This week, we read The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival with our students in the Casa program (as part of our 'contemplatives in action' course). It is Alicia Partnoy's beautiful, heartbreaking memoir of her time in La Escuelita--one of the infamous detention centers used by the Argentine dictatorship to hold and torture those deemed to be 'subversives' or 'enemies of the state.' Alicia is a colleague of ours at Loyola Marymount University, a native Argentinian and a strong supporter of our new Casa program in Córdoba.
Here we are. In Córdoba, Argentina. But who are we? And what are we doing here? These are questions that arise often here at Casa de la Mateada--for students, community coordinators and directors. We have been here only a short time, so it is perhaps understandable that are still discovering the meaning and purpose of our life here. Also coming to sense already that some of the meaning of this experience may not become clear until after we have departed for home.
“I am still arriving.” That is how it feels more than two months after having ‘landed’ in Córdoba, Argentina to live and work for the next three years. A few days ago, I tried, with mixed success, to express this to my Spanish teacher. “When did you arrive in Córdoba” (¿Cuándo llegaste en Córdoba?) she asked me. “I am still arriving” (Todavía estoy llegando) I said. She looked puzzled; we were working on words and concepts for time, and she wanted to know (a good exercise it seemed) how many days or weeks it had been since I had arrived here. But hearing her question, I was suddenly aware of my feelings of ongoing bewilderment (and sometimes bemusement) at trying to enter into this place and make it my home. Aware of how far I felt from having really arrived here. It was not so easy to respond to her question. After a few halting efforts to express these feelings (trying to find the right conjugation to convey my sense that “arriving” was an ongoing process), she acknowledged that she understood. “Muy sutil” she said, smiling at my willful disregard of the lesson; but also recognizing that, indeed, the question of what it meant to arrive in a place was not always so easy to answer.
I wonder how long I will be arriving here? When, if ever, I will begin to feel the place as, if not my home, then at least a place where I somehow belong? A common question, I suspect, for anyone who has ever moved (or been moved) from one place to another. There are words for such experience: uprooted, displaced, exiled. These are strong terms and in some ways they do not really apply to me, certainly not in the way they do to many so many others in this country and elsewhere who find themselves not only displaced but marginalized, forsaken. Forced from their home place by circumstances beyond their control and hanging on, often precariously, in a new place. This is not my experience. I, after all, came to Argentina willingly, to help start a study abroad program for my university. I am here with my wife, Jennifer, four of our five children (the eldest is back in the U.S. in college), and a wonderful group of colleagues and students with whom we have the privilege to live and work. And I have been given resources to carry out this work and to sustain my life here.
Still, there is a profound sense of displacement and loss that is woven into this experience, even as I delight at the prospect of giving myself to the great and immensely challenging adventure of this work. I have left so much behind. And I am often acutely conscious, walking through the streets of the city, of being a stranger here. This loss is real and I begin to realize that room must be made for grieving all that has been lost in coming here, even as I continue opening myself to the work of learning what it might mean to be here. How to be here. How to open myself to the life of this place, its people, language, cultural traditions, food, politics, social struggles, beauty–todos! We are all still arriving and will be I suspect for some time to come. Perhaps we will be doing so until the day of our eventual departure.
For the moment, I begin to see that it is enough to do what I can to pay attention, remain open, curious. To try noticing and giving some expression to all that is unfolding around and within me. To the lapacho trees that have burst into glorious pink blossoms across the city. To the loros, glinting brilliant green in the early morning sun, talking and talking and talking as they fly overhead in sharp sweeping arcs. To the night sky, still new and mostly unknown to me, but gradually revealing itself and becoming part of me. To the criollitos, sprinkled in sugar, beckoning to me from the window of the panaderia ‘Las Delicias’ (we succumb and bring a bag home for breakfast). To the motos–carrying one, two, three, or even four persons and on this day waving flags for Talleres Fútbol Club–tearing madly down Rafael Nuñez on the way to the match. To signs of political and economic unrest–a large crowd gathered downtown on a cold winter day giving voice to their dissatisfaction over the state of the economy. To the Sierras Chicas–rising to the west of the city and just visible through the trees in our neighborhood.
And to the people who are beginning to enter into our lives: Roberto, who looks after our street; Belén, from whom we bought lights for our house, and Marina, whose empanadas have already become a staple in our house. We are getting to know–a little bit–some of the people who inhabit our neighborhood. Brief exchanges–in our ‘work in progress’ Spanish–with these and other persons become yet another means kindling intimacy and coming to know the place.
And to those with whom we have been given the privilege to work: our students, recently “arrived” from the United States and opening themselves little by little to the life of the place; our colleagues at La Universidad Católica de Córdoba; and our new friends at the praxis sites at El Gateado, Nuestro Hogar III, and Argeullo–all communities that are struggling in their own way to maintain a foothold in contemporary Argentina.
A glimpse only. And hardly enough to begin feeling or knowing what this place is, or what it might become for us. But a beginning nonetheless.
Poco a poco, we are arriving, learning what it means to be here.
The kindling of the fire. The scent of lavender. The light dancing off the walls of the ancient cloister. The unexpected joy. Once again: the surprise of the resurrection.
