Saturday, 30 June 2012

Faith Renewed?

 Last Sunday,was the feast of John the Baptist. This is a figure that's been an inspiration for me over the years for his ability to call us out of our comfort zone, and call us to a life of radically following Jesus. June 24 therefore is more important for me because of  it's religious and spiritual connotation and not so much for it's cultural political ones in Quebec. It has a way of renewing my journey in ways that only Easter and Christmas usually can! Last Sunday was no different as I found myself in a bit of a 'rut' that day, and was in the end rather renewed in spiritual energy because of the Mass at the local parish. Some of you may pick up on  the  "renewed energy" bit, and may wonder " were you in need of renewal?  That" , you may conclude " might imply that you weren't doing so great to begin with. What's wrong?"

Not a heck of a lot is wrong, but something is a little off. To put it mildly, I feel a bit disconnected from reality here. My entire world consists of studying, a language -which is a process I find frustrating to begin with- and visiting great Jesuit works without really being involved in them. So I'm part of the community simply as a student and as an observer of the culture. I'm comfortable with the 2nd role more or less, but not with the first, which often leaves me frustrated. I always swore as a Jesuit that I would never be 'just' a student, and usually, our vocation would not permit it. We have apostolates and encounters with people that permit it us to be Christ to the world while we busy ourselves with studies. Here, my blogging and responding to people's blogs has helped me do some 'ministry' but I'm not in my element.

    And this is to be expected. Part of language learning and immersion is that you need to feel like you don't belong for a little while until you fully adapt to the language.  And that won't happen soon for me. This means that very often, there's a lot going that I'm missing out on -jokes, cool conversations, good  homilies during Mass etc..). At first, I was rather  inspired by the language of the Mass, which is  so strongly oriented on Justice. It still inspires me,however, the general feeling is one of disconnect. Logically, if one is surrounded by people that he doesn't understand, the disconnect is kind of inevitable. There's all kinds of conversation that go on around me daily that I know I won't understand, so often, the reflex is to just stop listening. Which is a shame.

 It's only this past Sunday that I realized the negative influence this 'disconnect' has had on me. The thing is, I'm still very social, and have friends both inside and outside this community. And I am committing myself to the task of language learning as much as my little heart will allow me to ( I'm doing my best, and I'm not completely miserable doing this, but I'm not thriving either). That's not the issue. The issue is what happens to me when I start not caring  about the conversations happening  around me, or even the words during the Mass. My tendency is, the moment a word is said that I don't understand, I just go into my bubble and stop caring about what's being said. For someone who derives inspiration and joy from the Mass, this is indeed dangerous. I'm afraid it's even affected my prayer life a little. Although I'm a bit disconnected, I am still spending most of my time in a Spanish environment, trying to wrestle with what people are telling me and to learn crazy verb tenses. It's exhausting, and at the end of the day, it's easier for me to 'watch my tv shows' than pray.  Thankfully, it doesn't happen too often that the former usurps the latter, but often enough that I was starting to feel concerned about the negative way I've responded to this challenge to my Jesuit life.

   Sunday started off  as an example of a day spent resting, kind of half wasting away. Not a very inspiring day. Even going to Mass in the afternoon was kind of a drag. But the parish here is not. It's a parish with a pretty solid youth group that does all the music. They're only about 15-20 youths involved, but they carry the Mass on their collective young shoulders. There were so many lovely songs that spoke about being present to God in the moment, making ourselves available to his loving grace, allowing his freedom take over our life. This is all stuff that I know I should be doing, but like I said, I'm not necessarily in my best element these days. So what this youth group, this parish and it's energy gave me that day, is the courage to face my demons, and overcome them, by returning to the basics: The simplest elements of my faith teach me to always be praying, no matter what I'm doing, but to always reserve a good hour or so for God, so that the bond between us can grow. But in order to do that, I need to be open. And not just be open to God. To the whole Venezuelan experience. To see where how God appears at many levels of my daily life. In a way, THIS is how I become more loving, and more open to justice in our world. This is how I heed John's call, and  prepare the way of the Lord. It was nice to hear that call again, and to understand what it means for my life.

