Recently two little girls from Guatemala arrived at our door wearing something I’d never seen on a child. Men’s sweatpants.
Admittedly, the girls and their mother appeared a little more disheveled and a little wearier than most of the migrants that show up at Nazareth. Their massively tangled black hair encircled brown faces streaked with dirt so ingrained, their skin appeared to hold various shades of darkness and light. Permanently.
It wasn’t until Mary Beth bent down to help the children remove their worn-out sneakers that she noticed their clothing. With no laces, broken soles, the tongues flapping and tattered, the shoes were what first caught her attention.
But just above the tongues of the sneakers hung gray, baggy pants rolled up at the ankles, spreading out 100 times wider than the width of these thin girls, and then rolled several times over and cinched at the waist. Startled, Mary Beth motioned to me.
“They’re wearing men’s sweat pants,” she nearly whispered.
I had to take a look for myself.
She was right.
If they’d wanted, the girls could have ducked down under the waistband and swum around. I couldn’t imagine them trekking all the way from Guatemala through Mexico wearing these oversized pants.
While Mary Beth helped the family find appropriate clothing, I went off to get bath towels and toiletries for their showers. As I laid out the clean towels on the cots in the their room, I couldn’t help notice what they’d brought with them. Two brown paper sacks sat like fat, wrinkled cabbages on their cots. Twisted at the neck, the bags bulged and split from the weight of the belongings stuffed into them. It was everything they had.
Later, when I escorted the three of them to the showers, I realized the girls had already donned their newfound clothing. One wore a pastel top and jeans, the other, a white dress printed with colorful flowers.
“A dress!” I said to her in Spanish. Her response — nothing but teeth as she smiled up at me, her expression revealing everything. For a moment, I felt as happy as she did. All because of a second-hand dress.
They were still in the shower when it was time for me to leave. Since I wouldn’t be back for a few days, I knew I wouldn’t see this little family again. They’d be gone by tomorrow.
I wanted to do something more. So, I went to the storage room and got a couple of gift bags with crayons and notepads and little TY stuffed animals and placed them on the girls’ cots. It was fun to imagine the joy on their faces when they’d return to their rooms and find them.
But here’s something I’ve noticed.
In the process of doing whatever it is I think I am doing for the people here, something wonderful happens. Each time I learn a little more from their simple faith. Their trust. Their joy. Something about what it really means to live with uncertainty. To trust the journey to something beyond oneself. And to be happy in the midst of it all.
“To die alive is to take risks. To pay your price. To do something that scares you…”
I came across these words from an interview with author Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist — a book that synchronistically showed up right in the middle of my difficult discernment process.
In his interview, as well as in the fictional tale of Santiago, the shepherd boy and hero of The Alchemist, Coelho describes what it means to live fully alive before we die. Of what it means to be willing to take risks. To open our hearts and be vulnerable. To venture forward into the unknown. Yes, we feel scared, but we do it anyway. Because that’s what it means to follow our “personal legend.” A calling we hear deep in our hearts that results in the finding of our true treasure.
Most of us are afraid to do this. I know I was — at least before I started out on this journey. But each day I seem to be growing stronger, more courageous. And certainly more trusting, of God and of myself.
Because as I listen in the silence, I can hear my Heart speak. And when I follow that guidance, despite my fears of what might happen, I find that I’m given what I need to continue. Again and again. Just as the alchemist tells Santiago in the desert:
“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”
Every second is an encounter with God. That’s what I have been discovering as I’ve listened and paid attention. Grace is in all of it.
That became even clearer over these past several days as the end of my time in San Antonio draws near. I feel the sadness of leaving behind this ministry with Incarnate Word Missionaries. Of letting go of a commitment I made and of people who have become dear to me. It’s not easy. Nor has it been easy to deal with the challenges I’ve faced. And the challenges that I know are ahead in El Paso.
Last Friday I met with Sr. Brigid, my spiritual companion while I’ve been in San Antonio. I tell her she has been my light. Someone who listens and supports and says, using only a few words, exactly what is most helpful.
In turn, she tells me things I need to hear. That I am a strong woman. That my faith and my journey are “remarkable,” considering everything I’ve faced here and, how, rather than go home, I’m still willing to go forward in trust. I hear her affirming me in a way that I need right now. It’s one of those encounters with the Holy. It both humbles me and shines the light on my treasure a little more brightly.
On Saturday as I’m moving out of the apartment, the director of the program calls me from Mexico City. She’s clearly concerned about how I’m feeling and what’s in store for me. She knows I’m going to El Paso with no certainty of what I’ll be doing and how I’ll manage. She says there is a place for me if I choose to stay. Her care for me touches my heart, and I realize the impact I have had. Simply by being myself and following my heart. Another encounter.
