I know you might feel a little wilted, Reader, after all the Christmas presents and family and food (and sugar, etc.) I do too. I like this kind of tired though. It is a good tired. And the Octave of Christmas is a peaceful time.
I deeply enjoyed Christmas day with my daughters and their young families. This is the first time since the string of tragic deaths my family has gone through, that I felt I really could connect to Christmas and like it. A lot of healing has happened, time has gone by, and though I still miss everyone so much, I have begun to see daylight again and so have the kids. A big part of the happiness this year is that my eldest daughter, who has been living in Oregon for some years,has moved back home to Texas with her husband, their three year old and her eight month old. Basically with them gone our family was down to my youngest daughter, her three year old, and myself. With Maire and Jon back we feel like a family again. We feel complete.
Our gathering went well, and we were glad to be together. It was a fun and chaotic in all the right ways. We had a patchwork meal composed of everyone’s favorite dishes (rajmah, masala potatoes, potato cheese soup and spice muffins.) We had a family prayer service, sang happy birthday to Jesus (with candles and chocolate fudge cake) and opened presents, of course. Which was predictably wild.
There was a lot of laughter and relaxed joy,the two small children running around, the baby crawling through wrapping paper.
And now my little place is quiet. That is a good metaphor to me for this part of the season: the quiet house.
We scurried to get ready for the big day. Then we had the big day, the beautiful day, of the Nativity. We enjoyed family and friends. We went to mass to celebrate. And now, during the Octave of Christmas, we have a special opportunity to slow down, to be still, and appreciate the gift of the Lord in simplicity of heart.
It is pleasantly quiet, and Jesus is home for the holidays.
At this writing, it is cloudy and warm Texas day. I have some nice frankincense incense burning.
I have enjoyed some quiet prayer time today, gazing at my little Christmas tree and it’s multi colored lights, coffee cup in hand, Christmas peace in my heart.
St. Teresa of Avila imagined the soul as a beautiful crystalline castle with Jesus in its center, enthroned in the heart.
He is indeed home for the holidays and His home is right here, right now, in us. This is something He accomplished by His birth. He not only came among us and lived among us, but now and for eternity, He lives within us.
The Church season of Christmas is a time to return to the heart, to enjoy His company there, and let Him enjoy ours.
“The Father spoke one Word which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul.” ~ St. John of the Cross
* The Octave of Christmas is celebrated until January 1, the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God.
This Advent, I have asked the Friars, Priests and Sisters what they do for Christmas in their communities. I called a cloistered Carmelite convent and asked what the nuns do for Christmas. I read accounts in articles and on web sites of Christmas at monasteries.
I was surprised by some of the responses I got to my question, especially by the fact that there is sometimes loneliness or emotional distance in religious communities at Christmas.
I heard about Christmas nights with everyone exhausted from ministry work.
Some Christmas Days are spent, anti-climactically, with each member in his own room after all the masses are over.
Some Christmases are difficult or disappointing, just as some of ours are.
I don’t know what I expected to hear. Of course they have problems, too.
Some described happy Christmases among brothers as the norm.
Other accounts had a gentle simplicity and sense of the sacred we could work harder to imitate or be more in touch with if we wanted to.
Advent can be a quiet but intense time. The days are getting shorter and darker. It is a period in which nature and the liturgy can harmonize in a way that naturally draws a monk or nun more into a reflective and prayerful mood. When the great day of the Lord’s birth arrives, it is as if a great light had burst on the scene. The dramatic turning point is Midnight Mass, something Trappists do in a very distinctive way. The liturgy is simple but majestic. We are often joined by dozens or as many as a hundred of our friends and neighbors with their children.
On Christmas day, we are allowed to sleep in a little longer. Breakfast will often feature delicious pastries made by a Trappist brother or sister or one of our neighbors. We do not exchange gifts, but we receive many cards and goodies from people far and wide who appreciate our silent witness as contemplatives. We are permitted to call our families and catch up on news from home. All of these are means for really enjoying and celebrating Christmas. But, perhaps, what a Trappist monk or nun most cherishes about Christmas day are the free periods given us to spend time in the chapel or walk in nature and enter into the mystery of Christmas in silence and solitude.
This response from my friend, Sister Lynn, was particularly joyful:
“ We have a special Vespers service on Christmas Eve where we sing the portions of Isaiah that speak of the Emmanuel. We usually sing Christmas carols in Chapel before Mass as people are arriving. Since we are located in a very rural area we don’t usually have a lot of guests at Mass; perhaps a dozen or so on Sundays. But Christmas Eve is the one Mass where we get a huge turnout of people – usually around 100. After Mass we visit with our guests a bit as they leave.
Christmas morning we have Morning Prayer. We have Christmas Day Mass with our elder sisters in the infirmary. Then the sister cooks get to work preparing our Christmas dinner. Easter and Christmas we splurge … this year we are having steak! Different sisters sign up to do parts of the meal – I am on for vegetarian main dish (we’re having specially seasoned Boca burgers and cauliflower steaks) and also salad.
In the afternoon we have some rest time. The evening is my favorite part of the day – we have our community Christmas party. We have fun finger foods, open gifts that have been given to the community – usually there is a small gift for each sister (something like an Amazon gift card or gift of an extra retreat day). It’s only community – no guests, we put on our jammies and just have fun being together.
~ Sr. Lynn, O.S.B.
My friend, Fr. John, S.J., said most of the other Jesuits go home to their families of origin for the holidays during the break at the University where he teaches, though those that remain behind have a special mass and dinner. He thought I should write about something else. My life sounds more entertaining to him.
