Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Going through the motions? (VC)

In the epic Buffy the Vampire slayer musical episode "Once more with feeling", Buffy, who has been recently resurrected from death by magic, notices that she's lost her passion for the fight against Vampires, that she's merely going through motions of the day to day grind. Of course, this being the musical episode, she actually sings about this predicament of hers, giving a rather light and amusing tone to this complex feeling. You can watch/listen to the full song on youtube:


 However, the idea of going through the motions is not one to be taken lightly. I suppose there are many out there who do this without losing too much sleep, but for those of us who go through this process and are painfully aware of it, this type of  moment can become a crisis . In a way, it's my realization that I was more or less going through the motions as a lay person that helped me begin considering that I had a vocation with the Jesuits. I never wanted a career or a profession, but something that would be a passion for me. Something that I could define with my character, rather than having it define me. Something I could dedicate every ounce of my energy to. With the Jesuits, that something became a someone in the presence of Christ, and through my love for him, I'd like to believe that I could be full heartedly committed to whatever task or work I'm assigned or asked to do.

  At the end of my first 2 weeks in this country, I could not be more far removed from that state of mind. One of the reasons I was reluctant to come here for the summer was that I have no desire to be a full time student of anything except social justice and theology. These are two things that I imagine I'll be doing for the rest of my life. Being asked to study anything else is a challenge for me. I lost the patience for being a full time student who spends his days memorizing stuff a long time ago. It's why I've appreciated the degree I'm doing in Toronto: There are no exams so far, so the learning is entirely done by a process of lots of readings and writings. I seem to be more in my element in this format of learning.

 Despite my not so subtle reluctance, I plunged into to the Venezuela experience not half heartedly at all. I realize that this is an opportunity to really perfect my command of this language, and the prospect of having a 3rd language that I have a good command of  is quite exiting, plus imagine all the great authors and poets I would be able to read  in the original language if I dedicate myself to this process of learning! So I definitely got into this. However, as the days went by, and our experience became a bit more taxing -lots of visiting, interacting with people in a foreign language, community time, classes and the overall process of dealing with this new place..- my will to study this language dropped significantly. I lost the energy to learn I seemed to have in the beginning , especially when we we learning more heavy duty theoretical Spanish stuff, like the linguistics of the language, or the more technical bits. Our professor was keen on making us name parts of speech, function of a word etc...It's not the part of language learning I'm so fond of, so  my mind kind of  shut down when we were dealing with these last week and the previous week.Studying a language -after almost 10 years of a rest from doing that! I'm  definitely rusty- was challenging enough without this stuff. So my response to it was to enter a kind of a rut. Even in my prayer life. I either began skipping or shortening prayers. This was sometimes out of laziness, but often out of exhaustion. Not being able to wake up early enough to pray in the morning, too tired to do it in the evening (Our masses here are usualy at 5:50 am. My body has gotten used to being up in time for Mass, but it still is exhausted during the rest of the day, and siestas often take the place of prayer and work!) This for a Jesuit is not uncommon, but I feel  it's one of the worst things that can happen to us. It takes us  away from God and turns us inward. So as I saw my study habits going down the drain, and my prayer life was being negatively affected,  I realized it was time to bring the wisdom of our founder, St Ignatius.

