People often look at us oddly when we tell them the name of our house. Most Catholic Worker Houses are named after fairly well known "Saints" or virtuous ideas. But Hagar? Isn't Hagar the character in Hagar the Horrible comic strip? Or some American rocker dude with a guitar? Who is this Hagar person really, and why call a Catholic Worker House by that name? That is an excellent question!
Hagar has been with us from virtually the very beginning of our faith story. An Egyptian woman that lived sometime between 1930 B.C. and 1840 B.C. Hagar was a slave of the patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah. She was a dynamic, faith-filled individual who lived out an amazing faith journey. But it was no Disney story. Her life was both layered with wretched inhumanity and lit with Divine intervention.
Within scripture, Hagar’s story is found in the book of Genesis, chapters 12-21. All Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) look to this period in some form. However, except for in Islam, Hagar is a person seemingly overlooked, theologically stepped over or disregarded, and often with prejudice. Yet not once did God treat her in this manner. In fact, if we but take a moment to see her in some of the darkest moments of her life, she had some of the most incredible spiritual, life-changing experiences recorded in scripture. Her life struggles, spiritual discernments, and ultimately, her journey from one life-understanding to another, mirror the realities many of us can relate to today.
The elderly and childless Abraham and the barren Sarah had been promised a child by God. How impossible this must have seemed! Not only was Abraham told he would be the father of many nations and have more descendants than the stars in the sky, God had said that Abraham's post menopausal, barren wife was going to bear him a child. But ten years passed and the only thing pregnant was the pause between God's words and His actions. Abraham and Sarah got tired of waiting. (Haven't most of us got tired of waiting on God at some point in our lives?) With only the proverbial seed planted about having a child, Sarah and Abraham decided to take matters into their own hands, but it was at the expense of someone else's body.
Here we are introduced to Hagar through the social injustice of slavery and it’s accepted consequences at that time. As in modern day human trafficking, we see the deep sexual connotations. Sarah "gave" Hagar to Abraham to impregnate so that Sarah and Abraham could take the child as theirs. Their plan worked, and Hagar conceived a child.
Imagine what Hagar was going through as a pregnant slave. Not only would her body have experienced the hormonal changes of pregnancy and fatigue from the manual labor she would have been required to continue, but also imagine the emotions she must have experienced from having a baby implanted inside without her consent - a baby which would then be taken from her, also without consent, and claimed as Sarah's child.
What we also learn through this story is that despite the fact that this founding "community" was far from perfect, God loved each individual in the tale and walked each one into a greater evolving story.
Scripture says that as soon as Hagar realized she conceived she began to despise Sarah. Sarah became angry and went and told Abraham that this was his fault. Abraham said "she" was her slave and to do with her whatever Sarah pleased. Neither called Hagar by name. Neither even considered what she might be going through. Rather, Sarah went home and beat the pregnant Hagar. The badly abused mother-to-be then ran away and fled into the wilderness. Probably in one of the two darkest moments of her life, the incredible happened. Whereas no one else bothered to call Hagar by her name, Hagar suddenly heard the God of all Creation calling her, "Hagar, maid of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?"
This was a profound moment. God was inviting the young woman whom no one thought to consider, into contemplation! This very question is what we at our Catholic Worker House use for our personal discernment and we invite those who enter the house to reflect on these very words of God, "Where have YOU come from and where are YOU going?" (Imagery in the Hagar story is very suggestive and allegorical and worth reading the whole story.)
The moment becomes even more amazing as Hagar pours out her problems, and God re-figures Hagar's value and purpose. He identifies with her that Sarah is being abusive, yet He does something so bizarre, something we will later see as Christ like: He sends her back into the defective community - but now working for God, not Sarah. He asks her to submit to the abuse for awhile, while He continues to try to bring about change in that community.
How many leaders of social justice - from Jesus, to Gandhi, to MLK - have let themselves be subjected to a society's injustice as they worked in love to break the systemic hold of injustice on a society when they could have fled somewhere else?
For Hagar’s act of trust in Him, God tells her, "I will make your descendants so numerous, that they will be too many to count." God makes almost the same promise to Hagar, a slave woman, as He did the patriarch, Abraham! But where God would forewarn Abram that his people would experience enslavement and oppression of their own, He tells Hagar to name her child Ishmael, which means "God has heard". God then said that the child, "...shall be a wild ass of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him; In opposition to all his kin shall he encamp."
Now to our modern ears this sounds insulting and terrible, but as one theologian has said, you must hear it with slave ears. A wild ass was not "owned" as someone's work mule. For a woman who had been told where to go and what to do, forced to work, and beaten, imagine what it must have felt like to hear that her son would be able to do what he wanted and somehow have a "choice" in his ability to decide where he lived. He would not be a slave or under someone's thumb. Somehow, if Hagar trusted God, her son would know freedom. In wonder of this promise, Hagar exclaims, " I have seen the God that sees me and lived!" With these words, Hagar becomes the first person in the Bible to Name God!. And what a beautiful Name for God: "I have seen the God that SEES me!"