The sisters of Carmel gave me this glimpse into their Christmas celebrations.
On Christmas Eve morning we pray Lauds and then chant (Gregorian) the hour of Prime, in which the Martyrology is also formally chanted by one of the Sisters. On Christmas Eve we are announcing and proclaiming the Birth of our Savior, so the chant is very solemn and beautiful. We have copied it here below for you to read what is sung in Latin. When the Sister pronounces the words that speak of God becoming Incarnate for us, we all kneel and then prostrate with our faces to the floor in adoration. It is a moving and inspiring moment…
In the 1599th year from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created the heavens and the earth. The 2957th year after the flood. The 2015th year from the birth of Abraham. The 1510th year from Moses and the going forth from Egypt of the people of Israel. In the 1032nd year from the anointing of King David. The 65th week according to the prophecy of Daniel. In the 194th Olympiad. The 752nd year from the foundation of the City of Rome. In the 42nd year of the reign of Octavius Augustus, all the world being at peace, Jesus Christ the Eternal God and Son of the Eternal Father desirous to sanctify the world by His most merciful coming, being conceived by the Holy Ghost, nine months after his conception was born in Bethlehem of Judah made man of the Virgin Mary. – Sisters of Carmel
My friend, Fr. Gregory, OCD, said his community is very busy at Christmas with the parish and the staff. Though they spend a lot of time in prayer, it sounded to me that their obligations are almost as heavy as those of lay people at that time of year. They did have a lovely Christmas together this year, though, even with the stress of their current building project.
“In this house all must be friends, all must be loved,
all must be held dear,
all must be helped.” ~ St. Teresa of Avila
It sounded as if religious communities are just a different type of family, with similar joys and difficulties. Sometimes Christmas makes things that are going wrong stand out more to us, and the longing for a better unity is drawn out in every heart as we ache for Jesus to come among us, to be born in our midst again. Our families feel that deeply at times, and so do theirs. I wonder if our lay families can find more ways to support those in consecrated life, especially since they give so very much to us?
After hearing some of the difficulties they had, a friend of mine paid for a dinner so a small community of Friars could have a special meal together Christmas Eve. I sent a book of poetry by Hafiz to another religious priest I care about. Who can be lonely with great poetry?
Let’s remember and bless these human beings who have given themselves to God for the good of the Church and the world. We can pray for them, thank them, be grateful for them, but we could also learn more about them, deepen our appreciation of their contributions, get to know some of them, let them inspire our own family lives, and find out how we can support them as they support us.
Special thanks to the priests and religious who let me hear about their family Christmases.
Here are some links of interest to learn more about our friends in Consecrated Life
After some packing and chores people were milling around downstairs. Most of our group was flying back to Milwaukee. My brother-in-law, Frank and Sister Ann Catherine and I were driving.
Chris had never gotten to his plan of taking us to a scenic overlook he wanted us to see. I really wanted to go and several of us did, piling into the van one last time.
What a lovely place; situated on a mountainside with a view of Juarez and El Paso stretching out before us.
The border wall was invisible.
I thought that this must be how God sees this place.
El Paso del Norte, once one city, now divided like East and West Germany were by the Berlin wall. Frank had been stationed in Germany while he was in the Army and this situation we had experienced in El Paso reminded him very much of the Berlin wall. Only in Berlin people were heroes for making it across to freedom. In America it is quite the opposite. We treat such people as criminals. There is no welcome. Our one policy is deterrence – seemingly by any means.
There were historical markers and memorials to read and take note of.
Apparently the scenic overview is a place for lovers as well as historical markers. Padlocks covered the hand rails. Chris said sometimes they had to be cut off.
I can see why the spot is inspirational to people in love. Love is transcendent, eternally bonding, an experience of unity that verges on the mystical. Mountains give the human spirit that feeling too. All is one from up high.
Back at Casa Vides Alex and Father Jose were laughing with the kids that came in last night. We showed the kids and one another pictures of our families.
Tim had bought some cat food for the stray cats. We chuckled as he gave it to the sisters.
Eventually it was time to go. We hugged one another and wished each other well. The sisters came and hugged me. Sister Bea had said she saw my goodness and that it shone out from me. That must have made an impression on me because I still remember it. She had taken notice of qualities she saw in each of us. She gave these as gifts to each one of us in parting.
I told Sister Caroline I had a feeling I would be back. I was surprised that she had such a big response to that. “Praise God!” she said, her blue eyes wide.
I have little idea of what I can ever do to help out, not speaking Spanish and not being that good at much. However it is true. I can’t imagine not going back.
Chris told me to keep in touch and everyone said to send them a copy of my book. (I am working on one though what happens with it I don’t yet know- but it is great that they believe in me.)
The guests came and hugged me, smiling.
Then we hopped in Franks’ car with our suit cases.
Once we were out of town I turned on the stereo. I had put on a mix CD that was labeled “Indigo Girls.”
As the first song played I remarked that it was the perfect song to end this experience at Annunciation House with. And it was. It seemed to sum up how we felt, what we had received and what we longed to give.
I come to you with strange fire
I make an offering of love
The incense of my soul is burned
By the fire in my blood
I come with a softer answer
To the questions that lie in your path
I want to harbor you from the anger
Find a refuge from the wrath
This is a message, a message of love
Love that moves from the inside out
Love that never grows tired
I come to you with strange fire, fire…
I woke up tired but looking forward to the day with everyone and to learning more.
Today was the day we were supposed to dress up because we were going to Federal Immigration Court. I stuck to the dress code. My friend Jocie had taken me out and bought me an outfit. She kept asking if I was sure about the shoes. Hey all they said was that the shoes had to be close toed.
