Tag Archives: Peru

Your friends make known, O Lord, the glorious splendor of your kingdom.1

One nice thing about going to daily(ish) Mass is hearing about the saints, who I usually can’t even be bothered to talk to, much less read about. We’re under no obligation to do any of the above, of course, which is like saying that the son of a rich man could chew on corn cobs and sleep on a bed of hay, if he preferred to do so. Which of course we frequently do.

When I participate in any kind of daily liturgy, whether it’s the Mass or the Office, I try to remember that the readings for the day might very well be custom tailored to me, might be just exactly what I need to hear, if I have ears to hear it. That’d sound egotistical if we didn’t know the kind of love God has for us, which is — I keep reminding myself — intensely personal.

Today is Saint Luke’s day. The name always makes me think of Brother Lucas, who belongs to the order I stayed with for three months in Peru, back in ’08. My first memory of him is, in a sense, the first time I understood what the order was all about. We were sitting down to dinner and he was talking in Spanish; another brother, Br. José María, translated for me.

From the tone of Br. Lucas’ voice, I would have assumed he was discussing the weather, or the dogs,2 or a trip he had made into town. But the words coming from Br. José María were intensely personal: “It took me a long time,” he was saying, “to be able to offer up to God the blessings he gave me and the good works I did. But then He told me He wanted something else. I couldn’t believe it: I said, No, no, no! Because” — Br. Lucas took a big breath here — “He said that He wanted my sins, too.”

Was this standard dinner conversation around here? Was this, maybe, just what most Peruvians were like? A qualified “yes” to the first and a definite “no” to the second: one of the marks of the order was the sharing of interior lives to a degree I hadn’t encountered before, and haven’t since. But apart from them, Peruvian men aren’t generally big on sharing their feelings.

Mostly it was just Brother Lucas being Brother Lucas.

Brother Lucas is a big man: before joining the order, he used to coach high school crew teams. His voice is deep and rich and he has round, muscular shoulders, but I was always surprised how easy it was to talk to him: surprised because you wouldn’t think somebody with such a face, The Face, would be easy to talk to.

About a month into my visit, I was frustrated: there were some English speakers around, but most of the conversation was in Spanish, and although I spoke some of it, I always felt left out no matter how much the others tried to include me; and then of course if I noticed they were trying to include me, I felt awkward about that. It was an emotional place in general, too: you try sitting for three hours a day in front of the Blessed Sacrament and tell me some crazy stuff doesn’t come bubbling up from your heart.

So I was wandering around the grounds after dinner, 4000 miles from home and feeling every inch of it, when Br. Lucas saw me and asked what was wrong. “I’m sad,” I said in Spanish, “because everybody’s always talking, talking, talking, and I don’t understand anything!” and then I burst into tears.

He sat there with me for a little bit, and then said slowly and clearly: “Steve. Tu hablas Castellano muy, muy bien.3 He said it in Spanish, of course: making a gift not only of the words, but of the way he said them.

Whenever I ask myself what Christianity is all about — what difference it all makes, how it is that Jesus came to save us and yet here we are, profoundly un-saved — I remind myself: the only reason people like Br. Lucas exist is because Jesus came. There’s no other explanation for him than that Jesus lives in and through him. I know it doesn’t come through from two little stories. You’d have to meet the man.

Which applies to Jesus, too: you have to meet the man. When it comes to answering our deepest questions, words won’t do. Only a Person will.

1 From the Responsorial Psalm for today — Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012.
2 They owned 6 German Shepherds, whom they trained assiduously. Naturally Br. Lucas with a German Shepherd always made me think of St. Francis.
3 “You speak Spanish very, very well.”

I smoked my first cigarette at age 10, in the raspberry bushes across the street with my friend W., who had stolen his father’s pack. We hid the rest under a bush for later, but that night in a fit of penitence I came back and snapped them all in half, then mixed them with sand for good measure. When we met up to smoke some more, I pretended to be as surprised as anybody.

I didn’t smoke again (except cigars, which don’t count) until I was about seventeen. I had been just sort of wanting a cigarette for a while, no particular reason, just wanting to check it out; when lo and behold, I stumbled across an unopened pack in a parking lot, cellophane still on it: Marlboro Ultra-Lights, I’m pretty sure.

