The Sister and the Pelican: Loving the World as Jesus Did

Friday, July 27, 2012

A statue at the Colon Cemetery in Havana, Cuba
Monument to firefighters who perished
in the great fire of 1890
Sitting in a Communist country on top of a monument to fallen firefighters, is a Daughter of Charity immortalized in stone. Her face is somber, clutching a cross to her chest, and she sits with a mother pelican and her two babies.

The image struck me when I came across it browsing the St Vincent de Paul Image Archive at DePaul University (one thing a Vincentian dork such as myself loves to do). I recently discovered, thanks to a friend from Louisana, that there is a legend that mother pelicans stab themselves to give blood to their young when no other food is available and that eventually the pelican evolved into a Christian symbol. As for the Sister, is that Daughter based on a real person or rather a representation of the Daughters of Charity as a whole? I may never know, but there is some reason for her to be sitting next to the pelican. 

But this blog post isn't about the Daughters of Charity. Nor is it about pelicans.

It's about my assumption of why she and the pelicans sit on that monument to firefighters - that is, they represent self-sacrifice. As Christians, self-sacrifice is our whole reason for being. It's the reason we attend church services every Sunday, it's the reason we pray, it's the reason we believe with deep conviction that God loves us and it's the reason we've been persecuted and martyred.

To us, Jesus is more than just a companion, more than just a moral leader, more than just a miracle worker, more than just an advocate for the poor. He is the Son of God, God incarnate sent from above. But most important, he is God who sacrificed Himself for us - not out of pure obligation, but rather out of deep love. He is that mother pelican who wounds or even kills herself to feed her young. By His death two thousand years ago, he fed us. Somehow, through such a sorrowful event, He changed the world entirely. When He died, the veil of the temple tore into two, the earth shook, and rocks split. It was only a physical representation of what changed within us ourselves. When we accept His self-sacrifice as a Savior, something within us changes. Our lives become dedicated to him - our hearts catch fire.

We admire those who practice self-sacrifice - people like Saint Maximilan Kolbe who, upon hearing a family man picked out of a crowd in Auschwitz to be starved to death in a bunker, volunteered himself to go instead (the father died 53 years after this incident, in 1995). We admire those that throw themselves in front of a bullet or train or car, pushing another out of the way, whether they be mother, father, friend, priest or nun.

But self-sacrifice is more than an event. It's a life. And that's actually the hardest, and probably most frightful, part. Jesus gave us the ultimate example - He gave His life to save it. Will we die to save someone else? Probably not. Yet, there is a reason the Gospels are more than just about Jesus' death (and resurrection). Jesus preached self sacrifice - "greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). He lived a life of a nomad, sacrificing a life at home with a family he loved, in order to preach the Good News to all who will hear. He faced great temptations - temptations that would certainly make his life easier - yet he rejected them all in favor of being a Messiah of love, not power. Even apart from His death, Jesus sacrificed so much for us during His life. If our hearts are truly set on fire by conversion, by accepting the sacrifice of His death, we know that Jesus becomes our one desire and that includes imitating Him in all, including self-sacrifice, not just to gain eternal life but to love the whole world as Jesus did.
Henri Nouwen wrote "I know that I have to move from speaking about Jesus to letting him speak within me, from thinking about Jesus to letting him think within me, from acting for and with Jesus to letting him act through me. I know the only way for me to see the world is to see it through his eyes."

Let us see the world through Jesus' eyes. Let us allow Him to speak through us and to act through us.

And by doing so, as hard as it may be, as much as all of us struggle with it, let us be examples of self-sacrifice - as those pelicans, as that Daughter of Charity, as those firefighters to whom that monument is dedicated, as many who live among us and have gone before us - truly given to living our lives for others rather than ourselves, truly loving the world as Jesus did.

The Poor, True Jars of Clay: A Reflection from January 2009

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

January 2009, Cochabamba, Bolivia - We are jars of clay. We are imperfect, maybe chipped or cracked or worn. We are, after all, clay jars - not glass ones, not silver ones, not gold ones. We are far from being put in any art gallery. Yet, despite our ordinary appearance, all of us have an extraordinary power within us. It does not come from us, but from something bigger.

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies." - 2 Corinthians 4:7-10

A typical house in Itocta
Clay. The material that makes most the houses here in Itocta, the village where I live. The poor here are jars made out of the same material as their houses. And in a way, they exemplify more the second half of the verse than anyone I know. They are afflicted, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed. Their life is hard. There is no eating out. There is no spending money on frivolous things. Bolivianos (the currency) are pinched to the very end - people are careful where they shop, whether they take a taxi or bus, what they can afford to eat. Their life is not like what we experience in the United States, although some living in Appalachia or Baltimore City might understand it more than we think. Bolivia has been through more than 80 governments (no, that's not a typo; the number's right) since their independence in 1814 and nothing has changed - Bolivia remains poor.  They suffer but yet I hear no one complaining. I see no one crushed, driven to despair, forsaken, or destroyed. They go on.

And do they, the Bolivian poor, represent the death of Jesus? And/or His life?

