And the one who searches hearts knows what is the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.
No matter the method of meditation, each one employs some kind of anchor to help us master our thoughts during prayer;a scripture passage, a set prayer, a holy word or phrase help us return again and again when the mind wants to do its busy work. In Christian Meditation, this anchor will also be a way to root us in our intention of prayer, openness and presence to the Beloved
There is often a format, a structure that helps us to make our prayer a process, a movement, a conversation, an exchange of love.
The basis of all Christian prayer, including holy meditation, is Jesus.
Moreover it is our intent to connect to this Lord that makes our meditation prayer rather than a mental exercise.
Please don’t worry too much about whether a method is what you think it should be or whether other people should be using it. Use discernment in your choice, but know it is not as if doing the “wrong” one is going to make your or anyone else’s prayer go down the wrong pipe and not to God. That’s just plain silly.
To me prayer is about love and my will to be with God, no matter what technique I use to learn to be ready for an encounter with the Friend. Prayer is less about me and more about God. In my experience, when I seek his will he responds and when I am open and willing to be corrected, he will correct me. This seems to run true for others as well. “If I am wrong, Lord, change my heart.”
The author of the Christian classic The Cloud of Unknowing ( the “cloud” representing the fact that our intellect cannot reach God sufficiently) tells us to use our anchor in meditative prayer as a spark or arrow of love, to pierce through the “cloud of unknowing” straight to the Heart of God. That is a beautiful way to think of it, and it also rings true.
If a certain technique confuses you or you feel you aren’t making good progress with it, make adjustments and carry on. Yes there are pot holes on the road of prayer. I think I have fallen into them all along the way, though I eventually overcame, thanks be to God and God willing, I will continue to.
I am concerned that a lot of people seem to be overly cautious about Christian Meditation or about this or that method. Don’t do anything that makes you uncomfortable, but don’t freak out. Just move on if something you try isn’t right for you. Be free about this. I am. So far liberality of spirit has born great fruit for me,
If you are striving to grow, and you are guided by love of God, faithful in practice, doing your best to conquer sin, if you are living a sacramental life,loving more, then I think you are fine to set out on the Royal Road of contemplative prayer, or to stay on it,wearing the shoes that fit you best.
My late husband, Bob Chapman, was diagnosed with Stage 4 Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive Brain Cancer, in February 2010 while we were still engaged and dreaming about our wedding. We married in May that year just after he finished his initial treatment, a period of simultaneous radiation and chemotherapy.
He lived 2 ½ years. The course of his illness was hands down the most terrifying thing I have ever had to go through. If you know me, you know this is saying a lot.
However it was also the most beautiful time of all my life. He said the same for himself too. My daughters remember it as the happiest of times for them.
We had to make a daily decision not to live in fear and sorrow every minute. This does not mean we didn’t cry sometimes, or that we pretended not to be afraid. We were scared to death. Of course we were. But who wants to live like that? We decided to live happily as long as we could, and to “lovingly eat the bread of the will of God,” as St. Elizabeth of the Trinity expressed holy acceptance.
We thought if we did go down, we would go down swinging. We did all we could as enthusiastically as we could to fight cancer. We strove to leave the rest up to God. It was empowering.
We knew that things might not work out the way we wanted which was a horrifying prospect. We also knew that sometimes people did survive it. We ignored the statistics and tried to live in the hope; not with false expectations, but real hope. We knew that Bob would not be taken from this world without God’s permission. We decided remaining positive but without stifling our feelings when we were sad, angry or afraid seemed best. And we looked to God. As Bob said to me the week he died, “God is IT!”
We decided to love and to serve as much as we could. After a frightening MRI result we were really scared. All we could do for a while was hold one another. When he was ready to talk, he said. “Well, what do we do? We love, we walk on.”
And we did.
We learned to allow others to love and serve us. We grew in our appreciation of community.
We grew to understand that each day could be seen as an entire life -time, being born in the morning and dying in the Father’s arms at night. Getting dressed for work one morning, Bob said, “I’m alive today. That’s all anybody’s got.”
Living like this begins to bring out the beauty in all things. Life becomes more vivid. Connection with people and all living things becomes profound. The heart expands.
When we were overwhelmed we had a designated spot we pretended was our “clubhouse” where cancer could not go. We needed to take time out in that spot sometimes.
As a family we learned that almost anything is funny. Bob had speech problems that came and went for a long time. They were hilarious! One of his more famous utterances then was when he said, “What time do we eat the kids? 6:30?”
