Wednesday, January 20, 2010

“He descended into Hell”

Images and reports from Haiti churn my stomach and shock me. As one who is half-way around the world, without personal funds or option to go to Haiti, how can I respond? I am waiting for directions from God. Begging for greater trust in Divine Providence, I do what I can: lift up to God in prayer those who have died, who suffer, who mourn, and who are helping in Haiti; I also offer small sacrifices out of love for the above intentions. I am embarrassed to mention these minuscule acts, grossly inadequate compared to the great calamities so many people are suffering. They are what I can give of myself now, in faith.

If possible, please donate what you can. It will help! Jesuit Refugee Services is a very trustworthy organization.

The following reflection is from Jesuit Brother Jim Boynton, a part of the rapid response team of Jesuits and volunteer U.S. Marine veterans assembled to quickly get medical personnel and supplies into Port au Prince:

“He descended into Hell”…. I have said these words every time I have prayed the Creed at Sunday mass, or the rosary. I have prayed these words often, but have never understood them until now. The smell of stale death is something that until now I have only experienced in roadkill in Northern Michigan roads. Usually a raccoon or a skunk, but never a person, and never many persons. In the past 6 years I have had the honor to serve on numerous medical brigades to the garbage dumps of Guatemala and Honduras, but nothing I have ever seen or done prepared me for the sights of the last few days. I am new to Haiti, and only arrived on November 1st to work in a school. To be honest I was nervous about that, but a school in Haiti now seems no more daunting than a classroom at University of Detroit Jesuit High School, or St. Ignatius Cleveland, where I taught history for years. What is daunting now is Haiti itself. “Haiti cherie”, or “dear Haiti”, as this country is called by those who love her, is suffering. The news may report that help is being sent from all over the world, but today we are 6 days past the quake, yet at our location we were the first foreign aid to arrive. Most is bottlenecked in the airport. The only other non-Haitians I saw today were reporters from Caritas, Germany. One left his team to help us secure transportation for the wounded and in the end for ourselves.

“He rose from the dead”… is another part of the Creed so often prayed. There is hope, there is a resurrection. Good is stronger than bad. Today the Haitians triaged themselves in an orderly fashion, the most wounded getting to see a doctor first, something that is difficult to attain in any American hospital on any given night. The amount of gratitude on part of the wounded, their families, and strangers is overwhelming. Today 4 times I flagged a car off the street to take vital cases to the nearest operation room. Gas is over $25 a gallon, if available, but each time strangers said yes. Our return transportation failed to arrive. Strangers loaded us into two trucks to drive us to the other side of town, regardless of curfew, and regardless of looters.

“To give and not to count the cost”…. is from the prayer of St. Ignatius, the founder of my religious order. Somehow through a strange course of events, I have found myself with a group of men who are living these words to their fullest. In spite of the difficulties, the struggle for organization, and lack of everything medical, the team I am with is making an incredible difference. After today’s work many will lose limbs, some may not walk, but others had the first chance at life in 6 days.

The motivations for each of us on this team are different. I am here because of my faith in Jesus Christ. If you share my faith, I would ask that you pray for the people of Haiti, and pray for the men I am with. Please make both a prayer of thanksgiving, for the people of Haiti are beautiful, and the team is as well. - Brother Jim Boynton, SJ.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Laughing at myself

To err is human; to forgive is divine; to laugh at oneself creates a bridge connecting the two.

On December 14th, my three companions and I took a 15 miles trip from the Bishop’s residence in Tabuk to the village of Lubo in Tanudan where I celebrated the first Mass. It took us almost six hours since the rain had turned the road into slimy mud. Halfway up the 4,000 feet mountain, the drivers had to put chains on the huge tires of the former US Army weapons transporter, the only vehicle rugged enough to survive the journey. Even so, it could have been stuck at various junctions. (I won’t mention other dangers.) Once we arrived at our drop-off point where the truck can no longer continue, we made a steep descent on foot for another 1.5 hours to the village. I slipped and slid on my butt a few times to provide a sanguine feast for five leeches. To be honest, I was afraid and worried, especially when night began to fall. And boy, did I pray with every step I took.

