On the power of remembering together

This week we marked a number of important anniversaries. I was reminded of the importance of taking time to stop and remember. The act of remembering together or ‘commemorating’ is something so powerful.

The fourth anniversary of the start of the ongoing conflict in Syria is one that should cause us all to reflect. The media this week has been full of pictures of families torn apart by war, mothers unable to grieve for their babies, unbearable scenes of inhumanity made all the more poignant due to today’s mother’s day celebrations. Twenty humanitarian organisations published a scathing report on the crisis and the inaction of governments to resolve it. This article by Trócaire’s director Éamonn Meehan illustrates the situation many NGOs, like Trócaire now find themselves in. They are trapped in an intractable, horrific conflict which has no end in sight, with unimaginable scale of need. Most NGOs were never designed to cope with such need. The whole crisis meanwhile seems to have slipped into the background as other crises have overtaken it. It has become a new kind of ‘normal’. It is hard to see where the political will is going to come from to start to resolve the growing regional crisis in the Middle East. No country, no leader seems prepared or able to act to stop the carnage.

This week also marked the seventh anniversary of the death of Chiara Lubich, an Italian woman whose cause for  beatification and canonisation is being considered by Pope Francis (who also celebrated an important anniversary this week!). Chiara Lubich is a spiritual hero of mine and is one of the great spiritual teachers of our age. Her message of unity today is very timely for Christians, but also people of other faiths and none given the context of conflict in Syria and across the world. Events are being held all over the world this week to highlight the political and policy relevance of her message. It is a message borne out of the utter destruction and despair of the Second World War. It invites everyone to embrace a new consciousness of being and becoming one human family.  

What appeals to me most about Chiara is that hers is not a theoretical or ‘top down’ message nor a ‘soft’ fussy message nor one of ‘charity’ as commonly understood. It is a message of sisterhood and brotherhood that is actively lived, constructed, born and reborn each day in small and big acts of heroic love. It is a pedagogy of love. Heroic in the sense that living it involves a daily commitment, an orientation – a willingness to embrace, move through or beyond the suffering, isolation, self-doubt, that is part of being human. It is this ‘discipline’ of love that Chiara saw creating something like a bridge that draws down a ‘divine’ presence on earth. It is a message of ‘synthesis’ which I reflected on here in response to Cardinal Turkson.

I was fortunate to meet Chiara on many occasions. I corresponded with her regularly since my mum first met her when I was just eight years old. I owe her a great deal in terms of the support and wisdom she shared so generously. Like great spiritual leaders before her, she was the embodiment of her message – ‘be the change you want to see in the world’, as Ghandi said. Her memory lives on in the great spiritual ‘family’ she generated, the Focolare Movement, and in the many millions of people she continues to touch by her charism.

Both of these anniversaries, in their own way, reminded me of the importance of valuing memory and historical perspective, especially for those who believe in big ideals. This is not about sentimentality, as I was reminded this week in Berlin at an event on the histories of humanitarianism. The workshop was looking at the role of religion and empire in shaping humanitarian cultures since 1945. It was fascinating to uncover the interlocking influences which shape the work of NGOs today. I’m not a historian, but I have to say I found the whole discussion extremely relevant to the complex issues that Trócaire and other NGOs are grappling with in Syria and globally. Pressure tends to result in frenetic activism, but there is a great need within NGOs to take time to remember together, to learn about our histories and play the long game. Only through understanding where we have come from will it be possible to face future challenges with confidence.

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