Sunday, June 28, 2009

Making myself blind

I know that in my first reflection, I commented that I knew that God had something planned for me here and that I only needed a little bit of blindness to see it. Today, I think that I acquired some of that blindness. Being the only the second weekend that I've spent here in Antigua since I arrived in late May, I didn't know exactly what to do with myself. Rest was certainly first on the list, and rest I have. I also wanted to experience another parish besides La Merced, which has been my first choice for daily mass, mostly because of its proximity to my house and school. On the indirect recommendation of my teacher, I decided to attend mass in the chapel of the hospital San Hermano Pedro. This is a hospital founded by Franciscans (Saint Hermano Pedro was a Franciscan and is, literally, the local saint to Guatemala and, specifically, Antigua) and seems to focus on serving the handicapped and elderly.

I arrived early (about 9:00 for 10:00 mass) in order to pray a holy hour before mass. Just after 9:30, the staff started bringing in the patients for mass. Almost immediately, I was overwhelmed emotionally. I still don't understand it fully, but as best as I can figure out, there was suddenly an intense amplification of the presence of God through these persons. It wasn't pity that overwhelmed me, but love. Somewhat embarrassingly, I don't think that it was my love for them, but rather their love for me that I felt overwhelming me. I think for the first time, I truly saw the unique personalities of mentally/physically handicapped persons. In spite of their incapacity to express themselves as we do, I was amazed by the demonstration of their intelligence and what abilities they actually had, in spite of their limited physical capacities. For example, one small boy, probably no older than 12 years old, who obviously had a physical handicap that prevented him from using his arms and legs, had a powered wheelchair that was controlled by movements of a pad behind his head. I watched in amazement as he maneuvered his chair, using only his head, into a tight corner of the chapel, next to another young girl in a wheelchair, without hitting a thing! Even though he seemed to move without control, he showed me (again to my embarrassment for my initial thoughts) that he had much more control of his movements that I gave him credit for. Then, to completely obliterate my ego, I watched as the young girl next to him recognized him and reached out her arm to him. He responded by grabbing her hand as if to greet her with a hug and a kiss. Needless to say, the tears were falling. In spite of not understanding anything additional in the mass than I did yesterday, I felt that today, in the profound presence of Christ in these beautiful persons, I truly prayed the mass for the first time since I've been here. By the end of mass, I had become convinced that I needed to spend more time there, experiencing Christ in the sick and suffering.

Now, the anniversary of Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati's death is July 4th. And so I've been praying a novena for his intercession so that I can see what God has planned for me here. After mass, I prayed the novena for the day. Today, the meditation was on the Beatitude, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." The novena also includes a daily comment from the preserved writings of Bl. Pier Giorgio. Today, it included this from him: "What wealth it is to be in good health, as we are! But we have the duty of putting our health at the service of those who do not have it. To act otherwise would be to betray that gift of God." With that I was convinced that I needed to begin volunteering at the hospital as soon as possible. I stopped and received information from the front desk and will return on Monday to sign up. I know that I won't be able to do much - I only have one month left before leaving Guatemala - but I will offer what I can and trust that God will graciously receive my offering.

As for why I titled this entry "making myself blind..." As I walked to the chapel this morning, I came to realize that Saint Francis parish was going to have their "Corpus" Eucharistic procession this morning. I was tempted to abandon my plans in order to participate in the procession. I decided, however, to stick with my plans, blindly following what the Holy Spirit had (quite discretely) led me to and I was rewarded with this incredible gift. I look forward with great anticipation to offer what I can to help these poor and suffering children of God and, at the same time, to be healed myself of some of the spiritual suffering that I have been enduring. Thank you for your continued prayers. Be assured of mine for you. Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati, pray for us!

For more information about the work of the hospital Hermano Pedro, click here.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Our first religious pilgrimage in Guatemala