(View from our steep descent to Lubo before sunset)

A previous conversation on the truck helped immensely. Among the 20 people on the truck was an elderly couple. The husband was 73, almost as old as my dad. His wife older than my mom. They are both retired teachers. Thus, they spoke excellent English. Somehow the subject of tribal conflict came up. I learned that in the past, the people from the Province of Kalinga were known to be fierce head hunters. That violent tradition has ended. However, some tribal tensions still flare up at time. If a member of a family a tribe hurts or kills a member of another tribe or family, the family or tribe of the victim would often respond with retributive violence or revenge killing. The more peaceful options would involve either compensation, by giving precious beads which are family heirlooms, or by intermarriage. When I asked about the possibility of forgiveness, the man thoughtfully replied, “Padi (Father), to err is human, to forgive is divine.” Then he laughed and his wife smiled. He continued, “We do the best we can. Pray for us Padi.”

(Despite my plea, the elderly couple was shy to laugh or smile for the camera)

As fear and worry, like nightfall, began to overshadow me on the descent to Lubo, I recalled the laughter of the elderly man. And the smile of his wife. Their image reminded me of the my experiences of the 30-day Silent Retreat in November: Jesus often smiled at me and taught me again and again to laugh at myself whenever I am preoccupied with my limitations or my mistakes. It is my perfectionist and overzealous tendency to take myself too seriously, to be hard on myself, to focus on the troubles that I face. Yet, every time I laugh at myself, I experience less tension and space is created for God. I let go and trust more. I become more patient, poised, less ruled by fear. Consequently, I can tackle difficulties that arise.

Along with the gift of God’s first love in Jesus poor and humble (and his people), I was also given the grace to trust greater in Divine Providence on the Silent Retreat. Recalling the couple’s smile and laughter helped me to relax and take each slippery step, trusting that God will take care of me even if I make mistakes, slip and fall. Laughter bridges human error with divine wisdom, human weakness with divine strength. And when we crossed a dilapidated hanging bridge with its creaking cables swaying back and forth, I focused less on my fears and more on Divine Providence. As night descended, I smiled at the flickering fireflies, reminding myself to trust that God is the light into my path.

Rampant corruption is the main reason why there are no all-weather road or sturdy bridges in Tanudan, despite hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for such projects. The current Mayor has been serving for three terms and is running for re-election. He created a non-existent contractor, fabricated reports of road developments, and pocketed the funds. People are bought and bullied into silence. A priest who voiced the truth and is now being threatened. I felt sad and angry when I saw the purported “road” the Mayor was building. Surprisingly, I met him soon after. He shook my hand, smiled slyly, and spoke craftily - trademarks of a slick politician. To my surprise I cordially inquired about the people and the road building project. I wished him luck on the upcoming election and encouraged him to truly serve his people by working for their good. I prayed for him when we parted. To be honest, a part of me wanted to confront and question him. But I was able to take myself less seriously and looked at him with compassion. Trust in Divine Providence and remembrance of how Jesus dealt with questionable religious leaders prompted me to act with greater love than accusation. When Jesus challenged, it was always out of compassion. It was grace that guided my attitude and action that day. On my own, my heart is not that generous.
(The Lubo bridge, hanging 100+ feet above the Tanudan River)
The lesson on that long trip with the elderly couple who laughs, of slipping on the trails, and crossing hanging bridges, shaped my experience the rest of Advent, even until now. So when I am unable to laugh at myself, I try to smile, hoping to meet Jesus smiling, beholding me with love. He frequently does, whenever I pray, especially in silence.

Falling, mistakes, laughing at oneself, bridges, forgiveness, God … somehow they are all intertwined.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

God’s First Love

“And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us …” – Jn 1:14
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” – Jn 3:16

This Christmas has been especially meaningful for me. A friend remarked that I am blessed to experience God’s first love. That is, to experience God in poverty, in God’s poor.

In November, I made the Spiritual Exercises, the 30-day Silent Retreat envisioned by Saint Ignatius. I was given a special gift: the desire to grow closer to Jesus poor and humble. Soon after, I left for two weeks of ministry in the remote mountain villages of Tanudan, a part Kalinga Province, located in Northern Philippines. There, unknown to me at the time, I opened this gift. Rather, it unfolded.