Our town church was dedicated
to this bloody depiction of Jesus
The Christs here in Bolivia are different than what we see in the United States. Walk into any church in Bolivia and you will find a crucifix that may actually scare you. Blood pours down from Christ's nails and from His crown of thorns. This Christ looks in so much agony from the pain. It's not a pretty sight. It is rare to find such a "scary" Jesus in the United States. While it can be argued that it could be because of the cultural ancestry, I have a socio-economic theory. My theory is that the Bolivian people identify more with a suffering Christ, who suffered as they do, who understands them when they come before him and worry about money or cry over the meaningless death of a child or relative. With this devotion, subconsciously they seem to say that, in their own bodies, they share in Jesus' death. In His suffering and pain. Hopefully in His faith. Hopefully in the hope.

The poor in Bolivia share in Jesus' death with His suffering, but also, as Christians, (hopefully) spread His life. It is not only following Jesus' commandments, but also love. And hope. And joy. I firmly believe that joy is one of the most important aspects of sharing in Jesus' life. I have never seen so much dancing as I have in my year here. I believe Bolivians are born with this special gene that not only gives them the desire to dance, but also dance well. There are dozens of types of traditional music and one is so fast that it basically consists of jumping up and down. Bolivian music is so lively and it can make anyone smile. Psalm 30:11 says "You have turned my mourning into dancing"...and despite all their suffering, Bolivians always find a reason to dance.

When I think of an example of a jar of clay here in the orphanage, I think of Catalina (her name has been changed for the sake of this blog post). Catalina is in eighth grade and has no living relatives. When I first came in August 2007, she was impossible to deal with - she disrespected everyone, she didn't listen, she was overall a  troublemaker. There was only one person she trusted - Father Franco, our parish priest. She and Father Franco, an Italian Salesian priest, had a special connection -  Father Franco's sister was Catalina's sponsor (as in someone who sends money every month for her, like those commercials you see on TV). He was like a father to her. Catalina affectionately called him her "uncle" and considered him her only living relative. One December morning, the news reached us that Father Franco had a stroke and just a few hours later, we got a call saying he had died. Catalina was devastated. She cried non-stop during the funeral. She refused to talk to anyone. When, a few Sundays later, Father Pepe (who became the new parish priest) wanted to bless all the girls and employees in the orphanage during Mass, she ran out of the church crying. She grew even more angry. Sister Roxana, who at that time was working in the orphanage, said "Look, Catalina, you're going to change because of this experience. You're going to be the good person you've always been on the inside. Father Franco will help you from heaven." Catalina ignored her, saying "no, I'm a bad person. I can't change". Well, little by little, she did change. This same girl who used to disrespect me is now my friend. This same girl who used to make me so angry now cooks chicken soup for me when I'm sick. Catalina is a jar of clay - she may be cracked or chipped. She has been through so much sadness in her life, especially now that her "only living relative"  is gone. Like the verse says, she has been afflicted and perplexed...but she survived. Though it be through suffering, she has unlocked that great treasure, that great power, she always had inside. She is an example of how God truly makes all things new. She is an example how the saints, whether they be canonized or not, help us from heaven. Catalina has already shared in Jesus' death through her suffering and now she is sharing in His life...

"And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us." - Romans 5:3-5

But I can not blanket all Bolivians (poor or not) to be true jars of clay that have unlocked their special power, that share in Jesus' death and life. Why? Because I live and work in an orphanage where girls have been raped, abused or abandoned by their fellow countrymen, sometimes their own parents. One girl witnessed her mother shoot her father in the head, killing him. Two others, sisters, begged on the streets as their father wasted away their money on chicha, local moonshine. Another girl lived a typical fairy tale childhood - only that hers resulted in her stepmother cutting off her finger. We are jars of clay, but some decide not to recognize God in themselves or, even worse, be "Christian" and recognize Jesus as the Son of God but decide to ignore the part where He tells us to follow His commandments and live as He lived.

We are all jars of clay in our own sense, poor or rich, man or woman, American or Bolivian. We are a piece of art, even as ordinary as we may seem, because we carry in each one of us an incredible treasure, though it may be hidden. We carry in each one of us the life and death of Jesus - it's just a matter of unlocking it and making it visible to others. Time for us to take out the treasure we have and show it to the world...

Not Left Forgotten: Guided by the Spirit of Ita Ford

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Forty-some years ago, in a house on Westminster Place in Saint Louis, just a few blocks away from the current Provincial House of the Daughters of Charity, a thirty-something woman completed her novitiate. She probably spent lots of time in the chapel, praying about her future vocation as a missionary. She may have wandered the garden, backyard, or the neighborhood, reflecting as she walked. She may have had funny stories there because of the antics of her and her fellow novices. But soon her life would change and Westminster Place would become only a memory. Soon, she would be sent on mission to La Bandera, Chile.

By now, this woman would be 72 years old, perhaps approaching her last years of foreign mission or maybe joining the other elderly Sisters at Maryknoll's motherhouse in Ossining. But none of that was meant to be. In December of 1980, at the age of 40, Ita Ford was martyred, along with three others - Sr Maura Clarke, Sr Dorothy Kazel and lay missionary Jean Donovan.

