A Conversation with the Moon

heart-moon

A spiritual connection can come so easily in nature. At least it does when I am open and trusting, like a child, to the mystery. That’s when I discover nature gifts me with answers to my inner questions.

Recently, it happened my last night in Paria Canyon – my last night sleeping under the Milky Way. I had left the cover of my tent off so I could gaze up at the nearly full moon and the preponderance of stars filling the heavens. Feeling comforted and secure, I asked the moon about a concern I had on my heart – a concern about suffering.

And I fell asleep with Sister Moon shining into my tent.

During the night, she gave me a powerful insight through my dreams. I scribbled it all down in my journal, and maybe I will write about it more in depth later on.

But journaling about that experience reminded me of another conversation I’d had with the moon.

Late March 2014.  I had just returned from my first time volunteering in El Paso. The two months I’d spent there had affected me in ways I hadn’t expected. I felt changed somehow.

Already, I was transitioning from my life in rural Virginia.

But I didn’t know that then.

I’d like to share that 2014 journal entry.  Because it expresses the uncertainty I felt about the way forward. It reveals how Love upheld me in my loneliness. And it affirms the benefit of listening inwardly.

God did speak to me in the silence of my heart. And I’ve learned how to listen.

overlooking great room
Looking out the windows from the staircase of my log home

March 2014: Last night I had a conversation with the moon.

It’s easy to do, where I’m living now, from my log home in the woods. Standing in my great room, its huge A-frame windows opening to the trees and sky, I noticed the misty white light pouring in, casting itself in great gulps across my country carpet with its images of bears and moose and acorns.

Through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the expansive sky filled with stars tried to soothe and remind me that I am not alone.

loft_sideview
The rafters in my great room

It feels so very different from my sojourn in El Paso – this place in the woods.  Here it’s absolutely still.

When I pause and listen, I hear complete silence. Only the occasional light tinkling of my wind chimes dangling from my porch as a breeze catches them. A gentle interjection. No freight trains blaring their horns as they cross intersections. The daily trains passing through El Paso are a distant memory now. The open, expansive sky hovering above millions of twinkling yellow lights dancing across two border cities – it too has faded. Replaced by a sheath of woods, concealing all neighbors.

So, I asked the moon – my most attentive neighbor – what am I doing back here? In the silence and solitude. Is it to regain my balance? Is it to truly learn what patience and trust mean?

I tend to believe this prayer that I have been saying regularly: “I am exactly where I am meant to be.”  I whispered it to myself in the moonlight. And Sister Moon, she seemed to nod in agreement, reassuring me in the silence.

In the morning, I am greeted by a plump robin perched on a branch as I take my daily morning walk down my long gravel driveway. In the midst of the waning winter cold and these bare branches, I recognize the nourishment that’s been given this creature. She’s obviously been fed well and is quite healthy as she awaits spring’s return. Spirit has given me a gift this morning through this robin – an awareness of God’s providential care.

I begin to notice a few other signs of life.

The bird’s nest in the rafters on my porch.

The small stream of water that runs down the hillside of my property.

But no other human voice. No other sound to match the sighing of my breath as the day passes as it has like so many before it: soundlessly.

Is this how You are caring for me? Through the lonely, silent beauty of nature? What am I to make of this? Whom can I talk to, besides the sky and the earth and the moon?  I am seeking answers, and they come so slowly, so subtly, through these sources. Maybe that is the point. Maybe the answer I seek will come through the uncertainty in waiting. Maybe this is how You have been asking me to listen all along – in the solitude of nature, in the silence of my own heart.

“You will hear my voice in the silence”

A Pilgrim in #Paria

Tiny figures against red rocks

May I stay forever in the stream.”

These poetic words from Mary Oliver were the farthest from my mind while hiking in Paria Canyon recently.

In fact, my mantra had become two simple words: “Stay upright.”

A prayer I uttered to the heavens each day as I focused on my footing while keeping up with my more experienced comrades.

Because between avoiding shoe-sucking mud resembling quicksand, stepping in and out of a flowing stream strewn with glistening rocks, and learning to lift my own weight along with a heavy backpack onto rocks above knee height, keeping my balance was not guaranteed. Teetering on my own two feet is something I do on a good day when I’m walking on a flat sidewalk carrying nothing more than a set of car keys and a cell phone.

