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.

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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.

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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.

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Alegrίa

Joyful mysteries

Joy.

Have you ever been surprised by joy? Felt it come out of nowhere and suddenly overtake you? Yet you can’t fully explain it?

That’s been happening to me since returning to this desert border town.  I’ve been experiencing a mysterious joy.

Despite not knowing for sure what I’m doing here. Not knowing where I’ll settle. Still trying to sell a house in Virginia. Looking for a paying job. Aware that my temporary living arrangement will soon expire.

So many unknowns. Enough to send anyone into a panic. Or at least an anxious spin.

But surprisingly I feel peaceful. And happy.

Maybe it’s because I’ve done this so many times now. Uprooted myself. Leapt off into the unknown. Taken risks. And come out the other side, assured once again that I have everything I need as I listen and trust my inner guidance.

But I know it’s more than that.

Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God,” said Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French philosopher and Jesuit priest who wrote The Divine Milieu.

God has been showing up a lot lately.

Just two days after arriving in El Paso, I returned to volunteer at the Nazareth migrant hospitality center where I’d served over a year ago. As soon as I walked through the door, took in the familiar surroundings, saw the people, I felt this inexplicable happiness spread inside of me.

Nothing had precipitated it. Other than being in this place.

It was the presence of joy.

joy-is-the-infallible-sign-lucid practice

A Presence letting me know that I was exactly where I needed to be.

 

Then last Sunday, I attended a Spanish Mass. A joyous celebration, the walls reverberating with lively music and handclapping. Pews packed with Hispanics. Many others standing along the side and back walls. And this was only one of six masses held every Sunday!

I went because I love being among the people. Saying the prayers in Spanish along with them. Celebrating the combination of their rich spirituality and connection to the earth. Seeing their faith in action both delights and humbles me. I can’t explain it, but they possess something special.

I was standing there, silently taking everything in, when suddenly I recognized something. I recognized the Presence of what it is they possess. And it filled me. This unnamed Presence.

Tears sprang to my eyes. Joyful tears.

And I knew. This is God. This is the Presence of God.

In these people. In these tears I’m shedding.

In this overwhelming joy that has taken me by surprise.

In this awareness that I am standing in the midst of grace.

In the knowledge that every leap I’ve taken — even when it didn’t feel “right” at the time — has been a perfect piece of the process of my life. Taking me where I needed to go. Helping me to heal.

In that moment of recognition, a Scripture verse came back to me:

“Count it all joy when you are involved in every sort of trial.” (James 1:2)

la alegria image

Two years ago I was struggling in San Antonio. Trying to make a go of a promise I’d made to serve there. Feeling very alone and uncertain, I’d written a blog post about the “life in abundance” God wanted for me. The promise of joy. Knowing it was possible, but feeling a million miles from anything close to joy.

Now I understand.

My heart knows why I am here.

“That my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.”

La alegrίa. That’s Spanish for joy. Now I understand. A joy no one can take from you.

 

A Simple Gift at Easter

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The “floor flower”  (alfombra) we created at Maryknoll for Semana Santa

Another adventure. This one involving a ride in a taxi trufi to an unfamiliar area “off the beaten path.” (I now have a clearer vision of just what that term means.)

Since arriving in Cochabamba, I’ve been wanting to visit my Bolivian friend, Maria Laura, a tía (auntie) at the Villa Amistad for children. I met Maria Laura back in November when I visited Amistad and I have been praying for and writing to her ever since. Seeing her was at the top of my list during my six-week stay, but so far, I’d been unsuccessful.

In the first place, getting to Amistad isn’t exactly easy. Although public transportation in Cochabamba is cheap and easy to use, with buses, taxis, and taxi trufis (sort of like an old van or VW bus) running constantly throughout the city, there’s only one taxi trufi you can take to the outskirts where Amistad is located. Taxi trufi #119. And it doesn’t run very often. Apparently not many people travel in that direction.

I discovered this the first time I tried to take #119. As I waited and waited and waited on the main Avenida Simon Lopez, taxi trufis bearing every number BUT #119 passed by: 101, 123, 120, 118, 19. Their numbers just close enough to #119 to instill both hope and frustration in me as the sun beat down on my unprotected head. Within seconds of each other, taxi trufis with the same number passed by, only adding to my frustration. I finally gave up and took a taxi — a lot more expensive than the 2 Bolivianos a taxi trufi requires, but, hey, I wanted to get there sometime that day.

Maria Laura was not at Amistad that afternoon. But at least I got to play with the children. And I discovered that taxi trufi #119 really does exist because I took it back to the city. The key, apparently, is to have patience and perseverance.

On my second attempt, I was ready. Armed with the knowledge of how #119 operated, I waited patiently as, once again, what seemed like hundreds of other taxi trufis zoomed by. Finally, #119 appeared. I stuck out my arm and waved it down like an experienced Cochabambina. But Maria Laura was not at Amistad that afternoon either. She’d had to accompany a child to the hospital.

You might think my third attempt was the charm. And it was. But not without incident.

On the Saturday morning before Easter I tried calling the Amistad office to let them know I was coming. Nobody answered. I decided to go anyway.

This time #119 came relatively quickly.  A good sign, I thought. But the rickety van was nearly full, requiring me to sit behind the driver facing backwards. We soon veered off the main avenida and headed up the rocky dirt roads I’d come to recognize. As we drove along, I kept turning my head to watch for the Villa Amistad sign. It wasn’t until the driver parked under the shade of a lone tree and turned off the motor that I realized I’d missed my stop. He put his hand out, waiting for his 2 Bolivianos, expecting me to get out of his van.

“Do you know the Villa Amistad?” I asked him in my best Spanish. He did not.

“Do you know the name of the street it’s on?” he asked me. I did not.

He said some thing else in Spanish, and I knew I had to get out. I stepped onto this dirt road in the middle of who knows where, with no idea of how to walk to Amistad from there. Was I concerned? Just a little bit.

Then this woman in a white sombrero with black braids and missing teeth ventured over. Somehow she knew I didn’t  belong here. When I asked if she knew the Villa Amistad, which, of course, she didn’t, another driver overheard, and called out to me.

I finally make it to Amistad only to find that the guard at the gate won’t let me in. I’m not expected after all. And it’s Saturday, so the administrative staff isn’t working.

“You need to call the director on your cellular,” he says.

“I don’t have a cell phone,” I tell him.

He can’t let me in.

Then this little angel appears. Madelyn, one of the young girls who lives at Amistad and knows me from previous visits, saunters by, and I call out to her. She explains to the guard that she knows me and that it’s OK for me to see Maria Laura. He agrees to retrieve my friend and bring her to me.

What followed turned out to be my best Easter gift. Maria Laura met me at the gate. I got to embrace my friend. Touch her. See her eyes smile back at me. Ask about her health. Share some simple but precious words.

It lasted maybe 15  minutes. And then I turned and headed back down the rocky road to wait for taxi trufi #119. My heart full of joy. And fully aware of the gift I’d just been given to culminate Semana Santa in Bolivia.

 

Simple Joys

joy-image

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. worn-out-shoes

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.

Yet they had. And neither the girls nor their mother seemed bothered in the least by this. They simply smiled at our attention.
worn out sandals

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.

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