Life in Tanundan is very different from that in Manila and light years from living in California. Most people are poor rice farmers. Many grow coffee, vegetables and raise livestock, but mainly for consumption rather than livelihood. There are little modern amenities: no roads, no electricity, and no running water. Most houses where I stayed had no toilets; the river was our bathhouse, and a place for laundry and cleaning. Everyday my companions and I hiked strenuously for 2-3 hours through mountainous terrains with dangerous footing, especially when the path is turned into mudslides by rain. Even for an experienced backpacker like me, this life was physically very demanding. And since amoebas have “befriended me for life,” imbibing strange water and food were particularly stressful on my stomach. (I’ll spare you the embarrassing adventures I experienced with eating and going to the bathroom).

I was sent to celebrate Mass. I was the only priest within a radius of 30 miles. This area has been without a pastor for almost 3 years. Each morning, I celebrated Mass around 4 or 5 am at a different barrio (village) stretched along the Tanudan River. The Filipinos have a special Christmas tradition of nine “Simbang Gabi” or Dawn Masses from Dec 16 until Dec 24, culminating in the Midnight Mass to welcome the Nativity of Jesus. These celebrations are filled with church bells, much singing, and some eating after Mass, before farmers go to the rice fields. Much of it occurred in darkness, punctuated by candlelight.

Aside from the aforementioned physical challenges, I experienced my poverty – my limitations and inadequacies - through numerous ways. Often without clear amplification, my hoarse voice had to compete with chickens crowing and dogs barking during Mass. I spoke English and sometimes in a very broken Kalinga dialect. My young guides, Fe & Ablizer, along with some adults knew English. However, communication was not easy. Although I observed some interesting similarities the people shared with some ethnic Vietnamese, such as chewing beetle nut, I was in a mostly unfamiliar culture. In more ways than I can describe, I was stretched beyond my boundaries. I had to face my own poverty - my limitations and helplessness.

Yet through this encounter with poverty, I experienced God’s first love in a rare way. The people of Tanudan were unbelievably gracious and hospitable. They took such good care of me. They gave me their best: the best place to sleep, the best vegetables and fruits; they served the best chicken, pork, and eel – reserved only for the most honored guests. I was constantly invited to eat. Everywhere I went I was accompanied by good guides. I witnessed their simple yet strong faith, especially through the dedication of the catechists and lay leaders. In many sacramental ways, through Baptisms, Anointing of the Sick, First Communions, funerals, and various blessings, I sensed the nearness of God’s love. I felt how God favors those who are poor and humble. Many times at Mass, tears flowed from my eyes as Jesus became very real through the heartfelt singing of the people and through the awareness that the communion host I was holding is one and the same as the Body of Christ enfleshed in the people. Many times on the trails, my spirit was enlivened at the realization that my very tired feet and body is God’s way of visiting God’s people, including myself. I can only poorly describe this experience. This is the homily I shared during the Midnight Mass:

“Tonight we celebrate what is most important to our faith. No other religion believes that God, creator of heaven and earth became human like us. Jesus, Word of God, Who is God, became human – one of us. He built his house next to ours, lived among us, ate like us, suffered with us, for us, to save us. He came as a child, a poor child, born in a manger, poor and humble. To a poor family. To serve and give his life because he loved us. God is in love with us. Like people who love, God wants to be one with us whom He loves …

God in Jesus came to all. But only those who are poor in spirit - who are humble, peacemakers, merciful, open - will see him. And live in his radiant light. For others, it will be just another Christmas vacation. When we accept Jesus poor and humble, our lives will change … Our Catholic faith is most special: when we look at a person who is poor, who loves, who forgives, we see God. God who is poor, who loves, who forgives. God chooses to show God’s light most clearly through human beings, through you and me. Through us who are poor, weak, and sinful. This is the glory of God’s humility. The light of God’s love.”

Today is the twelfth day of Christmas. The homily takes even deeper hold of me. I am realizing the fuller meaning of the gift I have been given through the 30-day retreat and ministry in Tanudan: a deeper longing to be united with Jesus poor and humble.

My friend Tere is on to something when she writes: “I think your Tertianship is taking you back to where God is, to touch Him again in His first love ... the poor ... the lowly ... the pure people ... the remotest part of this world. You are very fortunate to experience God in poverty. There He is most of the time.”

If grace is God’s gift, given to draw us closer to God and other people, then I have been given a great gift this Christmas: sharing God’s first love. Yet, I believe I am among many, which may very well include you. Therefore, go: spend time to serve and visit God’s poor. Embrace your poverty. Open your own gift, however strangely shaped and wrapped. Let it unfold.