Downstairs my brother-in-law, Frank was sitting alone with a cup of coffee. Seeing me he said without expression, “You’re looking very… legal. Except for the shoes.” I laughed. The shoes weren’t outrageous. Just some black vans with socks and tights with my more formal skirt and button up shirt. “Just a little touch of funky,” I had said
“Of course. Always the rebel.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
I didn’t feel like eating but I grabbed an apple since we had a full schedule again today.
People smiled at one another as we slowly assembled in he dining area. The migrant guests looked at us with mild interest. I wondered what they thought about all this.
We met a woman named Cata in front of the court house. She told us what to expect and a little about what the immigration lawyer she worked with did. I don’t remember much abut it except that it was kind of cold and that El Paso judges have a 97% denial rate on asylum cases.
What we were about to see was a plea hearing for two migrants (they didn’t know one another) who were from Brazil. There might be a bit of a wait that had something to do with an interpreter being found. (Both migrants spoke only Portuguese.)
Inside an official wanted to speak to one of us who was a Wisconsin State Senator. His name was Tim, and he functioned as our comic relief and feeder of the stray cats outside Casa Vides. After a while he came back and sat with us.
The defendants were led in in handcuffs, and bound in chains hand and foot. This surprised me. It seemed like over kill. However I hear that it is the usual thing.
One of them was as young as my youngest daughter, in her early twenties. She was very slight and small in stature with tiny features and long brown hair.
The other inmate was a middle aged man with big black eyes. Both wore prison garb.
The young woman was charged with defrauding the U.S, government because when she was caught she lied about her relationship to the young man who had been with her, and about his age. She had said he was her 17 year old step son and that was not true apparently.
The man was charged with illegal re-entry, his second.
The magistrate explained who he was, who he worked for, and what his job was. He made sure both people understood their choices, and what they were being charged with.
He said this was independent of any asylum claims. They said yes they understood everything. Both plead guilty after hearing the maximum sentence (2 years in prison for her and a big fine, 5 years in prison for him and another big fine.)
It seemed mostly to be a formality, as if everyone involved were reading a script they had studied beforehand. Maybe it was like that.
Outside we thanked Cata and talked among ourselves about what we had seen. Cata had been talking to us but she had been way at the end of our bench and I hadn’t heard much. It was sad anyway.
Most likely each of the accused would go to prison for a while and then be deported. That is all we learned about their stories. I wonder why they came? I wonder why the man tried twice to get in?
Next we went to a place called La Mujer Obrera. At first it looked like a museum but it was more of a community center. The woman who talked to us was obviously very strong and passionate about the work she and others here did. She talked about the beginnings of her organization which began to help women in the garment industry, and the work of building community and what community organizing was. She said they didn’t need some progressive hipsters coming in and telling them what social justice was. They didn’t want conservative politicians coming in and telling them about “progress” either, or those who assumed they needed education to “get out of this neighborhood.” What about lifting up the neighborhood? How about relying on our community’s own fund of knowledge? How about studying together and creating jobs for themselves, starting their own enterprises, asking people in the community what they wanted?
She said Pope Francis’ Laudato Si was like a handbook for them, especially the parts about building community. She said it inspired them in all they did.
I was amazed at her. I never heard of any of this stuff she was saying before.
One of their community enterprises was Cafe Mayapan which was a restaurant serving indigenous foods. She said they had had to study to learn how to run a restaurant, and learn their ancestor’s recipes.
We had lunch there. I loved my grilled cactus stuffed with mushrooms and chipotle.
Ruben Garcia, the founder and director of Annunciation House met us for lunch. They already had his guacamole salad ready.
He was gentle in manner but very solid, I thought, inside. He reminded me of Pope Francis around the eyes and the way he greeted and spoke to everyone. He seemed like a gentle and humble man but authoritative- and there was something powerful about him. This was about to become more evident. He humbly said he never really prepared for these talks. I asked if he just went with the Holy Spirit. “You could call it that,” he said. He was quiet, looking down at his guacamole salad.
Then he boomed,”YOU DON’T BELONG HERE!”
We sat in stunned silence.
He went on to make the point that we weren’t needed here. “We don’t need your charity! We don’t need you to do something nice to help migrants! I want you to go back home AND DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS!”
He said the last two years had been “BAD” and that we had let all this happen.
I was upset but then I caught his drift and thought that if he was talking about the current administration he was as much at fault as anyone else. Then I felt better. I relaxed. What a tractor beam the guy was.
I said I come from a very conservative small town and how was I supposed to talk about all that I had learned without people at home tuning me out? “People are very pro life but also pro wall,” I said.
“When I try to talk about immigration issues or the suffering of migrant children, the response is often, “but the babies!”
He nodded thoughtfully. I don’t remember that he had any answers for me. I guess I have to rely on the Holy Spirit too.
Some of my group asked if telling the personal stores of migrants would help. Mr. Garcia said that people already know those stories. They are on the news. “At some point justice has to stand on it’s own,” he said.
I am still thinking about what that means.
He related a story about why he had been late today. A few things had happened at once. He had been driving a man today who had been perfectly happy in his home country. He had his own business. His wife had a good job. They had a home and two cars. They never wanted to come to the U.S. Then the gangs started to come after his 14 year old son. They had come for him one night after a lot of harassment and demanded the father turn over his son to them. Somehow he convinced them to let him talk to him and they could come take him in the morning. That night they fled for the U.S., the only place they knew they would be safe. They were immediately detained. They didn’t know anyone, no one who could sponsor them. While they were in detention their teen-aged daughter turned 18. She was immediately separated from her family. They were released but she was not. Apparently this happens all the time. She was sent back to Juarez. Her family had been frantically calling Mr. Garcia trying to get someone to help their daughter, young and all alone in Juarez where migrants are targeted, kidnapped raped or murdered every day. Mr. Garcia had sent someone to find the girl and take her to a shelter there. That was bad too, but better than wandering the streets for a young girl.