I actually did quite a bit of praying on this adventure.

Not that I was scared. My trepidation pretty much disappeared after the first day. That is, once I’d decided to stop listening to that voice in my head questioning what the hell I thought I was doing when I’d agreed to let this challenging, narrow canyon be my first-ever backpacking trip.

I had to make up my mind to get beyond the discomforts. Things like constantly walking in wet shoes with sand and silt that, by the end of the day, lay heavy on the top of my socks, and attempting to accurately use and carry “human waste bags” – these were completely new experiences for me. And they were a little disconcerting.

Outside my tent that first night, the repetitive rhythm of the stream running by and the innumerable stars overhead soothed me. Seeing the massive Milky Way again reminded me of the last place I’d seen it so visibly – my Virginia home in the woods. A place where, despite the challenges that came with living alone and so close to nature, I’d often received spiritual gifts and guidance.

Here, with the majestic beauty of the red canyons rising up around me in the darkening sky, I chose to fall into trusting the rhythm of this adventure, to regard it as a pilgrimage, for that’s what it was. A journey into a place of raw and glorious nature. A place where I felt small and insignificant.

20191015_093208 (1)

As I prayed to let go, I knew that in my insignificance lies the presence of the Infinite.

My prayer transformed my attitude overnight. I eased into the next day. Slipping on my still-wet shoes, I silently chanted my usual morning psalm, and off I went, both my head and my footsteps lighter.

In fact, I felt so light, I volunteered to carry an extra bladder of water, increasing the weight of my pack to about 30 pounds. Since fresh water springs were few and far between, this would become a regular practice, but for now, I happily took on this new experience. My two-word mantra ever present.

By late afternoon, my toes hurt, the heat of the sun bore down on my bare arms, and the additional weight of the pack on my back began to strain my right shoulder. A memory surfaced. Davis, 3 years old, plopping himself down in the dirt, whining and claiming he couldn’t make it up the hill we were climbing on our way back from a hike. I hoisted him up and continued on, stopping every now and then to readjust his weight on my back or catch my breath. How much did he weigh then, I wondered?

This question swiftly turned my attention to other memories. Memories of stories from others who journey across uncertain and uncomfortable paths. Across sand and desert carrying, not 30-lb backpacks, but 30- or 40-lb children on their backs.

As I walked, I carried the stories of the people I have accompanied. The story of the mother who carried her disabled child. The story of the 19-year-old who carried a pregnancy caused by her rapist in a homeland where no one could protect her. The story of the boy who carried nothing, except the pain of badly blistered feet.

I also carried the story of my privilege, to be able to take this journey for pleasure. A story that would end in a few days, with a hot shower and a cheeseburger with fries and a beer waiting for me at Marble Canyon Lodge.

I forgot about my feet. My prayer turned to the people. For their journey.

I cannot separate myself from them. Any more than I could separate myself from the mud always at my feet or the clumps of tiny red and violet flowers that popped up along the path or the towering red sandstone.

Gorgeous view

This is the collective story. It belongs to the Infinite. And I must honor it all.

“I would say that there exist a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense in honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves – we are at risk together, or we are on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”
Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays

This is what it means to be a pilgrim on a journey.

PB&J Sandwiches – Una Comida Nueva

Frederick Quote Fancy

“I’ve never tasted peanut butter.”

My Mexican-American friend Sigrid tells us this as we finish packing the last of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Gifts we’ve prepared for the migrants sent to wait in Mexico. I doubt that any of them have ever tasted peanut butter either.

It will be another new experience. A new taste, a new food. Food for these journeyers from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Cuba, and otros paίses.  It will be their first experience of an American-made food. Manufactured by Hormel, in a place called Minnesota.

I imagine their faces when they bite into the soft white bread. Nothing will be familiar. Even the texture of el pan will mystify. But they will be hungry. That is, all the children older than 10, and their parents too. These are the ones Mexican immigration officials say they cannot afford to feed before releasing to the shelters or streets of Juarez. There’s only enough for the very young.

How did Sigrid know this? How did she find this new need that we could fill? Why did she even take the initiative to start this new ministry – the ministry of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich makers? And how did she ever secure enough provisions to make 1,000 sandwiches, or more, weekly? Oh, and don’t forget the snacks.

