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.

Priestly Inspiration

A middle-aged man strode down the center aisle of the church minutes before Mass was to begin.  He was wearing dark blue jeans, a collared shirt, and a sweater tossed over his shoulders and the arms, in a loose knot, lay on his chest.  I was a bit surprised when a few minutes later the same man emerged from the sacristy dressed in priestly vestments.

For several days on the Camino we encountered priests who didn’t wear clerics.  Inside the church they were in vestments, but right after Mass they were indistinguishable from other men of the town.  Some looked like businessmen with black dress pants and collared shirts.  Others looked more like they were out for a holiday themselves.

Perhaps I am simply blessed to live in the diocese that I do where many of the priests are found wearing their clerics.  It was the ninth day of walking before I encountered a priest wearing his clerics.  And this priest renewed in me the hope that Spain wasn’t a lost cause.

We were in Santo Domingo de la Calzada.  The larger church was open for paid tours (because of its great beauty) but Mass was held in a small chapel nearby.  Arriving at the chapel, we found the priest sitting in the confessional at the back of the church.  This was another first on the Camino–a priest hearing confessions.  We were filled with great joy, however, simply when we prayed Mass with this priest.  I don’t understand much Spanish, but the very way that he pronounced the words of consecration called all of us to become holy.  He elevated the host and the chalice and each time, the chapel was suspended in a rich silence.  The kind of silence that makes your heart ache and fills you to the brim with irrepressible joy.  Although I didn’t understand all of the homily, I understood that he was reminding the people to practice silence in their lives.  He encouraged them to pray after Mass or to leave the church so as to allow others the chance to pray.  He brought this peace to all of the faithful gathered there.  He was showing his flock the pathway to holiness by following it himself.

After Mass the church was not immediately closed, as had been the case in nearly every other town.  Instead, the priest himself came out and prayed for a while.  So much of me wanted to stay in this town for a longer period of time just out of the hope that this priest knew English and we could speak to him.  I just wanted to be near him.  The other priests that we encountered weren’t necessarily bad priests.  But this was the first priest who inspired me.  He was young and deeply in love with the Lord.  It was ridiculously attractive.

I don’t know much about the life of St. Josemaria Escriva.  All I know is that he wrote books that can comfort yet also be a spiritual slap in the face.  This priest reminded me of what St. Josemaria Escriva may have been like.  He was traditional, used Latin, prayed the Mass with great fervor, spoke homilies to encourage and challenge his people, provided opportunities for the sacraments, and allowed the church to be open for prayer.  This priest, simply by following the Lord, filled us all with a great joy.  Much of that evening and into the next day we gushed about him.  How he had given us the pilgrim blessing during Mass without making all of the pilgrims come to the front of the church.  We spoke of how he wore his clerics.  We recalled how he seemed to inspire holiness in his people.

This priest did nothing intentionally to inspire us.  He simply followed the Lord’s will for his life and that caused peace and joy to emanate from him.  The question all of this brought to the forefront of my mind was, “What does it mean to follow the Lord?”  I want those inspirational qualities that my beloved priest from Santo Domingo de la Calzada has and I want to follow the Lord as fully as he does.

The Mass: The Glory, the Mystery, the Tradition : A Book Review

The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Catholic faith.  As such, it is perfectly fitting that Cardinal Donald Wuerl and Mike Aquilina would co-write a book to teach the faithful about this crucial aspect of their faith.  Published near the time of the implementation of the new Mass translation, it guides the reader through the Mass step-by-step.

The first half of the book seeks to help the reader grow in greater knowledge about the history of the Mass, the different names for the Mass, the people involved, and the different materials used in the celebration of a typical Mass.  By covering this aspect first, they are setting the stage for the Mass to be understood in a new way.  Pictures are included to help the reader visualize the specific vessels used in Mass or the way different parts of the Mass would actually look.