He was angry. “Our government is killing people! Go home and do your homework! End this!”
He left early. He never ate his guacamole salad. I didn’t know what to think.
My group began to ask Chris and Brinkly if it would help for the group to sponsor someone.
I was thinking. I got a fresh cup of coffee and got up to mill around with some of the others.
“Damn,” I said to Frank. He seemed annoyed by the whole thing, but resigned all the same. He said that when you have a hole in the boat charity is bailing the water out. Social justice is fixing the leak.
I said that it seemed that we lived in a duplex, with the only way out for our neighbors being the door to our house. We had let a dangerous animal into our neighbor’s house, slammed the door and locked it. If anyone got out, we tied him up and threw him into our bathroom. “And took his children,” someone said. “Yeah.that too.”
Frank remembered that the priest at the church in Juarez had said that the first thing to do was do our interior work, and secondly, to build community.
Back at Casa Vides I asked Chris, who was so impossibly centered, compassionate and patient, how he kept from being outraged all the time with all he sees. He just looked at me.
I told him that when I hear heartless stuff about immigration, or when people try to justify the child separations to me, I just want to rip their heads off and sometime I verbally do. “How can I be patient with people who seem heartless to me? How can I not freak out?”
He thought about this.
He told me that at one point he had to leave Annunciation House and go stay with his parents for a while to regather himself. The child separation policy was intense for them there at Casa Vides. He was seeing what happened to people, the traumatized and desperate parents, for instance.
He seemed to have secondary trauma from seeing what he was seeing. One day he felt that God helped him remember the depth of the migrants’ faith. “They were the ones actually experiencing the trauma. They had such faith. It was like I was being asked, “Where is your faith?” So he had come back to Casa Vides and continued the work. He was able to do it then.
“I like it!” I said. We went downstairs for reflection.
First we had a talk from one of the volunteers we had not met before. One of the things I remember her talking about was the messaging people in these other countries are getting. She had been in this village where there were fliers everywhere for various coyotes (human smugglers) advertising false promises. People were pouring all they had into this trip to the U.S. where they were told they would be welcomed. At one point there was a rumor that there was a date in September that if you showed up at a port of entry that day, everyone who came would be let in.
She had worked with Border Patrol, Immigration and other related posts with different presidents. She said something Obama did that she thought helped a lot was to try to get the right message out to people that no, this stuff was not true, don’t come.
She also talked about the subjects others had: the effects of NAFTA, the drug trade, and the root causes of mass migration. My group talked more about what they could do back in Milwaukee.
We did a special reflection lead by Chris. He said this was the traditional reflection for the last night of the Border Awareness Experience.
We were to sit back and close our eyes. We did so and he talked quietly about our days there; our arrival, and what we had done each day. When he got to the end, he showed us that he had set out a bowl of water, a bowl of rose petals and a bowl of pebbles.
We were to go up one by one and take a pebble, throw it into the water, and say what we wanted to leave behind here. The we were to take a petal, drop it into the water and say what we wanted to take with us.
I remember watching the others do this and being moved by it. Several of us said something like wanting to leave the anger behind and wanting to take up the courage to do what they were supposed to do. Chris did this also and he said he wanted to leave behind any bitterness and take with him love.
I said (I remember because I wrote it down) “I want to leave behind any timidity or reluctance to speak confidently about what migrants and refugees go through, and I want to take with me the courage the people of Annunciation House and others who do this work have – to be bold as love.”
To our surprise, Chris brought a birthday cake out for one of our group, a kind lady named Suzanne who I had talked to a lot, and we all sang her happy birthday. “What?! I asked her, “You chose to be here on your birthday?! That’s love!” She smiled.
All these people here are all about love.
Before we went to bed Ruben Garcia brought in five children who had been living under a bridge in Juarez. They were American citizens but their parents were stuck in Juarez. The family had been here in the U.S. but gone into Mexico for some reason and were not allowed back in. I remember the tents we saw along the railroad and other places, and being told by a minister who goes to help the kids under the bridge every day to see what she can do, that there are over 3000 people under the bridge because of the practice of metering. These five kids seemed very happy to be at Casa Vides. They were able to call their parents before bed. Mr. Garcia told Sister Bea she would be “Mama Bea” for now. The sisters were very happy to be able to help these kids. Each child got a shower and something to eat and a warm bed. I could hear the sisters laughing with them in the Romero room. The other guests smiled on them. So did we all. But it hurt at the same time.
Today everyone else went into Juarez after breakfast to attend mass, meet with the priest Fr. Bill afterward, have a look at the shelters in Juarez and meet with Fr, Peter, a Carmelite Priest and Sister Betty at the Catholic Worker House there.
I took a writing day since I did not get my passport in time for this trip.
Sister Anne gave me some bubbles. She heard I love bubbles. So far I have written for a while, had conversations with two of the sisters at the house. They wanted to know how I was doing. They asked about my life. Sister Caroline is a Franciscan Sister. Sister Bea is a Holy Spirit Sister. Both are from Ireland originally. You can really tell with Sister Bea. Her accent is strong.
