Last year I described a practice I’d begun during the pandemic: applying lectio divina—a slow, contemplative reading of sacred texts—to stories and photos from the world’s most ravaged places. Let’s call it photo divina for lack of a better term. The practice, even though I’ve only used it occasionally, has had a powerful effect on the way I think about aspects of my daily life.
Like hot showers.
I love a hot shower. No, it’s more than that: on most days I have to shower before I can function. And the shower has to be hot. I could work up a snit about someone draining the hot water tank right before my shower, but fortunately our tank is big enough to accommodate our household.
Now put that first-world mindset up against this fact from 2017, reported by WHO and UNICEF (via the CDC): “About 3 billion people worldwide lack adequate facilities to safely wash their hands at home.” Forget about hot water, or hot water tanks, or anything of the sort. These folks have to worry whether their water could kill them.
Facts like these throw a stark light on many details of my life. We own two cars when many people walk hours to gather fuel for their cooking fires. Owning an entire house is unthinkable in huge swaths of the world. Compared with billions of people, Americans have scads of wealth and privilege.
How do we Americans respond to this? My automatic response has always involved shame: “We don’t deserve all this stuff.” It’s been a vague kind of shame, briefly felt in response to a stimulus (like a news report from Africa) before I move on to the next thing in my life. For me, this brief shame is useless; it doesn’t change anything, for the world’s poorest people or within me.
The contemplative nature of photo divina is leading me to a different approach. For now, it wants me to simply detect and observe the privilege I have: how pervasive it is, how it shapes my expectations and assumptions (e.g., “I have to shower before I can function”). Contemplation wants me to simply observe the stories and photos over which I linger, and feel the stark difference between our lives, and how their lives are different—no more and certainly no less valuable than mine.
I want the resulting awareness to seep right into my bones and into my neurons, so that it never leaves me. This kind of awareness, for contemplatives like me, is what fuels our ability to do good in the world—or, as one of the closing prayers in the Episcopal liturgy (p. 366) puts it, “to do the work You have given us to do.”
Not everyone resonates with contemplative practice, though, and I’m sure other folks have found other ways to address this. How do you respond—within yourself—to the disparity between what you have and what others don’t? How does your inner response shape your ability to do good?