Bitter and Sweet

July 04, 2020

Bro. Brian Poulin

Saturday of the 13th Week in Ordinary Time; American Independence Day

I spent the last two weeks of June at the Marist Brothers Center at Esopus, partaking in a pair of contrasting and complementary experiences.

First, I was privileged to enjoy a week of solitary retreat, which I saw as a chance to disconnect in order to re-connect. My intention was not to bury my head in the sand regarding the troubles and injustices demanding our attention, but rather to re-charge in order to reconsider and re-engage. Thus, my prayer and reading throughout the week focused in large part on our call to participate in the building of a more just world and on exploring the spiritual dimension of the anger I have been feeling in light of current events.

When reviewing the stories of the ancient Israelite kings, I was struck by the contrasting descriptions of those who “did evil in the Lord’s sight” and those who “did what was right in the Lord’s sight.” Note that the primary question here was not a matter of religious observance, but rather the treatment of the common people, particularly the weak and vulnerable: “What do I care for the multitude of your sacrifices […] Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s pleas, defend the widow.” (Isaiah 1: 11, 16-17)

While God truly loves us all, these biblical accounts helped me recognize more clearly than ever before that being loved by God is vastly different from being favored by God. The wickedness of certain rulers called forth the very prophets that denounced and undermined them. The rot and corruption of the societies they diminished left them vulnerable to insurrection and foreign invasion. Nevertheless, God may lovingly invite even the wicked to conversion of heart. One way or another, God also guarantees out of love for us that no evil shall endure without end. Then, now, and evermore, evil structures contain the seeds of their own destruction.

Right now, access to medical care is more often determined by wealth rather than health; innocent children can be deliberately separated from their families and placed in cages; significant portions of the population must wrongfully fear the very public servants responsible for ensuring public safety. Truly, the present world cannot persist. Anybody who is comfortable normalizing these and other criminally stubborn injustices are simply not on God’s side. Instead, God prefers the part of the Beatitude people: the poor, the hungry, the grieving, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They suffer now, but theirs is the better day that is coming. Defending structures indelibly stained by bigotry and inequality is ultimately a fool’s errand.

This may sound radical, but the Church expresses hope for such transformation every evening when those who pray the Divine Office join in Mary’s praise of God’s goodness: “He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1: 52-53).

To participate in the building of God’s Kingdom to come though, righteous anger is necessary but ultimately insufficient. We must also love, and even learn to love our enemies (without enabling their unjust behaviors, attitudes, projects, nor positions). We must define ourselves primarily by what we are for rather than what we are against.

The second Esopus experience I alluded to helped remind me of those realities. After my week of solitude, several of us came together for a shared week of manual labor, prayer, and community, as is so typical in our Marist world. A family with young children came, as did recent high school graduates, other young adults, and several less youthful adults, both brothers and laity. Even with social distancing and other precautions, we were able to touch each other’s hearts. While our work included the construction of a new deck, it more importantly provided the context for us to remember in anticipation the new world that we are called to participate in building—particularly together with those who are not part of our immediate community, regardless of the similarities or differences between us.

There are important struggles to be fought in pursuit of justice and peace. Without grounding these efforts in meaningful experiences of joy and love however, the harshness of violence, oppression, and grinding poverty can threaten to overwhelm us or disfigure us until we become little better than those we hope to topple.

We need to sample the bitterness of the present world to remember the urgency with which it must be dismantled, but we also need to savor its sweetness or else the new one will not be any better.


This week’s “ear candy” repurposes a well-known patriotic melody to speak of the world we hope for in peace rather than the triumph of military might. The “brain food” is a 1935 Langston Hughes poem that shows his insights regarding what it would mean for him to “make America great again” or to “keep America great”.

Ear Candy: “Your Peace Will Make Us One” by Audrey Assad

Brain Food: “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes

This blog series is transitioning to a monthly format. Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!