Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Grace and wild flowers

From left to right: red poppies in Northern Spain; seaside daisies in San Diego; bluebonnets in Houston

Since late-March I have been drawn to wild flowers. In Texas, bluebonnets captured my attention. I spent an afternoon sitting among bluebonnet patches in Hershey Park along Buffalo Bayou in Houston, talking to a friend about life. In San Diego, everyday I sat on the front patio of my parents' home, bedazzled by the carpet of purple seaside daisies. In the Pinnacles National Monument south of San Jose, I noticed how California poppies dotted the landscape along the trails. On the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain, wild flowers were almost omnipresent, blooming everywhere, despite clouds that shrouded much sunlight. The red poppies that blanketed the rolling hills near the town of Santa Domingo de Calzada reminded me of the way golden poppies cover the soft hills of California. In the Alps near Munich a multitude of wild flowers grow. Again, despite rainy weather this week on the Bavarian countryside, wild flowers abound. Thus, I cannot help but run into wild flowers these past three months.

Likewise, I cannot help but run into grace these past three months, in a similar way that I encounter wild flowers. This "coincidence" prompts me to observe the following similarities. Like wild flowers, grace "pops" up everywhere; it blossoms "wildly," so to speak. Like the wind which no one can "tell where it comes from and where it goes," grace blooms wherever the Spirit blows (Jn 3:8). In unexpected places, in surprising ways, with unpredictable logic. And like wild flowers, grace brings about a discovery. We notice life - beauty, meaning, and goodness - that has lain dormant. We discover more beauty, deeper meaning, or greater goodness in places and experiences that previously seemed like ugliness, dead winter, only with suffering, without meaning. Grace ushers "new" life that we may have missed along the way. A dear friend puts it charmingly: "I was so happy to see bluebonnets grow along the side of a ditch, adorning and making a little ugly ditch look so pretty!"

Thus grace, like wild flowers, appears everywhere, in any circumstance, bringing about life or beauty in surprising ways. Just as it's improper to domesticate wild flowers, it's also not proper for us to grow, bring about, or make grace happens. It's better to allow ground for wild flowers to grow and space for grace to flow. It's better to discover them with a spirit of openness rather than a mindset that predicts, expects, or forces.

This year, I am very blessed to travel through three Continents. From adventures in Asia to experiencing Europe (for the first time). Perhaps it has been easier for me to notice because the period of April-June is springtime in the US as well as in Europe. Perhaps my time through Tertainship has brought about a springtime in my spiritual life.

Yet, regardless of the seasons in nature or those of our spiritual lives, wild flowers dot both our physical terrains and inner landscapes. Grace is present. It may be more difficult to spot wild flowers and grace as summer approaches. (Yesterday, June 21st, officially marked the beginning of summer). Yet, they are still present, hidden beneath things or disguised behind tough or painful experiences. Grace abounds.

Let us be surprised by grace. Let us put aside 10' of silence for prayer or reflection each day so we might be surprised by grace. Let us treat one another in ways that make room for wild flowers. Let us be surprised by grace.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Being a tourist or a pilgrim?

Today, I left the Camino (the Way) on foot and shifted to being a pilgrim by bus and train. Because I need to visit a Đồng Hành-CLC in Munich, I am traveling to Burgos by bus and to Santiago by train.

Interesting, I notice my attitude begins to shift. I find myself becoming more of a tourist as I leave the Camino. I find myself more demanding, more anxious, and easily irritable. For example, I catch myself complaining because the new hostel is not as comfortable as the previous one. I am disappointed because the rain makes it more difficult to visit an ancient monastery; yet a similar kind of rain did not phase me on the Camino a few days ago, even though we plodded through mud and puddles. As I visited the magnificent Cathedral of Burgos, I found myself faced with a pull and tug within. On the one hand, I just wanted to be present and soak in the holy site; on the other hand, I find myself wanting to take pictures to capture the experience. My rationale goes like this, "I'll just take as many pictures as I can so I can enjoy them later..." Whereas the previous day, my companion and I witnessed the following scene ...

Captivated by its grandeur, we simply enjoyed and cherished the moment. We did take pictures while verbally stating what was on our minds: "A picture can never capture the scope and depth of reality, or the experience ..."

I wonder about this shift in attitude. Then I remember the following words written on the walls of the abergue in Azorfra: "The tourist demands; the pilgrim thanks."