These days I’d have to smoke three of those to feel anything (ultra-lights, pshaw!) but back then a few puffs would send me pleasantly reeling; so that summer I’d go for a walk each night, taking the pack (which fairly tingled with verbotenheit) with me. Eventually my mother found the matches in my jacket pocket, made a guess (I probably stank) and confronted me.

So I agreed not to smoke, except I smoked anyway, because here was a positive pleasure in what was already a fairly lonely life. It didn’t really pick up until my 18th birthday, when I quit my heinous summer job as a Kirby salesman and bought the first pack that I didn’t have to beg anybody for. I finally asked my mother to remove her injunction against tobacco, since it wasn’t doing anything but make me feel bad, and she relented.

Smoking became a part of life. After meals, after Mass, after class; and then also before meals, before Mass, before class; after a movie, before a movie. After and before anything at all. Something to look forward to in the morning, something to close out the evening. By senior year I was well past a pack a day.

I marked time with cigarettes, the way we mark time with sleeping. If our bodies didn’t need sleep, we’d still want it, to prevent life from becoming one long blur: we need lines, demarcations. Life without smoking, like life without sleep, was a kind of nightmare.

Most people had only two forms of bodily consumption to enjoy, eating and drinking: I had three, and wasn’t eager to part with any of them.

Some time after college came my first serious efforts at quitting. The most success I had was the three months when I stayed with the order in Peru, when I didn’t smoke a single cigarette…okay, a single one. I managed to separate myself from the group during a trip to the market, bought a half pack, finished my chores early, and smoked behind the chapel like a fifth-grader. Then I had to confess it.

When my stay was done, Padre F. dropped me off at the airport; as his pickup pulled away, I walked to the newsstand — trailing clouds of glory from my three months of prayer, service, poverty, and soul-searching — and bought a pack of Camels.

Last Saturday I sparred after Kung Fu class for the first time in months. I didn’t do badly, and learned a few new tricks, but had to bow out early because I was puffing and blowing too hard to continue. The rest of the class, from fifteen years younger than me to fifteen years older, continued on. I was still riding the rush of a few good matches, but losing my breath — when the rest of my body is healthier than it’s ever been — made me feel frail and a little sad.

As I write this, it’s been 43.5 hours since my last cigarette. The last couple days haven’t been that bad. I am twitchy and achy and feverish and disconnected, but it’s not that bad. My little brother described it pretty well in a sympathetic text message: “For me [quitting] always felt like all the interstitual fluid in my body was becoming mildly acidic.”

And it leaves you wanting…something, something like smoking, something slightly forbidden and mildly painful that makes you feel an immediate difference. Like sticking your finger in an electrical socket; that might be an appropriate substitute.

I know if I start again I’ll just have to quit again. I know, also, that after the physical addiction is gone, the psychological addiction will linger. Meh, like they say, one day at a time. I can’t wait to take on my Sifu without wheezing like an invalid. I think I can feel the difference already.

The first few mornings in Peru, the roosters next door woke me up. There was what sounded like a field full of them next door, a whole tribe, saluting the sun hours before it would arrive. We were up at five and off to the chapel for morning prayers. Then back to bed — lucky for me, it took me a long time to realize that 5-6am was supposed to be private prayer time in our rooms, not nap time — and up again for Mass at 6.

I loved that chapel. On the apse was a fresco, all in blue and white, of Jesus ascending to the Father, the earth already too far behind to be seen; but on another wall was a crucifix, large as life and almost as bloody. When I came to Brother Pedro on Good Friday, crushed and bewildered by I-didn’t-know-what, with no words to explain even if I could have spoken the language by then, he told me to tell it to Jesus — not the Jesus in the fresco, with his clean white robes, but the other one.

After Mass, breakfast — I savored those rolls and the cheese and the overripe fruit, and Lord, the terrible instant coffee — and the Rosary, which before long I proudly learned to say in Spanish. Then an hour or two of chores before our first session of Adoration.