I recall a particular moment a few years ago: I had risen in the middle of the night, together with a few other brave souls, for la veillée pascale, the Easter vigil, at the Abbey of Senanque in the south of France. It was a miserably cold and wet spring night. We were all shaking in the chill and darkness of the cloister. I wondered how long we would be standing there, why I had decided to do this in the first place. Then, suddenly there was fire. I heard the snapping and hissing of the dry branches before I saw the flames. But then I glimpsed the mound of dried lavender being engulfed in a torrent of fire. And that scent. The whole cloister became enveloped in a sweet fragrance. I stood there breathing it in, feeling the warmth of the fire, watching the light illuminate the stones, our faces. And once again I found myself utterly surprised and carried away by the force and newness of the paschal moment.
Here in this little valley in the south of France, Easter begins, as it has done for Christians since ancient times, with fire. The Easter fire, arising from the depths of the night, promises the hope not only that the harshness of winter will be banished and gentler days will follow, but that death itself will be overcome. Here, manifested in the violent snapping of the dry branches, in the sudden appearance of fire, in the cloud of lavender, hope is reborn. To be drawn inside of this great mystery, to be invited to live into it again is a great wonder to me.
Still, I am abashed by my own amazement, by my inability to behold this mystery continuously. I already know this story. I have already opened myself to it, more than a few times. So why am I still so surprised by it? Why does it again seem so strange and wondrous to me, so remote from my understanding? Well, that too is part of the story, part of what it means to face my own doubt and uncertainty about the possibility of such hope being real. Suffering and death stalk our lives continuously, in the most intimate and personal terms and in forms and expressions whose extent and immensity often leave us gasping. None of this is ever far from us, not even here in this solitary monastic place. All that we carry, all that we cannot resolve, all the things that we fear most, we bring with us into this night.
So perhaps it is inevitable that I am so often in need of a renewal of hope, that I need to be brought again and again to the threshold of belief and wonder and joy.
One of my favorite stories from this season is the resurrection narrative of John’s Gospel, concerning Mary Magdalen’s experience near the tomb of Jesus (Jn. 20). I think it is in part because of the clear sense of loss and disorientation in the story. And the sudden, unexpected turning, the upwelling of joy. Mary had gone to the tomb early that morning while it was still dark. It is she who discovered that the stone had been moved and the tomb was empty and she who reported this to Simon Peter and “the disciple Jesus loved.” Later, after they had come to see for themselves and departed, she remained at the tomb alone, weeping. The gospel makes no attempt to hide her dismay. She is utterly disconsolate. She has no idea what has become of Jesus. Turning away from the empty tomb she sees a man standing there. It is Jesus, but “she did not recognize him. . . supposing him to be the gardener.” The gardener. She cannot or will not see him. Then, he speaks her name: “Mary!” The tenderness and force of that address. In a moment, everything changes: “She knew him then.”
And she went and told the others all that she had seen and heard.
Everything changes in a moment. I think it is this that moves me most about this story. In that moment, in the simple tenderness of that encounter, the flint is struck, the fire is kindled again. All from hearing her name spoken by her beloved.
We do feel sometimes that change is no longer possible, that the fire has gone out. That we are alone and bereft of hope. And so it is. Still, sometimes there is a sudden, unexpected change. The fire is rekindled. Beyond all expectation, life itself is renewed.
“Through fire everything changes,” says Gaston Bachelard. “When we want everything to be changed we call on fire.”
Dios es todo. God is everything.
That single phrase brought me to a standstill. I had to pause to try to take it in, to absorb the full weight of it. I am still struggling to do so.
We were gathered at Beatitude House, the Catholic Worker House in Guadualupe, California, listening to the testimony of two fieldworkers, Thelma and Victor. It was Thelma who had spoken these words in response to a question from a student. He wanted to know about the importance of her spirituality to the life she was living. Thelma waited while the question was translated from English to Spanish, then responded quickly and forcefully: Dios es todo. She looked up at us, her eyes flashing, as if to say: you understand, yes?
Well, yes and no. I cannot speak for the others who were gathered there that evening, but in that moment I became acutely aware of my inability to offer such a wholehearted affirmation to that question in relation to my own life. Perhaps in particular moments I can do so. But rarely with the utter conviction and deep feeling I heard in Thelma’s voice and saw in her eyes. I was so grateful to receive this gift from her. But I also felt pierced by the realization of how far I am from being able to live with and from this awareness. Read the rest of this entry »
“What do you see? How does it make you feel?”
Those two questions emerge with something like a primal force from the mouth of Mark Rothko in John Logan’s play Red. The painter is looking at his young assistant, who has just arrived to help him and is now for the first time taking in the painter’s work. Rothko wants to know what his response to the painting is. But he does not ask him what he thinks. He wants to know what he sees. And how it makes him feel.
