Wednesday, July 27, 2011

¡Pase. Adelante!

I must admit that when I arrived in a bus full of my brother seminarians on a Sunday afternoon in June, I wasn’t sure what to expect during my eight week stay in Antigua. Most of what I knew about the city was limited to what can be found in a guide book or a quick search on Google. As seminarian for a Diocese in Texas, USA, we had been sent to Antigua in order to learn Spanish. However, during this time, not only have I learned a great deal of Spanish, but I have learned other valuable lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. These lessons all began with a simple phrase…

As the bus traveled in reverse down the long narrow alley towards the house I would be living in, I became increasingly nervous. My mind was flooded with questions, with fears, and with worries. What would my house look like? Would my room be comfortable? How would the family treat me? Would I be treated as just another ‘extranjero’ or would I receive a warm welcome? Was I going to be safe in Antigua? Would the driver of the bus be able to drive down the alley without getting into an accident?

From the street, the house looked like many of the other houses in Antigua. The outside of the house was painted a bright color and had high walls that prevented anyone from seeing inside. Some of the houses even had razor wire or glass on top of the walls in order to keep intruders out of the house. The high walls, solid metal front doors, and closed doors send a clear message: uninvited guests are not welcome and every precaution is taken to keep whatever is securely locked inside hidden from view. Entrance will only be granted by the invitation of the owner. I could not help but ask myself, “Are they trying to hide what is on the inside, or are they trying to protect themselves from the dangers that exist outside the walls?” Perhaps it is both.

As I walked toward the front door, I was greeted by a welcoming smile from the owner of the house and a simple invitation, “Hola. Pase. Adelante.” With this simple phrase I was being welcomed into a family’s home. As I entered the house I was pleasantly surprised by how beautiful it was on the inside. The house was beautifully decorated, had a lot more space than I thought based on my view from the street, and was very clean. The walls of the living room were covered with pictures of the family’s son and daughter from when they were only children. The family dog quickly let me know that she was not accustomed to my presence and was still not ready to welcome another stranger.

After organizing my things in my room, I walked out onto the terrace on the roof. The beauty of Volcan de Agua towering over this city took my breath away. From my elevated viewpoint I could also see what was hidden behind the walls of the neighbor’s house. I was able to see beautiful gardens, flowers, and open courtyards. There was so much beauty hidden behind those big exterior walls. I could also hear the bells ringing at La Merced inviting the faithful to join the community for the celebration of the Eucharist. I quickly realized that there was more to Antigua than what could be seen from the street level.

Over the course of the next few days I began to explore Antigua by walking up and down the streets. I passed rows and rows of houses with doors that remained closed to those on the outside. Occasionally I would catch a glimpse through an open door and discover a beautiful garden or some other sign that indicated there was much more to be seen behind those high walls. In the parts of town frequented by tourists I was greeted by many people who offered to shine my shoes, sell me various arts and crafts, or direct me to the nearest travel agency. I could hear the ‘ayudantes’ on the buses calling out “¡Guate…Guate!” and other destinations to their potential customers. As I walked down Arch Street, I was greeted by many people standing in the doorways of the businesses calling out the simple invitation, “Pase. Adelante.” I noticed that on the exterior walls of every restaurant there is a menu posted on the wall. There are no attempts at deception. From street level, a tourist can see exactly what is being offered on the inside behind the high walls. There are no surprises. Nothing is kept hidden. The very life of the business depends on the customer being drawn in from the street. The customer becomes the life giving blood of the business and the business in turn feeds the customer. Neither one cannot exist without the other.

It wasn’t until I had climbed the stairs to the top of Cerro de la Cruz that I felt like I got a real glimpse of Antigua. From this view on a hill overlooking the city, I could see places that are impossible to see from the street. I saw buildings, courtyards, and open spaces that I never knew existed. For the first time, I was starting to see the real beauty of Antigua. Standing in the shadow of the giant stone cross I could not help but think I was given a glimpse of what the city looks like from Heaven. However, something was missing. There had to be more. The true beauty of the city had yet to be revealed.

