Saturday, October 19, 2019

Words for My Aunt

Note: Joan Kuziemko, my mother’s sister, died on Wednesday, Oct. 16, at Flushing Hospital at the age of 73. She lived in Elmhurst, N.Y., all her adult life. She never married and never had a family of her own. She worked in the billing department at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan until it closed in 2010. She enjoyed traveling, going on cruises, and watching horse racing. She could make dolls and was crafty in other ways. She was also a very thoughtful gift giver at holidays. I wish she could have had more life in her life, being alone and independent as she was always. But I hope she will be received into the heavenly banquet and find a comfortable place for herself now.

“Dancing with the angels” is a great image for the kingdom of God. As it happens, Aunt Joannie had drop foot and back and leg problems that slowly invalided her in the last five years of her life. I hope that in the new creation, in the resurrection, she can move as freely as she wishes.

Thanks as always, dear readers, for your prayers and loving concern. It always fills me with consolation and encouragement. The following are some thoughts that came to mind on the day before Joannie’s funeral.

Words for Joan Kuziemko (July 2, 1946—October 16, 2019)

You may recall one of the miracle stories in the Gospels where Jesus heals a paralytic. This is the event where Jesus shows that he can forgive sins because he can make a person who is paralyzed stand up, pick up his mat, and walk.

This episode tells us good news about God, namely, that the God who made us also saves us from our wrongs and both sustains and renews our very life, in body and soul and spirit. But this episode also tells us something about ourselves. It tells us that through our faith, God’s grace can move us out of the paralysis that comes over us when we are stuck in our sin. This gives us grounds for hope, both for ourselves gathered here today, and also for Aunt Joannie, whom we ask God to gather into the heavenly cloud of witnesses.

All of us are aware of the real paralysis that came over Joannie’s body in the last years of her life. And all of us regret that she could not overcome another, deeper paralysis, a paralysis of spirit, perhaps, that kept her from asking for more help to stand up, to pick up her mat, and walk again and live. But it is hard to do that, I know, to surrender control and put your trust in others, to put your trust in God. How hard it is to dare to tear a hole in the roof and lower ourselves, to set ourselves before Jesus in God’s house.

Aunt Joannie’s paralysis was not unique. We all suffer some paralysis of the spirit. We lack courage, we lack hope, we lack faith.

But it’s never too late to change. We believe in the resurrection of the body. We believe Christ is risen. So let us put our faith in God through the risen Christ, once again. Let us dare once again to love one another. Let us show by our good works the faith we desire, until we can hear the voice of the Risen One say to us, as he says today to Joannie from paradise, “My child, your sins are forgiven. You are forgiven.”

West Babylon, N.Y., October 18, 2019 (Feast of Saint Luke)

Monday, August 12, 2019

Buen Pastor

“In green pastures he makes me lie down; to still waters he leads me” (Psalms 23:2).

Another very short post after the conclusion of a gentle, graceful day coming back into myself here in the United States, in New York City, in my own Capuchin community. 

Morning prayer in the friar chapel at Saint Michael Friary in East New York, Brooklyn; Mass with Father Alexis, the priest with Instituto del Verbo Encarnado; and conversation over pick-up breakfast. Spent the day catching up with family, friends, friars, and colleagues over e-mail and phone (how nice to use my cell phone again!). Brothers Terry, Gerard, and Richard took me out to a Szechuan restaurant in Howard Beach, and we enjoyed ourselves very much. Returned less than two hours ago to Good Shepherd with a ride from Brother Terry. Father Royson, the guardian here, received me fraternally, and now I am settled in, typing from my room at the corner of Isham Street and Cooper Street, with Isham Park just out my window and the foot of Inwood Hill Park only one block north.

The Good Shepherd has guided me along right paths. The Good Shepherd has restored my soul. 

Here I am. I have arrived. The Bolivian journey is over.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Nueva York

Touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport at 7:25 p.m. this evening. Processing through customs was rapid. Brother Terry, one of the Capuchins who lives in Brooklyn, took me to Saint Michael Friary to stay for the night. Raided the refrigerator. Over delicious leftover asparagus and orzo I practiced Spanish with Brother Terry and another guest here, Father Alexis, who belongs to Instituto del Verbo Encarnado, a missionary order. And I was relaxed enough that the words were there. It worked! Full stomach, full heart. And I am back in the United States. I am ridiculously happy.