 Ignatius teaches us (Jesuits) that  in our daily life, we must discern our actions very carefully. We may come to a moment in time when we are drawn to a certain action that is bad for us, or drawn away from one that is good for us. In such moments, our founder encourages us to act against our impulses or desires (A process he calls Agire Contra. This is a term we heard all too often at Novitiate!), something I need to start doing in a very serious way here.  Oddly enough, one of the answers to my struggles was that...I needed to go through the motions. Yes, learning Spanish grammar, and spelling rules, and remembering where the accents go on words (and the names of each type of accents) can really suck, and yes, the time table here is a little rough sometimes, but if I don't think about that, and go through the motions, the hope of me learning something more concrete here will be much stronger. So, in other words, in order to survive this rut, I need to enter into a different kind of rut, where there may not be as much passion for the work, but at least the work is getting done.
 I've tried to avoid this way of doing things all my life. Throughout my academic years, I'd hear people talk about our student years as a job, where you have to get the work done, and move on to the next task. that's very efficient and practical and it works well for many things in our world, but that's not me. My McGill years were about the learning and the passion for it. IN THEORY, my Jesuit years have been about that as well. The problem is, after  almost 10 years of being in the day to day grind, I've developed many bad habits that interfere with my true love and passion for my growing faith and the increase of knowledge that this entails.
It's a work in progress I suppose. As for Venezuela...Poco a poco -little by little-. That's all I can hope for.  I have another 4-5 weeks to really commit myself to this language learning process through our classes, and another month of living in a community after that, so this experience is only still begining. And I can't deny that there are frustrations and obstacles, but nor can I let those shape my entire experience here. That's also very Jesuit: We must accept our shortcomings, and continue our journey with them, knowing that God embraces us so completely and lovingly, not despite these shortcomings, but in a way, because of them. Because through them, we are made meek and small, and hey..that's a good thing. The goal is that we don't run away from that meekness, but accept it as a gift from God and continue turning our loving hearts towards him and towards the world. Amen.

Friday, 25 May 2012

the reality of Venezuela (VC)

For a while since I've been in Venezuela, it's been striking me just...how crowded Caracas is. Never mind the barrios, houses pilled on top of one another in an extremely unsafe way  -though nothing has happened yet it seems-, the city itself, seems to always have tonnes of people in the street. Even the Metros. If you were to take a subway in Toronto or Montreal at 7 am on a Saturday, there's good chances that you'd be one of the few people doing so. The cars wouldn't be empty, but there wouldn't be THAT many people around. It's definitely no rush hour, which can be insane in both cities.
   This past Saturday, I was travelling to another part of the Venezuela with one of the guys for a conference on missionary work. We hopped on a fairly crowded subway train -couldn't find a seat- at 7am. I was stunned by this. I also told my colleague that everywhere we went in Caracas, things seemed crowded. He said something to the effect of it being a city with a lot of people in a fairly regular sized spaced. Consider these numbers courtesy of Wikipedia:

My home town of Montreal:  The city itself is 365square Km , or 140.98 square miles, with a Metro area of 1644 sq miles, and a population of  roughly 1 million, 700 thousand.

My adoptive city of Toronto, is a bit bigger, with 240 sq miles, with a metro area that clocks in as unbelievable 7125 km square, or 2751 sq miles, and an urban( i.e non metro) population of roughly 2 million 600 thousand.

Even my favourite city in the World, New York, stands tall at 783.8 sq mi and a population of  a little more than 8 million.

And Caracas? In an area of 167square  km ( so a we bit  bigger than montreal, but smaller than Toronto and miniscule compared to New York) it has a population of roughly 6 million.  There are more people here than in the cities of  Montreal and Toronto...combined ( again, that's not counting the Metro area). Obviously, this is a phenomenon  you hear about in Mexico and Brazil, but it's my first encounter with it. This makes life here a little unbearable for some.

 In fact, I was quite surprised when we watched a video this past Monday about the youth in Venezuela entitled "Venezuela, a city one was meant to leave".The purpose of the  documentary was to  explain the lives of young people in this country, and give an expression to their fears and frustrations. For the record, when I say young people, I mean young middle class people. Those that could have an impact on the future of this country.  Many of them were the type of people that I recognized, people I may meet in Canada, young people with an artistic mind, a desire to spread their wings and be creative, but people who could not be more far removed from the reality of this country, the oppressive poverty that rules this place. Quite the contrary, these kids want nothing to do with the majority of the population and its poverty. I didn't get very much from this video that our community was watching together. I mean, I guessed that many of them were eager to leave Caracas to go build a life for themselves elsewhere, but beyond that, I couldn't quite decipher their accent, or hear much of what they were saying. One young lady in particular reminded me of many of my friends back home: Artistic, kind of bohemian looking, very intelligent sounding but cute, in a down to earth kind of way. I definitely got nostalgic for home watching her speak, even if I couldn't understand her.

