pause.
The president speaks, "Take him out." The scene concludes with a huge explosion.
Both of these experiences brought back a vivid memory of mine. I was an organizer and participant in the delegations that U.S. women Dominicans sponsored to Iraqi in the years in between the first and second Gulf War. I can still hear the United Nations representative telling the 2001 delegation of which I was a part, "The policy of the West in this area of the world is creating the next generation of terrorists."
I hesitate to share this after Paris. I shudder as I remember the words, more so than ever after the unspeakable slaughter of the innocent that was brought into our living rooms that fateful Friday evening. Really, I don't even want to remember the words; I wish I could forget them, but I can't seem to. Unequivocally, absolutely nothing could justify what happened in Paris. Yet I do wonder, "Is all that has happened coincidental or is there even the smallest grain of truth in the U.N. rep's words?"
Years ago the late Jesuit and mentor of mine, Tom Clarke defined imagination as "the ability to rearrange the elements of experience in order to make room for new possibilities." When "real life" President Obama focused the war more directly on Afghanistan in 2009, I remember feeling disappointed. I was hoping for something different, something in which the accent would be on a different syllable, some way in which we might make room for new possibilities. I was dreaming of a large scale economic and social initiative staffed by civilians, albeit supported and, if need be, protected by the military. Rather than "making everything go away," it would have taken on more.
I do believe the gathering of religious leaders at the Parliament of World Religions did try to take on more. The bar was set high in the conference theme: "Reclaiming the Heart of our Humanity: Working Together for a World of Compassion, Peace, Justice and Sustainability." There were numerous workshops on inter-religious efforts at peace making, eradicating poverty and combating climate change. One workshop after another explored how together we might actualize the world we so ardently desire, yet which now seems more out of reach than ever. I wondered what it meant for 10,000 people to listen together to the loftiest and noblest of ideas. I conjectured about the morphogenetic field humming with new energy, stronger than ever. A friend of mine questioned aloud: "How can we harness this energy?"
Scholar and author Karen Armstrong was present and spoke frequently at the parliament. Toward the end of the gathering she received an award which acknowledged her work in the Charter for Compassion. Her concluding remarks on that occasion were striking. She said, "People think I do the work of compassion because I am filled with joy and sweetness. I am filled with dread."
The world now waits. France, President Hollande has told the world, is at war. If the truth be told any sensible person feels some fear in the face of all that has happened. I had dinner with a friend on Long Island last night. She spoke about thinking twice before traveling into Manhattan. "Is this really the time for me to be in Penn Station?" she wondered.
I dare say most, if not all of us, reading this essay will have little influence on how world leaders will respond conclusively to what has happened. So what are we to do with all of this?
Repeatedly, I have found that when the world is particularly turbulent, personal circumstances arise in our own lives which mimic the dynamics of the world crisis. For example, in this time of global chaos have you noticed anything unexpected arising in your own personal sphere of influence which is unruly and out of control? Each of us might be acutely vigilant, watching for incidents in our own lives which could easily get out of hand but for our own deliberate choices. Are you or others asking in turn how you might get the situation back in hand? Is the desire to restore a certain equilibrium leading some to push too hard or too fast to solve the problem?
In other words, what kind of energy are we putting into the universal web of life in our sphere of influence even as world leaders struggle with what to do about ISIS? Does it mimic in even a small way the energy of ISIS? Or is it an energy which creates space for new possibilities?
The above is far from spiritual or psychological gymnastics. Many are conjecturing these days about things on the extreme opposite ends of the spectrum. On the one hand there are things like the Parliament of World Religions and the world-wide growth of an expanded evolutionary consciousness born of (among other things) contemplative sitting; on the other hand we have ISIS, Boko Haram, and al Qaeda. It appears that at the present moment neither pole is capable of outweighing the other. Our choices then, no matter how small or personal, do matter a great deal because they contribute one way or another to a kind of cosmic balance of power.
To be in such a struggle feels overwhelming except for one fact. Theologians like Karl Rahner and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin tell us that the resurrection of the Christ is not merely an event. It is that of course. Yet, it is also an Energy that has been unleased in the Universe. Now, more than ever, it is ours to lean into It, to align ourselves with It. To say this another way, maybe now is the time to be tapping in rather than to be taking out.
[Margaret Galiardi, is a Dominican Sister from Amityville, New York, whose passion is the contemplative integration of justice and peace for people and planet. She is a “lover of the wild,” a spiritual director and workshop and retreat leader who has lectured nationally on the New Cosmology and the Christian Story. She spent a year living with the Trappistine monks in their monastery on the Lost Coast of Northern California in the Redwood Forest.]