More Spiritual Reflections

Spiritual Reflections


An Empty Place at the Table

Sr. Mary Jo Gallagher, IHM
IHM Center, Scranton, PA
October 08, 2008

An Empty Place at the Table Evening of Prayer

Scripture:  Magnificat

The reading from Scripture this evening will be the Magnificat – the song of praise that Mary, the mother of Jesus, proclaims when she meets her cousin Elizabeth who is also pregnant.  In Latin, Mary’s prayer begins Magnificat anima mea Dominum:  “My soul magnifies, gives glory to my God…”

A reading from the Gospel of Luke Chapter 2, verses 47-55

My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,           
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.

For you have looked with favor upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward  all generations will call me blessed.

For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,           
And holy is your Name.

Your mercy reaches from age to age
for those who fear you.

You have shown strength with your arm,           
you have scattered the proud in their conceit,

You have deposed the mighty from their thrones           
and raised the lowly to high places.

You have filled the hungry with good things,           
while you have sent the rich away empty.

You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,           
mindful of your mercy –

the promise you made to our ancestors –           
to Sarah and Abraham           
and their descendants forever.”

These are the Words of the Gospel.

The reading we just heard from Scripture might seem in stark contrast to the Empty Place at the Table and to the remembrance in our prayer of the suffering of many women and children.

The Magnificat is a joyous song!  Filled with faith and hope and love.The song sings of celebrating God’s care and love for people – relying on God’s justice and mercy to dismiss the selfish, the arrogant, the dominating – to challenge tyranny and unjust control.  Mary sings “God casts the mighty from their thrones”.

Mary’s song expresses not only God’s care and love for all people – for you and for me – but also expresses how we can find joy and freedom.

God is more present each time that tyranny gives way to justice,
domination gives way to freedom,abuse to respect.
God is present when we change
poverty to equality,
violence to listening,
prejudice to recognition, and 
indifference to caring.

All people of good will long for the hopes expressed in Mary’s song, her Magnificat. We long for a just, safe, caring world where all people can flourish. And for ourselves, we long for unselfish hearts, freedom from insecurity, openness to appreciating others, generosity in responding.  Somewhere in us we know that loving others, although challenging, is also real happiness and peace for ourselves. 

In her song, Mary sang with ancient words from the Hebrew Scriptures of God’s dream for our world.  Walter Wink gave a name to the notion of a theology and politics that leads a society to be life giving, respectful, nurturing and inclusive.  He called it, “God’s domination-free order”.  We are not intended to live under the domination of any individual, group or system.  The earth is not intended to be abused by the domination of people. Whatever form it takes, domination results in injustice, cruelty, and destruction. 

A domination-free, inclusive, just, life giving society is one that protects individual rights and has a social vision centered in community.  Without real commitment to community, our social vision gets reduced to the rights of competing individuals without focus on the relationships among them.

The Women’s Resource Center is one group of people who embody both of these values:  profound respect for the individual and belief in the power of a community where mutual support and responsibility are presumed and nurtured.

Yet…the Empty Place at the Table and our prayer this evening remind us that we live in a world where some have power and others are denied it; where community can be destroyed.  We are back to the Empty Place at the Table.

There are underlying beliefs within ourselves and our society that destroy God’s domination-free order…that allow domestic violence or any violation of one’s rights to happen.  One underlying belief which is still pervasive in our society and in the world is dualism, the belief that there are two opposing elements in life, one always better than the other. Violence against women as well as a host of other injustices thrives in a culture that is hierarchical and polarized: a world where one is superior and another inferior.

When we focus only on individual rights, without the value of community of equals to balance, we will continue to generate a society with increasingly sharp social boundaries…those who have and those who do not: those who have power and those who do not…those who have resources and those who do not.  The social boundaries can be around gender, economic status, race, sexual orientation, age, physical ability, culture, creed or religion, education.  Dualism will call one social boundary – whatever it is - gender, race, creed -  better than the other. We have made progress in our American society, but we are still on the journey here and around the globe.

I had the good fortune of working at Women’s Resource Center some years ago.  I learned to appreciate and acknowledge the courage, resilience and creativity of women who are victims and survivors of all kinds of violence.  I am more sensitive to the many expressions of oppression of women, such as attitudes that are patronizing; laws that maintain domination and power by men; authority that minimizes the experience of others; agencies that blame victims; and policies and people who fail to acknowledge abuse.

At the heart of Women’s Resource Center is a mission focused on impacting the legal, political, social and economic systems upon which justice and injustice depend.  Theologian Marcus Borg calls this the “politics of compassion.”

Compassion is a wonderfully strong stand towards all of life. A politics of compassion is a social vision that looks at the impact of social structures and beliefs on people’s lives.  It leads to anger toward the sources of human suffering, whether individual or systemic.  It leads to advocacy of a social vision that is life giving and inclusive. It seeks to find equality, not dualistic thinking.  A politics of compassion leads to minimizing social boundaries. It seeks to create social structures that are stewards of nourishment for an entire society, rather than for the select.

You and I know of other individuals, groups and institutions that work at creating God’s domination free order and a politics of compassion. …People and places that work to protect individual rights as well as focus on a social vision that is centered in community, in equal and right relationships.

The artistic memorial out in the foyer, called The Empty Place at the Table, is a poignant testimony to the women it honors.  It is a dramatic expression of what happens in the kind of world where one person believes one can dominate and have control over another; when one does not experience that one is part of a community; when dualistic thinking prevails; when a society has lost its nerve for a politics of compassion. 

We honor these women and children by remembering them and by renewing our own commitment to being aware of our dualistic thinking, challenging any domination we experience or witness, and pursuing a politics of compassion through awareness, advocacy, and care-full decision-making and action.

When a politics of compassion and a domination–free order are actualized, everyone is raised up.  The world continues to change.  That sounds a lot like the song that Mary, the Mother of Jesus, sang in her Magnificat. That sounds like the old-order of domination and inequality, being toppled by justice, goodness, respect, compassion.

May we be people of courage and conscience, committed to right relationships, and clear about challenging systems and attitudes that are patriarchal, dominating and oppressive.