 However, when we were discussing the movie over lunch,  one of my new friends here -Manni-  when talking about her, started mentioning Hitler. I did a double take and asked him to clarify this rather ludicrous comparison. How could a young  Venezuelan woman of the 21st century be compared to Hitler? Apparently, what I didn't get from her words, was that she often spoke of the thing that 'disgusted' her the most about Caracas was the presence of those 'other people' that weren't like her, that weren't of the same 'race' as she was.  She never used the word 'pure race' but according to Manni ( I feel like he needs a descriptive, like one of those Mafia types. Manni the Fish, or Manni the Hammer!!) what she was saying implied it.

 Should I be surprised that in a country where poverty is omnipresent, that some of those who are from the middle or rich classes would be so quick to dismiss the poor in their country? That they really couldn't care less for them? That the young even want to run as far away as possible from these problems? I mean, I can be upset that it's happening, but not surprised. Don't we do the same? Don't many  people in our part of the world focus solely on their careers, on making money, on striving for what's best for them and very often ignore the sufferings of people around them?  It's one of the reasons I turned to religious life:  The society we live in not only encourages us to live like this, it practically forces us to do so. There will always be some that will be strong enough on their own to live beyond this selfish lifestyle, but that wasn't me. Put me in an environment where I have to struggle to find work, pay bills, and worry about the future, and I'm incapable of channelling the same  divine love that continues to transform and improve me everyday.

 But in the end, I am sympathetic with these kids, but proud of the work the Jesuits are doing. Sympathetic because I feel the situation here is beyond hope. Jesus once told us there would always be poor. To me this implies that we shouldn't take it upon ourselves to want to eliminate poverty. that being said, Jesus spent all his time with the poor, treating them with dignity and love, and I feel the Jesuits here are doing the exact same. Even these intimidating Barrios are a step up from having millions of people living in the streets starving. The Jesuits were part of the effort to create a better life for the poor and continue to do so, and that's what makes me proud of their work here. I don't think any of them realistically believe that the poverty of their countrymen will ever be eliminated, but they remain close to them and work with them whenever possible, improving little things in their lives.

  Take for example the Faith and Joy schools -fe y allegria-. They educate thousands upon thousands of poor people in this country, all the way up to the university level. Thanks to them, many from poor backgrounds can have a career, earn money, have hope for the future. This is the most powerful expression of Hope I have seen in a long time. No wonder it plays such an integral part in the Jesuit lingo here.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Justice is to deepen love and freedom: Part 2 (VC)

 As a preface to my more spiritual account of last week -there's already a lot happening this week, so I have to get moving on so I can document that as well!- I'd like to give my readers a little context by sharing one characteristic of my own Jesuit vocation. I put the emphasis on the my, to remind all who read this page  that this is indeed my account of Jesuit vocation, and not what every Jesuit experiences. The struggles I will describe is something many of my brothers will relate to, but others ignore the struggles, or are able to  quickly resolve them or move on. The beauty of our vocation, as with anything in our human experience, is its diversity. We all share the same charism, but we all live it with our own brand of uniqueness.Some are ambitious guys that are convinced they can fix all of the world's problems by being involved with all kinds of projects,  and still have time for their community and their own personal spirituality. Others make themselves a priority once in a while and take it a bit more easy. I'm too much of a dreamer for the first lifestyle, so I try to find the middle ground.

