The movie 12 Years A Slave was recommended by my spiritual director, a wise, learned, and deeply spiritual Dominican Sister, who suggested that I look specifically for the points of grace in the movie. I saw it with a couple of fellow novices, one a Dominican like myself, and the other a Franciscan. The setting of the movie was the time of slavery in the US. It recounts the experience of a free, educated Black man from the North who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. There he endured 12 brutal and degrading years under two different masters, until finally a sympathetic White man took the risk of contacting someone from the North who could vouch for his free status and take him back home to his family.
At one point in the movie I wept so hard that I had to stifle the sound of my cries with my scarf. One of his fellow slaves, driven to complete despair, had begged him to kill her, which he refused to do. She assured him that he would not go to hell for slaying her because it was merciful, and God Himself was merciful, but he remained unconvinced. [SPOILER ALERT! Later on he was forced by the master to beat her with a whip, which he did, because he was placed in a no-win situation.] Then the most difficult moment: lying face-down at a table and screaming in pain while the wounds on her back were being treated, she gazed up at him, her eyes revealing the hideous torment that she carried in her very soul.
In my time in the novitiate, I have come to an acute awareness of something profound and true about myself: that in my heart I carry all the seeds necessary to have become any one of the people in the story, given the right circumstances - the amoral, the despicable, the victimized, the hopeless, the one paralyzed by self-interest, the sympathetic, and the courageous. I think we all do, whether or not we would like to admit it. We are made by God with a vast capacity for both good and evil. And there but for the grace of God are we not led into great temptation, for we are weak and feeble against it. And should evil have knocked at our door and we gave in to it, as it did the torturous slave masters in the story, would we even be aware of it, except to see the result of our actions or inactions looking back at us in the eyes of those we have hurt?
There is a climactic moment too in the Gospel of John, which helps me to hold both the reality of the cruelty that we are capable of and God’s immutable and immeasurable love. In John 17, Jesus prays to God out loud, right before He willingly enters into His Passion. He prays on behalf of His followers for God to protect them in the Name He had given them, to consecrate them in truth, and to protect them from the evil one, so that they may be gathered and united in the love that God has had for Jesus since before the foundation of the world. For me, Jesus’ mission and vision statements are contained in this prayer. Love is hard, but choose it anyway; the point is for everyone to grow in love.
In the story, God was paradoxically present to the slaves and protecting them in that even while they were being tortured and debased, they did not lose all hope. All of the slaves, as well as those sympathetic to the abolition of slavery, were consecrated and remained steadfast in the truth of their dignity and right to freedom. And yes, it took a long time and many were the casualties, but freedom eventually prevailed. These are the points of grace. No one but God, Who is the source of them, can take them away.
How does this apply to our lives today? Are we able to see the truth of when we oppress and when we are oppressed? Do we look carefully into the eyes of those who are marginalized, find mercy in our hearts, and have the courage to help them and those who seek to overturn the systems that put them in the margins to begin with? Do we speak the truth to our oppressors with courageous, compassionate, and steadfast hearts? Do we participate fully in an arduous love that gathers and unites us as one or do we sit in the sidelines and let injustices continue? In this beautiful world that is at times difficult to live in, can we get in touch with, and live out of, the points of grace in our own lives?...for surely, that is where love comes from.