  This is the greatest grace of the moment for me: Yes, I know I've been struggling with prayer, and with my work here. Nevertheless, though I'm not 100% committed, I see every day as an opportunity to give more and more of myself. Rather than looking at my struggles as opportunity for defeatism, I see it as an opportunity for growth. One might almost say, I thrive on the struggle, because I know it will bring me to a better place. Again..nothing new. However, as I've learned time and time again in my Jesuit life, every experience reminds us of old lessons that we need to re appropriate for ourselves. Re appropriate. I hope y'all know what I mean by that. It's one of my favourite words, but I'm not so good at explaining it!! I can, reclaim would be a synonym. We're never done learning something, as the lessons need to be adapted to new experiences, and can help  us become more free with every new challenge we face.
 Poco a poco, nuestras luchas nos llegan a la libertad. (little by little, our struggles lead us to freedom! I was almost able to say that perfectly. Didn't conjugate the verb well! There's a shocker!!)

Peace to you all

Friday, 22 June 2012

Life and Death in Venezuela ( Part 1)

One of the advantages of our program in Caracas is that our hosts are eager to show us as much as possible of the city and of Jesuit related works -either run by  Jesuits, or by their partners-. As I've said in previous posts, because of this, we've met many people. We even last week went into the home of a 'housing project' (for lack of better word) and talked with the families there. It was a moving visit. We heard about the troubles in the country, most of which revolve around violence. They kept talking about the tragedy that shaped their community: 3 kids killed by drug related violence. The community's response was to get together, as often as possible, and try to move forward, to look at ways to improve their standard of living. They cleaned up the neighbourhood, built new houses and tried their best to provide support for those in need.
 The result is that they're living in a community where people are fairly friendly and close. It's a like a large family. Quite impressive. But it's how they responded to the violence that impressed the most. I have heard of communities coming together during times of crisis, but never like this. The violence has all but disappeared from this part of the city, and this group probably has a lot to do with that. This kind of violence remains an integral part of Venezuelan life. It's the reason we are encouraged to stay put during the week, or at least, to not leave the house unaccompanied. For that reason, for the first month that we were here, the violence remained an almost abstract thing for me. It didn't have a personal dimension. Then we met Cathy.

  Cathy is the Scientists that was our guide when we visited another part of the country. Jhozman and Adam coordinated the effort. They got in touch with her and expressed interest in visiting the Observatories, located high up in the Andes. For 4 hours, Cathy took us around from one station to the next, visiting various telescopes. Not only that, she did it all in flawless  English (at my request). A lovely woman full of life. Lots of passion for her field and for explaining what they do at the observatory. The next day, in gratitude for her time and energy, we took her out for lunch. She told us a bit of her story. As it turns out, she had a boyfriend for many years. He was killed probably by a robber on the streets a few years ago.  It kind of amazed me to hear this person tell us her story, because she was indeed someone was full of life. I know many who would have been emotionally and perhaps psychologically drained by such an incident. But she seemed to have the tenacity to keep on going. It was inspiring. Just as there is much violence and death in this country, there are also  many life giving moemnts, people and places.

 One  such place was a community we met today (June 22). In the heart of the Caracas, amidst all the run down houses and garbage, is a house for Catholic men who are students at the university level. Not unlike Fe y Alegria, they are a community of men that are from poorer backgrounds, and are being given a chance to do  their studies with a little financial help from the community that they live in. It wasn't an inspiring encounter with the guys, but it was a warm one, an intimate one. We met, we chatted, we asked about their lives, they about ours, and we 'bonded'. It was a special (and truly life giving) encounter for me.It's comforting to know that amidst the poverty are little stories of hope that are unfolding in each one of their lives. One guy is studying to become a manager, an other is a Music student, others are doing more technical stuff. All, are being given a chance to make something out of their lives, rather than succumbing to the violence that surrounds them. Truly beautiful, and heart warming to see.
 On the rather unpleasant ride home - I'm not going to lie. Caracas is not one of those cities that I find charming.I don't hate it, but it takes some getting used to. I'll be writing more about that in another blog- we got to a corner where there were many police bikes, and  a big crowd of people gathered on the side walk. I assumed it was just a traffic accident, or maybe an altercation. Yet like everyone else on the bus, I was peering, to try to see what had happened. Then I saw 'it'. 

  In fact, it sounds like we in the bus, all saw 'it' at the same time, as quiet groans were heard and people turned away in shock: A body. Covered by a blanket, with a pool of blood around it. The people on the side walk -there must have been hundreds of them- stood quietly, and just looked on without saying a word as the police tried to direct the traffic until the ambulance arrived..  How many of these happen every day in Caracas?  I actually don't know. One guy told me probably about 5 people a day die in drug related violence across the country -so not just Caracas then-.  This, not unlike the life of the Barrios is SO far removed from my own sheltered little life, that I don't know how to respond to it. That's not true. I'll do what I always do when I feel powerless and small...