 But part of being a dreamer is that I ask big questions for which I often don't have answers. One of those questions for me since I've entered the Society was, revolving around the Jesuit passion for justice and freedom for all. We use these words a lot in our language. It 'makes sense' but at the same time, it's sometimes hard to discern what it is that we can do to serve the justice of God in our world. Serving and making food in a soup kitchen? Working on 5 social justice committees? Being missionned to a 3rd world country? Joining the socially conscious young people in their outrage against the world's complacency?( A quick note here: I'm talking about the Occupy young people and the Indignatos of Spain, not the Quebec students. I don't think protesting for your right for cheap or free education makes you socially conscious.) To make matters worse, as I've expressed in the past, is that I feel that because of my studies, I am very distant from any justice related work that could help me find an answer to what this justice is supposed to be.

 Last week, I was finally able to 'taste' the beginnings of an answer. I mean metaphorically of course -unless my account was about eating an Arrepa or burrito made from the hands of a poor farmer whose family was starving which could have given me an all to poignant taste of what injustice is!!-. Being in Venezuela has been very helpful in that department. What's special about being here, is that the Jesuits don't just talk about justice, or injustice. They live it. Firstly,  some of the guys come from poor families, and so they understand the struggles of the poor all too well. Secondly, unlike most Jesuits in the north, they live right in the thick of poverty. I mean, granted, their house is gated, they have internet access, each guy has his own cell phone, and the community employs people to cook, clean and do certain tasks around the house. However,  like many Jesuit communities, they need this staff because they give every ounce of themselves to their studies and their ministry, to being close to the poor, understanding their needs, and working with great minds to help heal the injustices in their country. The biggest problem some of them have with Chavez, is that he talks socialism, but doesn't do much to back his big talk. He speaks about the workers, but the slums of Caracas as still unsanitary, people are still unemployed, families are still broken and the social condition of the poor is not improving.. I don't know enough about the situation to know what Chavez is or isn't doing(and furthermore, the country IS divided over him. Many Jesuits support him as well. So maybe it's not so black and white), but I can get the frustration they're expressing.

 Thankfully, the frustration is not all they're expressing. All week long, during mass, or in my talks with them,  I realized how strong their hope for justice was, how much they believed that the justice of God would find it's roots in Venezuela and grow. So much so, that it became something for me that was concrete. Not some abstract notion of right and wrong, or some distant fantasy of a world where all are equal, but a healthy, balanced discernment of the problems of our world, and a genuine desire to work to solve these problems, a desire rooted in love of the people and closeness to them.

 What I heard in their prayers during the Mass, I would see with my own eyes during the week  when we visited their apostolate. We saw 3 organizations: JRS -Jesuit Refugee Services-, Fe y Alegria (faith and joy. A Jesuit school for the poor that has some of the highest standards of education in the country) and el Centro Gumilla, a social analysis center that somewhat resembles the Justice and Faith center I worked with 2 years ago. In all 3 centers, we were given presentations by the directors or volunteers about what kind of work was done, and with all 3 groups, I felt so inspired. All of them work directly with the poor, the marginalized in ways that I can only dream of right now. Even the school inspired me. I say 'even' because I wasn't expecting that. My vocation is not to be a teacher, but an activist for the faith and for the poor. Still, as I heard about how they made education accessible to all the poor with dozens of schools around the world, and how they supported these students through thick and thin, until they found their calling,I remembered why it was I became a Jesuit. We're not just charity or social workers. we're not just well intentioned individuals. We get our hands dirty baby...and we don't shy away from going to the margins, where no one else -whether religious or not- dares to go.

 Maybe in the end, this is justice: To ensure that our love for God and God's people deepens everyday; to give our lives to help others discover that love, and the freedom it offers us; to be present to the broken, and  always be there to remind them that they are so loved, and that in the hands of God...they are so free.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Justice is to deepen love and freedom: Part 1 (VC)

