Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Perfectly Not-So-Perfect Christmas

 

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I’m going to be with my son this Christmas. That’s huge. For many reasons. One being that just a month ago I didn’t even know where I’d be spending Christmas.

Would it be San Antonio? With my cousin in Austin? Yet another new place in El Paso? Or my home in Virginia?

Turns out I’ll be able to return home for a few days. Just long enough to really take in my son, to try to get my fill of his handsome looks, his dad’s blue eyes, his weird sayings (“true that”), and his enviable easygoing attitude. Even when everything else in my life is uncertain — as it has been quite a bit lately (that might be considered an understatement) — I can still fall back on this one steady, sure, undeniable truth: Davis loves me. And I love him, in a way I could not have imagined possible before I actually gave birth to this child.

Another reason being with Davis means so much to me this Christmas is because I’ve become keenly aware of many families who won’t be together. For some, a loved one has recently passed on, leaving a gaping, indescribable ache that I know can’t be soothed — at least not for some time. For many others, the painful physical separation has been forced, or even chosen, because of their life circumstances.

On Sunday I found myself among at least 70 youth who fall under that latter category. The setting: St. Pius Catholic Church’s annual Christmas party for detained migrant youth. For several years, the Rico ministry at this amazingly generous parish (the church has 62 ministries!) has been hosting young teens from detention centers here in El Paso to a Posada and early Christmas celebration, complete with Piñatas and gift bags stuffed with a new article of clothing, candy, and other items for each child. I suspect such a gift is a first for these kids.

The youth travel with their “guards” to the parish where they are treated to homemade tamales (a traditional Mexican dish at Christmas) with rice and beans, washed down with ice tea, followed by cake, cotton candy, and other sweets. All of it served by happy volunteers dressed in elf costumes and Santa hats while a Mariachi band sings Spanish carols.
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One of the volunteers offered grace before the meal and as the children bowed their heads, I took the opportunity to look around the room. Rows of black-haired boys and girls, eyes closed, hands folded, obediently praying. Every one of them. Some mouths moved in silent prayer. One young man strained to control his quivering lips. So many furrowed brows, tightly closed eyes — I wondered what was in their hearts, what they had endured to get here, only to find themselves alone in a detention center at Christmas. And I marveled at their childlike faith. Still vividly present.

I knew I was witnessing a sacred moment. Not only in watching these children pray, but in the true manifestation of the Incarnation that I was experiencing in these volunteers who had given up their Sunday before Christmas, and so much more, to be here attempting to give these kids a taste of Christmas away from home and family.

Tonight as I look out my window from my little bedroom at the wide expanse of lights spreading over the cities of El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, I’m aware that I, too, am away from home. But my circumstances are very different. I have choices that not only these children, but many people in the world do not have.

When I arrive in Virginia tomorrow to spend a few days with Davis, the house won’t be ready for Christmas. No holly, mistletoe, or angels dangling from windows or doorways. No softly lit Christmas tree or festive packages wrapped with matching ribbons and bows. No turkey in the oven. No, it won’t be the same perfect kind of Christmas I always strive to give my son. But we’ll have food and warmth and safety in our own home. And we will be together. A gift I appreciate now more than ever.

The most perfect gift of all on this very unusual, not-so-perfect Christmas.

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Birthing Hope

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Days after I arrived in El Paso I found myself back in Mexico. A Sister friend invited me to come experience the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe in her parish. A spur of the moment invitation. I gladly said yes.

I’ve known about the Latin American Catholics’ deep dedication to Our Lady of Guadalupe but I’d never participated in the feast day celebrations. Filled with lively music, colorful traditional clothing, singing, dancing. I wanted to experience it.

But Sr. Carol Jean’s parish was not in Mexico City, the place where Mary is said to have appeared to a poor, indigenous man named Juan Diego in 1531 and the place where I’d spent two weeks last July for orientation with Incarnate Word Missionaries. Back then I roamed a middle-class neighborhood bustling with restaurants, gas stations, supermercados, and shops peddling local pottery, art, chocolate, and helado. My trip across the border this time was quite different, as I ventured into one of the poorest sections of Juarez where my friend ministers.

Here there are no tree-filled parks. In fact, hardly any trees grow at all in the dry, dusty, gray surroundings. Crumbling structures, small stone adobes, and peddlers line the unpaved streets. A stark contrast. Not only to Mexico City, but to every other place I’ve visited.

Wanting to join in, I helped the neighborhood women decorate the beaten-up white pickup truck that would transport their teenaged Lady of Guadalupe and young Juan Diego — a small boy donning a poncho and straw hat. We covered three-tiered boxes with brown paper bags to simulate a mountain, taping colored paper flowers anywhere we could.
Our little Lady

Once the matachines (dancers) arrived in their bright red and white native dress, our caravan rumbled off. The boys banged their drums, the dancers stomped up the dust, and the rest of us processed behind singing. Walking alongside the women, some pushing strollers, some carrying images of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I chanted the lyrics to “La Guadalupana.” Over and over again.

