Spiritual Reflections

Touchstones: A Peace and Justice Perspective

The questions remain: How will we move forward now, living lives of compassion and peace and inclusion? How will we create with our lives a field of healing presence for our beautiful yet wounded world? 

We tend to collect and cherish them: a scallop shell scooped up from the beach during a healing retreat; a pin that celebrates the anniversary of sobriety; a framed photo of a loved one who’s now living in risen life. 

This penchant we humans have is not so much about collecting as it is about highlighting a moment or experience that’s rich with meaning. The keepsake or symbol stands as a remembrance of something far deeper, perhaps a time when our hearts were most open, soft, permeable, emotionally receptive. Often that remembrance is also shaped around our desire to preserve in time and in memory what is fragile, beautiful, vulnerable, inspiring. 

Story Corps, the podcast whose mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world, recently offered an episode that spoke to fragility and remembrance and the rituals we sometimes create and cling to as touchstones. 

This episode was a story from the Holocaust that took place in the Theresienstadt concentration camp on the day that camp was liberated.1 The bones of the story are straightforward: Yehuda Czarnoczapka walked into a barracks and met a young woman, Mina, who had no shoes. She was starving and too sick to leave her bed. Yehuda gave her a pair of shoes and a potato, and won her heart. The survivors were married three months later. 

Their story is told by the survivors’ adult daughter, Susan, and granddaughter, Margot, who remember both the trauma and the legacy of Yehuda and Mina, who remember how the family still celebrates the day these loved ones were liberated from the camps. Every year, on that sacred liberation day, the parents buy each child a new pair of shoes. And they all eat potatoes. Everything flows from that single remembered act of compassion in a time of profound vulnerability. 

Looking for touchstones

In our work for justice, we also look for these touchstones. Our common hope leads us to venerate relics of holy ones who have given their lives over to building a world that is more welcoming, more compassionate, more inclusive. We honor the saints’ rooting themselves in the realities of their neighbors, often placing themselves in the place of deepest vulnerability, sharing the same fate as the poor and oppressed whom they call kin. We remember those who embraced their call to work for justice and identify completely with the human family in whom they recognized the face of the Holy One. 

A few of the many touchstones that I have come to treasure in the work of doing justice and making peace include connections to El Salvador: 

Archbishop Romero’s vestments 

St. Óscar Romero had long been under death threats because of his outspokenness on behalf of the poor and his call for peace with justice in El Salvador. During a 2010 delegation, I viewed the vestments he was wearing when he was assassinated while celebrating Eucharist. The vestments still bore the stain of his blood and his wounds.2

The rose garden at the University of Central America (UCA) 

After taking in the atrocities committed against six Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the UCA, it was a relief to stand in silence with the beauty of the rose garden planted by Obdulio Ramos, husband of Elba and father of Celina. The garden holds a plaque memorializing the names of his two family members as well as the six Jesuit priests who were murdered for identifying themselves with the oppressed people of El Salvador. The roses, blooming beauty and peace, remind us that the Paschal Mystery is not about suffering and death alone, but also about the fullness of hope, of resurrection and risen life. 

The prayer of Thomas Merton 

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of Maryknoll Sister Maura Clarke’s death, her nephew, Peter, spoke at my parish and gave me a small bag with soil from his aunt’s grave. It has become one of my touchstones. He told us that soon after his aunt’s death, Maura’s family traveled to El Salvador to see and understand better what had captured her heart and why she could not bear to tear herself away from her beloved Salvadoran people. In her bare room, there was only one thing hanging on the wall, a sheet of paper. On that paper was Thomas Merton’s prayer,3 so appropriate for one who lived in a climate marked by civil war, uncertainty, and the constant threat of death for identifying with the most poor and vulnerable people: 

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end… I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” 

Embracing the fullness of our humanity

We revere these holy ones not simply because of how they died but because of how they lived, with a full-throated, emphatic “Yes!” to solidarity with their neighbors. Because their lives embodied and resonated with the Paschal Mystery, the suffering, death, and rising of Jesus. 

Because they remind us that just as Jesus chose to fully inhabit our human condition with all that it entails, we, too, are called to embrace the fullness of our humanity with its beauty and its limitations. 

What might the witness of these martyrs have to say to those of us who are fully planted in the land of the living? After all, most of us will not be called to give our physical lives away as these holy ones did. But all of us are summoned into daily discerning around what it is that we want to live—truly live for in our time and place. We are summoned into deep listening so we might hear the cries of the poor and act with justice. We are summoned into breathing compassion and love into a world that longs for both. We are summoned into deep and prayerful living that moves us closer to the abundant life that is God’s dream for every one of us. 

The questions remain: How will we move forward now, living lives of compassion and peace and inclusion? How will we create with our lives a field of healing presence for our beautiful yet wounded world? 

  1. Story Corps, “On the Day Their Concentration Camp Was Liberated, Two Former Prisoners Found Love.” To listen to a recording of the story told by Margot and Susan Moinester, go to https://storycorps. org/stories/on-the-day-their-concentration-camp-was-liberated-two-former-prisoners-found-love/ ↩︎
  2. “The Jesuit Martyrs of the UCA,” The Archbishop Romero Trust  ↩︎
  3. Prayer of Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, The Abbey of Gethsemani, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1956. To read the full text of the prayer, go to↩︎

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