I have thought a lot about those questions ever since seeing the play last fall in Los Angeles. Especially about why the experience of seeing seems so often to stir such strong feelings; and why feelings play such a significant role in helping us to see things, especially those things arising from what we often refer to as our ‘inner life.’ Rothko understood this. So have many visionaries and mystics. The play Red, in its insistent surfacing of the question of what it means to see and see deeply, feels like an illuminating gloss on a phenomenon that contemplative traditions have long struggled to understand and express: the moment when sight, fraught with feeling, opens up a new way of perceiving reality. When you are moved to tears by what you behold and changed by the experience, even if you cannot say why. Certainly it has been so for me. Read the rest of this entry »
“Eternity eludes us.” (Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog)
Except when it doesn’t.
I confess I find this observation by Muriel Barbery on the subject of eternity both troubling and moving. How often eternity does elude us. Almost every moment of every day. And it is not difficult to notice the reasons for this: our own anxieties or preoccupations overwhelm us, crowd out our capacity for simple awareness of the gift of our own existence and the existence of everything. So, we have to allow ourselves to be surprised, astonished, by all that is unfolding before us. Which, occasionally, we do.
A few weeks ago, this little insect paused for a brief moment near the window above our kitchen sink. The sharp morning light shone down on and through this creature. Translucent. Radiant. Everyone came over to behold this marvelous sight for a brief moment.
And then it was over.
I remember the first time I learned of the meaning of the word “Kairos”—the fullness of time. It is used often in the New Testament to refer to the altered sense of oneself and the world that can arise through a recognition that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” that it is unfolding before our very eyes. That idea, that heaven (or eternity) is not simply a far off place but is breaking into our lives at every moment, if we have eyes to see, feels to me like one of the great truths of existence. Can this be proven? No. At least not through rationale argument. I think it is something that has to be arrived at through intuition, or that strange ‘half-awareness’ that we sometimes associate with dreaming. You can seek it out, but in the end it must arrive as a kind of surprise. Which is why it so often evokes in us a sense of wonder and awe.
Part of what I really like about The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the way the author (and her characters) attend to the question of eternity. Certainly no particular religious meaning is given to it. But contrary to much of our skeptical age, they entertain the possibility that it exists and can perhaps be known and experienced. I love her account, for example, of Levin scything the grass (a scene from Anna Karenina)—Levin who in the novel is so often consumed by his cares. Here is what she says: “A welcome breeze suddenly caresses his back. A summer rain. Gradually, his movements are freed from the shackles of his will, and he goes into a light trance which gives his gestures the perfection of conscious, automatic motion, without thought or calculation, and the scythe seems to move of its own accord. Levin delights in the forgetfulness that movement brings, where the pleasure of doing is marvelously foreign to the striving of the will.” (123)
And then Renee makes a connection between Levin and the writing that she does: “What other reason might I have for writing this—the ridiculous journal of an aging concierge—if the writing did not have something of the art of scything about it? . . . I witness the birth on paper of sentences that have eluded my will and appear in spite of me on the sheet, teaching me something that I neither knew nor thought I might want to know. This painless birth, like an unsolicited proof, gives me untold pleasure, and with neither toil nor certainty but the joy of frank astonishment I follow the pen that is guiding and supporting me.”
“The joy of frank astonishment.” I love that. And it seems to me to touch into the mysterious question of how or whether we can become conscious of living in eternity. It has something to do, I think, with self-forgetfulness, at least forgetfulness of the limited ego-self (“In this way, in the full proof and texture of my self, I accede to a self-forgetfulness that borders on ecstasy, to savor the blissful calm of my watching consciousness”). Something larger and more capacious is always trying to come to birth within us, a Self capable of drinking in eternity.
On this, the day of my birth, I pause to reflect on this mystery.
“If I had one of Abba Antony’s thoughts, I should become all flame. . .”
+Abba Sisoes, Sayings of the Desert Fathers
For most of the morning I traveled in silence, moving north beside the sparkling waters of the Red Sea. At Râs Az ‘farâna I turned west, leaving the cool breezes of the coast behind and plunging into the vast, arid expanse of the Arabian desert. Somewhere in the emptiness ahead lay my destination: Mt. Colzim, the site of St. Antony’s monastery. The inner mountain. For years Antony’s place had existed only in my imagination, a kind of dreamscape into being by a fourth century narrative of the monk’s life: a remote, wild place located far to the east of the Nile valley, under the shadow of tall, rugged mountains, fed by a small spring and dotted with date palms. Some part of me wanted to leave it that way—dream-like, fluid, mobile, embedded within a story rich and expansive enough to hold everything that I cared to pour into it. I did not want to locate it too specifically in time and space. I did not want to constrain the story or drain it of its power and mystery.
Still, I found myself drawn to this place. I bought a map of Egypt, took it home and unfolded it in front of me on the floor of my house. I ran my fingers down the long blue thread of the Nile river, south almost as far as Beni Suef, then east across the North Galâla Plateau, past the Wâdi Sannûr, theh Wâdi Abu Rimth, the Wâdi Irkâs until I arrived at the place I was looking for: Deir el Quaddîs Antwân. I said the names aloud. Strange, beautiful names. Uttering the namesof these places, I began feel the vivid reality of his world. It was a world I knew almost nothing about. Yet looking at that map, thinking about those places, I began to sense how deeply his story was embedded in that place. How the place held the story. Read the rest of this entry »