I Climbed Mountains

I Climbed Mountains

I love when I am able to find secular examples that point to spiritual realities.  When shown explicitly religious media, my students often give what they think are the correct answers based on their years of Catholic education.  Yet when it is something that seems a bit unrelated to the class, they tend to have a greater openness and willingness to interact with the material.

On the second class day of the new spring semester, I showed them a TEDx talk called “500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair.”  (Feel free to take a minute…or 19…to go and watch this video.)  The image of strangers taking the time and effort to carry a man in a wheelchair up a mountain seemed to obviously gesture toward the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven.

“Through the power of community, I climbed mountains.”

At one point near the end, Justin says. “Through the power of community, I climbed mountains” and it resonated so much that I had to write it down.  So many conversations lately have pivoted around the need and desire for community and authentic friendship.  While some say community cannot be built, I disagree.  I believe community must be built.  While we cannot choose to magically connect with people, we must be intentional in how we use our time in order for community to be successful.

This community that Justin and Patrick found was possible because others were willing to be intentional with their time and energy.  The pilgrim duo they met in the cathedral in Burgos were willing to wait for them before climbing the mountain leading into O’Cebreiro.  Then other people heard the story and decided to wait, too, without ever meeting Justin or Patrick.  Community requires intentionality and it reminds us that in this pilgrimage of life we cannot walk alone.

A priest friend of mine often said, “You can be damned alone or saved with others.”  I think he was quoting someone but I was never certain of the source.  The idea is that Hell is isolation, but Heaven is necessarily communion.  Communion with God and with others.  The reality of this can be revealed in the many “saint pairs” that have arisen over history.  St. Francis and St. Clare.  St. Benedict and St. Scholastica.  St. Louis and St. Zelie.  St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius of Loyola.  The list could go on and on.  St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II?  Saints live a foretaste of the heavenly communion through their authentic friendships with one another.  They “carry” each other up the mountain, using friendship to encourage the other to enter into deeper relationship with the Lord. Continue reading “I Climbed Mountains”

When the Exciting Journey Becomes Tiring, Carry On

When the Exciting Journey Becomes Tiring, Carry On

Over three years ago, I filled a hiking backpack, flew to Europe, and walked El Camino de Santiago.  The first day on the Camino, though difficult, was exhilarating.  We walked from the beautiful little town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, over the Pyrenees, and into Roncesvalles in Spain.  The newness of the adventure combined with spectacular views made me excited nearly every step of the way.

The next morning, we were tired and sore, but eager to continue this 500-mile trek.  So we set out again, walking for hours, taking in gorgeous scenery, and dining at little cafes or from our packed lunches.

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Then we did that again.  And again.

Sleep, rise, walk, eat, walk, Mass, eat, sleep.  Repeat.

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The tiredness soon was eclipsed by pain.  My feet ached in a way they never had before.  Blisters developed in tender places.  The beginning of the day meant pressing my feet into my shoes and then starting the delicate process of walking.  After a while, the pain dulled and seemed to fade into my subconscious.  However, if we ever paused, my feet gave a fiery reminder to sit down or keep walking.

Yet even these blisters didn’t completely dampen my spirits.  I knew they could happen and it was, in a way, part of the Camino adventure.  Each day, I offered up my pain for different intentions and this made the journey a pilgrimage instead of a hiking trip.

One day, I no longer wanted to walk.  

The intense desires to sleep in, be in the same place for more than 15 hours, or watch a movie were things I hadn’t anticipated when I started walking.  There was a definite shift from “This is fun!” to “This is a pilgrimage.”  Internally resistant to another day of plodding along, I realized that this adventure would require work and an embracing of the daily struggle.

And then I realized, this is a lot like life. Continue reading “When the Exciting Journey Becomes Tiring, Carry On”

Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota

Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota

Walking into my hometown parish church for Memorial Day Mass, my family settled into a pew and prayed for a few minutes before Mass started.  It wasn’t particularly early, but the quiet and stillness made it feel earlier.  The priest was praying from his breviary and other parishioners were in silent preparation for the greatest memorial feast.