Saturday, August 10, 2019


Ninety-nine percent of my belongings are packed away now, ready for the 4,000-mile journey ahead. Cochabamba to La Paz to Bogotá to New York. Only about eight hours and a few more tasks to fulfill before going to the airport to begin the day-long transit back to New York. Twenty-two hours? That’s nothing anymore. When you’ve had as many sleepless nights as I have had here, the diversions of an airport terminal actually look pretty good now. And it breaks down pretty evenly: 11 hours in the air, 11 hours of layover at the La Paz and Bogotá airports. Provided my aches and pains don’t suddenly get worse in the high altitude of La Paz, the travel should be a welcome diversion. 

I went to the post office this morning with Brother Leo to see what was waiting in Casilla 68. You know you’ve been someplace too long when the junk mail catches up with you. But catch up with me it did—and Boston University, my alma mater, is the culprit! Specifically, it was the university development office, with a postcard trying to lure me to alumni weekend—as if touting the biggest weekend ever appeals to everyone—and a bulletin on its fundraising campaigns. Sorry, folks—you’re tapping the wrong tree. Fortunately, I also received the magazine of Boston University School of Theology. That is not junk. The rest of it was real personal mail. I believe that everything everyone said they sent me is in my possession now. And all of it is going back to the States with me. Thank you for sharing yourself with me through your correspondences.

Brother Leo will also bring me to the airport this evening. He has done absolutely everything I have ever asked him. I vote that we make our Franciscan cousin an honorary Capuchin. 

As for my health, I am moving forward gingerly. I have been so cautious about eating, although the runs stopped on Wednesday. I will have a little lunch and a little dinner before I go to the airport. One does not live on liquids and soda crackers alone. I’ll tidy up Room 4, my inner sanctuary for six months, a little more, including the bathroom and bed. 

Am I ready to go? As sure as I’m born. But it won’t feel real until I board the flight from La Paz to Bogotá and leave the country. 

Am I ready to go? I took a walk through the cloister garden this morning. I stopped over at the fountain in the center. For a few days, the pool has been empty. The brothers have drained it and moved the fish into a tub receiving aeration. I take this as a sign. When I arrived here the cloister garden was full, lush, even overgrown. Everything was vivid. Lots of flowers. Trees bearing fruit. And the fountain was flowing. It was summer. Now it is winter, and the garden has been pruned back considerably, the flowers are gone except on the trellises, the trees and bushes are much shorter and bare of fruit. The grass is still green, but patches of brown have outed themselves. Everything is dry, so dry. Finally, the fountain had to go dry. Rather much like the condition of my spirit at this late hour. Things change. They grow for a while, then they retreat until the cycle turns again. 

There is a time and a season for everything under heaven. 

With these words ends the last post to be written from Bolivia. This book is almost closed. I will post to confirm that I am safely in New York. Whether I post one final entry after that to wrap up this blog about my immersion experience, I don’t know. It may not be fitting to have a summary statement for a form of writing that is episodic by nature. A blog is a blog, after all.

Friday, August 9, 2019

Ceremonia de Graduación

I am splitting today’s entry into two so that I can give special attention to the despedida ceremony that took place during the midmorning café in the main salon at Maryknoll.

Four of us finished our studies today: Padre Antonio, the archdiocesan priest from New York; Maryknoll seminarians Joshua and Charles; and me. Each departing student shares a few words with the entire Maryknoll community. Then each student receives a certificate of completion of courses, a sermon reflection on Pentecost, a small wooden cross and a prayer card blessed by Padre Alejandro, the mission center director, and a Maryknoll polo shirt. Of course, you also get embraces and applause for your work. 

Padre Antonio spoke first; I was next. Here are the remarks I delivered. 