Over the next few weeks I would eventually discover the true beauty of Antigua and every other city for that matter. Like Antigua, the true beauty in every city is found behind high walls and locked metal doors. However, I am not talking about the houses and buildings I encountered. No, instead I am talking about the high walls and locked metal doors that many of us construct around our hearts. Each of us has the beautiful courtyard or garden deep within our hearts in which God chooses to dwell. The interior walls of our hearts, like the walls of our houses, are decorated with memories from our childhood. Some of them are pleasant and others we might like to forget, but they are there and they tell the story of who we are to whomever we invite inside. Sometimes we are content to keep what is contained in our hearts securely locked away from the outside world for fear of being hurt, or worse, rejected. Instead we remain content living within the sanctuary we have created for ourselves. We stay where we feel safe.

However, the real problem is that, like the business, we were created with a need to establish relationships with one another. The community that we build by inviting others into our hearts is what gives us life. God has created each one of us not for ourselves but for the other. Like the business and the customer, we cannot be ourselves without our neighbor. It is for this reason that God gives us the commandment to love our neighbors as He has loved us. In order for us to experience the love that is the Most Holy Trinity in our own hearts, we must be willing to open wide the doors and invite others inside.

I am not suggesting that we stop being cautious altogether and simply take down all of the walls and doors that have been constructed in our lives. I merely have come to realize that the beauty of a neighborhood, a town, a nation, or even the world is only to be found in the love that is capable of existing between one another. This love can be found deep in our hearts and is sometimes hidden behind many walls. However, it is a love that no thief, government, civil war, or other tragedy can take away from us. It is a love that no material possession, worldly pleasure, or political candidate can promise to give you. It is a love that does not discriminate against the unemployed, the elderly, the indigenous, the poor, the rich, etc. This love is a beauty that will shine brilliantly in the eyes of those who are allowed to glimpse it. It is a beauty that cannot be captured in a photograph or printed in a brochure. It is a beauty that is available by invitation only. Each of us has already been invited by God to partake in the beauty that is found in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is the same beauty that lies in each of our hearts. It is a beauty that is intended to be given away freely, without cost, and without attachments. Only in this love do we fulfill our vocation, our calling, to be children of God. Only in this way can we truly find the treasure we are all searching for. Our only task is to extend the invitation to those around us and allow them to see us for who we really are.

As for me, I am only an extranjero who is passing through Antigua. But while I have been here I have learned more than the language. I have learned that when the next person comes knocking at the door of my heart, my response will be, “Pase. ¡Adelante!”

Sunday, July 10, 2011

El Sembrador – “The seed sower”

Last night two of my friends went with me to see the movie Inception as a cinema here in Antigua, Guatemala. All of us have seen the movie before, but when your options of things to do on a Saturday night is limited, going to watch a free movie doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. For those of you who have not seen the movie yet, stop reading this, rent/buy the movie, and read this later. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll wait…

Ok, if you kept reading without watching the movie then I don’t feel bad for the spoiler that is about to come in the next few sentences. The general premise of the movie is that a group of people who possess the technology to extract ideas from people’s subconscious while they are dreaming attempt to implant an idea into someone’s head. As the story unravels we find out that not only is it possible to plant an idea but the leader of the group (DiCaprio’s character) has actually done it. DiCaprio’s character planted an idea in his wife’s mind that became so powerful that it took over her life. Eventually it caused her to be unable to distinguish what is real and what isn’t. The simple suggestion by her husband in a dream-like state was enough to change her entire life and eventually would lead her to her death. Don’t blame me for the spoiler, I warned you!

I bring this up not to give you a commentary or a review of one of Hollywood’s greatest movies. While I was watching this movie last night it added fuel to a fire that had been burning in my mind all week. As I have been praying with the gospel reading for this week (Sower and the seed), I have been fixed on the thought of how much power our words can have in another person’s life.