Trying to talk to someone on the phone about a bill, he explained to her, “My voice is broken but my THINK is fine!”
At M.D. Anderson, the staff seemed horrified that I kept laughing at Bob’s speech mistakes. I told one of them, “Hey we can laugh all day or we could cry all the time!” And anyway, he was laughing too! “What!?” he would say, “I speak the King’s English!”
We tried to make scary things fun. Bob took his guitar to the hospital with him and played it from his bed. The nurses loved it.
One time he went to a scary appointment with half his mustache and half his beard shaved so he had a perfect half and half face. The doctor did such a double take! It was so funny!
At chemotherapy we used to sit and blow bubbles together in the treatment room. He brought his guitar there too and played for everyone with the I.V. in his arm.
Bob was a do-er. He was always moving. One month almost to the day before his death he was mowing the lawn, pushing his crazy big mower uphill. I took a picture. Well that was Bob. He was unstoppable. Bob was into helping. Even when we went out to eat he would end up fixing the cook’s car in the parking lot or something like that. Once he saw a young woman having to put back her purchases at the grocery store so he went behind her putting the same items in his own basket. He bought them all for her and sent me to give them to her outside.
He fixed things for the elderly he saw struggling with something. He was all about service and not creating hardship or work for others. He called this his “skin religion.”
He brought me breakfast in bed on Saturdays and put on Bugs Bunny for me. He did everything he could for all of us for as long as he could.
Being able to serve was important to him as a person.
Eventually, he began to be paralized on one side. Still he dragged himself by one arm horizontally out the back door to work on a drainage project. Sometimes he got tired and had to lay down in the grass for a while.
He was a do-er and he was tenacious. We called him “The Atomic Bob.”
He was an artist but he began to lose his ability to paint. He couldn’t play guitar. He started dropping dishes so he couldn’t do them for me anymore. He got where any speaking at all was very difficult. He had trouble at work and finally took that extended sick leave he had not taken yet. He could no longer play guitar.
He was confined to his chair for a lot of the day. One afternoon he called me to him and said,
“Shawn! I can’t DO anymore.” I nodded, tears in my eyes. Then he said, “I can’t DO!” Here he put his hand on his heart, sobbing, “but I STILL LOVE!”
I knew what he meant.
He realized his love, doing or not, was valuable. He was reaching out to everyone, loving them, and that in his very inactivity, his great big heart was active and spreading love on a whole new level. “Hey,” I told him, between kisses, “you’re speaking like the great mystics of the Church now!”
We are such do-ers in this world and often this is a great thing. Through the history of our faith, though, some Christians have felt called to withdraw into holy seclusion to live a hermits’ life and to pray.
To us this looks like not helping, not doing. But as Servant of God Catherine Doherty wrote, “Look at the Man on the Cross. He is not doing anything because He is crucified.” Ah but He was doing EVERYTHING, wasn’t He?
Our family found humor and beauty, mindfulness, joy in service, acceptance, courage, tenacity, renewed faith, a closer bond, community and the spiritual gift of understanding right in our crisis. In the midst of sorrow, loss of control, uncertainty and intense fear we found the Kingdom of Heaven. When the situation was “down to the wire,” we found the true power of love.
God is with us. There are jewels in the rubble that are there for us to find and to share as we deal with Covid-19 as a community. If we seek this treasure we will find all we need and more. It is there for every one of us.
This is my husband’s painting of us praying together during his fight with Brain Cancer. He called it “Miracle.”
* This piece originally ran as my column in The Bryan College Station Eagle
Where you find no love, put love, and then you will find love.” ~ St, John of the Cross
I had a birthday cake to make on March 12. My eldest daughter, Maire was turning 27 the next day. This is her first birthday home in Texas again in years and she is so glad to be here.
I planned to make a Mexican Chocolate Cake (dense chocolate with a little kick from a pinch of hot pepper powder.)
I wanted a yellow rose (the Yellow Rose of Texas, of course) for a little cake top arrangement as well.
I had heard news of emptied out grocery stores in other places, and even a couple of local complaints. I tend to resist getting caught up in that sort of thing so I didn’t really pay attention too much.
The emotional climate in the store was distressing. People seemed angry and upset, even banging their shopping carts around. Almost everyone I saw seemed scared, furtive even. No one was making even passing eye contact.
Workers looked exhausted and rushed.
Young people in particular looked dazed, some standing and staring at the place where something they had been looking for was supposed to be.
I thought of my Focolare friend, Julia, who had been looking for ways to be useful during the Corona Virus outbreak. She and some others had some great ideas. I felt unsure of how to be useful and I still do.
