I admit it. The food we were served in Bolivia was different than I and my seven companions were used to. No greens to speak of. Few vegetables. More starches than I’d ever need in any lifetime. From the staple of papas fritas (French fried potatoes), to the serving of two kinds of potatoes and a huge dish of cheesy rice all in one meal.
Too much to take in. But every dish that Esperanza (“Hope”) and her sister-in-law Marta served us during our week-long stay was freshly prepared and plentiful. They gave the best of what they had. We had more than enough to eat. And we were grateful.
Like the food, the love and graces I experienced on this pilgrimage were unusual and plentiful. Not my normal daily diet. After a few days, they began to feel extravagant. Like too much to take in. Maybe it’s because a constant flow of positive energy and selfless giving permeates the Amistad mission where abandoned and orphaned children have found a home for more than 30 years.
Its founder, Fr. Will, who now lives in the U.S., just “happened” to be staying at Amistad’s guest house while we were there. Every morning we’d gather in the chapel for silent reflection and meditation and then he’d offer us Eucharist, along with gems of wisdom that sprang from the depth of his decades-long contemplative practice. I’ve met few people in my life who were as visibly close to God as Fr. Will.
Then there were the mamás and tiás who care for and give of themselves to the children 24/7. Each mama is assigned to one of the eight houses where up to 10 children can live. Not a small undertaking for anyone, but these women do it with patience and, from what we witnessed, a simple and deep faith.
My fellow pilgrims and I wanted to give the mamás and tiás a day off, so we planned some special pampering and creative activities for them. One by one, Mary Lou washed the women’s feet and then I massaged them. I doubt any of these women had ever had their feet massaged. They could barely look at me while I rubbed lotion into their blistered toes and heels. This intimate act turned out to be as much a gift for me as it was for them.
And that was only our first day.
Then there were the children. We visited and played with these precious little ones at their family-style homes at Amistad. As soon as we arrived, the children ran over to hug us. One little girl after another entwined her arms around my waist whenever I was within range. Their hands clasped mine and wouldn’t let go. On the playground I pushed the girls on the swings and spun the boys around and around on the merry-go-round. They laughed and squealed, calling, “Amiga, amiga! Mira! Mira!” “Look! Look at me, my new friend. Look!”
Their love and desire for attention filled me. I felt my heart opening wider and wider. The children “wrecked” me — a term my friends and I used every time our hearts broke open.
By mid week I began feeling overwhelmed. Had a hard time taking in all the core goodness, vulnerability, and the letting down of all defenses that was happening. The skeptic in me kept jumping in. Challenging what I was experiencing. Arguing against it. “This can’t be real. Life can’t be this loving and selfless. People can’t be this joyful, supportive, and accepting.”
I began seeking out the flaws, the imperfections, the hole in the tapestry. But what I came up against instead was the tough stuff within myself. My own flaws and imperfections. Rather than lovingly accepting myself in this, as I knew I needed to, I plunged into a momentary darkness.
And then we went to the remote hillside village of Aramasi. Where I really got wrecked.
At Aramasi, we stayed in individual tiny stone hermitages with outhouses nearby. Each of us had a single, threadbare mattress laid across a plank of wood. We had to sweep the dead bugs off the floor and pray no live ones were hidden anywhere else. None of my fellow female travelers complained about the accommodations. Unusual for Americans, I know. But then these are unusual women.
If prayer is standing naked and vulnerable before the Source of all Being, then I prayed an awful lot in that little room. My bed was placed alongside a window overlooking an unobstructed night sky filled with stars. All night long I entered in and out of sleep and gazed out the window, occasionally spotting a shooting star. Somewhere in the sacred solitude of that hermitage, I encountered an extravagant love that washed over me and helped me reclaim my belovedness. And in that tender place of recognition, I was shown the power and beauty of my own preciously imperfect heart.
One night Mary Lou read to our group from Henri Nouwen’s book, Gracias, which recounts his experiences during a six-month long ministry in Peru and Bolivia. Nouwen suggests that what we have to offer is our “own human brokenness through which the love of God can manifest itself.” He reminds me that I am broken like glass, and it’s the brokenness that lets the light shine through.
It’s the best I have to offer. And it is more than enough.