Most of the times I have previously focused on this passage of Scripture (Mt 13:1-23), I have focused on Christ as the sower, the Word of God as the seed, and us as the soil. Honestly, this is probably the best exegesis of the passage (since in this case Jesus is the exegete) and I don’t intend to change it. I have always focused on what type of soil can be found in my heart. Will the Word of God, when sown in my direction, find itself falling on rock ground, dry arid soil, or the rich fertile soil that is necessary for it to take root and bear fruit. This meditation has served me well in the past and I am sure will serve me well in the future.

However, this week I have been looking at the parable from the other side. As baptized Christians we too are called to join in Christ’s mission and be sowers of His Word in the life of others. Many times we are aware of our mission and make intentional efforts to evangelize either through word or deed. Occasionally we are guilty of sowing the seed of God’s Word only in those areas where we think it will take root and bear fruit. We decided that there is no point in wasting seed or effort on rocky and infertile ground. Other times we stumble across the fruit of God’s seed being planted in fertile soil and wonder how it got there. Who was the sower in this situation? Was it me? What did I say?

There have been several times in my life when I knew that my words would deeply impact the person who would hear them. Anyone who has been a police officer for any period of time knows what it is like to tell a set of parents that their child will not be coming home. At the time of this event in my life, I knew very well what pain and sorrow would follow the words that I had to share. I had received a similar call just a few months before. To keep up with the analogy of the gospel, I knew what kind of seed I was sowing. What I did not know was what kind of fruit it would bear. I had no way of knowing that this event would forever have an impact of my life of faith and my relationship with God. While I expected weeds to grow in this situation, I was surprised by some of the most beautiful flowers that God could create.

I am also well aware of the effects that other people’s words have had in my life. Some of them were cast in my direction with the intention of causing me pain or injury. Others were said in a careless manner but took root nonetheless and had a great impact in my life. Like the weeds among the wheat, some of them have simply remained for fear of uprooting the wheat along with the weeds.

What’s my point? This week I have been reminded that my words, whether I directly intend them too or not can have a powerful effect on the lives of others. I have had several conversations with people only to have them come back several days later and thank me for having said what I said. Some of the conversations were nothing more than a smile and a simple “hello” or “howdy.” Other times the conversations lasted for hours and covered a wide variety of topics. To be honest, most of the time I don’t even recall what was said. Other times I have shared stories about my life with others and then later sat and wondered why I revealed that much about myself to another person. It was only later that I would discover that the person found something in what I had to say that was useful to them.

At the same time I have realized that my words have (at times) had a negative effect on those around me as well. My complaining about one situation or another can cause those around me to also become negative about a given situation. My careless use of speech can cause another person a great deal of pain or hurt. My lack of humility at times or my moments of intolerance have the potential to affect someone’s faith life. I guess what I am trying to say it that there is a greater amount of responsibility that each of us bears in terms of choosing our words carefully. It is a responsibility that each of us has as baptized Christians. We are both the sower and the soil.

So, this week, instead of focusing on what type of soil is in my heart and whether or not God’s word will take root there, I am focusing on becoming more aware of the potential effects (both positive and negative) my words can have on the lives of those around me. I am going to try and make sure that I am not planting seeds that will grow into weeds and choke the life out of the wheat that should be growing there instead.

Pax tecum,

Sunday, July 3, 2011

“Poco a Poco”

“Little by Little.” This little phrase quickly became my motto for my time here in Antigua, Guatemala. As I have mentioned before, I have been assigned to a Spanish immersion program in Antigua for eight weeks this summer. In addition to taking six hours of class each day, I spend part of my time walking around the city, taking trips to other parts of the country, and speaking with my family and other locals in an attempt to learn a little bit about the culture of the ‘Guatemaltecos’. I must admit that it has been a slow process for me, both in learning Spanish and in learning to appreciate the many different cultures that are present here. I have come to realize that my lack of patience extends well beyond my attempts to bridge the cultural gaps and to learn a foreign language. I realize, as I have said in other posts, that God is using this time to teach me not only Spanish, but another language that only the heart can speak and understand.