Once the stage is set, the materials are identified, and the faithful are equipped with the necessary background knowledge, the authors launch into a thorough walk through of the Mass.  Each aspect of the Mass, from the simple opening prayer to the purification of the vessels after Communion, is explained and presented in a way that is both easy to grasp and yet provides knowledge that helps deepen one’s spirituality.  After reading through what the prayers mean, it is difficult to view the Mass in the same way.  I will find myself at Mass hearing a specific line in a prayer or watching the priest do something and will recall the greater significance from the book.

If the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Catholic faith, it is necessary to understand it as fully as possible.  Reading this book ensures that you will be able to grasp more fully the nourishment that is being offered to you through the saving Bread of Life that is Jesus Christ.  The book ends with sending you out to actually live out the Eucharist and to live out the closing words of the Mass: “Go forth, the Mass is ended!”

**I received this book free through “Blogging for Books.”

Grace-filled Moments

 I stepped out of the humble house and into the early morning air.  Although I didn’t know what time it was, I knew that is was early despite the warm sun that was steadily filling the village with light.  Embracing the time of solitude, I walked to a hammock and prayed morning prayer, with pauses to watch the water crash on the rocky coastline.

Perfection. 

No, perfection was when I finished prayer and spotted a little boy who was creeping around, casting side-long glances at me.  After going inside to get my camera, I had a mini photo shoot with him and his friends.  They were adorable.  One moment they were posing for pictures and the next they were crowded around my camera, only to double over with delight as they saw themselves on the little screen. 

Or perhaps perfection was the feeling of being loved and acceptable absolutely as we entered a village unannounced and were immediately given food and shelter.  Each meal was the best that they could offer–we even had lobster for breakfast one time.  It was being invited to a captain’s house and hearing him explain that he would have been at Mass the night before but that he had been out in the water and didn’t know about it. 

Or perhaps it was the ride in the rickety old boat that seemed ill-suited for six people and backpacks.  It was a simple boat with a motor strapped on the back that cruised over impressive swells.  The water sprayed my face, the sun kissed my fair skin, and my excitement was mixed with silent prayers that we wouldn’t sink.  But then someone spotted a dolphin and soon after I viewed a wild dolphin racing in the water.

Or perhaps perfection was the joy of hiking through the coastal landscape–crawling over rocks, racing up steep inclines, stopping to enjoy the glories of coconut water while sweat ran down my face and back in rivulets.  The moments of pausing to dip our bottles into the cool springs so that we could filter the water to be suitable for our weak stomachs.  Walking to villages to which no cars can arrive simply to bring the best one could offer–Christ present in the Eucharist.  Watching the people unlock their churches with a sense of pride that is difficult to find in the “developed” world and then hearing them spread the word throughout the village that a priest was in their midst.   

Perhaps, in my mind, Honduras is perfection in every aspect.  I understand that the country is going through difficult times, that the homicide rate is one of the highest in the world, and that poverty is abundant.  But I experienced so much grace and perfection in Honduras.  The Lord blessed me with being able to go to Honduras twice for spring break mission trips in college.  As I saw the poverty of the people, I saw a simplicity that made my heart ache.  It made me want to return home and give all of my extra possessions away.  It made me want to become a missionary after college.  And right now it fills me with a desire to return to Honduras someday. 

Honduras has been on my mind lately because in just a few days another mission trip will be launched to that beautiful country and my heart aches to be with them.  Yet I can go back and embrace the memories and for a moment, I am in that grace-filled place again, walking through the coastal land, eating fresh seafood, celebrating Mass with people who manage to praise God in the midst of adversity. 

Heaven is indescribable.  I like to think that Heaven will be like all of the beautiful, grace-filled moments of my life linked together…and then more.  It will be the sum of beautiful adoration hours, hikes in foreign countries, the smell of incense, the feeling of a bed after a long day, the delirious joy of the Holy Spirit, the thankfulness of a student, the embrace of a cloistered sister, the glory of a sun-bathed afternoon, every delightful food, and the reunion of each beautiful friend…and more. 

In the midst of times that seem less grace-filled, it is nice to be able to go back and re-live some moments where I knew the Lord was working and present.  Yet not to get lost in them.  Simply to experience the joy and then return to the present with a renewed vigor to pray for God’s kingdom to come now…in me and in this world.