 I'll pray.

Friday, 1 June 2012

A Venezuelan Pentacost

 This is a blog which you can also find on the other blogsite I contribute to, but slightly longer than this other version:

Last Sunday, the Church celebrated the feast of the Pentecost. This is not usually a big celebration for me. It may inspire some prayers to the holy spirit, but not much more. Things are a little different in Venezuela. Across the city of Caracas, all night vigils were being held for young people to come celebrate this feast which helps us see how the Spirit can transform our hearts into a missionary heart, one more in union and harmony with the heart of Christ.

  Perhaps the idea of a Pentecost Vigil is not that new to many of you out there, but I had never even heard of such a thing, and due to past experiences with all night vigils and resurrection parties, I was quite excited about this vigil. I should also add, I was also a little crazier than my other Jesuit Brothers who are with me in Venezuela: They attended a vigil where they would be given the freedom to go to sleep. I would not have this freedom, and this point was made perfectly clear to me time and time again by the ones planning it to make sure that I knew what I was getting into.  For some reason, staying up all night celebrating God and his Awesome presence in my life sounded awesome, so I didn’t even hesitate about this. Even the language barrier would not deter me from the not so pleasant prospect of an all-nighter.
  In the end, it turned out to be quite lovely. It was not the spiritual explosion that I may have hoped for –partly because of the aforementioned language barrier. I manage well in Spanish, but there’s still a lot of obstacles along the way- but it was still prayerful and invigorating in many ways. See, despite my struggles with the language, I recognize that the Latinos have a very powerful way of communicating God. Their language, their whole experience of faith and the divine is so immensely rich, that one’s faith can’t help but grow when surrounded by this world. Every day, the language of the Mass inspires me, the spirituality of the people lifts me up, and my heart is filled with the ‘esperenza y allegria’ (hope and joy) that comes with the way they live faith.
   With regards to the Vigil itself however, there is actually quite a lot I could share that is not necessarily related to rich spirituality of the people: this was not just an encounter with God: it was also an encounter with youth, with some aspects of the culture, with ministers and their work, with a behind the scenes look at Jesuits at work in their apostolate  -I was mostly left in awe of the amount of energy the Venezuelan men have for their work- and with other religious communities active in Venezuela. Most of it would be worth sharing, but I would need more than one blog entry to do so.
  In what little space I have left, I’ll say how moved I am by the faith of the people in this country. It’s not uncommon to be walking on the streets of Caracas, and see people cross themselves as they walk past a church. Last weekend, one young lady I spoke to told me that all of this was very superficial, that she wished Venezuelans were more committed to Jesus and to their Catholic faith. She herself rather openly labors to achieve this enthusiasm for the faith among the young by getting them to be publicly excited and joyful in their practice.  Still, I am moved at the expression of people’s faith here –I assume it’s the same across the continent-. It’s refreshing, considering the situation in Canada, especially in Quebec.
I obviously got a taste of that open enthusiasm for the faith during  the Vigil: These 50 or so students were all there on their own volition, not because they had to for school or because their parents forced them, but because of their desire to deepen their faith and to get closer to God. I think the most moving expression of that desire came in the first minute of the vigil or so when all the young people were gathered in a circle, and the animator said something to the effect that they were gathered here to come to praise the gifts of the Spirit given to them by God. The response was a very warm, yet solemn applause. It was one of the loudest applauses of the whole night. Not one with cheering or whooping…just an expression of their gratitude for  God’s greatness.

Some of the other highlights of the Vigil: a) There was one moment of solemn prayer that really drew me into God's presence It was a scary moment though, where I felt that Jesus was personally inviting me to join him on a special journey during this prayer, and that I kept resisting, declining the offer, saying "maybe later". This is a reflection of the mood I spoke of in my last blog, this feeling of being in a rut here in Caracas. It was depressing a little, to know that I would be saying yes to Christ with my religious life, and still be able to say no to him like this, but in my prayer, he just lovingly came back, encouraging me to join him, and if I said no again, I knew he'd be back the next day. There's something both disturbing and comforting around that.  I can take comfort that he is patient with me, but should be disturbed that I'm still capable of this, and be worried how often I can expect this to happen. Many Christians believe that if you keep declining to follow Jesus, eventually, you'll be 'left behind'. I absolutely hate this way of seeing things. It's probably more how humans would behave than how God would.  Still, a part of me recognized that even his infinite patience may have limits, and that scares me a little.