It did not take me long in Antigua to realize that my expectations for learning the entire Spanish language in eight weeks were completely unreasonable. For some reason I had it in my head that for this summer to be a true success, I had to return to the States being fluent in Spanish. Each day as I would sit in class, I would become extremely frustrated with what I perceived to be my own lack of progress. I get frustrated when learning the subtle differences between the Pluscuamperfecto and the Present Perfect tense. I get frustrated by my inability to fully express what I want to say when I am having a spiritual conversation with my teacher. I have found it extremely frustrating to have something that you really want to say but don’t have the means or the capacity to say it. It is like having a gift that you desperately want to give but for one reason or other are unable to let go of it. My teacher can see the frustration written all over my face. After about 5.5 hours she can see me slowly shutting down. My progress comes to a near halt as my frustration sets in and dominates my demeanor.

However, the true problem lies not in the fact that I am not making progress in learning Spanish. The truth is I have made a great deal of progress in the last four weeks. The real problem lies in my perspective. The problem is the set of discolored lenses through which I view my own progress. At times the lenses are nothing more than blinders that prevent me from seeing anything. At other times they are like the ‘drunk goggles’ that police officers and educators use to teach people what it is like to drive while intoxicated. With these glasses everything seems blurry and shapes are difficult to see. At other times my blindness to my own progress seems to be similar to ‘night blindness’ that is caused by improper (or vitamin deficient) nutrition. Regardless of the cause, the inability to see my own progress becomes a rapidly spreading virus that affects the rest of my life. Sometimes the only way I can see my progress is when someone else points it out to me. In the case of learning Spanish, my teacher has repeatedly tried to point this out but, for one reason or the other, I couldn’t accept what she was saying.

Recently, I posted a few pictures of me after being in Guatemala for a few weeks. In addition to the many compliments I received about my beard (Thank you), several people told me that it looked like I have lost weight. Each time I deflected the comment and said that I don’t think I have lost weight. I told them that I feel like I have gained weight. Despite the fact that my pants are getting a little bigger (literally not figuratively) and I am on the last hole on my belt, I wasn’t ready to accept the truth of my progress in losing weight. Perhaps it was because I could not take credit for the success. After all, I have not been trying to lose weight whilst I am here. I have not been watching what I eat and I thought I had been eating too many carbs. Yesterday, I got on the scale at the local hospital (one that you pay about 12.5 cents to use) and realized that I have lost 10-11 pounds in the last month. I could not deny the progress with that degree of certainty. I can only hope that the scale is more accurate than the lottery numbers it gave me after telling me my weight. I had to ask myself, ‘Why is it that you only admit your progress when you have some degree of certainty or objective measurement that progress has been made?”

The truth is, for many things in our life, there is no objective measurement of our progress. I don’t write these reflections merely as a means of public confession or to get things off my chest. I write about myself in the hope that you find something in what I have said that allows you to draw your own conclusions about how God is working in your own life. Whether we are talking about losing weight, learning a foreign language, growing in our relationship with the Lord, reconciling with a family member or co-worker, desperately hoping that we have raised our children right and that they will make the right decisions, living in the later years of our life wondering if what we have done has made a difference and what is left for us to do, wondering if our time in a particular assignment or position has made a difference, preparing to leave the comforts of home to begin college or start a new career, struggling to grow in our spiritual lives and relationship with the Lord, or working to reconcile a marriage that seems beyond repair, we must be patient with our progress. We should take a step back and realize that at times it is difficult to see our progress from our own perspective.

