Sunday, June 30, 2019

Fotos de Uyuni

I would like to supplement my chronicle of Uyuni with photos. I received several from Grace. Here they are, as promised.

To give you a full and well-rounded picture of the tour, I am providing links to the following points of interest. This list corresponds roughly to the three-day tour.

Toñito Hotel: bedroom, interior

Uyuni Cathedral: interior

Andes Salt Expeditions, the travel agency

Train Graveyard


Salar de Uyuni: lots of photos exist on the web. Go exploring!

Flags at pavilion

Isla Incahuasi

A typical salt hotel

Many photos of the lagoons of Potosí can be found on the web.

Laguna Cañapa

Laguna Hedionda

Laguna Honda

Laguna Colorada (and many more photos)

Andean flamingos

Laguna Negra

Eduardo Avaroa Wildlife Reserve: geysers, hot springs

Salvador Dalí Desert

San Cristobal

Hotel Beliz

Joya Andina Airport, Uyuni

Apologies ahead of time if any of these hyperlinks fail you!

Las Niñas

The sky is blue and the sun is shining, but for me it is a downbeat day. 

I have returned from my final visit to Nuestra Casa, the girls’ shelter. Do you know what it feels like to be unneeded and unwanted? Of course you do; that is the human condition. I am standing back now and regarding the last three months of visits to the girls as an unspectacular failure to communicate. This impression pressed itself as far as it needed to go this morning, as I read two more witches’ stories to a captive and totally uninterested audience. I do not know much Spanish, but I think I know body language. All the heads down or turned away, all the murmuring between this pair or that pair of girls, all the fidgeting with clothing, all the playing with other objects, said enough to me. The girls’ distraction was their way of giving me a one-way ticket back to Convento San Francisco. 

It’s nobody’s fault; it’s everybody’s fault. The girls did not pay attention; maybe they just cannot pay attention. Maybe it is just not fitting for a middle-aged man to volunteer at a place where girls have found refuge from just that cohort of victimizers. Sometimes you just cannot connect with certain people; not the right people, not the right place, not the right time. I am remembering a cardinal rule of ministry, which is that your passion should meet the needs of others. Well, I understood the rightness of being with the youngest survivors of violence against females. But the good that I wanted to do for them did not come out right through the heart. So they were indifferent to my being there, and I could not change that reality. They neither wanted nor needed me to be one of their companions. Their happiness and their ability to overcome their traumas has been neither helped nor hindered by my being there. 

Perhaps, at the present level of Spanish skill and with my particular set of social skills, I was not up for this challenge. So, what I wrote on the blog as a self-assessment a few weeks ago holds true today. I do not think I am capable of doing pastoral ministry with Spanish-speaking communities as of this moment. Furthermore, I know that I do not wish to work with children or adolescents. (Father Michael and brothers of the provincial council, please take note.) 

So I tried do something more than I could do. It did not work. It is all right. I will simply refocus my attention on the final six weeks of classes to come and not try to do more than I can integrate into my world. It is a consolation that I will not be living in a 24-hour-a-day immersion when I return to New York City. I can step in the cultural space of my Spanish-speaking sisters and brothers, and perhaps I have enough energy to do that on a daily basis for an hour or three. More than that, I cannot do, but I will not have to do more than that. I hope that what God is endowing me with through my training here will be good enough for the ministerial encounters I will have going forward. 

Still, questions remain. I know what I cannot do; I know what I do not want to do. So what can I do, what do I want to do for my Spanish-speaking sisters and brothers in Christ? It is not enough to state the aim negatively. How do we declare the aim positively? What have the girls at Nuestra Casa taught me about myself, about the human community, about the Holy Spirit and its activity?

Saturday, June 29, 2019


It is one solemnity after another this weekend. Yesterday was the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Today is the celebration of Saints Peter and Paul the apostles. Tomorrow is Sunday, always a holy day for Christians. Wherever you are and whatever you are celebrating, be it birthdays or anniversaries, graduations or ordinations, or even funerals or memorials, may the one God living and true be with you in all things. 

Speaking of celebrations, I hope there will be one or more gatherings to join next week on Thursday, July 4, the birthday of my country. It may be with the Maryknoll community, it may be with the local Mennonite community. We will see what takes shape next week. 

Today, I am celebrating the arrival of mail. It is the second time this month I have been blessed with letters or postcards. Ironically, just after my screed against the Bolivian post office at the beginning of this month, the agency came through. And this morning’s visit to the post office brought more gifts. In all, a dozen pieces of mail received this month. And I know there is more still on the way. For those of you who sent me something, anything, in April or May, be patient, because it may get here in the final six weeks of my stay in Cochabamba. To the rest of you, I repeat my advice to refrain from sending any more mail to Convento San Francisco. Better to send your messages to Good Shepherd Friary in New York City. Thank you, everyone. 

