Living Stones Speaking: Drew Listening

By: Joseph Cornelius Donnelly

December 19, 2022

Carrying Forward Drew Christiansen’s Legacy

Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., had that natural walk-about style of keeping present to the moment—and ultimately to the people with whom he was to encounter. Whether walking into a prime minister's office in Tel Aviv or an ambassador's office in Washington, DC, Drew was predictably polite, respectful, and attentive. His wizened, smart, and sharp style was quite serious but never preoccupied or self-impressive. In fact, Drew could be called casually relaxed—at least, until the priority substance of a dialoguing diplomatic moment unfolded. He knew with whom he was speaking.

When climbing steep old broken steps up to a Catholic holy shrine in Ein Karem-Jerusalem, Drew would discuss the art of camping and climbing with fellow pilgrims. For Drew, the spirituality of pilgrimage was “keeping it real”: being thoroughly present in the moment with the community. Then, inside a sacred space donning a white alb for a liturgy, he would climb out of his hiking-up-an-ancient-hillside mode to preach inviting, poignant reflections. Noting the people—those faithful, historically, and biblically associated with the site—he could speak as if he was just with Elizabeth or Zechariah, or John the Baptist or Holy Mary. Drew spoke of what he knew, what he believed. He prayed as hard as any dissertation he delivered at Georgetown or Boston College, Tantur or Notre Dame. He kept it quite real—living fully in the moment with an engaging familiarity which welcomed people in listening.

So when we would encounter troubling, even terrifying times, Drew quickly grasped the who of the moment so as to be very present with the people—known or unknown—whose often convoluted circumstances were anything but fair or just. He could hear the cries within. He could touch the pain being communicated or reported. He kept disciplined to see and hear first what was essential—the human pulse of the moment. Indeed, he would remember first names better than most, while often not catching other pertinent details regarding time or place. Who could argue with that deliberate listening, letting the living stones' shouting resonate greater than any dusty dead rocks?

Often, after a particular moment somewhere with someone, perhaps riding back in a staff-escorted bulletproof van, Drew would comment or ask: "Did you see that woman's tears? Did you hear what that old man was saying? How did you feel being there?" Then, many hours later, he would ask the same questions again, realizing together that such encounters with God's people anywhere were speaking still, beckoning for understanding more than just swift answers. The long-suffering why stayed with Drew through years and miles of peacemaking as he clearly found genuine room in his life, his work, and his prayers for the long-suffering who time after time.

Once, amidst a difficult negotiation over freedom, access, and rights for movement versus seemingly arbitrary restrictions, Drew asked a deeply religious and respectful High Court of Justice elder what the relentless occupation was doing to the soul of the people, the deepest searching sense of the community. The judge responded with his frank disposition: "I don't have time to worry for individual souls; I am preoccupied with the soul of the country." Drew and I tried to open up the absolute resolve of the answer by communicating the very human echoes we had heard from Jews, Christians, and Muslims; from Bedouins in the wilderness; from active and reserved soldiers; from still vulnerable victims seeking relief, hoping to be soulfully reconciled somehow. Such moments of angst wounded Drew beyond questions and answers, beyond dialogue and diplomacy. This listening led to deeper reflection as to what makes God pleased with his creation. Drew noted well: "The glory of God is a person fully alive."

Sitting with the then U.S. secretary of state one morning at Foggy Bottom, a religious leader eagerly asked the secretary, "Are you for peace?" In the small circle of five participants, we scanned anxious looks with each other as the response given was not exactly what was expected. Drew did his very best to hear the clear message in that awkward moment to realize the otherwise polite meeting would now conclude. Quite ironically, as we exited the indeed quite stately office, a call came to my mobile phone from a White House staff organizer, asking if we could get back there to meet the candidate for the next presidential election who had previously been unavailable. We whispered a bit as we were still in the secretary's presence. Drew graciously echoed out loud: "We are really running late and need to catch a train at Union Station ASAP." Indeed, another listening moment speaking.

Whether it was with a Sister of Charity at an orphanage or with our resourceful, helpful drivers and escorts from the Catholic Relief Services—United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Drew consistently brought these colleagues and friends into the conversation of the moments. Without carelessly letting go of needs for discretion, Drew would share honestly the challenges of meeting, advocating, and listening. He went out of his way to be sure that no unnecessary myths or ruminations echoed from the honest work of the Church being done in complicated times or places, crossing borders and cutting edges to facilitate some breakthroughs.

Some things are absolutely necessary. Some absolutes can seem impossible to negotiate or break through. Drew pushed as hard and as far as he could to do justice, to seek peace, and to bridge gaps, holding out hope no matter what. Listening long, he was never inclined to just let go—believing the Lord would lead further.

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