For this reason we should take into account the trusted counsel of our dear friends, priests, counselors, faculty advisors, family, and most importantly, the Lord Jesus Christ. After all it is God who has designed our lives and has made plans for our lives, “plans for good and not for woe.” (Jeremiah 29:11). It is God who sees the final product and it is He who directs our hands. Our job is merely to do the task that is assigned to us each day (i.e. to love one another as He has loved us). It is God who is the master builder of all of Creation and will be there in the end to see His plans brought to fruition. With this in mind I am reminded of a poem by the late Archbishop Oscar Romero called the “Long View.” I hope you won’t mind me sharing it with you now even though this is already a long post:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own. – Archbishop Oscar Romero

With this prayer from Archbishop Romero in mind as well as the examples provided above I offer my own prayer for myself and perhaps for some of you as well (if you think it applies to you):

Almighty God and Father, thank you for allowing me to play a small part in building up your kingdom. Help me to focus on the task at hand each and every day. Help me to follow your plans and design for my life and avoid relying on my own intelligence (Prov 3:5-6) or passions in directing my life. Guide my hands, my words, my actions, and my desires to complete the work you want me to do each day. Grant me the grace to abandon my own desires of seeing the final product before its proper time. Allow me to love each day knowing that this is the most important task you have given me. Help me to trust in the fact that progress is being made towards living a life in full communion with you especially in those times when I can’t see it. Help me to continue this progress, even if it is “poco a poco.”

Pax tecum,

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

“Entremos a la presencia del Señor dándole gracias.”

“Let us enter into the presence of the Lord giving him thanks.” This phrase is taken from the Invitatory for Monday Week I in the Liturgy of the Hours. As I prayed this simple line this morning, I realized that it summed up for me most of what I have felt God has been trying to tell me for the past few weeks. In this post (just shy of a public confession) I hope to share with you how I have come to understand what this line means for me and my life. In doing so, my prayer is that you will benefit in some way as well.

I must confess that I often fail to be grateful for the many gifts that God has given me in my life. Chances are if you are reading this, you are one of those gifts in my life. I tend to think that I am not alone when I say that I tend to focus on the things that have been taken away from me or the things that I lack rather than appreciate all that I have been given. I have become very good at determining what is missing from a given situation and how I would change things to make them better. I often bemoan the loss of a prized possession such as my car, my house, my proximity to friends and family, my career, or perhaps simply the opportunity to have more quiet time. No matter how big or how small the item, I have at times measured my life not by what has been given, but by what has been taken away.

Recently, it seems like there have been a lot of big changes in my life including changes in my relationships with friends, family, pastors, other seminarians, etc. Many of these changes I did / do not appreciate. Admittedly, I am still working with a few of them in order to see them as gifts. In the past few weeks I have caught myself assembling a list of complaints of things that I would like to change in my life one way or the other. I have realized that instead of the items of the list growing smaller in number, the list tends to increase exponentially as the days pass by. This leads to an overall sense of dissatisfaction or a feeling of ‘missing the mark.’ I chose my words here carefully because the Greek word used most often for ‘sin’ in the Bible is harmartia (αρμαρτια) which loosely translated means ‘to miss the mark.’ The sin then is my lack of gratefulness to God for the gifts he has freely given me and my dwelling instead on what has been seemingly been unjustly taken away.

These past few weeks in Guatemala have helped me appreciate many things in my life that I have taken for granted. Don’t worry this will not be an outpouring of Catholic guilt where I renounce all forms of capitalism and a competitive free market because of the material poverty I have seen here; nor will it be a discourse on Catholic social teaching and a more just distribution of wealth in the world (although that one may be coming later). A few examples to help give you the idea of what I am talking about are: waking up in the morning without running water and being unable to take a shower, sleeping in a place with loud trucks outside my window at 4am and a rooster who likes to crow about his long lost love for hours on end beginning promptly at 3:30am, not being able to drink the water from the tap, having to walk in the rain everyday (I know I shouldn’t even bring this one up right now with a Texas audience but there is such a thing as too much rain!), not being able to run out and grab a Whataburger and a Shiner Bock beer, etc. These are just a few of the little things that I miss. However, I still haven’t gotten to my point have I?