I sat on the couch near some women guests and did some writing there. We watched ice skating together, making signs to each other about it now and then. One of the women helped the one with the broken ankles from her wheelchair to the couch. I got her some water.
I wrote some more.
Later I walked to Sacred Heart Church. It is an historic and grand, gorgeous church, a bit worn but friendly. Mass was in Spanish. However I knew exactly what was going on and I said the responses to myself in English. I liked how the congregation claps during the songs. There was so much enthusiasm and joy in their liturgy, so much love for Jesus in the Eucharist.
I got some lunch at a little cafe. Afterward I walked to this coffee shop (The Coffee Box) where I am now.
I hope Frank remembers to ask the Carmelite priest in Juarez my question about service from a Carmelite perspective. I also gave my email address for him in case he wouldn’t mind emailing with me a little bit.
My hands have been shaking all the time. I love all the people but I am such an introvert it is hard for me to be around everybody nonstop. I am still a little shaky even with them away.
I have noticed signs of the spirit of friendship between the two cities. On the side of a building painted in Spanish it says, “Love for Juarez.”
There is a famous sister cities mural as well. There are murals all over this city. There is a mural tour people go on. One of them is of the children who died in detention.
At the art museum a lot of the art deals with the borderland, it’s cultures and its issues.
The situation does seem strange: it appears to be one city divided by big steel fence and six places where you can cross over- showing your passport or your work visa.
It used to be one city named El Paso del Norte.
In the 1970’s there was just a chain link fence at the border. Just before NAFTA was implemented, the people of El Paso can tell you, the 18 foot steel fence we see now went up. This is generally taken to mean that the politicians knew that mass migration would result from the policies of NAFTA.
Eventually the group made it back to Casa Vides.
Our next stop was Casa Refugiado. It is a huge warehouse Annunciation House rented with the help of a local Evangelical church who donated the money for three months’ rent.
The first thing we all noticed was the efforts that had gone into this to make it beautiful and hospitable for the refugees. The local art community donated beautiful art prints and photography. Best of all were the giant murals in every area.
The Red Cross loaned what seemed like countless cots. There was a room that was a chapel filled with holy pictures. There were tables of Bibles in Spanish, holy cards and rosaries. Sometimes local priests come to say mass, the guests often hold their own prayer meetings as well.
There was a tiny clinic room where local doctors donate their time as needed.
There was some play equipment that we saw children playing on. Other small children ran through one big room, their mothers looking on.
We learned that right now the numbers were in ebb at the shelters but at some points that were taking in about 1000 people a day. Now that people are automatically detained the numbers have dropped for now. But the volunteers don’t know from one day to the next what will happen. Policies are constantly changing.
The plumbing had a lot of problems and the landlord didn’t want to fix them so Annunciation House needed to have port-a-potties put in outside and a huge mobile shower unit truck waited.
I thought about the detained children who didn’t get showers or the opportunity to brush their teeth. They could have easily done this. There was no reason but cruelty to not let those children have access to showers and to brush their teeth. If Annunciation House can do all this with donations how much could our government do- especially when they are paying so much per person for private companies to keep them in miserable conditions?
Back at Casa Vides there was a donated meal of burgers from the Presbyterian church. So dinner was easy.
A woman who has won a human rights award for her work with migrants in detention came to talk to us. Her main goal is to help return agency to these people. She helps them organize with one another, helps with bailing people out when appropriate, though she thinks it is more important that the unjust situation does not continue. She doesn’t want to bail people out and then have the system adjust itself for her doing that, which had started to happen. She can help them with their commissary accounts, phone calls, support, connections and help once they are free to stay that way. She felt like she didn’t want the award. She wanted this to not happen to people. She told us there was denial of due process going on, abuse, torture and punitive conditions for people who were waiting for their asylum cases. They can be there for years in prison conditions and worse when they have committed no crime. She also talked to us about the criminalization of migrants and our national tendency to criminalize mental illness, addiction and poverty. It is not effective and causes untold suffering and a waste of potential.
She also talked about the Indian men who were force fed when they were on hunger strike. She had been present with them for that. It had been cruel. I asked what she meant by abuse and torture. She said force feeding in the way they did, especially, is defined as torture. She said beatings, humiliations, laughing at people who are suffering, this is abusive. She answered our questions well.
Then we had reflection with Fr Jose. We shuffled off to bed.
The first thing I saw when I came in the door of Casa Vides was a large painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a close up of her face, and the tips of the fingers of her praying hands. I thought to myself, “This is Mary’s House.”
There are several murals here in the dining and living room area. The largest is of the faces of several El Salvadorans who stayed here who died on their journey, except the two who were activists there and were assassinated as also was one of their sons. This house is named for them. In the middle is a green map of Central America. A banner across it bears a quote from St. Oscar Romero that says in Spanish, “If thy kill me I will be resurrected in my people.”
Throughout are flora and fauna of El Salvador and a landscape with a mountain in the back ground. In either side are two traditional figures facing the portraits.
Around the room here in a banner like swirl of peach paint that stretches all over the building and into the basement are written the names of all who have died on the journey or who were killed by agents of enforcement. If they have not yet been identified there is the word in Spanish, “Unknown.”
There is a large cross also, painted in Central American style. The rooms are named after Oscar Romero, and the activist couple who were assassinated, and their son, and, I suppose others like them. Every room has a name on or over the door.
Our group has been staying here in this shelter. We have five women in a small dorm room, three bunk beds.
The migrant guests stay in another part of the house so they have privacy and proper boundaries from our group. We see them at meals and in the common areas of the house. I don’t speak Spanish really but I can express compassion, ask if a person needs anything. Those of us who do speak Spanish can tell me the stories the guests have shared.
