Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Pilgrim's Progress: Holy Spaces and Shrines etc

The gap between this post and the previous one has been filled with the minutiae of preparation, moments of joy at reconnecting with old friends because I asked them for money and thinking about the place at the end of the pilgrimage.

Pilgrims travel to shrines, holy places. I can recognize at least three places in my travels that echoed with holiness for me. I think two were hallowed by prayer; two were hollowed out by suffering to be filled up with prayer. The two most obvious were the 15th century Convent of San Marco in Florence and the pre-1959 parts of Lhasa. The Convent of San Marco is a monastery decorated with Fra Angelico's murals in the cells. My friend Marge and I looked at them in awe but wondered how the monks could see the murals with only candlelight. What an unbelievable luxury to have these almost invisible devotions. Marge turned and pointed to circular openings in the wall above the door. Once a day, the sunlight would pour through the opening to illuminate the mural. Suffering maybe not but light and prayer filling the space, certainly.

Lhasa is the center of the Tibetan Buddhist world, the suffering submerged in glancing references to before 1959. There were few Chinese visible but there were surveillance cameras in the market and high posts. The ancient tiny pilgrims performed prostrations like inchworms around the sacred circuit. Giant prayer wheels spun slowly as yak butter votive lamps burned throughout the temples. (My clothes reeked of yak butter after I left.) Both ancient and endless prayer and more recent suffering and loss. In spite of everything, there was a deep peace in Lhasa.

The mystifying holy place was a building I entered on the Plaza Bolivar in Cartagena Colombia. I noticed a plaque by the door but didn't stop to read it. I just wanted to get out the sun. Like many Latin buildings, it was built around a central courtyard filled with lush tropical plants, even trees. I climbed to the third floor and leaned on the railing over the courtyard. It was shady and deeply peaceful. I stayed resting in the quiet and the coolness. I had the same sensation I had had in old European cloisters... much prayer and contemplation. When I finally left, I read the plaque. To my consternation, it read El Palacio de la Inquisicion. I had forgotten that the Spaniards brought the Inquisition with them to New Spain and logically, the center would have been in the first royal port. All I can think is that the suffering of those souls ultimately became peace.

I wonder how Lui will feel. The people suffered a great deal during the civil war and yet by all accounts their faith is strong and vibrant. Mike Kinman pointed out in his Good Friday sermon that the cross is the safest place to be because the worst has already happened. Once the worst has happened, the joy of the resurrection follows. Perhaps Lui has already experienced the cross....


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pilgrim's Progress: Progress

Setting out a pilgrimage brings to mind the hobbits' wrenched away from the comforts of their hobbit hole and the prologue to the Canterbury Tales where Chaucer describes the urge to go on pilgrimages, often seeking far off shrines caused by April showers, a sort of spiritual spring fever. And yet, all of them heard a call to leave their homes for the open road which in the Middle Ages could constitute high adventure.

As I think about why I am going to Lui, I think about the other times I have felt a cosmic nudge, sometimes a vague suggestion, sometimes a push. Often it would come from unexpected quarters. It would seem unusual or even outlandish. It was very often expensive and at least half of my friends would question it seriously. And so would I. But during my adventure in cancerland, I learned early to follow those nudges, those whispers of something different from the usual.

A couple of examples:

Leafing through ELLE magazine post-diagnosis ( yes, the fashion magazine) I saw a little blurb about a multi-disciplinary practice for breast cancer patients in Malibu. I was going to Malibu to visit Susan Klein anyway so I called them up. The joint practice included a double doc who was a psychiatrist, a fitness trainer, and a PhD chiropractor nutritionist. Among the three they recommended therapy, weightlifting and a 10% or less fat diet and a regimen of vitamins. It took several months for me to implement all the suggestions. Ultimately they became part of the framework which helped save my life. The consult cost me $500.