It is quiet here at the convent. The winter recess continues. Six of the nine student friars are away in other cities for their pastoral ministries for two more weeks. The present company of friars fits around one of the refectory tables; no need to set two tables. I am enjoying the vacancy of the convent—it conduces well to solitude. The only thing that would increase the tranquility is to send Carmelo on a canine retreat! 

Now, waiting for clothing to dry and warm in the sun over the cancha. Some writing in the spiritual journal as well. I will finish Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and begin, for the second time, Michael Crosby’s Spirituality of the Beatitudes. I may be ambitious and clean my room again! I have rehearsed reading aloud more of the witches’ stories that I will share tomorrow with the girls at Nuestra Casa.

Friday, June 28, 2019


Today concluded the current six-week term of classes at Maryknoll. Next week begins a new term. I am rounding third base and heading for home! 

During the mid-morning break, the mission center staff celebrated the anniversary of the founding of Maryknoll. Two diocesan priests from the United States, Fr. Thomas F. Price and Fr. James A. Walsh, and one woman, Sr. Mary Joseph Rogers, established the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America after receiving permission from Pope St. Pius X on June 29, 1911. They eventually set up their headquarters near Ossining, N.Y., on a hill they named Maryknoll in honor of the Blessed Mother. Maryknoll consists of a society of priests and brothers, a religious institute of women, an organization of lay missioners, and an organization of lay affiliates. These four groups work cooperatively in global mission that today focuses on Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The society publishes a magazine and founded Orbis Books, which has popularized liberation theology in the United States and around the world. All the students and volunteers gathered with the staff of the mission center as Padre Alejandro, the director, recited the history of Maryknoll, Father Ken offered a benediction to everyone, and I shared fist bumps with seminarians Joshua and Charles. We were reminded that, whether we minister in our homeland or another country, we are all commissioned, by virtue of our baptism, to be witnesses to Christ and to live the Good News in a way that brings the peace and justice of the reign of God to communities everywhere. Thus every sister and brother in Christ has a missionary mandate, whether as a layperson or a member of a religious community or a priest.

It was good to recall this on the eve of another anniversary that comes close to home. The Capuchin friars of New York and New England celebrate the patronal feast of their province tomorrow. We are the Province of St. Mary, and we observe our feast day on the memorial of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which is the second Saturday after Pentecost. Our community traces its ancestry to the founding of the first permanent Capuchin mission in the United States in 1857. Our province extended from New York and New England through the Midwest to Montana until this vast territory was partitioned in 1952. The Midwest Province was rechristened in honor of Saint Joseph, and the New York-New England territory was rechristened in honor of Mary Immaculate. A relatively complete history of the Capuchins of the Midwest to the present day exists. One day someone will produce a chronicle of the New York-New England Capuchins covering the last 70 yearsof our mission! 

At Maryknoll, everyone who wasn’t a vegetarian snacked on salteñas. (I am still waiting for some culinary genius to perfect a salteña stuffed with a stew of seitan or tofu.) We also bade farewell to Brett, who finished his classes today and will return to Boston College to resume his theological studies en route to ordination. Brother Scott, who also attends the School of Theology and Ministry there, will be one of his compañeros. And whenever I pay a visit to Beantown, I will be sure to look up my Jesuit friend in the Lord, and we will find another nice Italian restaurant to patronize.

Thursday, June 27, 2019


Now that I have told my tale of Uyuni, I can backtrack briefly through the week that has been, so far:

A return to routine: classes at Maryknoll in the morning, homework and self-directed study in the afternoon, prayer and Eucharist and conviviality with the Franciscan friars in the evening. And blogging, always blogging. 

With regard to studies: in the first two class periods Profesor Osvaldo has been taking his time, carefully and patiently explaining the nuances of past, present, and future in Spanish grammar in the indicative, subjunctive, and conditional sense. He is an expert time-traveler, grammatically speaking! As for me, I’m getting a little time-warped. But it is all right: I understand the majority of what I am receiving and practicing about half of it correctly. The rest will come, eventually: all in good time. 

In the latter two periods I work out my conversational skills with Profesora Sara. I have been giving her lessons in the sacraments, church history, and the Franciscan movement. I have also been describing my ministry and the parish where I work, Church of the Good Shepherd. Today the two of us paused for a field trip to Casona Mayorazgo, an historic Spanish colonial-style house whose salons had furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries. Other salons in this heritage site had exhibits of masks from Carnaval de Oruro; battle maps from the time of the Bolivian revolution; early modern photography of Cochabamba; and, finally, modern art to protest feminicide in Bolivia. 