I found that house on Westminster Place, paused, and prayed. This was no ordinary former novitiate to me, of which there are plenty in St Louis. This was not just a historical building. It meant something deep to me that it was the former residence of Sr Ita Ford, who has been a personal hero of mine since high school.

Don’t know who she is? I didn’t either until then. In high school, I was somehow introduced to her. I can’t remember now if it was through Spanish class (as my Spanish teacher knew Ita’s companion in death, Maura Clarke) or religion class. Ita had died before I was even born in a far away country I didn’t know, yet I somehow felt connected to her. That intimate connection continued for years, although all I knew about her was from her short biography Missionary Martyr and anything I could find on the Internet.

Ita was a New Yorker, a relative of the Maryknoll martyr of China Francis X. Ford. She entered the Maryknoll Sisters after graduating from high school but was asked to leave the novitiate right before vows because of poor health. That didn't deter her, since she entered again seven years later. This would be her time at Westminster Place, certainly a more peaceful time for her than the first. She had changed and things had changed. The Maryknoll Sisters took on the spirit of Vatican II, taking on a healthier and less institutional formation. She would take her vows in St Louis and then be missioned to La Bandera, Chile. She would stay there for years and then, following the plea of Archbishop Oscar Romero, would volunteer to go to El Salvador and, just a few months after arriving, that is where she would be murdered, killed for all that she was doing to serve the poor.

That is pretty much all I knew about her until 2005, when a collection of her letters and writings, titled "Here I Am, Lord", was published. She was suddenly made real. She was witty and sometimes sarcastic. She was a writer. She was reflective. She struggled with the love God and others had for her. She had a great love for the poor. She, strangely enough, has reminded me of myself sometimes. For reasons I can't explain, I believe she was one of those people that led me to Bolivia in 2007. I have read her letters and writings many times - as a college student interested in foreign mission, as a missionary in Bolivia, as a woman who left her religious community and now as a postulant - and she speaks to me every time in a different light.

As I stood before her old novitiate, I thanked her for what she was meant to me - she was a woman I never met, whose voice I've never heard, whose work I've never seen, yet a woman who has lived on through the influence she has had for me. Saint Therese, certainly a saint quite different than Ita Ford, commented that she wanted to spend time in heaven doing good for people on earth. Although Ita never said anything like that, I believe she has done the same for me. And I believe, as I go through formation with the Daughters of Charity and as I later go through various missions serving the poor, she is and will continue to be with me.

In Gratitude

Sunday, July 1, 2012

At one point, I was going through a rough time during prepostulancy. Okay, maybe at more than one point. (But hey, that's normal, right?)

In the middle of Mass one day, I shut my eyes and was overwhelmed, downtrodden by all the doubts and insecurities that surrounded me. And then I saw something. In my mind's eye, I saw the pews in front of me full of Sisters kneeling. To my left, Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton's Sisters - their black habit complete with their widow's bonnet. To my right, Daughters of Charity - the long blue dresses and rows and rows of white cornettes. I searched for a place among them, these dear ancestors of ours. How did I fit? Did I fit? Then suddenly, in the very front row, I saw a spot open in a pew of Daughters of Charity. I decided to squeeze myself in. As I lean my hands on the pew to kneel down, the Daughter next to me grabs my hand and squeezes it tightly.

I couldn't see who she was. The large cornette concealed her face. All I know is that she was a Daughter of Charity of long ago and she cared about me and felt that, yes, I did belong.

It was a very special moment for me. 

That was months ago, maybe even almost a year. But lately, now that I've moved far away than all I've known before, all the way to the most southern point of the United States, I feel that same affection and that same support. I love it here in Texas for so many different reasons. More than ever, within this past week, I've felt that same support and care as I felt through that anonymous Daughter of Charity I met in prayer...both by the Sisters I currently live with, Sisters I don't, and dear friends and family.

I've had many cross-country phone calls and letters since I moved to Texas. And almost all have ended with someone telling me "hey, I'm praying for you" Sometimes that can be just something we say but it is something that I do deep down believe they do. Or even if they don't literally say that they're praying for me, knowing that they took the time to call to ask how I'm doing is enough. As I sat this Saturday evening at Mass, somehow I really felt the presence of those prayers - most mysteriously from those who have come before me, those I never have known yet know me - as if it were a wave rushing over me. I thought of all those who pray for if they were a holy army. Or rather, since no violence is involved, better a holy march to heaven. And simply put, I was overcome with love.

This post won't be spreading like fire over Facebook or other sites as some of my posts have. There is nothing deep written here, no marvelous reflection that I hope will serve discerners in their search. No, this is a simple post to say "thank you". Know that, while it may seem like nothing, your prayers and your thoughtfulness mean the world. Thank you for your prayers, thank you for caring, thank you for loving and thank you for being a representative of God's love by doing so. 

May the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge, reward you fully for what you have done. - Ruth 2:12
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