When we first got in we were a little early. Sister Caroline was handling a stressful phone call about one of their guests who had just left to meet family in another state but who was not allowed on the plane be cause of her two broken ankles. The three of us who drove sat down on the battered couch to wait for those of us who flew in from Milwaukee.
Eventually everyone else filtered in.
All of us were very tired. It was about 1 in the afternoon. We had lunch: spaghetti, guacamole and chips, black beans. Tea to drink. We each were invited to say what brought us here.
Everyone but me was from the Catholic Coalition for Migrants and Refugees, a group just forming in Milwaukee. I said I had felt called to do something and to come to the border for a while now. As a writer I planned to write about this since it is something I know I have to give. I wanted to be able to speak confidently about what is happening at the border, to understand the issues, and to find out of there is anything I can do to help the people affected. I wasn’t sure what else God might have for me in this. I had been invited along by my brother in law, Frank and I was glad to be here. I told about my friend, Gloria who was undocumented and who died recently of completely treatable and preventable illness because she was undocumented. I wanted to dedicate this trip to her memory.
Our director, a young volunteer who has been here for almost two years, a very centered and gentle spirited guy named Chris. took us in a van to a local museum and memorial that celebrates an historic agreement about some territory, the Chamizal, that had been disputed between the U.S. and Mexico for many years. It is near one of the six border crossings in the city of El Paso and Jaurez. We could see people crossing back and forth from school or work back home, school kids with their backpacks, walking in chatty groups toward the bridge. There was a huge line of trucks standing still waiting to cross. I hear it sometimes takes hours but you never know.
The museum was educational about the cultures of the borderland, and its’ history.
We returned for dinner. Chicken and rice and salad and beans.
After we helped clean up, we went downstairs to the basement for reflection time. The priest who is with us, Father Jose, led us in a simple reflection format. Someone read from the Gospel. The priest asked us a couple of questions: What do you live for? And, “What is God calling you to do?”
We had talked at dinner about why each of us was here and that flowed into this discussion. Most of us don’t know exactly what God is calling us to do. But we know he lead us here to this place, and we all trust that his purpose for us will unfold. To all of us, our faith, expressed in various ways, is what we live for. The way I remember saying this was that what I live for is my relationship with God.
We closed the day with an Our Father, A Hail Mary, and a Glory be. The priest blessed us, and we all went up to bed. I was so cold during the night and I had not known there were extra blankets in the room. So I woke up often. I thought a lot about what this is like for the people who come here for help. So much must be going through their minds at night in the dark.
* The house we are staying in is Casa Vides. Annunciation House was the original shelter with volunteers who live there in community with the guests they care for. Over time they began to form a network of houses. But they are all under the auspices of Annunciation House.
In a bomb shelter in the Italian town of Trent in 1943, a group of young girls talked about how their hopes dreams were being crushed by World War II. Their town was relentlessly bombed. Families who could were leaving as the town literally fell apart. Those left behind were suddenly living in poverty and ruin. It seemed so hopeless.
Is there anything that no bomb can destroy? An ideal that transcends all? Something to truly live for? The answer that came was, “God.”
During the time in the bomb shelter, they opened the Gospel and read. The words of Jesus came alive for them like never before. They seemed immediate. They began to take a verse or phrase each day and try to live it concretely.
They began to care for and love those around them regardless of race, religion, politics or anything at all; to love them in a personal way and take care of them as Mary had cared for Jesus. They discovered more and more a spirituality of unity and love. Such was their light and joy that more and more people joined them. Eventually they became a new spiritual family in the Church: The Focolare Movement, an International Association of the Faithful of Pontifical Right, blessed and encouraged by St. John Paul II who was very excited about them and their promotion of the ideals of unity, love, and universal brotherhood.
The official name is actually “The Work of Mary.” They are to bring Jesus to everyone, as Mary did.
Focolare means, “Hearth,” in Italian and that makes sense because they have become true peace makers through their work, their spirit and their inclusiveness. They are a spiritual hearth, nourishing and welcoming the whole world.
Focolare operates in 180 countries now with 140,440 members. When I see what Focolare is, it gives me so much hope for the Church. “This is where we’re going now,” I think. And that makes me smile.
While Focolare is a Catholic organization, it welcomes people of other Christian traditions, people of other religions, people of no particular religion and atheists. As local Focolare member, Julia Mendonca Motekaitis says, “Anyone who wants to be one with the mission of love is welcome!”
Julia says being part of Focolare has given her a “deep sense of the universality of the faith.” She says, “This is one aspect of the Church I can really see that it is moving forward.”
What does it mean to live as a member of the Focolare? Julia says it has given her the tools to interact in society as a Christian, not to be timid, and also not to judge or move away from people who are difficult.
She talks about the ideal of unity in daily life. “You can be one with anyone at any moment. In any interaction with another person we can make Jesus real so they can see him!”
It’s not always easy. She has had to work through judgmentalism and prejudice she didn’t realize she had in order to love and encounter Jesus in others. “We have to see people with new vision, new eyes.”
Focolare was brought to Bryan-College Station by a Focolare priest (now a Bishop) Michael Mulvey, and is still going strong. At monthly meetings, a portion of the Gospel is read. Members talk about their failures and successes in trying to live it out. They support and encourage one another. Julia says the real goal is what happens between meetings, which is to love God by loving others, to be one with others “in all things but sin.” She says the spirituality and ideals of Focolare have given her the courage and resolve to live the Gospel.