I was a bit surprised to find a Camino memory surface after a few seconds in the church.  The beauty of a still morning and entering a place I regard as a home, took me back to Rabanal del Camino, arguably my favorite spot along the Way.  Enticed by a sign outside the church saying there was a Benedictine Pilgrim Guest House, we stayed in Rabanal for a couple of days.  While brief, this was far longer than any other town we saw in Spain.

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After our first night at the guest house, we walked the short distance to the church for morning prayer.  The parish church was still and cool.  Choir stalls occupied the front of the church and those of us who stayed at the guest house quietly settled into them for our community prayer.  Simply having slept in the same town for two nights made me feel like a resident.  I watched pilgrims continue their walk and was filled with a strange joy that I was able to leave my backpack next to my bed.

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Early afternoon, we gathered for lunch in the monastery, prepared and served by the lovely Benedictine priest.  Even with a meal shared in silence, it was a tangible sensation of the familial in a country where I often felt as though I simply passed through.  In the evening, we gathered for Mass and then later for evening prayer.  Mass wasn’t an unusual occurrence along the Camino, but participating in Mass in the same church with a priest who recognized me was a novelty.

It wasn’t until we stopped walking that I was able to notice how much my heart longed for the familiar.  While I enjoy adventures, I also really love home.  Being a wandering stranger for weeks at a time was difficult for my homely heart.  When we spent a couple of days in one place, I was able to experience the joy of resting and the gift of the familiar.

One evening, after we had supper at the guest house, everyone staying there took a stroll through the streets of Rabanal.  Though I knew those outside my party for only two days, it seemed we were a little family, following after the Benedictine priest who had an endearing sense of humor and depth.  A French lady happened to see our group and simply joined us as we walked leisurely to the outskirts of town.  I didn’t blame her; it is something I would have wanted to do had I not already been in the group. Continue reading “Home: From Rabanal del Camino to South Dakota”

When Simplicity Must Be Chosen

When Simplicity Must Be Chosen

Nearly three years ago, I strapped on a hiking backpack and walked five hundred miles.  As I walked El Camino de Santiago, people crossed my path who were completing the pilgrimage for the second or third time.  While beautiful, I wondered why people would complete this trek multiple times.  Once will be enough for me, I thought.

Yet now and again, I find myself longing to be on some dusty trail in the midst of the Spanish countryside.  It isn’t because of my love for travel, although I suppose that does play a role.  My desire to be on the Camino for a second time stems largely from my desire for simplicity.

On the Camino, it is easy to be simple.  In fact, it is almost a requirement that one be simple.  On your back, you carry all of your clothes, sleeping bag, toiletries, etc.  Everything you think you will need along the Way, you must plod every blessed mile with it fastened to your back.

Sometimes it annoyed me to live so simply.  I wanted a different outfit to wear.  I was surprised at how much I found myself longing for a real towel and not the travel towel I would use each day.  At times I wished to simply remain in the same place for more than an evening.  There were several things that made me not like living simply.

Yet, in a very authentic way, I realized my heart was made for simplicity.  When my closet of clothes overflows and the laundry basket is full, when my bookshelves no longer have room for the books I insist on buying, or when I find myself shopping online for things I realize I do not need, I remember that my heart is a simple heart.  Yet I wish simplicity was forced upon me instead of needing to be chosen.

My possessions have a weight and I want to be free.

Sitting in a cluttered room, I find myself slightly jealous of my older sisters and their vows of poverty.  To be free to be poor.  I know I romanticize poverty, but there is a longing in my heart for less.  And in that less, I know I will find more.

But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.  Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.”

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For over thirty days, I walked the Camino and if I did it again, I would pack less.  There is a simple beauty in choosing between two outfits.  There is a simplicity found in needing to walk a few miles each day.  I’ve never been so aware of my feet before.  And rarely have I felt like I’ve spent the entire day just being and walking in the Lord’s company.  Those lovely, simple things make the Camino something I wish I could be doing right now. Continue reading “When Simplicity Must Be Chosen”

The Simple Life

Each day was simple in its task.  I was to wake up, eat, walk, pray, and sleep.  Each day, I was successful.