Me gustaría expresarme con los sentimientos los más sinceros hacia todos en la comunidad de Maryknoll. Es duro hacerlo en español. Yo no tengo ni la elocuencia ni la precisión como en inglés. Entonces he escrito un poema para compartir mi historia. 

Llegué aquí como hermano desconocido
Respondiendo a la llamada del Dios escondido.
El don de lenguas ardientemente quería
Más que el profundizaje del don de profecía.
Sobretodo el amor me encontró y me sumergió
En aguas tan hondo—dime, ¿Quién surgió?
Mi espíritu ha sentido seco y enfermo;
He buscado un renacimiento en el yermo.
Yo he ido a los fines de Bolivia
Para encender un fuego en mi alma tibia.
Me has enseñado, esperando conmigo
Partiendo el pan de lo más fine del trigo. 
Me has llevado a la cima del mundo
Y de vuelta al suelo sagrado fecundo.
¿Qué ha significado todo esto? ¿Lo qué sigue?
Con el amor, cuanto más da, más consigue.
Pero cómo amar casi he olvidado
Rechazando la vida que Dios me ha dado.
No podia dormir por la pasión que me habia consumido.
Todo lo que tenia dar estaba casi perdido.
Pero he vivido para darme cuenta
De que el sacrificio del amor el mismo aumenta.
Entregado a Dios, en Cristo escondido,
Salgo de aquí hacia un futuro desconocido.

Espero que este poema me haya revelado. No ha sido fácil revelarme en español para ustedes. No me reconozco tan bien como ayer. Es mejor decir que yo me reconoce menos. ¿Quién soy? La respuesta es menos cierta que en el pasado. ¿Quién soy? ¿Quién es Dios? ¿Qué quiere Dios que haga? ¿A dónde quiere Dios enviarme? No sé las respuestas de estas preguntas. Dios me ha puesto en un lugar de desconocimiento. Vine a este lugar desconocido, y ahora volveré a los Estados Unidos para enfrentar un futuro desconocido. ¿Estoy agradecido? En verdad, estoy lleno de curiosidad. ¿Qué está haciendo Dios? No sé. Sin embargo, Dios les ha hecho a ustedes conspiradores en esta actividad misteriosa. Lo que Dios ha hecho, lo sucedió. En vez de decir “gracias,” diré “Amen.” No entiendo todo lo que ocurrió. A pesar de todo, diré “Amen.” Hágase tu voluntad. Hágase tu voluntad. Amen. Amen. 

The community applauded, and a couple of teachers asked for a copy of the poem I had written.

Charles spoke feelingly and with abundant thanksgiving for his experiences in language immersion. Joshua, my old classmate, topped all of us with a song dedicated to every teacher and administrator in the language program. He told me later how nervous he was to perform, but I answer, “Well done, compañero.” 

Padre Alejandro took a few moments to synthesize for the community the meaning of our language immersion for our respective ministerial calls. In my case he called attention to my ongoing work in urban parochial ministry and my desire both to help integrate a culturally diverse parish and be a witness to the cry of the poor in the voice of undocumented immigrants of the United States. 

Señora Kitty concluded with what is her most common refrain. She told each of us that Maryknoll is a community, a family, and that we always belong to it. As I was listening to her speaking, I looked across the salon through the bay windows to the patio outside, where I have spent many a ten-minute recess between classes. I swear I could see a dragonfly darting.

El Sol

This morning after 8 o’clock, the sunshine poured into the bedroom and washed over the bed on which I lay. The rays blanketed me and everything around me with warmth and goodness. I have always been thankful for this moment of blessing, the minute when the angle of the sun, ascending in the east, is in line with my rear window. Usually, I would not get to experience this except on Sundays, when I could sleep in. But this week all bets were off with personal health issues. So I gave myself permission to rise late and arrive at Maryknoll late.

Back to the sun. It is a morning moment like this that I want to remember in midst of the challenging times in Bolivia. It is the same sun that warms all creatures everywhere around the world, each in its turn. It is the same sun whose energy is the source for all power here. It is the same sun that sustains all life on this planet. It lies so far away in unimaginably far skies, but it is close enough to touch us with life. Thanks be to God. 