Migrant snacks
An abundance of snacks donated by the El Paso community

Well, but this is El Paso, after all. And, in typical El Paso fashion, El Pasoans respond to the need. You should know this by now, Pauline. It’s the reason you are here. The reason you uprooted yourself and created a new life in the desert. Something new that nourishes you. While you nourish the needy.

Always, you receive more than you anticipate. More than you give. I have come to know this in a way I never have before.

And something else.

I watch my fellow volunteers gathered around the tables. Take them in as they remove disposable gloves from sweaty hands, finish conversations, prepare to head home and scrub the smell of peanut butter out from underneath fingernails.

From 80-something-year-old Kay to 20-something-year-old Sy, these are the soul friends I’ve made along the journey. The ones who show me what is possible.  A world where everyone has enough to eat. Where abundance is shared. And laughter, prevalent.

Migrant PB&J
Friends gathered at local restaurant finish packing migrants’ PB&J snack bags

I recognize it, too, in the loyal “Usual Suspects.” The folks who made the beans and rolled them into tortillas to feed traveling migrants passing through our Loretto Nazareth shelter. Whenever our supply got low – I’d text Sue or Jeanette, prime “suspects” in this stalwart group with the “unusual” name.

Miraculously, more burritos would appear. Week after week. For years.

Now they’ve swapped bean burritos for PB&J sandwiches.

Still, they participate in a loaves and fishes story.

How do I give words to the beauty of this real-life parable? Of this fulfilling nourishment that’s been manufactured right here, in El Paso?

A quote from Frederick Buechner comes to me: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

For me, that place turned out to be accompanying migrants in El Paso shelters.

And is this where God is calling me now?

To Sigrid’s mother’s Mexican restaurant on the west side? To spoon grape jelly onto processed white bread? Slather peanut butter from end to end? To join dedicated friends to make sure migrant families whom we can no longer receive can at least receive a bit of protein before they find their way into the streets of Juarez?

frederick Buechern 2

No matter. It has simply come down to this. Hunger can be filled by a small act of kindness placed between two slices of bread.

May more of us acquire a taste for it.peanut butter jelly Jiff

Manna in the Desert

Las Cruces August sunset
Sunset over my desert home

Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a metaphor. Or a Bible story.

There’s a desert. Grumbling. (That would be me.) Perceived lack of food and water.

And, always, brown dust. The promise of a strong sun.

Desert sun over Organs
Sun rising over Las Cruces mountain range

 

And more.

The sufferings of those around me. Those who make their way through the desert. Remembered Bible stories fuel their hope. Stories of manna in the desert. From a God who never abandons them. A God who provides unusual food. Water from an unlikely source.

Sometimes that source is people I know. People at a shelter that waits for them to arrive. Empty cots longing to caress them into sleep. Give them dreams beyond imaginations held in their homelands. Dreams that only come when a rock transforms into a pillow.

This God source has provided in other ways as well.

With provisions for times when it feels as though the desert takes too much. Too great a toll of flesh demanded for the promised freedom. Too great a toll on desperate travelers forced into a more desperate Juarez. Too great a toll on exhausted, hungry children arriving with abuelas, tίas and tίos. They are taken from the only family they know. Pulled away and placed in shelters far from the desert, in rural American countrysides, hidden from view.

The toll seems unforgivable. Unimaginable to us who remain in the desert, watching, bearing witness to the inhumanity.

“Where is God in this?” we ask.Chihuahuan Desert

Where is God in the long aridity? When it feels like provisions are lacking?

In asking the question, the answers come.

I begin to notice provisions for the journey. The gifts in the sand.

The tireless female attorneys, mothers themselves, crossing the port of entry daily. Checking on clients. Seeking those with hearings in unsympathetic El Paso courtrooms. Holding up in the heat, the long lines at the bridge. No matter how few asylum cases they will win. Unfaltering despite the odds.

Manna in the form of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. El Paso volunteers now prepare these sandwiches for migrants waiting in Mexico to be processed. The people are hungry.peanut_butter_and_jelly_2

And Mexican federal immigration officials do not have the provisions to feed so many before releasing these families to shelters. Or worse – the streets of Juarez. The migrants – and the Mexican agents – welcome PB&J manna with smiles.