It is difficult to not be successful with such a simple task.  Yet too often I feel as though my life is not filled with simple tasks.  Instead of checking each item off the list and falling into bed knowing I did what was necessary that day, I am often going to sleep simply because I’m too exhausted to finish the task at hand.

The Camino was simple.  Not easy, but very simple.  I don’t think my interactions with everyone I encountered were perfect, but essentially every day ended successfully.

I don’t feel this success as a teacher.  I don’t feel this success simply as a working young adult Catholic.  Most days I feel as though I am miserably failing.  Then I wake up the next day to fail again.  The stack of uncorrected papers grow, the lesson plans become less than plans and more like ideas that are half-taught.  The sleep dwindles, the time I take for prayer lessens and I fall asleep during it anyway.

I am not successful.

The world measures my life by a standard of success that I do not have the luxury of choosing.  Even if I had the option to choose my own standard, I would still fall short.

Thankfully, the Lord measures success differently.  He desires my faithfulness and not simply my apparent (or unapparent) success.  With honesty, however, I am lacking in the faithfulness department, too.

All of this draws me back to the simplicity found on the Camino.  I had no papers to grade, no lessons to plan, no time to waste on Facebook, and very little distractions apart from the beautiful scenery and the pain in my feet.  It made me wish that all of life could be like that.  That life could be a simple, clear path.  I would wake up in the morning and know exactly where I was to go and I would take the necessary steps to get there.  I would nourish my body and try to consistently be in my bed by 10 pm.  It was a forced balance that I find myself not adhering to on a regular basis.  I knew what I needed and so I did what was necessary.

How do I take the simple beauty of the Camino lifestyle, the necessary discipline encompassed within that, and apply it to my daily life?

How do I encounter success through being faithful?

How do I simplify?

Fr. Javier

He was easily my favorite priest that I met along the Camino.  The priest in Santo Domingo was excellent but I never spoke to him.  Fr. Javier, however, was the priest I actually spent time with and I grew in admiration for him.

The first conversation we had with him was brief but it struck my heart.

“Father?” one of my traveling companions called out to him, as he hurried from the albergue to the monastery.
“Hija?”
“English?”
“Yes,” he said with a smile.

The girls I was with missed his first reply.  They simply thought he said, “Yeah?”  Instead, he said, “Daughter.”  After seeing us for a mere two seconds he was calling us by our deepest identity and also responding as our father.

We asked about Mass and he said there would be Mass instead of evening prayer.  We were so excited because this was a change from his ordinary schedule due to the other monk being away.  At Mass he welcomed us in Spanish and English.  He won our hearts when he told people taking pictures after Mass that it was not an appropriate time for that because people were praying.  Typically the tourist-pilgrims are allowed to wander the churches like museums, taking pictures and chatting as they take a self-guided tour.  It was refreshing to have our post-communion prayer time respected.  The people left fairly quickly since they couldn’t photograph the church.

Thankful to finally be in a church that didn’t usher us out within five minutes of the final blessing, we prayed for quite a while.  During this time, Fr. Javier came back and asked for one of us to do the reading for night prayer.  He chose my sister to do it, even though she was resistant.  With a quick smile and a tender firmness, he told her what she was to do and that she would sit by him during the prayer.  It felt like we had finally found a little resting place with a lovely father to look out for us.  His simple presence around the chapel, preparing for the next liturgy, was comforting.

Outside the church was a sign that told pilgrims about the different liturgies offered at the monastery church.  At the end of that was a little blurb about pilgrims being able to spend a few days in the pilgrim house run by the monastery.  During our prayer time in the church I turned this idea over and over in my mind.  My heart was longing to stay in this place for much longer than one night.  I wanted to live there or at least stay another day.  We had budgeted some extra time into a schedule in case of injury.  I had always slightly envied the people who had such an open schedule that they would stay for a couple days at different places just because they felt like it.  Our schedule wasn’t tight but we had to keep moving.  The final words written in my journal during that prayer time were, “Do You want us to stay another day?”  I wrote those words with hope but also knew that it might not be realistic.