The Focolare have a saying, “Be the first to love.”
“Jesus what can I do?”
The first thing I could think of was to smile at people if I did happen to catch their eyes. This was encouraging exercise because I could see some visibly relax and several smiled back. It was a Jesus smile I think because then they smiled at others too.
Some of the things I needed for the cake were hard to find. Sugar was in very short supply. I did find some raw sugar eventually. I tried to joke with a couple of people and it went well. They were ready to laugh. We laughed about how crazy it all was.
There was no salt. There were a lot of empty shelves. It made me kind of scared too, to see that. I had never seen that before.
When I saw young people staring at things and looking confused I tried to help them find what they were looking for. At first I was stupid and picked up the item when I found it and they probably thought, “No thanks since you touched it, Stranger, and that was the last one too!” Oh yeah. I did better the next time.
I saw tired children looking around wide eyed as their flustered parents negotiated the crowds. I tend to feel overstimulated and anxious in crowds myself. I told one kid, “Hey you are being really good in the store! My youngest is 22 and she isn’t as good in the store as you are!” If a child was crying I tried to give a sympathetic look.
I finally had everything I needed, thank goodness.
I went ahead and got some beans and rice which, as a vegan, I kind of have to have. They were almost completely out. I took one small bag of each. My pay day is not for a few more days so I can imagine other people having to wait until pay day too and then everything would be gone. I didn’t want to do that to anyone else. Lots of reasons not to take more than I needed.
I tried to notice when other people were attempting to reach for things I was reaching for too and let them go first. That’s hard for me since I usually don’t notice things like that. But I tried.
I had intended to pay in cash as I usually do but I didn’t because the cashiers would have to touch that.
I felt so sorry for the young women at the register. They looked exhausted; flushed, sweaty and scared. I found out one of them was from some other department but had to come help and neither of them had gotten off work hours ago when they were supposed to be off. I thanked them so much for being there and I said I was sorry for what they were going through. They seemed to appreciate it a little bit.
I told Jesus on my way out, “Those poor girls! Please protect them and give them strength.”
On the way home people drove crazy. It made me sad. But I felt lifted up just a little bit and I had a sense of peace beneath the worry. Maybe some of the people in the store did too.
That brief experience made me think that if we can try to connect even for a second in the little ways that we can, and smile a little bit sometimes, it might lift us all up just that much more. We could use that right about now.
Maybe the reason you find love when you invest love is that it isn’t really that your love comes back to you but that Jesus is there whenever we try to give love even just that little bit, in a tough situation and he multiplies the love just as he multiplied the loaves and fishes.
We are all going to need a lot of love.
Jesus walk among us and help us remember love even a little bit in the days ahead, and to see you multiply our smallest investments.
Today we humbly receive ashes on our foreheads and hear that we are dust, or maybe, “turn away from sin and believe in the Gospel.”
Usually I think of setting out into the desert with Jesus to pray and fast with him.
This year I am thinking about Mary. What was it like for her when Jesus went into the desert for 40 days?
I am sure he let her know he was going. Maybe his apprentices ran the carpentry shop while he was gone so Mary wouldn’t go without.
I am sure she missed him and she understood that their private lives together were over, and that his mission had begun. Like any mother, I am sure she was both sad and excited too. “”Son we have waited so long, so long for you!”
She knew how much people needed him. She knew who and what he was and she was ready to assist him, let him go, face what came next, do or be whatever he required of her.
Just as Mary accepted the purification ceremony after the birth of Jesus even though she was already free from original sin or any other sin, I have no doubt she would have wanted to be baptized too as Jesus had ( though he was sinless and didn’t need baptism.) Maybe she was there that day.
She would have seen the Holy Spirit come down from Heaven in the form of a dove and heard the voice of the Father, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” I can almost see her smile and close her eyes in prayer when that happened.
Jesus went into the desert to pray, to fast and face Satan. Mary went home to an empty house. And she had to get on with her life.
She would have gone about her work in the garden, with her weaving,cooking, hauling water, kneading bread, caring for the animals, talking with friends and family. Yet the sense of him was always with her. Now and then maybe she paused, raising her hands in prayer for her Son, and for the whole world.
In Carmel, one facet of our charism is “to stand before God for all,” as St. Edith Stein put it. This is also Mary’s vocation in her prayer for us all as universal mother.