This past weekend nine other seminarians and I went on what should have been a spiritual retreat at a Benedictine Monastery and minor seminary in Quetzaltenango (the Mayan name for the city is Xela). Many of us were looking forward to periods of silent prayer free of the noise that we seemed to be unable to escape from in Antigua. I can honestly say that arriving at the seminary was a breathtaking experience. This wasn’t as much due to the beautiful landscape as it was to the fact that we were over 7,500 ft above sea level and I was having trouble adjusting. When we arrived at the seminary after a 4.5 hour bus ride on a less than comfortable school bus with complimentary motion sickness, we were less than pleased to find out that nine of us would be sharing a single room with one bathroom. We were even more surprised as we joined the other seminarians for dinner only to discover how well we have actually been eating in Antigua. I admit that initially I was less than grateful for the food that was put on the plate before me. There were several other experiences including cold showers, a jam packed schedule of activities, and rush hour traffic in the city that left at least some of us wondering why we came in the first place. My list of complaints was growing.

When I woke up Sunday morning and took another cold shower and choked down a horrible cup of coffee, I sat down to pray my rosary. As I continued to pray I realized that I could not hear anything other than the birds chirping outside. It was quiet. Many of the other guys were still asleep and I was able to spend some quiet time in prayer. Whether it was the Holy Spirit or my own guilt ridden conscience (definitely the first but perhaps both), I realized how ungrateful I have been for the many gifts in my life. After three weeks of trying to explain the English expression “you can’t see the forest for the trees” to my Spanish teacher, I realized that despite the number of times I had uttered this phrase I did not realize that I should be saying it to myself. I have been so focused on the things in my life that have been taken away or that I still lack (both material and non-material things) that I have been blind to the many gifts that God has given me. I am so hyper-aware of the perceived faults in others, or the manner in which I am sometimes annoyed by them, that I fail to see them as the gift that they are. At times I focus more on the ways in which my life in the seminary could be better than I do appreciating what my time in the seminary has done for my life. I find myself overlooking the many generous people (I am talking about you here! Please listen!) who make it possible for me to discern the Lord’s call. During this short time of praying the rosary and meditation my mind was flooded with all that I have to be grateful for.

For the rest of the day I tried to play a little game. Every time I saw something that I perceived to be negative or anytime I was tempted to complain, I tried to find one or two things for which I was thankful. Admittedly, I was pretty terrible at this game in the beginning. As time went by throughout the day, I found myself being increasingly grateful even for the small crosses that were placed in my path. I intentionally tried to thank God for each moment of the day. In the particularly tough moments, I asked for the grace to see the gift in the situation. I could feel the change slowly taking place. Later that night, as the neighbor’s dog and the rooster entered into a heated discussion for two hours (presumably about whether dogs or roosters are louder) from 4-6am, I found myself giving thanks that at least I had a roof over my head and a warm bed. When I woke up to running water that wasn’t going to give me frostbite, I gave thanks. When I received emails from two very dear friends that put a smile on my face, I gave thanks. When I was able to make a housemate feel appreciated on his birthday even though he is a far distance from home, I gave thanks. When a friend invited me to go across town to the Cathedral to spend time in adoration before going to Mass, I gave thanks. As I sit here writing this reflection, knowing that you are reading it, I am giving thanks for the part you have played in my life and my journey to the priesthood (Ojala!). As a result, I find that I am beginning to feel a great sense of joy in my heart. Perhaps today was just a good day. Perhaps there was no big conversion and I won’t continue to be grateful for the rest of my life. Perhaps I will return to my old ways and complain more than I give thanks. Perhaps these thoughts were a result of a high-altitude induced state of oxygen deprivation. Whatever the case, I can tell you that I am at least increasing my efforts to being a man of the ‘Eucharist’ in the true sense of the word (thanksgiving). I am trying to be more like the one leper who returned to give thanks after he was cured rather than one of the nine who simply walked away. As a result, the scales are slowly falling from my eyes and I like what I see. With the clearer vision my aim is improving and is allowing me to hit the mark more than I miss it.

Oh yeah, by the way, the forest is actually pretty beautiful once you take your eyes off the one tree and look around a little. I am sorry that I don’t have a picture of it to show you, but then again, it is probably better that we all take a look for ourselves.

Please pray for me as I am praying for all of you. “Entremos a la presencia del Señor dándole gracias.”

Pax tecum,