This statement is crucial for our Catholic Worker House as well. We belong to a God of vision, a God of life, and He lovingly looks upon us all. Some of our most beautiful moments here have been when our sojourners have walked into that awareness!
Some years went by, Abraham and Ishmael had been bound together to God through circumcision with all the other males in their clan. God was still trying to teach and develop the idea of "Community". And then suddenly, according to our scripture, lo and behold, the 90 year old Sarah became pregnant around this time and she and Abraham have the promised child, Isaac. But their prior choice to take matters into their own hands at Hagar's expense had consequences. One being that Ishmael was the oldest child, and the oldest child in those days was the rightful heir of Birth Rights (meaning they inherited all the father's stuff). I'm sure Sarah had a moment wishing she had waited on God. But instead of going to Him to ask for His help, she unfortunately repeated a faulty pattern by taking matters into her own hands again. Now she decided she must get rid of very the child she orchestrated to be “her” child. But how?
She waited. Then one day during a community gathering, when Ishmael and Issac were playing together, Sarah yelled, “Drive out that slave and her son! No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance with my son Isaac!"
Abraham was in distress, but he heard God say, "Heed the demands of Sarah." And God told him that Sarah would get her wish. It would be through Isaac that the Covenant Promise to Abraham would come about.
It is easy to be frustrated with God at this point in the story, but...“wait for it"...as the saying goes.
We enter into what had to have been Hagar's darkest hour. Early the next morning Abraham gave Hagar a skin of water and some bread and sent her and little Ishmael, alone and rejected, away from their community into the desert. Read: into death.
This suddenly becomes a story many people today can relate to. Here is the Bible’s first single mother. Here is our rejected and bullied friend. Here, as the bread and water run out, is the family facing food scarcity. Here, the boy dying as they aimlessly roamed in the desert, is the desperate parent in need of assistance. Hagar put Ishmael's limp body in the shade of a bush, and unable to watch her child die, she sat down opposite of him - a "bowshot away". Here, as young Ishmael began to cry, are the first recorded tears in scripture.
God's Messenger then spoke from Heaven and said, "What is the matter, Hagar? Don't be afraid. God has heard the boy's cry in this plight of his. Arise, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make of him a great nation." Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. Ishmael and Hagar were free! A slave woman and her child were alive and free!
Ishmael grew up to be an expert bowman and went on to be considered the founder of many nations. Though Muslims consider Abraham their "Father", Ishmael is considered their prophet. Understanding the rejection and inequality that created the division in our first faith community, a division that is still with us today, is important.
Isaac grew up, got married, and his wife had twins. And almost as though it was just to prove that nothing is impossible, the youngest son inherited the oldest twin's birthright. But that is another story.
Isaac's descendants continued to be the keepers of the covenant promise (something Sarah so wanted her child Isaac to inherit) until the arrival of Jesus - the ultimate fulfillment and covenant Himself. Ironically, He made Himself a servant, a slave of all men. I do not think it was by accident, at the Institution of the Eucharist, that Jesus said, "I no longer call you slaves, but friends." And He gave Himself to be the One in which the whole world could have a home, a community.
I have gone on about this story because for our Catholic Worker House it holds a foundation understanding of a “God who sees" each one of us, and who knows our names. Even when it can seem that justice or goodness or sustainability is long in coming, we must remember that God is at work.
Jesus's life was just as much for Hagar as it is for us. Abraham and Sarah, even with all their faults, were not rejected by God - even when they were rejecting other human beings’ God-given rights. God's merciful vision does not overlook our brokenness or dysfunction of unity, but in love, He walks into them. And He invites all who are willing to go with Him.
Sometimes we are the ones working for sustainable environments and food sources, either physically or spiritually. Sometimes we are the ones with breaking hearts, bleeding out prayers for help. Sometimes we might be someone’s shade tree, as they cry out with dying souls to hear God's life-giving voice. Sometimes we might be the messenger for God saying, "Don't be afraid," as we help others rise up. Sometimes we are the ones to hold a hand, to hold a vision. Sometimes we might be the eyes leading someone to the well of Living Water. Sometimes we might be the one praising God with a brother or sister who has found their freedom.
Sometimes we are simply the ones who remember that God loves us all and that He isn't finished. And we become the ones to ask, "Where have we come from and where are we going?"
No matter where we have come from, what our pasts hold, we are heading Home. Home is our answer. We are going to a place where Hagar has a Home, as do we all. Journey with us.
Your Sister Always,