Provisions of friendship. The gift of camaraderie – of soul friends committed to the refugee, to the hurting, to those fleeing enslavement, a life of extortion.

We come together, share food and drink. Sing songs of a world we know is possible. The gift of laughter lightens the burdens. Our common prayer rises to the “column of cloud” guiding our journey.

Provisions of expression, of expelling the grief. Lisa offers the gift of her therapist skills, a free-will offering to those of us “living on the cusp,” living in the midst of the atrocious effects of the pharaoh’s dictates. She desires to help us. Her provisions fall like manna from the sky, alighting on our souls so in need of nourishment.

This heart I’ve been given – this too is a gift, a “talent” I’ve been asked to magnify on the journey. Even though it sometimes feels like a curse. A weakness. A vulnerability that needs alteration.

Then Brother Lalo gifts me with the words of St. Paul: “It is when I am weak that I am strong.” He tells me this is what comes to him when he thinks of me.

His supportive words, another provision in this desert. A reminder of another Bible story. The weak will befuddle the strong.

Yes, I call these “provisions for the journey.” And I hear God ask, can you trust that you’ll be given what you need? Just for today? Can you trust that I’ll be with you again tomorrow? Even when night descends?

Quotes_Creator_2Cor I am strong

 

 

 

Wade in the Water

rio_grande

The pain of heartache flows in the narrow river. I watch the ripple from the footbridge above, feeling helpless, hopeless. There is little I can do.

Do I let my heart feel the sorrow, the grief? Sometimes I do.

Sometimes I cry with the young wife and mother who lost her 2-year-old daughter and the husband carrying her on his back. Or with the Honduran woman whose husband did not want to come but listened to his wife’s plea. “It’s only for a few years,” she told this strong man who could no longer keep his family fed and safe.

He did not make it across the Rio Grande.

Nor did the 21-year-old female who’d been sent to wait in Mexico. Alone and vulnerable. No one to protect her from imminent rape. She tried to venture back across.

El Salvadoran wife and mother of drowned migrants 2019
El Salvadoran wife and mother of drowned migrants

Taking the risk in the water was better than the risk of waiting in Juarez.

Single women, mothers with children – they are the easy targets.

I’ve heard courtroom reports of Guatemalan women pleading with the judge at their initial court hearing not to send them back. “Put me in a cell,” one tells the judge. She would rather be locked up while she waits than be “free” in the homicide capital of Mexico.

“They extorted my family for money,” another one says. “I’m afraid to go back.”

Two women sob in the courtroom, with their young children in tow. Intruders tried to rape them at their shelter.

Those of us who live at the border – we all know it’s not safe in Juarez.  There is nothing protective about this outrageously unsafe policy, the complete opposite of any kind of “protection” for migrants.

Even the El Paso City Council denounced the “Remain in Mexico” policy 6 to 1 back in July. Still, it continues.

I read about a priest who was kidnapped in early August by a gang for not letting them into his shelter to kidnap migrants. He is still missing. Another priest was killed outright in Matamoros.

Juarez shelter
Juarez shelter; photo from El Paso Times

Now at our hospitality center, Casa del Refugiado, in El Paso, a different kind of migrant passes through. The kind that can take a plane across Mexico and land closer to the border. The kind that have cell phones and are cellphone savvy enough to make their own travel arrangements quickly. Some leave our center within less than 24 hours of arriving.

Granted, not all are like this. But I hardly see the desperate, disheveled, dirty faces anymore. Those who had to leave their country just to survive. And started out on foot.

Facing extreme hardships. Extreme suffering. Extreme roadblocks along the way.

Wait in Mexico? They have been waiting. Especially the Guatemalans, the Hondurans, the El Salvadorans. Waiting for justice and safety that do not exist.

So, this tiny patch of water that separates two cities, two countries, poses a minor obstacle.

Still, the river can be deceptive.

The water churns, swirls, gains power.

So many stories are buried in its silt.

I ask, what can I do? Plead? Wail?

And then I do one thing I know I am asked to do. I pick up my pen. I tell others. I write the stories, hoping those who read will know that we cannot stand on the shore watching. We, too, must wade in. Feel this churning, swirling power.

Maybe it will change us. Maybe it will cause us to act.

water-1246527_1920

 

Freedom and Solidarity

Sea lions closeup
Sea lions lounge together on rocks in Kenai Peninsula

Alaska.  What a spectacular, breathtaking vacation!

