Take Back the Site

The title of this inspirational piece comes from a movement I was not aware of that has been going on for some time.  It is happening in Erie, PA, but it could happen anywhere.  Right in the middle of it are some friends of mine---some Benedictine nuns.  I have been to their monastery right outside the city limits of Erie, the Benedictine Sisters of Erie.  When I spoke to a large group and spent some time there, I found them very engaging, active and full of the life of the Spirit.  Women like them inspire me.
In a periodical I regularly read, I ran across this title: “Sisters in Erie reclaim sites of violence, make them holy ground,” written by Tom Roberts.  Eagerly, I jumped into the article and was both amazed, but not surprised.  Like so many urban areas around the country, Erie is the scene of all too many murders and other acts of violence.  It is always a sad, senseless story.  But the Erie nuns---Benedictine and two other congregations of nuns in that city---are doing something about it.
The sisters decided that they would go to some site where violence had occurred and through singing, praying and supplication ask God to re-consecrate the site that had been desecrated by the violence.  The aim is simple, says Sr. Marlene Bertke.  "The intent was to reclaim the site for nonviolence," she observes.  I like Tom Roberts’ commentary on this action.  He notes the action was “born of regrettable circumstances but speaking unanticipated volumes in the direction of redemption, reconciliation and acknowledging human worth in situations that are often rife with condemnation and unrelenting pain.”  Here is the theology interpreting the situation.
Roberts is correct to focus on this action as sacrament.  That is how it resonates with me as a Quaker, a member of a group that understands sacraments a little differently than most Christians.  In fact, I have done a fair amount of study and writing on sacraments both to understand my own tradition and the bigger Christian picture.  So I like the direction Roberts takes the article.
He cites the noted Catholic theologian, Richard McBrien’s, thoughts on sacramental theology.  McBrien says sacramentality is “in principle, capable of embodying and communicating the divine.  There is no finite instrument that God cannot put to use.  On the other hand…we humans have nothing apart from finite instruments with which to respond to God.  And that communication, he further writes, is ‘not exclusively, nor individual and personal,’ but rather ‘corporate and communal.’”  Let’s unpack this a little bit.
McBrien offers an understanding of sacrament that is close to the classical definition.  A sacrament embodies and communicates the divine.  If I put this in the most simplistic, street-type language, I would say a sacrament shows us and gives us God!  Of course, it is easy to be cynical and sneer, “Sure…”  Probably the best known sacrament in today’s world is holy communion---the eucharist or Lord’s Supper.  Somehow for those who believe, the wafer that is offered is really the body of Christ.  Certainly, it does not look like a body.  And it does not taste like one.  But in faith, it is the body of Christ. 
So it is with all sacraments.  There is always the element of faith.  Without faith, the whole thing seems to be a joke.  And there are different ways of interpreting sacraments.  We can believe they are literally true, i.e. the wafer is literal the body of Christ.  Or we might interpretively go the route of saying sacraments are merely symbolic.  They are “real,” but in a different sense than most things are real. 
The trouble with too many folks who do believe in sacraments is they have a limited view of what can be sacramental.  McBrien is correct; anything finite---created---can be sacramental.  It’s not just church stuff.  It can be world stuff.  Furthermore, anything that is sacramental, i.e. sacred, can be desecrated---made profane.  That is what violence, murder and mayhem do. They turn the sacred into the four-letter word we hear all the time on the streets!
Sacraments can happen anywhere.  My favorite story in the article talks about a nun being invited to do her work in a bar.  Sr. Rossi was “asked if she could come in and bless the bar.”  Roberts’ adds his own colorful commentary.  “It was a strange place for a nun and a bottle of holy water.  She was welcomed and, at one point, a patron said, ‘We could all use a blessing, Sister.’  So, she wrote in a reflection on the event, ‘a blessing they received.’”  Who does not need a blessing?
For me this is a funny story bathed in profundity.  And indeed that is exactly what happens when nuns and all people of faith take back the site---sites of murder, violence, etc.  We turn the profanity of a place into profundity.  Is it real?  Well, we know murder, violence and the like are all too real.  That’s not the question.  The question---the real question---is whether God and we will put up with curses as the final word.
The obvious answer is no.  Take back the site and make it a blessing.

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