While Jesus was in the desert, Mary kept her spirit close to his. In the spirit of her baptism, she stood before God for us all, praying for us, in sack cloth and ashes, at least in the depths of her heart on our behalf. I imagine her prayerfully lowering her head to touch the ground, a gesture of solidarity with the earth and with the profound humility she had as a daughter of Eve. She wanted to put her freedom from sin, and her place as Queen Mother toward our good in her petitions to the Father, and to unite herself with the mission of Jesus.
When we make our Lenten sacrifices, maybe we could say with Mary, “Oh Jesus, it is for love of you, and in union with Mary.”
So when we receive our ashes for penance and dedication for our journey of Lent, we could receive them in union with Mary for the whole world as well as the way we always do, which is to say, for ourselves. And as we go about our lives during these forty days, maybe we could do so with Mary, doing our work, living our lives, always aware of Jesus, pausing and praying deeply whenever we can for the whole world, and for Jesus’ continued mission of salvation on earth.
When we meditate and pray we become channels of God’s love and grace, of his holy will.
The praying soul is like a window opening. Sunshine and a warm, sweet wind flow through that soul to everyone and everything. Its clear openness fills the whole world, and each of its situations with healing light. The rushing wind and light of the hidden spirit of prayer changes hearts, lifts up those who suffer, makes a way for peace to happen. It sets people and all of life free.
We are so little but it is God who draws us to prayer. In his creative power, because of his joy in sharing his divinity with us, because of the Incarnation of the Lord in the marriage of humanity with God, the smallest breath of prayer suffuses the universe with a flow of light and beauty.
In the beginning the Spirit of the Lord breathed upon the waters, and life sprang from his command. Jesus walked among us, recreating, redeeming and renewing the world by his life, death and resurrection. We are baptized into union with him, infused with his love.
He could have renewed the world by himself. But he shares his mission with the littlest of us because of his love. He has lifted us up to join him in his work.
I think this is what it means to “reign with Christ.”
Living water has come to flow from our hearts.
So pray, Christian soul, however you can, without a doubt in your mind. We don’t always know what God will do. But we know he will do something. Just open the window as best you can, letting God do the rest.
Mary knew this when she told the servants at the wedding at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you.” Wink wink. 😉
“In the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees in the Chapel.”~ Brother Lawrence
Brother Lawrence was a Carmelite Lay Brother (d. 1691.) He had an intense realization of “the fact of God” while looking at a dead and leafless tree. He had been a soldier, and after being wounded he became somewhat lame. He then became a footman but, as he said, was “a great clumsy fellow who broke everything.” He no doubt was feeling like a dead, leafless tree himself at that time. But God opened a way for him to find life again. He became a Lay Brother in a Carmelite monastery; cooking, (a job he disliked right away) running errands, sweeping floors and of course, praying and discovering God within at all times and sharing this way he called The Practice of the Presence of Godwith others.
By making active use of the teachings of The Practice of the Presence of God we can learn to be continually recollected in God, which keeps our souls most open for God’s grace and at his service at all times.
The flow of our lives then becomes a conscious flow of God’s transforming love.
The consequences of this simple practice seep into our personalities and the way we are in the world. We find we even touch inanimate objects with love. We feel affectionate and open towards people. We feel happier, more peaceful, certainly more in tune with God.
1. Morning Offering.
Many Catholics begin the day by dedicating/offering it to the Sacred Heart of Jesus in a Morning Offering. If you already do this, try to do it more consciously than usual. Pay close attention to what you are saying and to Whom you are speaking. Reflect on what the words mean to you.
If you don’t do this, you could start doing this. Write a Morning Offering on a post-it note and stick it on the coffee maker. You could write your own dedication instead of the traditional one if that would be more meaningful to you.
2. Address your thoughts to God.
This may sound overwhelming to do all the time but even recalling God and restarting your conscious awareness of him whenever you remember to, during the day can have a noticeable effect that will grow.
While you are at it, try turning your grouchy thoughts into prayers of praise. No really. So many things in the course of the day are annoying to us. Figure out how to make prayers of praise or gratitude out of these irritating things. You may be surprised how amusing this can be, and how it becomes second nature after a while.
Turn your thoughts into a continual conversation with God. We all live in a river of thoughts, images, memories, plans, worries, what have you. Turn this river toward the Lord, as often as you can remember to.
I think about my daughters more times a day than I care to enumerate. So, for example, I can try to talk to Jesus about them instead of only thinking to myself or worrying or dreaming for them, as parents will.