 b) There was something quite magical about being in this tropical country and to experience the sounds one can hear at dusk, in the middle of the night, and at dawn. The sounds all around me with incredibly exotic. Especially in the morning. The birds we heard we so loud, and filled the entire square with their song, yet were probably no bigger than the ones we usualy hear in the morning in Canada. In fact, I hear those same (sparrows and robins and others) here as well, those that gently chirp, as the sun rises, but the college where the Vigil was held -this was actually where we were on our first 2 nights here!- for some reason had more exotic birds around, maybe because of the giant palm trees that populate the campus!. It was quite beautiful, and a little surreal.

c) I really had nothing to do...honestly. So I just walked around took pictures, talked to the brothers. Prayed a very little (like I said, it wasn't the most spiritual experience). And noticed a lot of things. One of the brothers at one point told me he would not be sleeping for a while, that there was too much work to do. And then he quoted the Scripture passage about the apostles that slept while the Lord was calling them before he faced his passion, how he didn't want to be like that. I can relate (-;

  Still, at one particular moment (I photographed the moment in question, but don't have my USB cable with me so I can't really transfer pics yet) near the end of the vigil which really was a bunch of seminars for the kids to attend, one of the girls decided she wouldn't join her group for the last session. The brother who was staying awake despite his exhaustion sat there and watched play her acrobatic game with a string and a rolling plastic object (don't quite know what to call it, but she was essentially bouncing the object off of the string and catching it again. It was quite cool to watch). You can tell he wanted to discipline her, but that he was torn between doing that, or just talking her, or just ignoring her. So he just said " Tu Grupo?" which was meant as a whole sentence: " Why aren't you with your group?" and when she ignored him, he proceeded to just stare at her for the rest of period. It was a little weird, but it was also a lesson  for me as well. There are certain things that are out of our control and we should just let go off.  If he didn't have the energy to discipline her, or even talk to her, he should have just stayed  quiet. In other words:

  The problem with the apostle who stayed up with Christ in the end, is that he has no energy to do much with his presence. It's a noble gesture to do so, but it may not be necessarily what Christ expects from us. I should add, this last segment was by no way a criticism of the the work of the Jesuits scholastics here, simply a reflection of this propensity we have to want to give all to Christ, without thinking of our limitations But I will  indeed repeat that I have nothing but awe for the labours and  mission of the men in this province. They give a lot, and they're never afraid to give more. It's inspiring. These guys have an incredible amount of energy for their vocation and I admire them with all my heart.Through them, many young Venezuelans will encounter God time and time again!! One of the brothers in particular, who was the MC for the evening was the energizer Bunny, he kept going throughout most of the evening and was the heart of the operation. But all of them had so much to contribute, I felt pretty useless next to them, but it was to be expected. I was here as an observer, not a worker.

I should wrap this entry up with my favourite moment of the vigil. As is usually the case with these things, what I long to do most of all is connect with the youth. However, in this case, I felt a little overwhelmed due to language barriers and not knowing what to say to them, so I stayed with being the strong silent type that made eye contact and smiled at people, but not much more. At the very end of the evening, as people were preparing to leave, one group of youth came to me as a group. One girl wanted to speak English to me, the others to ask questions. It was a moment I wished I had captured on film, but my camera had run out battery by that point. We had a cool conversation, which culminated in two of them giving me an example of their freestyle beat boxing -a guy and a girl. They were pretty good!-. It was a conversation that reaffirmed my impressions of the middle class here:  that they're good people with a wonderful sense of the  'Latin American Soul' (some of these kids were extraordinary dancers!), and many of them remind me of young Canadians, but in general, they also have a poor sense of justice in this country, and are a little apathetic towards the people in the Barrios, parts of the town these kids would not be caught dead in.

As I asked in a previous blog, "are we that different?" Sure, there's a great movement going on in Montreal right now, and many people are optimistic of the social change this can bring, but in general, we are just as apathetic as the youth in this country are. I should say, I was quite moved and encouraged when speaking to young people involved with religious communities -either as religious or as lay- who had seen the same movie about the young people in Caracas that I had seen, and were utterly disgusted by their selfishness. In other words, even when there are many who apathetic towards the plight of the poor, there is a rag tag group of people ready to give their lives to them. So long as this continues to happen, I think there will be reason to hope in our world.