A few minutes before we headed over to the church for night prayer, I broached the subject with my traveling companions.  The response was immediate and positive.  We decided we would ask Fr. Javier after night prayer to see if it was possible.  I entrusted it to Our Lady’s hands.  If she wanted us to stay there, then she would make it possible.  If not, then we would move on.

After night prayer we were nervous.  Fr. Javier was puttering around the church, preparing to lock up.  We went outside, planning to catch him on his way out.  He came out and thanked my sister for reading before turning to go to the monastery.  One of my friends called him back saying that we had a question.  Could we stay there for a night?  He thought it might be possible but would need to check with the hospitalero.  There was another catch, though.  If we stayed, it was for a minimum of two nights.  For a moment I thought it wouldn’t be feasible.  The three of us were typically very slow to decide anything and I thought we might need to ask Father for a moment to discuss our options.

“You would be here for the Corpus Christi procession…”
We all began to nod.  I didn’t need to discuss it, my heart was begging me to listen and remain in this peaceful place with this lovely priest.  He smiled and went to go check on the possibility.

He returned within a couple minutes and broke the news to us.
“I’m sorry.  I’m afraid it is going to be….possible!”  We were overjoyed and exclaimed, “Father!” for leading us to believe we couldn’t stay.  He introduced us to the hospitalero and instructed us to bring our things with us to morning prayer the next day and we would be able to move in.

That night we were delirious at the thought of not walking the next day.  It wasn’t necessary to fall asleep as quickly as possible and for a little while I thought I would be too excited to sleep.  The only thing that was less than desirable was that all of our friends would continue on their way.  With two rest days in Rabanal del Camino, it was quite possible that we would never catch up with them or see them again.  There was one lady that had been with us on and off from the very beginning and we were loathe to part ways.  Yet I was so excited for the retreat and rest days we were embarking on.  It felt like the Lord was simply showering us with gifts, perfectly designed for the desires of our hearts.

The next morning we woke up and had breakfast at the albergue.  The hospitaleros told us to come back the next day for tea if we wanted.  Then we wished our friends farewell and raced to the church for morning prayer.  It was peaceful and calming to enter the simple church.  Over the next two days we would transition from sitting in the pews to taking our place in the monk choir at the front of the church.  Finally, we were with people who, for the most part, were walking the Camino as a way to experience God.

Second breakfast took place at the pilgrim house before a tour of the place.  It was simple but beautiful.  A small library, an enclosed garden, a conference room with a beautiful piano, a prayer room, and a church across the road open the entire day.  I reveled in the simple joy of praying and reading in the garden that morning.  For lunch we were invited to eat at the monastery.  Fr. Javier, an extraordinary cook, made the meal and served it in the silence of the monastery refectory.  A brief reading would take place and then Fr. Javier would knock on the table to indicate we could begin to pour our drinks, water and wine.  The first meal I spent watching everyone else to see that I was supposed to do and feeling like a foolish American without any delicate table manners.  The meal was served in courses and I attempted to keep pace with everyone else so as to not hold them up.

While we ate, classical music would be playing in the background.  Otherwise, we ate in silence.  Some were exchanging glances of amusement.  Fr. Javier would wink and smile at us.  But most of the time I would just ponder the reading or take in the swells of the music or turn my eyes to my interior.  The first meal was an interesting combination of peace and anxiety, hoping I wasn’t messing up what seemed to be known etiquette.

The afternoons we would have to our own devices and while it wasn’t required or asked of us, the three of us decided we would have a silent retreat of sorts.  The first day we spent away from each other.  Despite my love for both of them, it had been a long time since we were able to go off by ourselves for most of a day.  It was interesting that while much of my time walking was spent in prayer and silence, my heart was still longing for silence and solitude.