How true. Although there is nothing wrong with being a tourist, there are marked differences. A tourist has more things in his/her luggage than needed, for bags can be checked in. A pilgrim takes only the essentials, because he/she has to carry everything on back. A tourist is focused on destinations, to cover a list of sites to see, things to do. The pilgrim needs to focus mainly on the path. A tourist is more easily tempted to complain and demand proper service entitled to the greater money spent. A pilgrim is more likely to accept things as they come, simply because he/she did not pay much for them.

The above contrasts highlight a key difference in attitude. That of trust. The pilgrim mindset tends to trust that God knows best and will bring about what is best. The tourist mindset tends toward greater self-reliance. I don't mean a black and white distinct such that the pilgrim is purely passive and the tourist is entirely active. Both have to plan. There is a dance here between taking initiative and relying on grace. The difference lies in where one puts one's trust. In oneself or in God? Yes, I need to plan, but do I put more trust in my own abilities or do I trust that God knows best and will bring about what is best, despite the best of my intentions (or others' intentions).

It's like the difference between expectation and hope. When we expect, we rarely trust. When we expect something, we have particular ideas about how it will turn out: there is a specific set of outcomes we want to see happen. Whether we are aware of them or not, we feel disappointed or even disillusioned when these expectations are not met. When we hope, we are trusting in God’s goodness, to provide what is best for us. It is more open-ended.

Five days on the Camino gives me a taste of a genuine pilgrim, of adopting such an attitude. On the Camino, one really needs to focus on walking each day. Taking in the beautiful scenery, visiting ancient churches, talking to people, enjoying local cuisine are all nice. But first, one needs to focus on walking, on taking step-by-step, and the care of one's back, knees, feet, of having enough water, or making to the next village in time to check into a hostel. The very basics of walking the path. Everything else becomes secondary. What a wonderful corrective to the tourist mindset of needing accomplish everything on the to-do list, things that are really secondary. Hence, it's easier for the pilgrim to give thanks, for all is GIFT. And easier for the tourist to demand, because of expectations, appropriate or unrealistic ones.

Walking the Camino day in and day out deepens this mindset: focusing on the path today, walking each step, trusting God's goodness to care for whatever I need to live today. This is what pilgrims and people since ages past meant by trusting in Divine Providence. I am grateful for these days on pilgrimage. It's easier to learn on foot, but also possible to learn through other means.

It is not realistic for us to expect ourselves to be like a pilgrim on the Camino, given our busy, hectic pace of life. However, we can simply ask for the gift of trust, to let go of things that make us overly worried today, and to acknowledge the need to be saved from over-worrying. I remember that helpful prayer the priest prays out loud after the Our Father during Mass: "Deliver us Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen."

Everyday, you and I have this choice: will I walk this day with an attitude of a pilgrim or that of a tourist?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"Buen Camino!"

"Buen Camino!" is Spanish for "Bon Voyage" or literally "Good Way". It is especially used to greet pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, Europe´s most ancient and famous pilgrimage. I finished my fourth of seven days on this typically 30-day journey on the Camino Frances, a 480 miles trek from the French border to Santiago de Compostella, where St James the Apostle is believed to be buried.

For over 1,000 years, all sorts of people have embarked on this adventure: the young, the older, the physically fit or otherwise, the spiritual, the religious, the adventurous, the home-bound, prompted by a multitude of reasons. I have met people from all Five Continentes and various walks of life: Anglican priests, Buddhist enthusiasts, devout Catholics, thoughtful atheists. Some have a clear idea why they are on this journey. Most have only a vague notion. Many of us have a strong yet unconscious motivation why we are on this pilgrimage. It´s usually after a few days - perhaps a week - on the journey, when the newness of the adventure wears off, when our bones are bruised, our muscles ache, our feel calloused with blisters, and our knees beg for rest, that deeper questions begin to emerge. The inner search takes a turn.

As for me, I initially wanted to join Paul Malvaux SJ, a brother Jesuit Tertain, as a way to celebrate my 10th Anniversary of priesthood and to listen further to how the Lord is inviting me to serve in the years to come. Yet, the deeper reason(s) remains an elusive mystery to me.

Something interesting is emerging however. I am discovering that many, if not most pilgrims, do not embark on this way primarily because of religious reasons. Some examples: a twenty-three year-old Korean young woman wants to clear her head, perhaps clouded by an early onset of "quarter life crisis". She shared, without knowing that my companion and I are priests, that she is struggling with her Catholic faith. An older man from La Reunion (Africa) unfamiliar with Jesuits asked us if we believed in Jesus Christ. Many pilgrims go to Mass at night a receive a special blessing, whether they are Catholic or not, mixed with curiosity and hesitation of what the blessing may do to them. A middle age woman from Korea was moved to tears when she received such a blessing for the first time in her life. Another group of four Catholic pilgrims from France asked us to celebrate the Eucharist with them, albeit only half of them regularly attends Mass.