Today my daughter is moving, My other daughter and her husband are helping while I watch the grandchildren and hope the three year olds get along and the baby isn’t too distressed by the whole thing. I can talk to the Lord about this. “Calm any fears that arise, Lord. Help us to make this a joyful day.” Or I can express my concerns to him if I want to. As Winnie the Pooh says, “It’s friendlier with two.”
3.Turn your suffering into prayer
The best way is to hold your pain up to God just like you used to bring your bumps and bruises to your mom for her to kiss. Words are unnecessary here unless you want them. Let God sit with you like a loving quiet friend when you are hurting. You probably know this is harder than it sounds.Try it anyway though.
Catholics also have the habit of offering up our suffering in union with the suffering of Jesus. We call this being co-redeemers. When something bad happens to me I consider myself a treasure of grace and try to offer my suffering as prayer for everyone who needs it.
4.Purposely invite God into even the smallest things you do each day
This is at the center of Brother Lawrence’s teaching, and a big part of The “Little Way” of St. Therese as well. Instead of rushing through a task or just trying to get a thing done, it helps to slow down and concentrate on it. As Eknath Easwaran says, “Concentration is consecration.”
Offer your task as if it were an act of prayer and then it will be.
St. Therese would offer the difficult things she had to do for missionaries or for priests. Maybe you would like to offer your work for something you care about to help the world or the Church.
Your offerings can be as simple as saying, “Lord here is my little pancake for you” if you are cooking, for instance. Maybe this sounds silly to you but I recommend you try it for a while and see for yourself. Maybe you too will find God “amidst the pots and pans.”
“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”~ Brother Lawrence
This habit of being aware of God in your actions takes a lot of practice but even if you only remember to do this a couple times a day God will bless it and you. You will soon notice a difference in how connected you feel to God at all times.
When you are in line somewhere or at a red light (we spend a lot of our day waiting) use some of that time to connect to and talk to God. It’s easy.
5.“Listen” for God with an open heart
No matter where you are, whether you are alone or with others, hanging out with your friends, at work, petting your dog or talking to a small child, try to maintain a sensitivity to God in all situations. You will sense a heightened awareness and connection to other people and all living things when you do this. You will notice beauty you used to miss. You will be more and more able to register signs of God’s will or voice in the events and conversations of your day. It will become a working part of you in time.
We hear a lot about these concepts lately and I think that is good. As Christians, being present in the moment and being mindful in our daily lives is going to mean conscious awareness of God in the present moment, mindfulness of God in all we do and experience.
Fr. Greg McLaughlin said to me once, “You are not on this planet! I don’t think you are even in the solar system! God is in the present moment. God is right here! And right now, right here, he is saying‘ Where are YOU?”
To be absent minded is to be absent to attentiveness to God who is here with us now. This one has been a hard one for me as I am given to day dreaming. I have learned that we don’t have to be perfect at this present mindedness. But every little bit helps.
St. Teresa of Avila’s way of thinking was that “God is within us, and we should not leave him there alone!” She thought we should imagine the Lord beside us at all times until that active mental effort becomes internalized and natural, part of consciousness.
7. Repetition of the Holy Names
Brother Lawrence doesn’t talk about this in his letters or conversations. However this can be a useful key to keep on your key ring that can help you in your quest to cultivate the constant sense of the presence of the Lord in your life during your day. It can open the door for you.
When I am doing a task that doesn’t require a lot of thinking, I repeat the names of Jesus and Mary. For me it does the trick, and brings me into conscious awareness and attentiveness to the presence of God. It is also a prayer because I am calling on them in my heart and dedicating whatever I am doing to them.
Doing this in the waiting times of our lives can bring us into focus as well, so we can fill those empty spaces with the Lord.
It is very helpful in times of stress or fear too or any time I need to re-center.
St. Rose of Lima is said to have memorized the Names of God from the Bible during a time of blankness and darkness in her prayer life, and repeated them while she did her embroidery or any task that allowed it. It was her light through that difficult time.
Before going to sleep I like to tell God what I am grateful for about the day and commend all to him, good and bad.
I also try to fall asleep with the holy names of Jesus and Mary, taking them with me into the night.
“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”
― Brother Lawrence
People who wrote about talking to Brother Lawrence remarked on his deep peacefulness. He was a simple Lay Brother who had had a poor and difficult life, wounded in war and witness to horrific slaughter in his own home town. Through his remarkable relationship with God, and this way he found to live always in his presence, he found deep peace and was able to help others find the same.
This way is available to all of us.
Developing these habits may sound like an arduous process. Remember that we do what we can and God will do the rest. God sees and will bless our efforts. He’s cool like that.
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.
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.
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