Rose Schmitz, who has been part of Focolare for 24 years, described her faith life before Focolare as very satisfactory. She was very happy to be active and involved in the life of the Church. It was as if she was working for “The best boss in the whole world and I loved Him with my whole heart. I knew I was in the right building. But I felt like I was on the bottom floor and this boss was mostly on the top floor. I didn’t get to see him very much. It was as if I only saw the boss in passing on the elevator or something. In Focolare I realized he was in the other person all along. I thought, ‘Oh! That’s you!” Now she feels like she has coffee with the boss every day and he is always with her. She feels freed and more able to love as she has grown in Focolare spirituality.
I asked Rose how she thought we could heal the divisions of our time. She said that when there is a division, to remember that we are dealing with a human person. “People come first before things. People come first before ideas. Peace is more important than being right. ” Once you have prioritized seeing the other person as a human being first, “You can then enter into the division seeking to understand more than to be understood. The goal is not to change the other person, only to understand.” You will come away perhaps not as a winner, “but you will come away enlightened.”
In this way, I reflected, one would also feel more whole and so would the other person. Maybe that is what unity can be.
The Focolare ideal, I am told, is to love until love is returned. In that process of learning to love one another, each person begins to empty themselves. When that happens, the presence of Jesus becomes more clear. “He will begin to speak,” Rose says. “He will begin to solve problems, to bring about the unity he prayed for.”
Matt and Jari Whitacre, also long time Focolarine, talked to me about the annual “Mariopolis” most members try to attend regularly. People bring their whole families. The retreats are usually held on college campuses, and attendants stay in dorms. Their are different events for children of all ages, as well as discussions and talks for adults. There are shared meals and a games night for everyone. The only rule of the retreat is to love one another. Priests, Bishops, the consecrated, lay single and married people attend. Relationships are humble and egalitarian. Adoration is available as well as Reconciliation and daily mass. Jari notes that non-Catholics usually attend daily mass with everyone else even though this is not asked of them. There are times also that all can pray together as one.
All the Focolare family I spoke to talked about how loved and cared for they felt at the Mariopolis. Jari told a story about having a child come down sick and having to take her back to their room. People kept bringing Jari books to read, checking on her, bringing food, offering to help with the other children. There was an attendee who was a doctor who come by and asked if there was anything he could do.
Around the world there are permanent Focolare towns to show that people of all cultures, races and religions can live together in unity and love.
Over the years I have been to several Catholic conferences where there were tables around manned by people from various movements and ministries. I will say, “Oh there are the Focolare people,” pointing them out. And I am always right. There is something about them that is recognizable.
The founder, Chiara Lubich, asked why she didn’t wear a habit, replied, “I have no habit. My habit is my smile.”
Maybe that’s it; it’s that special Focolare smile, joyful and authentic. I consider it a sure sign of the Holy Spirit.
In my dream I am swimming in dark water. As I descend into depths unknown, I can tell there are other people watching from farther away, as if they line the walls of an underground cistern with different rooms and levels, filled with water completely, water unfathomable.
I dive into an area further down than the others. It seems like a dark aquarium but without light on either side of the glass. However I can still somehow see a box on the bottom. I open it. It is full of pictures, letters, keepsakes. In the dream I know what these things mean and I am filled with intense sorrow. My brother is at my shoulder now. A more terrible emotional pain than I have ever known fills me. I try to show my brother the things in the box and explain the significance and the pain but he can’t answer me. He only looks on. I am not sure he understands me.
I am distressed. “Why did you bring him?”
The Lord is silent, his expression inscrutable. I look at my brother who is standing at his elbow; “I can’t deal with talking to you!”
Mark’s hand had been coming out to me and he had started to say my name.
“OK OK! So I can’t fix everything at once!” he says.
He turns as if to leave but I have to ask, “Wait! … Have you seen Mom?”
“No,” he says to my surprise. “But I can feel Mom.”
I think about that. “Are you with God?”
“I’m …learning about God.” Another surprise.
“Well… where are you?”
“I don’t know. It’s just quiet here.”
I think of of the land of the Samaritans, of Jacob’s well, and the mountain in the distance where the people worshiped God whom they did not really know (see John 4:4–26.)
“Do you see anybody?”
Just Bob.* He isn’t always here but he comes to see me sometimes and we talk.
I am circling over the top of the hotel where my brother shot himself and fell from a balcony on the ninth floor.
Then I realize I am standing on the balcony next to my brother. Intense grief wells up in me.
“Didn’t you remember us? Didn’t you understand how much we loved you?”
He doesn’t look at me or speak but I feel that I am him and in my mind’s eye I see our family and all of our friends. But they are so far away as if they are across an infinite chasm.
“I saw every one of your faces.” I feel his longing and love for each one dear to him. I understood that the longing was more like a longing for the past though. To him there was no way back. I feel his overwhelming sorrow.
I understand that while to me there was a way back, to him there wasn’t.
I can’t feel the impact of the shot. I don’t hear it.
But then I experience him falling. It’s slow, very slow. He knows right away after the shot that this was all wrong, a terrible, horrible mistake.
As he falls he senses these beings all around him, present in different places all of the way down; some close, some witnessing from farther away. He realizes they are sad, so sad. He knows they are sorry for him and that they mourn over this terrible act he has just committed. They are gentle though, not angry. Just terribly terribly sad.
He wonders what they are. He thinks his sister would probably call them angels, but he isn’t sure.
What happens now?
The fall continues in slow motion.
Suddenly he’s caught. It all stops. Big strong arms squeeze him tight.
“It’s OK, buddy. It’s OK. It’s all over. You’re safe. I’m here. Come on with me a while.”