For nearly two hours we strolled the streets of Juarez.

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Down the rocky, littered roads and structures scrawled with graffiti, we sang. People ventured out to watch the growing procession. Men from their mechanics shop, grandmothers, mothers, and daughters from homes that seemed incapable of holding them all. One elderly woman stood in her doorway hugging a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, her smile revealing several missing teeth. Everywhere people stopped what they were doing to watch. Participate. Offer a prayer.

Somewhere during the procession I sensed something. Something about being among the people. I realized what it was. Happiness. I felt happy to be here.

But as I took in the richness of the festivities alongside the desperate poverty, I also felt compassion. And I uttered my own silent prayers. Prayers for hope. Most of these people, I knew, would never leave this life of poverty. How could they have hope? It seemed like the best thing to pray for.

Yet my voice seemed insignificant and small.

Days later I came across Richard Rohr’s meditation on a poem by 16th century mystic John of the Cross.

If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road pregnant with the holy...”

Seeking shelter in your heart. Seeking your help in giving birth. She needs us because…

“each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.”

I see an image of the women walking down the streets of Juarez. I remember my prayer for hope.

And suddenly I see that hope is birthed through me. I am the midwife of God. What a gift I’ve been given! Yet most days I don’t feel up to it. I’m like a child, tentatively taking the gift offered, as if unbelieving that she can really have it.

Hope wants to be born. But it needs a recipient, a conduit, a midwife. God can only bring hope to the world through each of us.

I wonder, what if we all chose hope?
What if we all said yes to the birth of hope within us?
Again and again and again?
Might the streets of Juarez look a little different?

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Wake Up! Don’t Go Back to Sleep

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Don’t go back to sleep.

You must ask for what you really want.

(Rumi) 

It hasn’t escaped me — the parallel between what’s happening in my life and this current season of Advent. Both are marked by expectant waiting and preparation. Of hope and anticipation in the darkness.

But my experience seems to be lasting a lot longer than one season!

Since my last post, I’ve made it back to El Paso. With a writing assignment waiting for me at the Columban Missions’ border ministry, I didn’t want to “wait it out” any longer at my cousin’s until housing for volunteers became available. So, I decided to make a couple of calls. An El Paso friend took me in for two nights, and then I moved back temporarily with the School Sisters of St. Francis, where I lived when I started this journey at the beginning of the year. It may sound funny, but I’ve slept in so many places over these past several months, it’s been hard to keep track.

Guess it’s not unusual I’d be feeling displaced, uprooted, unsettled. Yet again.

And I’d not anticipated the sadness I’d feel upon leaving Incarnate Word Missionaries and the deep connections I’ve made there. Sometimes I think I’m too old for all this uprooting and moving around. This lack of routine and daily schedules. This inability to anticipate what’s ahead on the path. Even in the slightest next step. It requires a keen watchfulness. An attentiveness to the clues — signs visible only to my spiritual senses.
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Seeing as it’s Advent, I was reflecting on another journey: the journey of a couple who, many years ago, also found themselves uprooted, displaced, and wandering. The young wife, pregnant with her first child, traveling away from home, her mother, her midwife, all that was familiar, was guided only by her new husband and the hope of a promise, which, to tell the truth, hadn’t been laid out very clearly. All she knew was her willingness to respond to a call she didn’t fully understand.

That’s really the metaphor for Mary’s life, isn’t it? How one’s willingness to say yes to the unknown, to something that doesn’t make sense in a logistical, material world, gives birth to something well beyond our expectations? Something that can only be envisioned in the imagination. The place where Spirit is experienced, and born.

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Still…I think Mary must have been at least a little scared and unsure. Did she question her decision? Did she wonder what she had said yes to?

I know I often have.

Franciscan Richard Rohr’s reflections this week have been on “Presence.” He’s been reminding me exactly what I need to be aware of — the Presence in this moment I am living. Not in the moment I am waiting for around the next bend when everything, hopefully, will become clearer.

“The key to all spirituality,” Rohr writes, is to be conscious, to be awake, to be alert, to be alive.”

To know that I have everything I need in this moment.

I had one of those “a-ha” awakening moments a few weeks ago while staying at Alison’s house in the suburbs of San Antonio — yet another temporary abode. One morning, as I searched among my half-unpacked belongings for something to wear, feeling frustrated over the constant moving and trying to find a place to land, I said aloud, “This can’t be my life!”

It felt so crazy.

But then I paused. And a new thought slipped right in.

