Stories Seldom Heard
Stories Seldom Heard
216 th Edition July 2017
Pierre Claverie, O.P.: A Dominican of Conscience
Welcome to Stories Seldom Heard. I would like to especially welcome the parishioners of Our Lady of Peace Parish, New Providence, New Jersey.
It’s time for summer reading and I have a recommendation. A Life Poured out: Pierre Claverie, of Algeria (1) is the story of the Dominican Bishop of Algeria and a well-written spiritual biography. For those of us who are on a spiritual path, Pierre’s story offers insights into the spiritual life. It also alerts us to experiences, that on reflection, can help us recognize our own invitations to change. Pierre’s story begins with his childhood in Algeria. He grew up in a loving family. Letters that he wrote to his family from the Dominican novitiate and throughout his life are frequently quoted in the book. Even though Pierre was a private person, his letters reveal a man of deep reflection and insight. His letters also render a sense of immediacy as he begins to understand himself better and slowly moves through small and large conversions.
Throughout Pierre’s life time Algeria went through enormous changes, and with Algeria, Pierre’s world also changed dramatically. The Algerian War of Independence took place between 1954 and 1962. It led to Algeria’s independence from France. With that victory, everything began to change. One of Pierre’s first insights came when he realized his indifference towards the colonialized people of Algeria. As a child, he lived in a “colonial bubble.” The only people with whom he had contact and the only people who really mattered to him, and to many people in power, were the Europeans who lived there. He wrote about his initial experience of the “Other” who seemed almost like a backdrop landscaping his own social world (Perennes 2007, 36), and the epiphany that enlightened his perception:
Perhaps because I ignored the Other and denied his
existence, one day he suddenly leapt right in front of me.
he burst open my sheltered experience…[but could it
have been any other way?] (258)
Pierre warns against a society that is built on exclusion. “Living in our enclosed world, we are no more objective than the Communists (45).” Trying to understand how this exclusion came about for the white Europeans in Algeria, Pierre states, “We have done NOTHING…to learn about the true conditions of the Arabs we knew and who liked us…. Why is the European sphere so closed and why does it monopolize three-quarters of Algeria’s wealth? (46)”
As Perre reflects on his own life, it strikes me that many of us are going through similar experiences. Our lives have changed dramatically over the years. Structures within the church, society and the world have shifted. Values that we have depended on and perhaps taken for granted are not as firm as they used to be. A hand shake used to seal a deal and guarantee the promised product. Trust in authority figures in the church and in politics has eroded. Neighborhood summer block parties and share holiday open houses have become less frequent and more exclusive. These changes, however, are just the tip of the ice berg.
Our particular circumstances are different from Pierre’s, but the changes we have experienced evoke many of the same questions. What bubbles do we live in? How do our life styles affect the way we perceive the “Other.”
As the old European strongholds began to crumble, Pierre reflected on how exclusive his early life had been. With his new understanding, he offers us a different definition of “original sin.” He defines original sin as the tragedy of indifference. (A sin that Pope Francis also warns us about in The Joy of the Gospel.) This original sin was the sin of his youth and the sin that permeated the social, political and religious structures of his day. His definition of original sin is perhaps something we too need to ponder. However, Pierre does more than just offer a critique of his world, he also offers us some practical ways to address the divisions in our lives.
Pierre reminds us of the importance of dialogue — a worn out word perhaps, but one packed with grace when truly sought. He identifies real dialogue as a concern for the other person’s welfare. Dialogue recognizes that the other has a portion of the truth that we need in order to come to a fuller truth whether it be religious, personal or political. Just as no one person possesses God, no one person possesses the whole truth. In Pierre’s world and ours, religion and politics walk hand in hand. A true appreciation of the other and an understanding of the other person’s views are necessary. Therefore, it behooves us to be in dialogue with people who have different opinions from us if we desire to grow and live in peace with one another. This path, however, can only be forged by respectful dialogue and, as religious people, through daily prayer and reflection of what we have heard and observed.
The life of Pierre Claverie is a hopeful story, but it is more than that. It is also a story that helps us visualize and remember a nation, Algeria, that went through a dramatic violent change. In Pierre’s opinion much of the violence came from people who were uninformed and easily manipulated by popular opinion. Pierre’s life also helps us see where we need to build bridges of conversation and compassion, bridges of hope and possible pathways to peace. We might not be official political or religious leaders, but each of us has a tremendous influence in both our private and public lives.
Along with indifference, Pierre considers intolerance as one of the major causes of violence. Intolerance of others leads to nationalism and fundamentalism. When we don’t make room for the other, respect them and their opinions, when we are incapable of actively accepting a pluralistic society, violence will increase and eventually erupt. As our families, neighborhoods and nation continue to become more diverse, we need to consciously develop ways of approaching and respecting differences.
Pierre uses a multi-facet image to express the divide between peoples, religions and cultures. He talks about a fault line. We especially in the San Francisco Bay Area are used to this term. Many fault lines network our region. The pun is obvious and intended, but is neither limited to us Californians nor to Pierre’s compatriots. The fault line becomes for Pierre an abiding symbol that speaks to all of us. “In Algeria, we find ourselves on a seismic division that extends throughout the entire world…. We are indeed where we belong (on the fault line) because it is only in this way that one can see the light of Resurrection, and together with it the hope for the renewal of our world (201).”
With those words, Pierre invites us to see ourselves along this fault line. He encourages us to stand on the edge, explore what that means for us both individually and collectively. He invites us to reach out to others with compassion and mercy. Like Jesus who placed himself on the fault lines of sin in order to bring about healing and reconciliation, Pierre calls us to be a reconciling presence “wherever humanity is torn, crucified and fragmented (200).”
A Life Poured out: Pierre Claverie, of Algeria is more than a history book. It enables us to see, in slow motion, the spiritual, psychological and intellectual development of a true follower of Jesus and St. Dominic. Pierre clearly articulates moments and experiences that expose him to new insights and lead him to yet deeper and deeper conversion. In reading his story many of us will be able to identify times in our own lives when we, too, have noticed shifts in our thoughts and beliefs: times of personal conversion. These reflections are important because they bring us to a sense of wonder and gratitude.
”Blest too the peacemakers; for they shall be called daughters and sons of God.” Hope this book might be part of your summer reading.
- A Life Poured out: Pierre Claverie, of Algeria, Jean-Jacques Perennes, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, 10545, 2007.
Special thanks to Mary Ellen Green and Maria Hetherton who have helped in editing this article. “Stories Seldom Heard” is a monthly article written by Sister Patricia Bruno, O.P. Sister is a Dominican Sister of San Rafael, California. This service is offered to the Christian community to enrich one’s personal and spiritual life. The articles can be used for individual or group reflection. If you would like “Stories Seldom Heard” sent to a friend, please send a note to “email@example.com.”