But I wasn’t two days into it when I realized something.

Just how much I needed this break.

How much I needed to relax.  Have fun. Do whatever the heck I wanted. And, most particularly, I needed to get away from the border.

Yes, I did say that.

It had become more of a weight than I realized. This daily barrage of disheartening news, of mistreatment of other human beings, of lack of due process and other human rights abuses.

I needed a break from the weight of our border reality.

And I didn’t know just how much until I had left it all behind.

My phone went silent. No more daily text messages about how many families were being sent to which shelters. How many volunteers were needed where.

No more disturbing news about what was happening — unless I chose to look at it on my phone.

And every day I got to choose.

Choose how I was going to spend the day. Where I was going to go. How long I’d stay. What and when I was going to eat. Whether or not I wanted to splurge on some unanticipated treat.

Plane view
My biggest treat – the view from this 4-seater plane

Adventure was my companion. Spontaneity became my best friend.

I felt special, spoiled, so grateful, and so free.

As I reflected at the end of each day, I saw how privileged I was to have such freedom. I also noticed how easy it is to to get lost in a bubble – that kind of enclosed space in which only what affects me, and those I care about, is all that matters.

It’s true I had to put El Paso aside for awhile. To not think about the border. Yet, despite the need for self-care, I found I could not take the people out of my heart. I know this because I readily and easily talked about the border situation whenever anyone asked me where I was from or what I did.

One stranger who sat down next to me at the Seattle airport in between connections genuinely thanked me afterwards for informing her about this side of the immigration story.

Being a voice of truth in solidarity with those who are hurting is a responsibility that I believe comes with this unbelievable freedom.

Tomorrow is the International Day of Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its abolition. This is another area in which I am coming to better understand my privileged freedom. And the need for solidarity.

Recently I heard from a presenter at our gathering in Albuquerque that as a result of our Living School experience, we are more aware of the pain in the world. Certainly the Living School has brought more awareness to the plight of people of color and of the marginalized.

I think that what is also true is that as a result of my experiences at the border and my exposure to the driving factors of migration, I am more aware of the pain in the world.

And in my awareness of this pain lies my awareness of my responsibility to be in solidarity with a hurting world.

No matter where I find myself. Whether doling out donations to migrants or gliding over gorgeous glaciers in Denali.

Ann Voskamp Quotes_Creator

 

Love in #ElPaSOStrong

El Paso Strong Love

Davis was the first to check on me. Thousands of miles away, yet he knew what was unfolding in El Paso before I did. And he wanted to make sure I stayed away.

Incredulous, I quickly checked the news. It was worse than I had feared.

But the hate that brought that young man all the way from Dallas to inflict so much pain and fear in our beautiful community was overpowered tonight by the love of El Paso.

Tonight our community came together – it looked like thousands of us – at Ponder Park just behind the Cielo Vista Mall where this hate-filled act took place. We came to pray together at an interfaith vigil. To share our pain, our grief. To support one another. To show the nation, and the world, who we are. And what it means to be #ElPasoStrong.

There was music. There were beautiful prayers and heartfelt messages offered by leaders of the Catholic, Protestant, B’nai B’rith, Buddhist, and Muslim faiths. I could feel the healing and the power in the words. I knew Love’s presence was among us and within us.

El Paso Strong crowd Aug 2019
Some of the families gathered for the 2-hour long event

There’s so much love and warmth in this city. I think that’s what I felt right from the beginning when I first came here. And that’s why I have felt so connected to this community.

I had been planning to write my next post about my trip to Alaska, what I experienced there, the insights I received. But that will have to wait for another time.

Because tonight, this is what I want to write about more than anything. The unbelievable example of love this community has shown.

For one another. For the stranger. For the immigrant. For the suffering.

Yes, the love in El Paso is so strong. So very strong.

El Paso Strong

In one very powerful exercise, a female speaker asked us to turn to someone next to us that we didn’t know and ask them if they were alright.

I turned to a stranger. “Are you alright?”  I asked sincerely.

Her eyes moistened, as she said, “I’ll get through it.”

Immediately I felt my own tears.

And then she asked me the same question, and I agreed. Yes, we will get through it. And I’m glad I’m here.