“But this is my life! And it’s OK! It’s perfectly fine just as it is. I don’t need to wait for it to be anything different. I’m serving my purpose right where I am.”

Just for a moment I felt as though I had awakened. It’s not that I won’t go back to sleep. I need reminders. Be alert! Stay awake! Be present to your own life!

And know that it is good, just as it is, however it shows up. Because that’s where God is.

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Sure, I’d like to have more clarity about where I’m going. Assurance that I’m making the right decisions. But even more, I want a deeper awareness of this abiding Presence. An awareness of this Love guiding all my choices.

Rohr says, “This is what it means to be awake: to be constantly willing to say that God could even be coming to me in this! Even in this!”

Even in the things I don’t like or don’t understand. Even in what I would prefer to change. Or at least be able to anticipate.

Like Mary, can I recognize and hope in the Presence that abides in me? In the here and now?  As I wonder and I wait?

Pieces of My Heart

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David would have been 65 today. There was a time I could not have imagined he wouldn’t make it to 65. The fact he didn’t even live to see 60 seems outrageous. Or at least it did.

Now I wonder, what does age mean? And what are years? They all meld together to create this wonderful expression of our short lives on this earth. Because we really are here so briefly. But if we live with our hearts open, it’s an amazing life. And who we are lives on through the hearts of others. That may seem like a worn-out phrase, but I can vouch for it. Love, in some mysterious way, connects two beings beyond the threshold where two worlds meet.

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I know that I carry David in my heart. Just as vividly and lovingly as I did while he was alive. And sometimes, just as I did when he was alive, I take for granted the incredible support and influence he has had on my life. Yet the effects live on.

He was the first to recognize my inner strength and courageous spirit. He showed me my good qualities and, thankfully, my faults and weaknesses, too. I changed and grew because of our relationship. Through David I experienced God’s unconditional love. And that’s enabled me to risk leaping into the unknown, to leave behind my home, and to take others into my heart along the way.

But in the intimacy of living with an open heart lies another risk — the risk of feeling the sadness of the heart connections I’ve left behind. It seems I’m leaving pieces of my heart everywhere these days. But, just as I leave pieces of my heart behind, I take other pieces with me.  I’m learning the language of the open heart on this journey. My heart opens wider with each lesson.

It happened in San Antonio.

Especially that short month I spent serving Women’s Global Connection. Transitioning to WGC proved to be a grace-filled decision. A decision that brought me closer to what I came here seeking and that blessed me in so many ways. Located on the extensive campus of the University of Incarnate Word and The Village, a retirement home for many of the Sisters, WGC exposed me to the larger Incarnate Word community. To deeper connections with some of the Sisters and with the WGC staff so committed to its sustainable projects in Tanzania, Zambia, and, my special favorite, Peru. To the peaceful, prayerful oasis of the campus chapels. And to an awareness that “everything is a spiritual experience,” as my new friend Sr. Mary T. taught me.

When I packed up and headed north on I-35 last Tuesday night to spend Thanksgiving with my cousin Joyce near Austin, I was already missing these heart connections. People like Sylvia, Sr. Brigid, Sr. Mary T., Sr. Carmelita, Sr. Alice, Tere and Terrie, and many others who found their way into my heart and made my brief time with Incarnate Word Missionaries so special.

Although I expected to be at Joyce’s only a few days before heading on to El Paso, that changed when I got some surprising news. The house for volunteers where I’d planned to live won’t be available until December 15.

Once again I find myself waiting in this “in-between” place. My mind scrambles to come up with ideas for where to live in the interim. I start to feel anxious. So, I do what I know I need to do.

I go off by myself to be quiet and listen for guidance.

In the stillness I feel the loneliness of not having a place to settle. I’m tired of traveling with my belongings packed in my Subaru. I feel like a homeless child, wandering and wondering where she belongs. I question. I pray. I wait.

A book lying on my bed attracts my attention: Legacy of the Heart, by Wayne Muller — a gift from Sr. Brigid. It opens to this:

“…the journey to our new home need not always lead to a separate country or place. Sometimes it leads us to a still, small voice within our souls, a place of belonging as sure and quiet as our very breath…

Belonging begins in that deep, quiet place where our spirit lives within us. ‘Take sanctuary in me,’ says the voice of God. Do not depend on circumstances to create or sustain your place of belonging, but rather make your home in the unchanging breath of the spirit that lives within. Claim your home, claim your belonging with each breath.”

A stronger, and higher, part of me knows this truth. Home doesn’t rely on physical space. My true home lives within me. In quiet moments, I have touched that place. A place where Love connects all the heart’s pieces.

And then I know with certainty that I can never truly be separated from anyone or anything that I have ever loved. No matter where I find myself.

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A special card from Sylvia