Two weekends ago, PROBIGUA organized a trip to the major pilgrimage site in Central America. They arranged the trip specifically for the seminarians (I guess they thought that they had a captive audience). We left early on Saturday morning in PROBIGUA's "Bibliobus" (their mobile book-mobile) for the 5-6 hour journey. On the other side of the capital city, the temperature quickly rose and anyone who thought that this pilgrimage wouldn't involve suffering was quickly corrected. Our driver was obviously very comfortable driving the bus and very comfortable with the Guatemalan "customs" of the road (they aren't really rules, because I doubt that they are written down) and so we made the trip in 5 hours. We were greeted by a guy who was more than happy to give us a great price for what turned out to be pretty nice hotel rooms for the night, considering the cost (literally about $5.25 per person for one night), and we quickly got settled in. Esquipulas is a tourist town, but for Central Americans, not westerners. It was a much different feel there because we were obviously the only gringos in town. We got a lot more looks from people, but, interestingly enough, they didn't seem to bother us any more than we are bothered in Antigua. After dropping our stuff in the hotel we decided to head over to the Basilica to check it out briefly before grabbing some lunch. Much to the delight of the seminarians (and the American priest who was with us), they were just preparing to begin a daily mass (btw, where in the States can you find a daily mass at 12:30 p.m. on a Saturday?). Most of us stayed for mass (there were a couple of non-seminarians/clergy traveling with us). After every mass, the Benedictines that care for the Basilica have people line up outside of the church to offer them blessings and to bless religious objects that they wish to consecrate as a remembrance of their pilgrimage. After receiving our blessings, we stopped for lunch. A few of us were surprised to find out that not every restaurant in Guatemala knows how to prepare a decent hamburger and so some left lunch still a little hungry. After lunch we walked to the other side of the city where there was a smaller parish with a beautiful little church. They were having Eucharistic adoration when we arrived and we, again, enjoyed some time in prayer. We returned to the Basillica in order to connect with a friend of Rigoberto (the director of PROBIGUA), who is a priest in residence at the Basilica. After meeting with him to determine which mass would be best for us to come to on Sunday (they were celebrating their Corpus Christi feast that Sunday), we went back into the Basilica to visit the shrine of the "Cristo Negro" or "Black Christ." My understanding is that this shrine is important because it was the first shrine set up specifically for the native people of Central America. Those who setup the shrine did so with an image of Christ crucified whose skin color was close to that of the native population. This was intended to give them a sense of connectedness to Christ. As with many popular devotional images, the Christ image here became even darker after years of votive candles burned near it, leaving their soot on the image. Thus the image is now known simply as the "Black Christ" and it continues to be a popular yearly pilgrimage site for Central Americans. The curators of the Basilica created a path behind the sanctuary for the devoted to enter and pray with the image throughout the day without interrupting any of the liturgies being performed in the church. One unique aspect of Latin American devotion that I've noticed so far is that they never turn their back to the physical place where they just directed their prayers. This means that they walk backwards away out of the Blessed Sacrament chapel and from devotional images where they have left their intentions for the intercession of one of the saints. Thus, as we walked up to the Cristo Negro, there were people walking backwards down the long path away from it, having left their prayers and requests for help/healing at the foot of the cross. Each of us in the group then took our turns leaving prayers and intentions at the foot of the Cristo Negro. Some of us followed the model of the locals and walked backwards away from the icon so as not to turn our backs on it. We left our prayers there with thanks, trusting that God never fails to answer prayers. We rested a little before dinner and had a nice relaxing evening. The next morning we celebrated mass in the Basilica with Rigoberto's former classmate as the main celebrant. They allowed the seminarians to sit "in choir" (for those who know what that means), which was actually behind the altar in the sanctuary of the church. After mass, we checked out of the hotel, grabbed some lunch and "set sail" back to Antigua.

Reflecting on the trip I realized that religious devotion here is somewhat different than I am used to in the U.S. Here, there seems to be little room for silence in prayer. Even during Eucharistic adoration, the faithful seem to be continuously praying either a rosary, a litany, or a novena of some kind. It has been a little frustrating for me, because a large part of my spirituality focuses on simply sitting in silence in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I had hoped that traveling to this pilgrimage site I would find an a greater respect for silence in prayer. I didn't find it there, however. I won't say that I was disappointed, just that I didn't find it. This has been a good experience for me, though, and has definitely opened my eyes to some things I have to consider when ministering to Latin Americans who have migrated to the States, and so it was definitely fruitful. We suffered a little, like you should on any pilgrimage, but returned safe and sound (gracias a Dios!). Stay tuned for more updates soon. Thanks for your prayers!

(to see the whole album, click here)

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The "corpus" season begins...

One of the activities during our first full week here was to watch a movie about the traditions of Holy Week here in Antigua. Particularly grandiose is their Good Friday/Holy Saturday religious processions. They lump these all into one term: “Semana Santa.” During these processions, somewhere between 50 and 80 men (or middle-school aged kids, or women, depending on the procession) carry floats bearing larger-than-life-sized images of Jesus carrying his cross and Our Lady of Sorrows, among others. Throughout the streets are colorful carpets of colored sawdust called “aflombas” that are made by laying down layer after layer of the colored sawdust through large stencils with different designs. Some are relatively simple and others are extremely elaborate and include flowers and other plants. Many of the homeowners along the procession route create aflombas in the street in front of their houses the night before the procession (they will also decorate the fronts of their houses with adornments of varying degrees of extravagance). This is amazing because the aflombas will be destroyed by the procession as it passes by. As a pragmatic American, I was simply amazed by how much effort the Antiguans put into their annual Triduum remembrance.