Then the speaker said if we noticed that person got teary eyed, give them a hug. And so this stranger and I hugged. Our hearts mutually hurting for this place we love. And simultaneously beginning to heal.

At one point during the event, we heard car engines revving as they drove around the park. I heard shouts but could only make out the word “Alabama.” Strange and unnerving. People turned to see what was happening. Faces concerned, apprehensive.

This is what such an act of terror can do. Put people on edge. Make a once very safe community not feel so safe. Create a reason to have a large police presence at a gathering that not so long ago wouldn’t have required any police.

I know that this past year things have changed in terms of threats being wielded at El Paso and at the hospitality centers where I volunteer. Knowing the hate that’s been growing unchecked, I take these threats seriously and have been concerned. But I continue to do what I do, where I do it, because of this love.

As Bishop Seitz said, prayer heals.

El Paso Strong Mexican_American flags
A participant at the prayer vigil displays both the Mexican and U.S. flags

Our community’s love is much more powerful than hate.

We know how to love our neighbors, no matter what side of the Rio Grande they live on.

And love is stronger than death.

Most importantly, El Paso will always love. No matter what is wielded at us. That’s what we know how to do.

Maybe some people at the top could learn from this community’s example.

#Voices

whispering children

Sometimes the voices can be so clear.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to live the gift that has been given to me. At a deeper level there has always been a deeper truth that this is what I am supposed to be and to do. We all want that sense of meaning and purpose in our lives….Don’t let your life go by without hearing what God is asking of you. Make sure you listen.”

This voice is Ruben Garcia’s.

He spoke these words five years ago. I had been interviewing him by phone for an article on his faith journey. And although he hadn’t been offering this advice to me personally, the voice was clearly speaking to me.

I got off the phone and cried. Spirit had accessed my heart.

At the time I had recently returned to Virginia after volunteering in El Paso. I was trying to settle into a daily routine while discerning what was next. Feeling uncomfortable and uncertain. I wanted to know what God was asking of me. I wanted to have Ruben’s certitude.

For that to happen, I knew I needed to be still and listen.

I began to pay attention.

Las Cruces cloud formation
Coming upon an unusual cloud formation above Organ Mountains

 

If you’re a regular reader, you know by now that listening more deeply is what inspired me to make this grand move to El Paso.

But what keeps me here? After all, it hasn’t been a once-and-for-all kind of message.

There are moments of doubt, moments in which I’ve wondered where this is all going, what it is I think I am doing. In those challenging moments, I’ve tried to listen more deeply. Tried to pay more attention to my Higher Self and give less credence to the distrustful, worrisome voices.

And sometimes that still, small voice accesses my heart through the voices of others. Like it did that day through Ruben.

Like it does through my border community and fellow volunteers.

The voices of Joe and Linda, for example. They leave their home in California periodically throughout the year, to come to El Paso for several weeks at a time to volunteer with us.

When Joe says, “This is church – this community. It’s lifegiving,” his words resonate in my core. Yes, Joe, I truly get that.

When Linda says, “We all know that this horrible immigration system is broken, and until something is done to change that, this is what I can do,” I know this is why I am here, too. To do something positive to counter all the ill and hate being heaped onto immigrants.

2_Linda accompanying family at EP airport
Linda accompanying mother and child at airport

And when Janet, an El Pasoan who has been with us since the early days of Loretto Nazareth, says” “This has been my most powerful experience of God in others,” I hear the truth of that. Because it has been for me, too.

I’ve experienced it in the simple gratitude of the migrant women. Voices that humble me and remind me again that something greater is holding all of this: “Muy amable, gracias.  You have been so kind. You have given us back our dignity.”

Sometimes the voices pose questions. Questions that don’t require an answer, yet cause me to go deeper.

 “What are our souls longing for, that we would do this work for the immigrants?”

Sr. Missy asked me this more in amazement than anything. She’d opened her congregation’s house on Grandview Avenue to board the countless volunteers who came from out of town to help at our hospitality sites over the years. She wondered aloud about the dedication of so many.

Her question stayed with me.

In listening, I discovered that what my soul longs for – the God I long for – is right here, hidden in my encounters at the border. It is here that God continues to access my heart.

But do you realize how few people listen to that voice, much less follow it?”

