Remembering the Past, Re-membering the Future

Do we have hope for the future? It has been important these days to look back, to honor those who died 10 years ago on 9/11, and to look into the face of our divisions as nations and religious traditions. The question now is, how do we move forward? How do we avoid getting stuck at simply remembering the past instead of also re-membering the future, of bringing back into relationship what has been torn apart?

In an interview last year, the Dalai Lama was asked if he had hope for the future. He laughed and said, "Of course I have hope. The future has not yet been decided." Do we believe this? Or do we live as if we believe that the future has already been decided and that the fragmentations of our world are an indelible feature of life?

I grew up in a family of Irish Protestant descent. My father was born off the Shankhill Road in Belfast, the most fiercely militant Protestant community in Ireland. He was born in July 1922, the same month as the Irish Civil War began. As a child he breathed in the hatred and violence that tragically tore apart the life of a whole nation. And as a boy, I too knew this inheritance of antipathy in my heart.

At the age of 83 my father asked if I would take him to the south of Ireland for a family holiday. He had never in all his years been in the south. The divided history of Ireland had played itself out in his life. But at the age of 83 my father made the journey.

On our first Sunday in County Kerry we drove to Dingle Town, naively thinking there might be a variety of churches to choose from. We could find only one, St Mary's! It was an absurd moment. There was I standing with my Belfast-born Protestant father outside a Roman Catholic church in the south of Ireland. And even though I have given much of my adult life to peacemaking and ecumenical relationship, I began to feel apologetic. I said to him, "We don't have to go in there." To which he replied, "I want to go to church and I want to go in there." But still unsure, I said, "And we don't have to stay for the entire service!" He responded, "I want to go to church and I want to stay for the whole service."

The priest on duty was a delightful Irish blether, which endeared him to my father's heart. When it came to the intercessions, the priest said in his think Irish accent, "Now we pray for the weather, Lord. It's not been too bad, but it could be much better. And we have people visiting from around the world, Lord, and we'd like them to see our beautiful country. So we pray for the weather, Lord." And on and on he went.

When it came to the mass and the invitation to communion, there was my Irish Protestant father with tears streaming down his face moving forward to receive the bread and the wine from an Irish Roman Catholic priest. There is hope for the world. This was something I could never have imagined happening. And I suppose it is because I imagined that the future had already been decided. But this is not an exceptional story in the Irish context. It has become the norm. Millions of hearts in Ireland have been changed by the desire for peace in ways which we could never have imagined 20 years ago.

Do we have hope for the future? And how can we play our part in re-membering it, in bringing back into relationship what has been torn apart? The answer, I believe, is threefold. One is to find ways of remembering again and again the essential unity of life, whether that is through meditative practice and ritual, or through study and observation -- to keep remembering that the oneness of the universe is deeper than the differences that separate us. Two is to keep looking directly into the face of our brokenness, to name our divisions -- never to play them down or deny them but to confront them and challenge them. And three is to commit ourselves to action and the cost of transformation. What is it in my own ego or the ego of my nation or the ego of my religious tradition that needs to dissolve if I am to move back into a relationship that honours you as well as me, your nation as well as mine, so that together we can re-member?

Not because we have made peace this day,
not because we have treated the other as our self,
not because we have walked the earth with reverence today,
but because there is mercy,
because there is grace,
because your Spirit has not been taken from us,
we come,
still thirsting for peace,
still longing to love,
still hoping for wholeness.
(from John Philip Newell's "Praying with the Earth: A Prayer Book for Peace")

John Philip Newell is the author of many books including his most recent titles, 'A New Harmony: the Spirit, the Earth, and the Human Soul' (Jossey-Bass 2011) and 'Praying with the Earth: A Prayer Book for Peace' (Eerdmans 2011).