Yesterday we all paused for the weekly cultural conference; this one focused on the Bolivian elections coming up in October. The presenter, Jose Luis Lopez, coordinator of the Mission Formation Program here, framed the elections as a referendum on the constitutionality of Evo Morales’ bid for a third term and a referendum on the socialist program of economic development Morales has executed since 2005. My take on all this is that the socialist reforms have done the country good and should be continued. However, Morales is not acting like a good democrat by defying the will of the majority, who declared in a February 2017 referendum that the Bolivian constitution, which limits the occupant of the presidency to two terms, should be honored. Bolivia may have socialism, but it has a longer road to go to get to a more perfect democratic socialism. 

Tomorrow is Friday, the last day of this six-week course at Maryknoll. It is the end of the third quarter, academically speaking. On Monday I will begin my fourth and final six-week course at the mission center. I have expressed to Señora Kitty an interest in skipping ahead in the intermediate textbook to the units on Guatemala and El Salvador. (Each unit of the textbook focuses on a different country in Latin America.) Rewarding as it has been to learn about Argentina and Chile, it is way more relevant to my current and future ministry prospects to engage with the culture and people of Central America, whose mothers, children, and fathers are dying to escape the lethal poverty and gang violence and narco-trafficking of their homelands. (Surely you have seen the shocking photo of a drowned Salvadorean father and child recovered from Rio Bravo in Mexico.) Against all odds, many Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States have made it to New York and New England. Thus my sights turn to north of the equator. With respect to the curriculum, I do not want to skip any of the grammar lessons in between, but I do want to bypass Chile and Peru and make haste for Guatemala and El Salvador. We will see what happens. Anything is possible: new classmate (or none, if I go solo), new class schedule (afternoon is still an option). Who knows! 

Now, to say evening prayer early. Brother Scott and I are spending time this evening with Brett, a Jesuit who is concluding his six weeks of study at Maryknoll tomorrow. We are going to La Cantonata, an Italian restaurant nearby Convento San Francisco, one block south of Plaza Colon. We can’t wait to try the best Italian food, Bolivian style, in Cochabamba!

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Uyuni (3)

We will close this short travelogue with a chapter on last Saturday and an epilogue on last Sunday.

On the day of Frankie the guide’s birthday, we had a pancake breakfast at seven-thirty and left the cabin by the hot springs a little after eight o’clock. We veered from the scheduled destination of Laguna Verde by the Chilean border and opted instead for Laguna Negra on our way back to the town of Uyuni. Frankie advised against Laguna Verde because its surface had iced over, obscuring the green coloring it derives from high concentrations of lead, sulfur, and calcium carbonate. So we missed out on this sight as well as that of the Licancabur Volcano that rises 5,960 meters behind the lagoon and is said to have sheltered an Inca crypt at its summit. 

It took a while to get to Laguna Negra, and we stopped first in the Salvador Dalí Desert, whose landscape was indeed reminiscent of the surrealist painter’s visions, though he never stepped a foot in this namesake wilderness. Truly, many of the panoramas we beheld conjured up for me kindred works by Dalí or René Magritte and other contemporary artists like Roger Dean. I never thought that what was surreal could be real somewhere! It is, here in the wilderness of the department of Potosí, in Uyuni. 

When we reached the edge of Laguna Negra, we left the Toyota Land Cruiser and walked over semi-dry marsh, then hiked up some outcroppings to the cliffs overlooking the lagoon; in all, 20 minutes. Then we exulted in the gorgeous water, black in color for the earth at the bottom of the lagoon. As he did before, Frankie pointed out the dimensions of the lagoon, the altitude where we were, and the mineral deposits that could be seen as salts on the banks of the lagoon. After 15 minutes surveying all we could see from the heights, we descended to the ground and had one final group photo before the lagoon. (No trick shots this time.) Walking back toward the van, I told Barbara from Slovakia that as lovely as the lagoon was, it was disconcerting to me that there should be so little of it. Surely there was much less marsh and much more water in years past, even during the winter, which is the dry season in Bolivia. My fear is that if anthropocentric climate change continues unabated, lagoons like this will vanish for good, along with grand Lago Poopó and even invincible Lago Titicaca, leaving behind much more of the alien arid landscape that we had been marveling at from the privilege of fully hydrated bodies. 

It was time to return to smooth paths. To the highways we turned and rambled on for the next few hours with the aim of reaching Uyuni by 5 o’clock in the afternoon. We made a final rest stop mid-afternoon in the mining village of San Cristobal, made relatively prosperous by silver, I believe. In another hour and a half we were back in the town of Uyuni and had disembarked in front of the travel agency. We had already given Frankie a birthday serenade on the cliffs overlooking Laguna Negra. Now each of us gave him a tip in gratitude for getting us there and back again safely, for feeding us, as well as for being companionable and affable with his group. 

Feeling justifiably tired and longing for a hot shower to wash the dust out of my hair, eyes, and hands, I went off promptly to Hotel Beliz, a bed-and-breakfast a few blocks south and east from the main street of town. The shower was one of the best I had all year! Having little appetite and a surplus of soda crackers, I simply stayed in the hotel room that evening, munching on crackers and washing them down with the liter of water I had leftover. I prayed a couple of times, read a little, and put out the lights by 9 o’clock. I slept better than I did the previous couple of nights. 