It is the same sun whose power and light, along with the earth in its fertility, has been revered by peoples of numerous religions. And so we honored the same sun and one earth this morning with a k’oa ritual. Profesora Sara led the ritual for us, walking us through the elements of the ritual. I have written about this Andean practice before, so I won’t break down all the details this time. Rather, let me say that, after spending almost the whole week indoors, it was good to feel the sun on my face and to stroke the soft grass under my feet. (The k’oa is a ritual burnt offering, so we gathered on a knoll in between the mission center and the Maryknoll priests’ house.) It was also an opportunity, in silent prayer, in this offertory, to ask God to grant me the blessing of renewed health and a safe journey back to the United States. In short order we built the mesa; on top of the kindling and a heavy paper sheet, some earth, then varieties of hard sugar confections to symbolize our desires and our prayers, some llama meat, and coca leaves. The fire was lit, and then we continued with the ch’alla. We poured cerveza and chicha at the four corners of the mesa. Profesora Sara reminded me not to turn my back on the sun when making your offering! That is real faith in the power of ritual, friends. Another custom is to take a drink from the chicha cup after you pour libations into the earth. Last time, five months ago, I abstained from drinking chicha, but this time I was looking for healing from all places, so I took a sip to be in communion with Pachamama and with one another. 

I went to Mass one final time at the Maryknoll chapel after that. While taking my turn to drink from the communion cup, it felt like a continuation of the k’oa for me. Before the dismissal, the Korean priests, Antonio, Esteban, and Pablo, all laid hands in turn to send me God’s blessing for the journey and to give thanks for my presence here. 

As I conclude this post, the sun is heating the front window of my bedroom. For the next hour it will give my room a good glow. The day has come full circle. The journey has almost come full circle.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Por Favor

From prayer to prayer of abjection, we go. 

Dear God, help me. Ease the pain. Turn weakness into strength. Make your healing happen. It is hard to call on you when I feel weak. But I will call on you anyway. Heal the aches and pains. Calm the body, which is tense. Make the body you made well. I need your help. On top of all human assistance, I need your help. Dear God, help me now. 

How my head ached this morning! It still aches. My body feels stiff, almost sore. I don’t drink alcohol, but maybe this is what a hangover feels like. It must be the hunger and lack of sleep. Maybe the antibiotic is making me feel weak and achy, as well. 

So I ask you, dear God, for mercy. I ask Jesus for mercy. I ask the Spirit for mercy. I depend on your love and mercy. So please make me well. Help me get up off this bed of pain. The journey is almost over. Help me rise and let me be on my way. 

Sometimes you have to know when to give it up, when to surrender. Today is a day where I reached a physical limit beyond which I just could not cross. I went to Maryknoll. I tried to be present to do the exit interview with Señora Kitty. But it was clear that I was too weak, I could not think, and my head kept throbbing. Señora Kitty told me that it was all right. I did not have to take the exam interview now. I could do the interview later over Skype with one of the teachers. The only important thing now was to rest, rest, rest, in any way possible. (I got a nap, at last, this afternoon.) After a conversation with Profesora Viviana, I agreed that I cannot go forward like this, and we can postpone the interview. Sometimes you have to know when to give it a rest. 

It is funny that I would have considered having the assessment interview on the day when I felt my worst ever in Bolivia. I was reminded, gently, that the well-being of the person is always more important. It is no good to push yourself beyond the limit when there is nothing left beyond that limit point. 

Where this leaves everything on Friday is unclear. I would like to go to Maryknoll. I would like to share the words of parting that I wrote for the occasion. I would like to be present at the midday celebration of Mass in the chapel. It is only one more day. But, dear God, it was so hard to get up and do anything this morning. So I say again, please help me through these final days until I am back safely in the United States. Please grant me that favor. I hope for a sound body for travel. Help me make it through this night and Friday night and the travel weekend. 

These things I ask in your holy name. These things I ask in your Son’s holy name. These things I ask in the name of the Holy Spirit. 

I know the simplest prayer is “Thank you.” But a more honest though inarticulate prayer is the word “please.”