Breaking the fall.
*Bob was my brother’s best friend, colleague, mentor and soul brother for 24 years. He was also his brother-in-law. Bob died in my and my brother’s arms in April of 2012.
Twenty-one years ago, my youngest daughter, Roise, (pronounced “Rose,”) was born at home, at sunrise. My dear friend, a nurse and midwife, Andrea, put her on my stomach. My baby looked up at me with frightened eyes, and said “Oh! Oh! Oh!”
As her dad, who was in our bed holding me, sobbed with joy, I said to my child, “It’s OK! I’m your Mama!” I nursed her for the first time, and my husband, Blaze, gave her her first bath in our kitchen sink, after my sister in law, Shawna, had cut her umbilical cord. All the women in the family were in the bedroom with us when Roise was born; my step mom, my daughter, Maire, who had run in at the right moment, and my mom, holding Maire in her arms.
After everything was all cleaned up and Roise Mariah was pronounced robustly healthy, everyone left with a happy glow. Maire and Blaze climbed into bed with Roise and me and we had a long family nap. It was beautiful.
I’m having coffee with my friend, Andrea, mid-wife and Hospice nurse. She’s talking about work and spirituality. People often ask her how she can do what she does, especially the Hospice work. But she says that, aside from being tired sometimes, and worried about her own problems when she’s on her way to work, there’s nothing negative about what she does. She forgets everything else in the presence of a laboring woman or a dying person. “It’s like a window to Heaven!”
More often than not, dying people she comes into contact with are in a state of peace as they near the end of their earthly lives, and they commonly seem to be seeing and talking to people in the room that nobody else can see, most often, people they love who have died.
My mother looked up in wonder, not having really spoken for months at the end of her illness. “What are you all doing here? Are you going to take me with you?”
The deaths Andrea has been able to be present for were powerful spiritual experiences for her. The houses of the dying are filled with God’s presence, and she prays deeply when she is working with a patient and his or her family.
She is more grounded and profoundly present than at any other time in her life, she reflects, when she is working.
Sometimes, as she goes about her own daily business, she thinks, “Wow, I really did that.”
The morning my second husband, Bob, had died, Andrea had the beautiful idea of inviting our close women friends to come and wash and anoint his body. She thought of it because in the Bible, women were the ones who prepared the body for burial with bathing, oils and spices.
Our friend, Amy, had a set of Biblical essential oils, such as frankinsence, myrrh, myrtle, spikenard, etc.
Andrea, with solemn tenderness, guided us through an improvised ritual; with Bob’s body modestly draped, we washed him reverently, and anointed him with fragrant oils.
We cried and we prayed.
She guided family and friends in prayer and asked each of us if we had anything we wanted to say as we waited for the funeral home, and for our friend, Deacon Ron Fernandes, who led us in prayer and blessing, and even singing.
“When a family is spiritual, it’s really nice for me- especially if they are Catholic. I am always glad to see icons or a crucifix or picture of Mother Mary in a house. Then I know I can openly pray the rosary. The rosary is definitely the prayer I pray the most during my work.”
“During labor or grief, my imagery/prayer is, ‘Please, Mother Mary wrap this mother, this couple, this family, me, in your mantle of grace and mercy.’ I call that image to my mind.”
Andrea says she often senses the presence of Mary at births, especially.
“I think I identify with her because she labored to birth Jesus, she was human, and she suffered the grief of His death. This comforts and gives me strength.”
I have always thought it was perfect that Andrea was born on the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, December 12. The Virgin Mary of Guadalupe is the patroness of the unborn, and in that image, she is pregnant.
“People are always so grateful. And I think, I didn’t DO anything, I was just there!”
I know why people are grateful. They are grateful because she was there. Andrea brings a sense of solid, motherly, and professional competence into a frightening situation, she gives the intimate and ultimate mysteries of birth and death back into the hands of the family. Then these events become far more personal, home and family-centered experiences because of her courage and love, her willingness to come to the family, and serve them where they are, in order to allow them to give birth, or to die, at home. This is a gift of peace.
She recognizes, nurtures and draws out the best in people when it is most needed. She makes them feel empowered in trusting the process.
Precious to me is the memory of Andrea holding my hand as I labored in the bath tub. I laughed and said I could not imagine our family doctor doing this, as good as he is.
“There is just so much love that is there,” she says, tearing up.
She is certainly adept at finding the beauty inherent in these events, and transmitting it just where it is needed.
As we talked about her work, she cried now and then. Don’t worry, she cries easily. She also believes so much in what she is doing, she is very passionate about it. She gets frustrated trying to describe her thoughts and experiences. She thinks she is in-eloquent. But she’s not.
Andrea is very earthy, and as I thought about what she was saying, and what I learned, having watched her work, I see that her spirituality involves being very in tune with the Sacred Humanity of Christ, of the physicality of birth, suffering, and death, of what Veronica’s veil would have really looked like, smeared with the dirt, blood, sweat, snot, and tears of the very real Face of Our Lord.
The blood and water from the side of Christ make sense to Andrea. She has these all over her all the time. She understands the physical as deeply spiritual. Hers is an Incarnational spirituality, true to the One who came to share our sufferings and give us life; actual life, not just an idea, Life we can touch and hold. That’s how real the Resurrection was. Jesus wasn’t just a spirit. He was and is real. His wounds were touched by His disciples. He ate with his traumatized friends. He comforted them.
Andrea experiences this truth of the Incarnation as an every day reality, and to her, it just is.
Well, not really, because she cries when you try to get her to talk about it.
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