I had a recent trip out of town. It was a pleasant trip to a place I very much like to visit. Since I was traveling for an organization I represent, it was not going to cost me much, except the time I would spend away from campus and from my friends. I always miss that, but the trade-off is not bad. I get to meet new people and, maybe, see some old friends. So off I went.
I like being in different cities. Each city has its own characteristics. Often there is a different offering of restaurants---sometimes with local ethnic fare. I like experimenting with different options. It is on trips like this, I realize again how very provincial my growing up on an Indiana farm really was. I don’t lament that, but I am grateful that I have begun to experience a much bigger world. I am not sure we can understand and appreciate just how big and diverse God’s world is until we travel a bit. I have been fortunate.
One of the things planned for the end of my trip was a scheduled appointment with a person that is a relatively new friend. I met him fairly recently at a conference on Thomas Merton, my favorite monk of last century. Anyone who shares an interest in Merton is someone I would enjoy seeing and engaging in some conversation. Merton is such a fascinating figure, I am always intrigued how any particular person found and is attracted to Merton. George and I were scheduled to meet at a hotel and have some coffee. I was glad to see him walk into the lobby and head with me to the restaurant for some coffee.
George and I have very different backgrounds, which I find, begins to enrich our new friendship. I am an Indiana farm boy; he is a New York City guy. I am a life-long Quaker and he is Jewish. He has an accent, as all New Yorkers do! And he laughs at my Midwestern way of speaking. We both have found our way into Merton’s life and spirituality, so there was much to talk about.
As the conversation began to unfold, I became aware of the twin themes of travel and travail. I had traveled some hours to be in the city and to arrange the meeting with George. He had traveled two hours to make our visit possible. We both wanted this to happen and we made it happen. But throughout our conversation, I began to be aware of another dimension of travel. Sometimes travel is not willingly taken up.
Sometimes travel is forced. I mentioned that George is Jewish. During our conversation, he mentioned some of the work he is doing around the Holocaust. When we talked about the Holocaust, we underscored how often the Jews were rounded up---against their will---and put on trains for the forced trip to a concentration camp. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be forced on to a train and head for what I would know would be my sure death. Talk about travail---an unfortunate situation or lousy experience. Travail can be a painful circumstance, which surely the Holocaust would be.
I am not sure those of us who are not Jews can fully appreciate what being Jewish means with the Holocaust a part of our Jewish story. This would be the same for those of us who are not African-American with the slavery thing as part of our Black History. I can claim to know “about it,” but in no way can I claim to know “it.” The same goes for all the individual travails of our particular lives. I have my own travails and so does everyone else who has lived some amount of time.
Travail is part of the human experience. Live long enough and you, too, will experience some travail. But it occurred to me. There is the inevitable travail of being human---some hardships along the way, perhaps some cancer and inevitably death for us all. And there is the inflicted travail that humans do to other humans. Here we have the Holocaust, slavery, wars, murders, etc.
This is where the conversation between George and me focused. Essential to the spiritual life is the call to justice and peacemaking. Merton knew and did this. So did Martin Luther King, Jr. and a whole host of others. Any one of us spiritual people also needs to sign on to this kind of work.
We are called to alleviate people from their travails. If we cannot alleviate their travails, then we need to join them in the midst of travail. There may not be a Holocaust on the same scale as WW II, but terrorism is a modern version of travail. We know well about the terrorism appearing on the news. What is less visible is the terrorism people are perpetuating on in quieter ways. I see parents yelling at their young child. I see the rich getting richer and the poor being consigned to a quiet form of travail.
George and I solved no world problem. But we did vow to keep working in our own little corner to alleviate the travail we see. In some cases Merton’s word or example might be helpful. Sometimes it might be my word or example. It could be yours, too. I was grateful for my trip, for George and our new resolve to do an old thing: build the kingdom.