Then, last night I received a call with a completely unexpected and humbling offer. My concerns going forward to El Paso were addressed in an amazing way. I didn’t know how to respond. I hung up the phone in tears. A major encounter with the Holy.
I’m shown once again how the Universe really does provide when you follow your heart’s intention for the highest good. Just as Santiago was promised. And just as I have been telling myself. Because throughout this journey my mantra has been: “I have everything I need as I follow the path of my Higher Self.”
This remarkable journey is proving exactly that. With every encounter. As I listen to my heart.
With about a week and a half to go before I leave to serve on the border in El Paso, I’m trying not to panic. Not that I don’t want to go. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m excited about this new adventure and where it may lead. I truly believe that in following my heart and taking this step, what I’m being called to next in this stage of my journey will become clearer. But for now, preparing to leave my house, my devoted dog, and daily responsibilities for 2 ½ months or more feels daunting. So many details to manage, finances to get in order, and lists to prepare. And I still need to orientate my good friend, who unbelievably has agreed to house sit, take care of my dog, and help me clear out more stuff while I’m gone. She’s fully supporting me so that when I return from El Paso, I’ll be ready to venture off to wherever I may be called to go next.
Actually, this all sounds kind of unsettling, doesn’t it? I have to admit that while this is an exciting step, it’s scary too. And risky. After all, who knows what I’ll face while dealing with the many complexities of our immigration system? And with immigration reform slated to be taken up again in 2014, controversy around the issue is sure to fire up. Will I be up for the task? Will I work through my fears with courage and perseverance? This is the archetypal hero’s journey, isn’t it? Leaving home. Venturing into the unknown. Wondering what challenges you’ll find and how you’ll meet them.
Recently I witnessed, quite inadvertently, a metaphor for my journey. Over the Christmas holiday while visiting my sister and her family we watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My niece had given the DVD to her dad for Christmas and I asked if we could watch it. I seemed to be the only one in the room–and probably one of the few on the planet–who hadn’t seen it yet. I know the movie actually came out a year ago, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m on the slow track when it comes to keeping up with the latest in entertainment. Lucky for me, my son, niece, and brother-in-law don’t mind seeing movies over and over again.
Somehow when they put the movie on, I missed the fact that it was titled “An Unexpected Journey.” I simply settled in to watch what I thought would be another vivid action fantasy along the lines of the The Lord of the Rings series.
But it wasn’t long before I began to recognize Bilbo Baggins’ journey as a metaphor for my own life. It happened right about the time the dwarves started invading Bilbo’s adorable little home nestled in a hollow of a tree. Looking anything like dwarves, these husky men appeared unexpectedly at his door, one after another, wearing rancid furs and donning scruffy beards, their wild hair shooting off in all directions. They ransacked his kitchen, helped themselves to his food, sloshed ale over his table, and generally created a noisy, out-of-control atmosphere. All the while, Bilbo grew visibly uncomfortable and anxious as he watched this chaotic situation unfold. I could feel his pain. I, too, once had a tidy and predictable life. Guarded my possessions. Prized order and structure. Thought I knew where I was headed. And who was coming along with me. Not so anymore.
I call it the workings of the Holy Spirit or the True Self.
First there’s the invitation — the foreshadowing of an unexpected journey ahead. In The Hobbit, Gandalf, the wizard, takes this role, showing up unannounced and mysterious, with his invitation for Bilbo to go on an “adventure.” But Bilbo has no intentions of leaving his comfortable life and his quaint home. He’s perfectly happy with life as it is. Or so he thinks. When these wild men show up at his door, they get him to wonder about something more. Even though at first he’s certain he doesn’t want to join in this adventure, he ends up hurrying off after them when he discovers the next morning they’ve left him behind. At some point in the journey, feeling unprepared, scared, and certain he’s made a mistake, Bilbo decides to go back home. But he doesn’t. He sticks with it. And transformation happens. The turning point comes when the king of the dwarves is about to be killed, and Bilbo goes through his fear, tackles the evil in front of him and saves the king.
For me, the invitation came when I listened to my heart and heard God calling me to something more. What exactly, I do not know. I understand my life won’t be the same. No more rational explanations. Like Bilbo, I figure I’ll have moments when I feel scared, unprepared, and wondering why I left home. But also like Bilbo, I choose to leave behind my tidy, predictable life and accept the adventure. Even though it may mean facing some tough, long-held fears. Even though I don’t know where the adventure will lead. But one thing I do know: I will never be left to face the journey alone.
Probably by the next time you hear from me, I’ll be writing from El Paso.