A lot can happen in two hours of sitting still. It wasn’t uncommon for someone to burst into tears, quiet or loud; or to suddenly blossom into a grin, goofy or beatific, lit from the inside; or to jerk up suddenly from sleep, slamming the prayer book in his lap and then looking around sheepishly. Brother Pio always fell asleep, and always snored.

Lunch, more Adoration, more chores; time for recreation, time to visit the neighbors, time to say Mass at the village down the road; time for Vespers, time for study, time for Compline, time for sleep. A week in, and I was sick with longing for anything familiar. A month in, and I never wanted to be anywhere else. Three months, and I was ready to come down from the mountaintop.

And here I am again, deep in the valley, four(!) years later. For three months after those three months in Peru I walked several inches above the ground, knowing I was changed forever.

Was I changed? Am I? Is it possible to lose what so real a God has given? Or maybe the giving, like Creation, is not a single event, but something that never stops: the memory dissolving endlessly in the abyss of my heart, spreading its colors, miles below every ripple.

One of the dangers of a life like mine — being single, living alone, working a job that mainly involves staring at glowing rectangles all day — is that your faults tend to get hidden from you.

When I was a teacher, It was impossible to avoid my faults: how little it takes to make me lose patience, how I have it in me to be casually cruel even to a sixth-grader if I’m short on sleep, how prone I am to sulking when my free time gets hijacked.

Living with the community in Peru, even for just a few months, was the same. I remember doing chores with Brother Pedro one day, sweeping the floors but avoiding his eyes because just looking at him made me furious; muttering Hail Marys under my breath like they were curses, because it was either pray for his wretched, pedantic soul or beat him to death with the broom. All this because — I honestly can’t remember; probably something about the tone of voice he kept using, or this way he had of sniffing and lifting an eyebrow.1

It’s lucky I come from a big family, and that nearly everyone in my family has a big family. I’m surrounded by role models.

Caleb works overtime every week, sometimes six or seven days in a row, just to make ends meet, and all he wants to do with his time off is give that time away to his family. Caleb comes particularly to mind because I’m housesitting for him this weekend, and noticing how all I can think of is how far of a drive it is from my place to his, and how his stupid dog won’t quit licking me.

But it’s not just Caleb. I could say the same about my other married brothers and sisters. Sacrifice isn’t just something they do from time to time, when they quit watching TV and get around to it. It’s how they live.

People keep telling me how wonderful I am for, well, just not having sex with anybody. And believe me, I snap up those compliments like my brother’s stupid dog snaps up doggie treats.2 And frankly, yes, it’s hard work remaining chaste and celibate.3 It’s difficult, and it causes me pain.

But I have less and less patience with this question: “How can the Church require homosexuals to be celibate? How can she impose such a heavy cross?”

Why do people think that living a good life is supposed to be easy? Readers, whoever you are — gay, straight, married, single, relatively healthy or inflicted with any one of a billion possible debilitating pathologies — you will be asked to carry a cross. It’s going to be hard, and it’s not going to be fair.

This is a world where evil is real, and where the only real antidote is love — not medicine, not political change, not advanced anti-suffering technology, but love. And love always costs.

Suffering and self-denial aren’t extraordinary; they’re par for the course. What did you expect?

1 Yep, I was an expert on the shades of emotional inflection in a language I could barely even speak and a culture I knew nothing about.
2 And rawhide strips, and shoes, and newspapers, and toys, and the cat’s food (but not her own), and bugs, and cigarette butts…I think I’ve lost sight of my original simile.
3 Not a redundancy. Celibacy means refraining from sexual activity. Chastity means integrating your sexuality with the rest of your personality, in a way that’s appropriate to your station in life. The former is required of some people; the latter is required of everybody.

“God really does give you your heart’s desire,” Mother Agnes was saying, Madre Inez I mean. She was the last person you would have expected to end up in Puerto Maldonado, one of the poorer sections of Peru, surrounded by jungle on every side. Twenty hours by bus from Cuzco and most of those on dirt roads, jungle on every side. I think she grew up on a farm in Iowa.