 I was quite shocked that my last entry received 64 views in a single day, but then I figured many of them  are probably junk sites, and not actual people reading. Still, I appreciate those of you who do!!
 I'm probably breaking the rules of blogging by making these entries as long as I do. So I'm going to mix things up a little here and write this blog in 2 parts. The first one,  shorter, will be an account recounting the events of the past week, and the 2nd one recounting how the events have impacted me.
   In the last entry, I talked about our very first night in Caracas, and hanging out with the guys. The next day, our guests insisted was  day of rest for us. I was looking forward to sleeping in a little, but that was not going to happen here. The residence is adjacent to the Jesuit school, which is hub of sports related activities. There's a whole section of the campus dedicated just to sports, with 2 or 3 baseball diamonds, a few soccer fields,tennis courts and many other  places for sports. It turns out, they're usually all full at the same time, so you can imagine the noise that emerges from this place!  I was rudely awoken  the next day by loud cheerings, wondering why this country was crazy enough to have a championship game going on at 8 am on a Saturday! Turns out it was just the kids playing, but there were so many of them going on at the same time that it was made that much louder! We eventually got to see the various sports fields, as one of our hosts (John)  took us to the campus, and we took in one of the baseball games for a short while. We also stopped at the Jesuit infirmiry attached to the school, which was a lovely experience on its own. Finally, we went to the shopping mall that bears the name of our founder " The Ignatius center' which the guys claim has nothing to do with them. It was a nice part of town to be in though. Reminded me of the Annex back in Toronto. Very pleasant, but very distant from the poverty that is the principal reality of this country.
  After an evening in Los Teques (an hour or more south of Caracas) where  we got to meet many of the  Provincials from Latin America that met together over the weekend, we returned to the University complex in preparation for our next day, when we would be in various apostolates that our Philosopher brothers are involved with in the city. My experience was with one of the guys here, named  Johnny, in a poor neighborhood called Carapita. I was lucky enough to hang out with the people afterwards, and to really experience the reality of the people in a real way. It's also the place where I realized how little I knew the language, and how little I could follow conversations which made things challenging.
   After this experience,  we packed up, and headed for the philosophy house, our real residence during our stay in Venezuela.  In a way, I could say that the only downside to our stay here so far, is that we are literally  in lock down mode unless somebody takes us somewhere. They don't really encourage us going out for walks in our neighborhood, and even if they did, we have enough to do, that there isn't always time for that. So we end up being 'stuck' in the house a lot, but it's not too depressing because of the amount of work and learning and the living experience, to be so close to our Venezuelan brothers. Thankfully, we do have a wonderful host in the person of Jozhman, who although a little strange in his methodology of teaching, is the best host you could hope for, and serves as our guardian angel,  body guard, and bridge to the Venezuelan culture. so far this week, we've had a bit more openness in our schedule to go out, so he's taken us to visit two of the apostolates of the Society in Venezuela: the Venezuelan office of Jesuit Refugee Service, and the office of Faith and Joy. Both exepriences were rather powerful and I shall describe the impact they've had on me more extensively, in part 2.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

The Venezuela Chronicles (VC)

I was debating  whether I was going to create a 2nd blog around my journey to Venezuela which started today -Friday, May 11th-. But I decided that wouldn't be worth it. Instead, I'll put the Initials VC at the end of every entry to indicate that these are entries that are part my Venezuela Chronicles.

 Not too much events around the first days.  I am currently in my mosquitto infested space in Caracas -or as our American pilot half called it, "Crackas"..- The little buggers are everywhere, but they're so small, that I don't really feel them. Just little pricks here and there. That's almost bearable. I hope this keeps up! We had a wonderful first meeting with the guys in Philosophy here.  Through a mixture of English and Spanish, we were able to celebrate this joint vocation we all have as 'young' Jesuits ( one of them reminded me I don't quite fit that description by saying " Tu es muy Viejo" -you're very old-). Otherwise, we had fun with them, had lovely conversations. Poor Eric has not had his first Spanish lesson yet, so he'll be struggling for a bit there, but Adam and I tried to keep the conversation flowing. Not always easy!But the men are so welcoming, they make it look easy.