The next adventure was a weekend of pancha karma at an AyurVedic clinic which I had read about in Deepak Chopra's books. Once again it was expensive, outlandish to some friends and long distance ...Lancaster MA. I flew into Boston where my brother-in-law picked me up and we drove through gray drizzly March weather to central Massachusetts. As he stopped the car, I said, "Look, if there's an electric blue statue of Shiva in the foyer, I'll be back out. Wait for me to give the high sign." There wasn't and once again I discovered that the nudge had led me onto another path for healing.

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on...

When Stephen Dokolo described the children in his school weeping quietly from thirst, I remembered being taught about the signs of hunger among my class in the school in Roxbury. Hunger, yes. Thirst, no. If children are hungry in the morning, it isn't just they didn't eat breakfast: they likely had no evening meal either. School lunches were the only food they could count on. I felt as if I were back at the beginning of my teaching career. Even further back to the puesto de leche in Barrio Los Olivos where malnourished children were given a super enriched milk product to enrich their diet. Then Stephen asked me when I was coming to Lui and I felt that nudge again.

All the familiar hallmarks: unusual, expensive (although contributions will fund most of it), unexpected (believe me south Sudan was not on my Africa list. Egypt, yes; the Dogon dwellings in Mali, yes; the Masai Mara, yes; a photographic safari, yes) and many of my friends are questioning the whole idea. And then this morning in Forward Day by Day, I found this, "We are to take counterintuitive, costly, joyous steps toward God's new order of life in and through our faith, hope, and love." Amen.

There is now a well on the grounds of Fraser Cathedral so the children have water to drink.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pilgrim's Progress: Eureka!

Eureka! I'm a blogger. I never thought I'd blog but then I never thought I would be a missionary, either. (Thank you, Beth, for holding my hand through the set-up.)

Throughout most of my life, even during periods I considered pretty interesting, I never kept journals. No journaling during my two years in Venezuela as a community organizer in the slums of Maracaibo and Maracay, not on the trip back by bus through Colombia, Central America and Mexico. No journaling during my nine months of high dose chemo and the bone marrow transplant although it was recommended as therapy. I was living through it all and swearing I would remember every vivid detail. And it didn't occur to me that anyone would be interested in reading them. So no journals of either journey and there are definite parallels.

During the Cathedral fish fry supper, I discovered that people had read LuiNotes and were interested and pleased to have done so. Hmmm!
I read Lisa's and parts of Mike's, chuckling about the extended discussions of the "toilet facilities" and their surprise at it becoming an easy topic of conversation. (All the volunteers in Maracay ate at the same pension, lots of cheap food, beer and flush toilets. As we shoveled in pasta and drank beer with Fanta orange, we discussed the condition of our bowels. The nearest north American doctor was in Caracas so we needed to take care of each other. We weren't missionaries but recent college graduates who believed JFK and went out to help save the world.)

I was really moved by Mike's account of the welcome they received and Mamma Jarusa's funeral. It will be very different for me to be in a deeply Christian third world community. Barrio Los Olivos had been formed by land invasion of the municipal garbage dump. The first time I saw it people were putting up shacks in spite of the burning garbage. We had to pay a priest to say Mass on Mother's Day and bring him to the barrio in our truck. I occasionally baptized babies dying of gastroenteritis because I was one of the few people there who was sure I had been baptized (and because I was the resident gringa.) The people were Roman Catholics but there were no priests. So I look forward to seeing Stephen Dokolo again and the looks on the faces of the priests who will receive the bicycles paid for by the Trinity children's bake sale. They will use them to tend their flocks. And thank God for them and their faith.

I thought maybe people might be interested in what occurs to me as I prepare for the trip to Lui. I keep thinking of the line attributed to Sir Walter Ralegh (yes, that Sir Walter Ralegh: "Give me my scallop shell of quiet" from a poem titled "The Passionate Pilgrim..." So far it's been anything but quiet but I'm holding the image of all those medieval pilgrims trekking to Canterbury and to Santiago de Compostela and of John Bunyan's pilgrim in my heart and mind.
Please pray for me.

M. Seager April 16, 2009©