This question is Peter’s, my spiritual companion. His voice carries Spirit’s desire for me to acknowledge and honor my faithfulness. And I pause, and take that in.

This Saturday, many more voices will access my heart as I attend the Voice of the Voiceless, Annunciation House’s annual fundraising dinner. It’s an opportunity to honor those who speak for the least among us. But this year’s dinner is unusual in that Ruben is honoring those who don’t normally have a voice – refugee children.

Many of us have heard these children’s voices. We’ve heard their cries for their “mami” and “papi” (mommy and daddy). We’ve heard the tapes after their separation and witnessed their pain close up. These are clearly the most challenging voices of all to hear. And they are still crying out.

Will we let God access our heart through these voices?

Annunciation VOV

AHousecropped-romerobanner1

Wonderment

Dogwood

In less than 24 hours I’ll be back in Virginia. Yay!!!

And in one short week I will attempt to visit all my friends, my sister and her family, maybe catch blooming dogwood trees, hike Shenandoah, and soak in as much of the beauty of the greening Virginia countryside shot through with the colors of spring as possible.

Oh, yes, and Davis will be there, too.

It seems improbable – all that I have planned. And I’ve not even finished packing yet!

As I flit from one preparation to the next, I can’t help but consider the contrast of all this juiced activity from the Southwest Sangha silent retreat weekend I just completed at a Franciscan retreat center — a beautiful connection for me. Two days of relearning the art of slow, focused movement. Of sitting, walking, and eating in meditative silence. As our Dharma teacher, Michael, reminded us from the first moments of our arrival, we have no place to go and nothing to do.

Then, from that place of being as still and silent as possible, I jumped right into a flurry of activity, beginning Sunday afternoon, as I repacked and headed to El Paso to meet friends and walk over the border for margaritas and a bite to eat. I planned to spend the night in El Paso since I was scheduled to be at Casa del Refugiado early Monday morning, which meant Monday was a full and tiring day at the center.

Now here I am, in between unpacking and repacking, getting some writing in, and making sure the bathrooms are clean before I head out tomorrow.

Although it may all sound frenzied and stressful, that’s not what I’m feeling.

On the contrary.

Despite the to-do list and the fullness of the three days following the retreat, I am feeling rather pensive and content. I’m remembering the significance of the sacred art of pausing during my day. The gift of being able to be quiet and still enough to recall who I am underneath all the inner chatter.

An interesting question Michael posed this weekend was, how much time do you spend in silence each day? Many of us were committed to two 20- or 30-minute sits a day. Michael sits for 6 hours each day! Of course, he lives at a lay monastery where he has devoted his life to this practice. Still, he recommended we work towards it.

Really?

But, kidding aside, his suggestion made me reflect on just how much of a priority is my spiritual practice? How often do I simply pause and allow myself “to be” in sacred space?

In reality, it is all sacred space. The key is, am I still enough to pay attention? How receptive am I to God’s ever-present “murmurings” throughout my day? To being still long enough to recognize that I – my little ego – am not the one who is in control?

I’ve been reflecting on this even more so since I’ll be returning to Virginia tomorrow. A place I love. A place I left precisely because I listened within the silence.  And what I discerned in that receptive silence were “the murmurings of God” calling me to the desert.

To trust enough to surrender to what I couldn’t understand.

Coming across these words by Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche who died two weeks ago, reminded me about this sacred inner space. And how it can inspire someone to make drastic life changes – as it did for Vanier.

Many of us are not aware of the sacred space within us,
the place where we can reflect and contemplate,
the space from which wonderment can flow
as we look at the mountains, the sky,
the flowers, the fruits and all that is beautiful in our universe,
the space where we can contemplate works of art.
This place, which is the deepest in us all,
is the place of our very personhood,
the place where we receive the light of life and the murmurings
of the Spirit of God
.
It is the place in which we make life choices
and from which flows our love for others.

Of course, it takes practice, to allow myself to trust this place of “nowhere to go and nothing to do.”  It is, after all, countercultural.

But I have come to recognize that the God of my longing is right here, in the wonder of this contemplative moment. Being faithful to the inner stillness is what makes the difference as to whether I will catch the “wonderment” of God’s presence, or push on, grasping the reins tighter.