 Of course, all of this took place only at the end of the day.  Our travels from Toronto to Miami and Miami to Caracas were rather uneventful. I ended up buying 'The Hunger Games' in our layover in Miami because it's a movie that really  inspired me, so I wanted to follow up with the book. As of the early stages of this novel, I feel like it could be used as a tool to talk of the social justice issues of our era. I may turn to it again to teach justice to future generations. Very inspiring.
    Equally inspiring was the ease with which the 3 of us travelled together. It's reminded me how much of a family we have truly become. I say this because I almost expect that the more time I spend with community, the more tired I get of it. There are days when this can be true. Especially on a long voyage like this one, you'd think there'd be issues or problems that would emerge, that we'd be tired of being together all the time Nothing like that: I guess we understand that we're lucky to share this mission together, and that we'll be growing in oodles together for the next few months. So we have been 'working together' to get through customs, dealing with the delay in our flights, filling out documents for the customs people etc... it's been wonderful to have my 2 brothers around. I'm sure my stay here will be made all the more interesting because of them.

The sense of the Ignatian family would only grow.  We know that wherever we go in the world, we’re usualy very well received by other Jesuit communities.  I definitely experienced that in New York and Boston during my pilgrimage.  Still , last night, we were so delayed in our flight, that we were concerned our hosts may not have been there when we arrived. However, once our baggages were retrieved in Caracas, we were greeted  by some frantic whistling from enthusiastic young men, 2 of our Venezuelan Jesuit brothers:  Allesandro (-nicknamed, Chivo, which means goat- was our driver for the night. A young man interested in Engineering, but has been in Jesuit schools his whole life so the vocation was an obvious one. A very amicable guy –as many people are in this country.- ) and the man who would end up being our main contact in this country, Jhozman.  He is the only one who regularly speaks in English with us. There are fewer linguistic barriers between us and him -i.e.he  can navigate eloquently from one language to the next- and is essentially the bridge between the two cultures, though he probably has much still to learn about our language and culture. It was nice to have him and Alex as the first two faces we meet in Venezuela.

   Actually, the first exciting thing I saw in the country, was one Adam pointed out.A tiny little cross on the top  of a very high mountain close to the center of Caracas. Besides the fact this mountain is way bigger than our little Mount Royal in Montreal, it’s hard to not think of home in this circumstance.  The cross definitely brought a big smile on my face.The next thing we would see on our way home, was the city of Caracas at night. I had heard of the vast city that climbed up the hill with its houses for the poor, but when you see it at night, I guess you’re a little detached from the poverty. It just looks pretty! More than pretty,  there was a childlike sense of wonder that just overtook me, and all I could say was 'wow'. This was a scene that brought me much joy!!  The irony of it’s beauty wasn't lost on me…Christ always tells us to turn our hearts to a simpler existence, that we will find the true divine nature of God  by  staying close to the poor. I get that, but it's not always easy to live in Canada!

  The other moment of joy was the conversation we had with Allesandro on our way to  our residence for the night. –we have since moved to the philosophate, the residence of philosophy students- It was a test on my own command of the language, but we managed to communicate. Not sure how much I understood, but it was basic, and when I didn’t understand, we found some other way –with Adam’s help- to express an idea.  I guess I realize how much work I have to do with the language, but suddenly, it’s not as daunting.

 This comfort with the language continued as we arrived at our residence for the weekend, a place we'd stay at before moving to the Philosophate or house of philosophy students. Our first residence, the Centre Javier is next to a Jesuit run school, in a much nicer part of town than the philosophate, but just as noisy as the latter. The difference is that the noise we get at the philosophate is that of sprawling neighbourhood around us, where as for the other residence had the noises of clubs! A world of difference.  It was in this setting that we first met and were warmly welcomed and received by the guys. It was a little intimidating to be in conversation with a room full of philosophers in a language I don't yet speak, but we managed beautifully and the bond between us has only continued to grow...praise be to God!
I look forward to sharing other aspects of life here!!