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!”


Doug Dohrman said...

Really nice thoughts, Tom. Thanks for sharing them. You'll be a good priest and this will make a good homily someday. Hope to see you back at St. Thomas Aquinas soon. I will add you to my prayers tonight.

Doug Dohrman
College Station

Andrea said...

Hey Tom,
I only read your last post and it moved me to tears. You write beautifully. I know that It's been a really long time...had no idea that you had made a "career" change. Your name came up in conversation this morning at work and we decided to Google you. Wow...needless to say, we are all very impressed. I am looking forward to reading more of your journey.

All my best,
Andrea Hodne