Unfortunately, however, I was not in Antigua for Semana Santa to see this amazing annual event in person. Nonetheless, I will be able to experience other religious processions here in Antigua during my time here. I had one of those opportunities last Thursday. In the States, many Catholic parishes celebrate the feast of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Jesus Christ (a.k.a. Corpus Christi) with a Eucharistic procession, one that usually walks around the parish church and sometimes even goes out into the surrounding neighborhood. In Antigua, however, it’s bigger – though not as big as Semana Santa. One unique characteristic of the celebration here is that it lasts almost through the whole month of June. Through some weird tweak of liturgical calendars, each parish here in Antigua is allowed to celebrate the feast on a different day so that each of them can host their own procession without conflict with other parishes. The cathedral parish in Antigua was given the honor to be the first to hold their celebration (it kind of makes sense to give the Bishop first dibs…) and our school made the procession one of the "cultural activities" that it offered that week. The seminarians all opted to attend the mass also and so we had a full morning of activity, none of which included learning Spanish. The cathedral is not a very large church so we needed to get there early to get a seat. The stairs to the cathedral are covered with pine needles, which indicate that today is a special feast day. The church was decorated beautifully with many banners and flowers adorning its interior. The mass was celebrated by the Bishop with all of the solemnity that this feast deserves. Believe it or not, this level of solemnity also includes fireworks. Not in the church, of course, but outside the church. Needless to say I was a little startled when the first mortar shots were fired off during mass. This occurred a few more times during mass, particularly at the consecration. The Bishop is old and spoke nice and slow and so I almost understood his homily. After mass, the Blessed Sacrament was placed in the monstrance and the procession began. Led by what appeared to be a woman’s religious group (probably something akin to an “Altar and Rosary Society” in the States) carrying banners, the Blessed Sacrament made its way into the streets of Antigua. The Blessed Sacrament was followed by a small band that led the group of people in joyful songs along the way. These reminded me of the Psalm in which it speaks of a procession of the Arc of the Covenant (which represented the real presence of God for the Israelites) in which there were “dancers in the front” and “musicians coming last,” indicating the great joy that accompanied the procession.

Long strips of firecrackers were lit off in front of the procession. At one point I was a little put off by the fireworks, but soon thought it was pretty amazing that the Antiguans were willing to pull out all the stops to make a big show of the fact that the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ was making its way through the streets of their city in the form of the Blessed Sacrament. The procession made about four stops at different houses where the Blessed Sacrament entered for a short time. These all seemed to be private schools or hospitals. In the streets there were a few aflombas, though not nearly as many nor were they as elaborate as I suspect that there are for Semana Santa. Some of the house fronts were decorated and one block in particular strung decorations across the street. Many young children were dressed as angels, representing the angels that are always ministering to Jesus wherever He is. The procession wound its way back to the front of the cathedral and when the priest carrying the monstrance (multiple priests passed off the monstrance to each other during the procession) came to the door of the cathedral, he turned and gave benediction to all the people following him. The Blessed Sacrament was then returned to the altar and exposed for the remainder of the day for the faithful to adore.

Having spent a couple of weeks here, I was starting to get a little frustrated because I didn’t feel like I was getting a good sense of Latin American culture. Antigua caters to Western tourists, so it’s been difficult for me to break out of my comfort zone to experience the culture. That day I got my first real taste of the culture here in Guatemala and I enjoyed it thoroughly. This past weekend, we traveled to a famous pilgrimage site in Guatemala where they celebrated the feast of Corpus Christi (stay tuned for a post about that). This weekend, the parish of Our Lady of La Merced will host the “corpus” celebration. As I said, ‘tis the season to celebrate…

If you would like to see all of the pictures from the procession, click here. (Hopefully next time I´ll be able to figure out how to easily format these posts to include the pictures.) Thanks for your continued prayers.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

First reflections

As I walk around this city, I am reminded that I am not necessarily on vacation here. There are many good things to see and do here, but I feel reminded that I am here for a reason beyond simply being an extended-stay tourist. There are many poor in Antigua; those who I've seen, and many more, I suspect, that I haven't seen. I see the poor in material, but I know the spiritual poverty is great among those who visit here. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati would spend what he had to help the poor with what they needed. He didn't stop there, however. Rather, he would also spend time with them, getting to know them and feeding their emotional, if not also spiritual needs. I'm not sure if I can do that yet here, but I know that I have to be more open to helping the poor around me with what I have, that is, with what God has given me. Fr. Larry Richards has said that if you want to be a saint, all you have to do is desire to be one. He has also said (and only slightly contradicting himself) that all you have to do to become a saint is to pray and love (I suppose one flows from the other, however). I pray today that the Lord will give me the desire I lack by removing all within me that prevents that desire from increasing in me. I pray for the grace to pray with abandonment and to love with abandonment, not because I desire to be with God, - which, of course, I do - but because to do so is, in some sense, to already be with God. This is something that I think Bl. Pier Giorgio knew and it is something that I can learn from following his example. Through his intercession, I ask for the grace to follow his example and to live the Beatitudes as he did, both here and when I return home. May my life overflow with God's love. Thanks for your continued prayers.