Like Michael did on this retreat, my Pathwork teachers, Living School teachers, every spiritual teacher I’ve ever had, recommends fidelity and surrender to the stillness in order to deepen our union with God. They call us to move beyond our culture’s preferences, to surrender to something not of our own making.

That’s what Jean Vanier did. And how powerful, how amazing the result! Truly he taught us how the “wonderment” of love can flow through us.

Jean Vanier L'Arche
Photo credit: Elodie Perriot. Courtesy of L’Arche

Whether it’s the Christ path, the Buddhist path, or some other spiritual path, when we are still and aware, we cannot but be moved by the presence of this infinite love, calling us to wonderment.

So, I will remember, as I prepare for yet another vacation in which I have more to do before leaving than I have time to accomplish, that what’s left to “accomplish” at the end of the day is not important. But how I pay attention to the wonderment of the God of love that wants to flow through me – well, that is essential.

To Live While Dying

Sr Janets memorial

“I don’t want to die while dying. I want to live while dying.”

Over a week ago I attended a Resurrection Mass for the woman who uttered these words while knowing cancer would soon end her life.

Sr. Janet fulfilled that desire. She lived her life fully. Even while in pain.  Even when she could no longer rise from her bed. She expressed gratitude for the simplest gifts she noticed from her pillow. She was imbued with joy. A love for the poor. And a light that filled me every time I was in her presence, just as it filled Sacred Heart Church on that Friday.

It reminded me that although physically, Sr. Janet was my age, spiritually, she is ageless. Her light lives on.

That’s not just some cliché.

I experienced this light from the moment I stood and watched her sisters proceed down the aisle in single file, their love and their grief palpable in the single white rose each of them carried.

white rose

I felt it again as her good friend Fr. Bill shared how she became a doctor so that she could practice what she called “poverty medicine,” providing health care to those who needed it most but couldn’t afford it. I was blessed to have visited Proyecto Santo Niῇo, a clinic Sr. Janet cofounded for children with special needs in Anapra, the very poorest section of Ciudad Juarez.

I recognized it in Matthew 25:35-40, the Gospel passage she had wanted to be read at the memorial.

There wasn’t anyone in that church who didn’t understand why.

She fully lived these words. As do so many in this El Paso-Juarez border community.

“Then the king will say to those on his right: ‘Come, receive my Father’s blessings. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me. I was ill and you comforted me. Imprisoned and you came to visit me.’

“Then the just will ask: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we welcome you away from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were ill or in prison?’ The king will answer: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for one of my least brothers, you did it for me.’” (Matthew 25: 35-40)

As I looked around, recognizing so many friends and fellow volunteers filling the pews, I felt incredibly blessed to be part of this community. To learn from people who teach me, every day, the meaning of those words.

Like Ruben Garcia, of Annunciation House, who managed to slip into a pew during the Mass. Even with his ever-mounting and never-ending responsibilities, he took the time to come.  Because he knows, just as Sr. Janet knew, that God identifies first and foremost with the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized.

Choosing a life of serving the poor matters. It increases our capacity to love. It electrifies our joy. It magnifies our light.

That’s surely what I saw in Sr. Janet.  I saw it in the joy of her vocation, joy in her faith, and joy for the poor.

She has shown me – as has this special border community – that living this vocation matters. Even though we cannot explain or understand it, living a life in love, of love, for love, matters. It’s what lasts.

anapra women (1)
At Anapra clinic moms learn to care for their children, who receive medical attention made possible through the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati

Whether it’s being with the poor in Anapra, at the clinic where Sr. Janet patiently instructed and loved severely disabled children and their mothers. In the hospitality centers, where Sr. Janet, myself, and thousands of volunteers have given of themselves and been changed and graced in the experience.  Or in this community that shows incredible hospitality to strangers, whether they’re coming to volunteer, to simply visit and learn the truth about our border, or to escape desperation and violence.

Like Dylan Corbett said at the Hope Border Institute event Monday night:

 “El Paso is showing the rest of the country, and the world, how to treat people with dignity and humanity….What we are creating here should be a model for our government.”

What we are creating here, I believe, is the kingdom of God made manifest.

It is the difference between simply existing to get the most out of this life or fully living to give the most of who we are.

In the end, our physical existence is temporary. The light of our love is not.

If we are not grounded in this light and love, then nothing we do makes sense. Thank you, Sr. Janet, for being grounded in love.