Regardless of relgious persuasion, most people seem to be looking for some sort of inner transformation. Many have written testimonies of the remarkable change in them after finishing the Camino. Such witnesses clearly influence the underlying intentions of most pilgrims. (A big reason many Koreans are undertaking the Camino is because a Korean author recently wrote a popular book on his experience on the Way). However, more than a few have written of disappointments after walking the Camino. My companion Paul, who has completed 70 of his 90-day pilgrimage from Belgium, shared this observation: "The key is attitude. I have seen people who are incredulous of faith open up along the way, especially through interactions with other pilgrims. Their openness allows transformation to take place. The difference is how one approaches this question: Am I open to what is to come on the way?"

The Camino symbolizes our pilgrimage in life, for all of us are on a unique path, walking at our own pace and fashion. Walking today in the rain and mud reminds me of a similar experience in the mountain province of Kalinga in the Philippines. What I am discovering now depeens what I have been taught about trusting in Divine Providence last December: am I open to being transformed as I walk my way, toward what is to come?

Yesterday was the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I was struck by the first reading of God´s love that seeks out each of us pilgrims: "As a shepherd keeps all his flock ... I myself will pasture my sheep, I myself will show them where to rest - it is the Lord who speaks. I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong. I shall watch over the fat and healthy. I shall be a true shepherd to them" (Ex 34:15-16). The Gospel further emphasized this commitment of God in Jesus, the Good Shepherd whose care for each person moves him to "leave the ninety-nine [sheep] in the wilderness and go after the missing one till he found it ... And when he found it, he would joyfully take it on his shoulders" and gather his friends and neighbors to rejoice, saying "I have found my sheep that was lost" (Luke 15:3-7).

I am moved by the compassion of God. Regardless of where we are in our pilgrimages of life, God in Jesus in willing to journey more that halfway to meet us and bring us home. The more we are "open toward what is to come," the more we will be transformed on the way. Not an easy attitude for me to embrace with consistency. Yet, I am enlivened by the Good News, that while you and I may be searching, lost, stuck, or hesistant, Someone is searching for us ...

"Buen Camino!"

p.s. - I bought my prayer locket with me and continue to pray for those of you listed in the prayer scroll it carries.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Being at home

I was very blessed to be at home for the entire month of May. Much time to rest, to play with my little nieces and nephews, to swim regularly with my dad, to be pampered by my mother and aunts with great Vietnamese food. In all of my 21 years of religious life, I don't remember ever having fantastic Vietnamese dishes on such a regular basis. I was able to celebrate daily Mass with my parents and 2-3 year old nieces and nephews, attend my niece Cece's First Communion as well as my sister My-Loc's Law School Graduation. My home-stay ended with with the move of my brother and his wife to their new home. It was indeed a blessed time for self-care and allowing my family to care for me. Robert Frost speaks of something true when he said that home is a place of rest, a secure place and harbor which we sail into. It is experienced as a place from which we do not want to, or need to, go anywhere. Just to remain at.

Yet, what Martin Luther King said of “church” is also true of home. “It is not the place you go to. It is the place you go from.” To be honest, there was a part of me that wanted not to go anywhere while being at home. I felt like a little kid, a bit lazy, and just wanted to "erect tents" like the disciples after experiencing Jesus' Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor. Like them, I wanted to hang on, to enshrine, my wonderful experience and not venture anywhere else. Isn't this our temptation though, wanting to hold on to cliques and "inner circles" because we feel so comfortable, at home with a group of people? While there is a real value in relishing, enjoying, and savoring these experiences of being at home, we are ultimately called forth from our homes. Perhaps to take what we have been given and foster a sense of home, of belonging, of being loved, beyond our present circle of care and concern. Perhaps this is what Jesus meant in the Last Discourse of John's Gospel when he first invited the disciple to "remain in [his ]love" (Jn 15:9) and soon after he sent them into the world as he is sent by God the Father (Jn 17:14-18). Perhaps this is what St. Ignatius meant when he said "world is our home."

Where or with whom might you & I be invited to remain, and perhaps to go forth from?