She’s birdlike, frail-looking, pointy-chinned. I had been there for two months before I started to suspect either her great tenderness or her great strength, because everything about her is so ordinary and small.

I went to Peru for discernment and healing, but also, let’s face it, looking for excitement and adventure and really wild things.1 Mother Agnes wasn’t what I had in mind.

The order had just moved from to this place from a suburb of Lima, and they were looking for somewhere to build their new home. The “heart’s desire” she was talking about was all around us: everything green, rainforest-green, the wind bending the trees but somehow making everything seem more still. She said living in a place like this was what she had always wanted.

In terms of vocation, she seemed like a contradiction. When I think of someone who’s meant to leave their home country to confront poverty and disease of body and soul, I don’t think of Mother Agnes. If vocation is God fitting you for a certain life, wouldn’t he have made her strong, brazen, robust? Maybe even a little swarthy? Maybe he could have given her a better ear for languages, too — her Spanish, after five years in the country, was worse than mine.

But there she was in Peru, talking about her heart’s desire, smiling bigger than you would believe.

Vocation has everything to do with desire, but not always how you’d think. A priest’s vocation to the celibate life doesn’t consist in not fancying marriage. Rather the opposite. I suspect that every true vocation means giving up something you care deeply about.2

But there’s desire, and then there’s Desire. I think so often about what I want — companionship, intimacy, pleasure — and those things are true and good, those things are worth wanting, but it’s not the deepest kind of desire.

Here’s another contradiction: desire takes work.

There’s a beautiful Buddhist3 story that my mother once told me. A young man goes to a Zen master and says he wants to see God. The Master takes him to a lake and says, Okay, kneel down. So they both kneel down by the lake. Then the Master grabs the young man’s head and shoves it under the water.

He’s pretty strong for an old man! He holds him there, notwithstanding the poor guy’s increasingly desperate struggles. Finally, after a good minute or so, he lets him up. When he does — the guy is gasping and spluttering, can’t believe that a great sage would do something like that — the Master says: “You want to see God? When you want to see him as badly as you wanted to breathe ten seconds ago — that’s when you’ll see him.”

Desire takes strength. Desire takes patience. Desire isn’t what you want at the moment. It’s what your whole heart wants. If only you can bear to cut away all the dead wood, or let it be cut away. If only you will listen.

1 Ten points if you know who I’m quoting, and how many heads he has.
2 See Eliot’s Little Gidding: “A condition of complete simplicity / (Costing not less than everything)”.
3 Okay, so I don’t know whether this is actually a Buddhist story, or makes any kind of sense in a Buddhist context. Whaddaya want, I don’t know from Buddhism. But stet, because it’s a hell of a story.

This morning I found these in my inbox:


These are CFRs, as in “the Community of the Franciscans of the Renewal.” They’re an order founded by Fr. Benedict Groeschel, among others. They work with the poor, but also they are the poor. I always think that if St. Francis were starting today, this is what it would look like. I don’t think I’ve seen a picture of CFRs where at least one of them wasn’t grinning, which is the way it should be.

It reminded me of my own time spent among religious brothers and sisters. I spent three months in Peru back in ’08, not doing much besides sweeping, cooking, praying, and studying Spanish. Three hours of Adoration a day! It was as close to Heaven as I’ve been.

After I returned to the US, I was still coasting on that tremendous infusion, still living like a saint, or anyway trying to, which comes to the same thing. It took a while to wear off, but wear off it did.

Why did it wear off? That’s easy to answer. I stopped spending three hours in prayer every day, stopped going to daily Mass, and stopped living among people who saw themselves as walking, every moment, in the presence of God. I stopped seeing every human encounter as an encounter with the living God, and as an opportunity to bring more of His love into the world.

It’s hard to live like that!1 My tendency is always to fall asleep, to disappear into the routine, to put on the autopilot. Over and over I’m infused with grace, over and over it leaches out again. I’m like a sieve, or maybe a tire with a slow leak.

All day, since seeing those pictures, I’ve been hearing this phrase: Where is your treasure?2 He’s knocking. He wants me back.

1 Although possibly easier than the alternative, which is: not living like that.
2 As in Matthew 6:21.