Mass took place in the evening and then we would go to the pilgrim house for supper.  Supper was never as elaborate as lunch, but it was always sufficient.  After supper we would have only a little time before we were off to night prayer.  I began to feel something akin to what the disciples might have felt.  I was one of the few (only six are permitted at a time) to stay in the pilgrim house.  I had been to night prayer before and knew the schedule.  I had the privilege of dining with Fr. Javier, of having a key to the pilgrim house door, of receiving the smiles and attentions of those in charge of the pilgrim house.  I loved being at once a visitor and yet more of a resident of that town than nearly anyone else who was wandering through.

The days passed too quickly but they were beautiful.  We followed Fr. Javier and Jesus around the town during a Corpus Christi procession.  Later that afternoon, as the warm rain poured down through the open garden roof, we listened with delight to Fr. Javier play the piano.  We learned that he had studied classical piano in school and that beauty is what drew him to the Benedictines.  At supper that night we heard his brief vocation story.  He said the short story was that he is a monk because Jesus wants him to be.  That every other reason must boil down to that all important reason.  Nothing else matters and nothing else is a good enough reason if Jesus does not want it.  After supper we all took a stroll around the town, a merry band of wanderers pulled from around the globe.

As we walked a French lady joined us.  She didn’t say much but she seemed to just want to be in our presence.  I didn’t blame her.  I was basking in the joy of following Fr. Javier, of strolling on a day that didn’t find me walking fifteen miles.  The next morning we didn’t want to leave.  We delayed, perhaps foolishly, for as long as we could.  Mass was finally in the morning and we stayed for that and breakfast following.  It turned into a long day of walking, but we wanted to maximize our time with Fr. Javier, our time in Rabanal, and our time in the peaceful oasis we had stumbled upon.

Fr. Javier was willing to pose for a picture with a few of us.  He had asked us earlier that day if we knew the story behind the icon in the refectory.  It was of the three angels that came to Abraham, a representation of the Holy Trinity.  He talked briefly about how three strangers came to Abraham but they were actually angels.  Three of them.  And he looked at us, telling us that we were angels that had arrived there.  Of course, theologically I was certain we weren’t, but I was tickled by his compliment.

A quick hug, a couple lingering glances thrown at the monastery and church, and we were off.  That whole day I thought of Rabanal.  When it came close to two o’clock, I thought of how the little group would be gathering in the refectory for one of Fr. Javier’s delicious meals.  That evening I thought of night prayer being prayed in the church, hearing Fr. Javier’s lovely voice sing the prayer in Latin and Spanish.

My heart longed for Rabanal as we continued our Camino.  It began the interesting fact that when people would ask if I had a favorite place on the Camino, I would quickly reply Rabanal, and then feel funny that my favorite place of my walking pilgrimage was a place I didn’t have to walk much.  It was a little like the transfiguration.  It was good that the Lord called us there but we were loathe to leave.  I wanted to pitch my tent in Rabanal and remain there for the next few weeks, soaking up the peace of the town, becoming Fr. Javier’s friend, living a simple life in the pilgrim house.

Rabanal reignited my desire for Heaven.  I was longing for a place of infinite peace and contentedness but also a place that wouldn’t require me to leave.  I wanted to be near the priest who was quick to smile and tease, but devout in prayer and reverence.  Yet even more so I wanted to be infinitely closer to the High Priest who understands me entirely and loves me fiercely.  If the Camino is life and Santiago is Heaven, then Rabanal was a vision along that way that pushed me onward in body and spirit.

Fr. Javier became the priest who redeemed, in my mind, the fate of the Spanish prelate.  He welcomed, with that characteristic Benedictine hospitality, all of us into the pilgrim house and provided all we needed.  The entire time there was provided on donation basis but I felt the money I left to be insufficient.  I vowed to pray for him along the Way and Fr. Javier promised to do the same for me.  What a great influence he had on my Camino all as a result of us stumbling upon that town, deciding to stay, and asking to stay longer.  The Lord certainly provided.  Greedy as I am, I hope to someday return there.  Perhaps the Lord will provide that, too.