Lectio Divina and an Image of a Homeless Person Realized in Psalm 31
“I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances,
those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind
like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.”
I came across this passage around 20 years ago while practicing Lectio Divina (Sacred Reading) which is a multi-step spiritual practice that involves reading scripture, meditating upon scripture, praying in response to scripture, and contemplating after praying.
The first step of reading (lectio) is an act of reverential listening that is based on the idea that when we read scripture we are listening to God speaking to us. When we begin to reflect on the meaning of the words we enter into the next step of meditation (meditatio). This second stage involves reflecting on all, most, some or even a few of the words and related values that one finds revealed by the text. Thus, the transition from hearing the text to interacting with the text makes this step an important one. The third step of prayer creates a dialogue with God. The passage from meditation to prayer allows one to take one’s experiences of the first two steps to God for further revelation. The next step of contemplation allows one to not only accept divine revelation but also to rest in God’s transforming embrace (for more information about this practice see https://old-monk.coryp.xyz/lectio-divina-a-call-to-serene-contemplation-and-social-commitmen/).
Twenty years ago, I was a social worker providing case management services to homeless persons including veterans who had served during the Vietnam War.
As I was reading Psalm 31, I began to read and reread verses 11 and 12 and began meditating on them several times over the next few weeks. I was gripped by the image of the person being described by the verses because I was previously gripped by the feelings several homeless veterans shared with me about their homeless experience.
One feeling they shared concerned the “1,000 yard-stare” which they described as a painful experience that happened too often while they were walking the streets. They described the 1,000 yard-stare as an unfocused gaze of battle-weary soldiers who wanted distance from the unpleasant incidents that they experienced and/or saw too often while serving in Vietnam. They would then describe to me the looks that they got from people who would walk by them after they returned home and became homeless. They described the looks as blank and unfocused. People would look down in front of them or would look to the side of them or look right through them as though they were not there.
They knew people did not want to be reminded about homeless people but they also knew that some of them struggled with what to do. Either way, however, they knew that others not wanting to be reminded or not knowing what to do were the source of the painful 1,000 yard-stare. Thus, the pain that they felt was the result of the trauma they witnessed as an active soldier abroad that was compounded by the rejection that they felt as an inactive homeless veteran at home. The pain that I felt was the result of hearing their pain and the result of my own struggles to keep focused on them and their social service needs. Verses 11 and 12 helped me stay focused through the practice of Lectio Divina.
Twenty years later, I am involved in a national effort to end homelessness among veterans in the United States. During the past year, several cities, counties, and states have announced that they have significantly reduced homelessness among veterans in their jurisdictions. Many have announced that they have helped all homeless veterans, who wanted help, obtain permanent housing and are continuing to work with those homeless veterans who have refused help to date.
My involvement has been primarily in Southern California. I work closely with the 13 continuums of care that make up this region. Continuums of care are designated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and consist of a wide-range of public and private agency representatives that work together by focusing on preventing and ending local homelessness (for more information about continuums of care click on the following link: https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/coc).
My involvement has focused on helping continuums of care implement the evidence-based and best practices that have been effective locally or in other parts of the United States regarding homelessness among veterans. (for information about these practices click on the following link: https://www.usich.gov/resources/uploads/asset_library/Achieving_the_Goal_Ending_Veteran_ Homelessness_v3_10_01_15.pdf).
A map that I put together shows recent results regarding homelessness among veterans in Southern California (see http://www.urban-initiatives.org/images/PDFs/2015/2013%20- %202015%20SoCal%20CoC%20Homeless%20Veterans%20Comparison%20Map%20-%20for%20 distribution.pdf). Of the 13 continuums of care, 11 experienced decreases concerning homeless veterans between 2013 and 2015 and two remained the same. Hopefully, significant decreases will happen in all 13 continuums of care when 2016 data will be compared to 2015.
Practicing Lectio Divina over the years has moved me towards compassion and action which I consider the fifth and sixth steps of Lectio Divina when one begins to integrate Lectio Divina with solving social struggles. Such integration not only happens when I hear from others but when I research what I hear and provide reports, maps, and briefs. Reading also moves me to integrate Lectio Divina with solving social struggles. Right before I started editing this paper, I read a story in the New York Times entitled “On Perilous Migrant Trail, Women Often Become Prey to Sexual Abuse,” which described how thousands of migrant women have been traumatized by physical, sexual, and emotional abuse during and after their perilous journey. I flashed on a few stories that described Christ’s benevolent interactions with women.
The scriptures teach us to be Christ-like and to be Christ-like is to be compassionate. There are three linguistic expressions of compassion that underline what it means to be compassionate. The Latin root words literally describe compassion as “suffering together with another”. The Greek root words literally describe compassion as “a wrenching of one’s guts”. The Hebrew root words literally describe compassion as “a powerful emotion of birth that yields personal and societal transformation”
Therefore, being compassionate means to enter into the deep wounded heart of the world. This means to identify with the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the homeless, the dying, the exploited, the oppressed all whom God identifies with. However, when we open ourselves to the hurts and pains of the world, we inevitably open ourselves to our own hurts and pains as well. Too often, we have experienced brokenness in our own lives and are in need of the transforming embrace of God.
Once we have reached this point, we are at the threshold of action. One step of action could be to begin to avoid our own hurts and pains by avoiding the hurts and pains of others. A preferred step of action allows God to transform our pain by using us to heal the pain of others.
The theologian Henri Nouwen has helped etch the phrase “Wounded Healer” into the spiritual heart of the world. In his book, The Wounded Healer, Nouwen states that nobody escapes being wounded whether physically, emotionally, mentally, and/or spiritually and describes wounded healers as individuals who “must look after (their) own wounds but at the same time be prepared to heal the wounds of others.”
Wounded healers do not just look after their own wounds and the wounds of family members and friends. They are also prepared to heal the wounds of strangers. They become prepared by realizing two primary insights about their own wounds: 1) their wounds are not a source of shame and 2) their wounds are a source of healing. When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we become wounded healers. Each person is the wounded and the wounded healer.
The experience of integrating Lectio Divina with solving social struggles begins with the first step of reading scripture and the second meditating on those words that you feel that God is speaking to you. Transitioning to the third step involves interaction and includes creating a dialogue with God through prayer. At this point, the fourth step could just be about you resting in the embrace of God which is needed as part of a private intimate relationship with God.
However, integrating Lectio Divina with solving social struggles will likely move you beyond the private time with God and into a public time with God and others and the need for the fifth and sixth steps of compassion and action.
For me, integrating Lectio Divina with ending homelessness among veterans over the years has resulted in a lot of public time with God and others as a result of the fifth step of compassion and the sixth step of action. Such an on-going commitment involved integrating the spiritual practice with case managing homeless veterans; participating in public meetings, forums, and events; joining committees, commissions, and coalitions; reading, writing, and producing reports, maps, and briefs; and helping continuums of care implement evidence-based and best practices that have resulted in thousands of homeless veterans obtaining permanent housing and the necessary services to help them maintain their housing.
At the same time, integrating Lectio Divina with solving a social struggle like homelessness has resulted in efforts to end homelessness among all homeless persons which has also involved other actions as a result of the fifth and sixth steps of compassion and action such as writing lots of federal, state, and local public grants for local government and nonprofit agencies as well as grants to private foundations who give to charitable organizations.
The concept of the urban monk and the conception of the Society of Urban Monks evolved out of these experiences. If you are interested in joining the Society of Urban Monks, please create an account here.