Twelve hours later I was sitting in the terminal at the tiny Uyuni airport. My body was there, but I think my soul already went well before me and was waiting for me in Cochabamba. This expedition was good, but it was also good to be over and to return to Convento San Francisco, my relatively permanent place of rest. The journey was good, but it is also good to return to your own company. I do wish that I could have had several of you with me on this tour. But I guess one goes to the desert to be alone, to be alone with God, and that is what I did last week. And I wish I had more time alone with God in the desert. Something to resolve for the years to come. 

I hope I have been able to show you a little of the glory I saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched in Uyuni. Sometimes I feel I do not concentrate very well on looking and listening. Ah, help me more, Holy Spirit, next time. Reveal the quiet majesty of the Holy One behind, within, and beyond all that exists. Grant me the experience and grant me the meaning and grant me the memory. Help me to find you, dear God, in all things that are bright and beautiful, and let me never take them for granted. Amen.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Uyuni (2)

On to Friday, the second day of the tour. Here we go!

We breakfasted at our hotel, the house built of salt. A simple meal of bread, scrambled eggs, and tea. Our first destination was in the desert flats along a railroad line, where Frankie the guide noted that the railroad connected Salar de Uyuni with Salar de Coipasa to the north. We were also informed of the rich mineral deposits below the flats. There is much more than table salt out here: these grounds are valued for their large reserves of magnesium, sodium, boron, and above all, lithium, the element integral to batteries and all manner of consumer electronics. I read an article in National Geographic in January about the Bolivian government’s desperation to upscale lithium extraction from its salt flats in the hope of powering up the economy. I could not help but wonder, as we left the flats, whether future generations would be able to enjoy the untrammelled landscapes we saw, and what effect lithium mining would have on the environment. 

If Thursday was the day of the salt flats, Friday was the day of the lagoons. We trekked all day in pursuit of the Red Lagoon (Laguna Colorada) while stopping at other lagoons on the way. First was Laguna Cañapa, followed by Laguna Hedionda before lunchtime. At both wetlands we met flocks of flamingos. In the words of our travel agency: “To see these pink posers strutting through icy mineral lagoons at 5,000 meters will make you abandon timeworn associations between flamingos, coconut palms and hot steamy tropics.” Indeed. After lunch we encountered a heart-shaped lagoon, Laguna Hona. During the afternoon we passed through the Siloli Desert. On this route we beheld dreamlike landscapes, seeing multi-colored mountains of volcanic rock. Here in the Altiplano we ascended to a height of nearly 5,000 meters. We paused along the mountain road to gawk at rabbit-like critters crawling in and out of cracks in the rocky walls. We also made a pilgrimage to Piedra de Arbol, a treelike outcrop standing among much taller nondescript outcroppings that were begging to be climbed (and which Frankie begged us to be careful around). 

We were now entering Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa, a massive wildlife reserve you could drive through for hours. True to Frankie’s word, we reached Laguna Colorada in the mid-afternoon. At every stop Frankie gave us an update of our altitude and other parameters. For example, Laguna Colorada rests at an altitude of 4,278 meters and covers an area of 60 square kilometers. He told us that the rich red hue of the lagoon comes from algae and plankton, which thrive in its minerals. Its shoreline, like the other lagoons, is fringed with brilliant white deposits of sodium, magnesium, borax, and gypsum. Once again, seeing was deceiving: was it ice, was it snow, was it salt? You never could tell. Bird lovers rejoiced at finding not one but three species of flamingo that breed at Laguna Colorada. We could not see them distinctly without binoculars, but the three species were there. According to our guide, the Chilean flamingo reaches a height of three feet and has a black-tipped white bill, dirty blue legs, red knees, and salmon-colored plumage. The Andean flamingo is the largest of the species and has pink plumage, yellow legs, and a yellow-and-black bill. The James flamingo is the smallest of the three species. Here we lingered longer than at previous stops. 

A little further, and by early evening, just before sunset, we found geysers! They were in a volcanic zone called Sol de Mañana (Morning Sun), at an altitude of 4,850 meters. The mud pots were bubbling; the fumaroles were steaming; everything reeked of sulfur. Frankie advised us to tread very carefully, as tourists have perished there when their feet slipped and they fell into the boiling mud. I made a circuit around the perimeter of the putrid pools and lived to tell: you be the judge as to whether I threw away caution and common sense! 

Darkness fell as we arrived at a row of cinder-block cabins, one of which was our hotel for the night. We enjoyed tea and cookies before a simple spaghetti dinner with two bottles of Tarija wine. Then, to cap off the night, many of the tourists stripped down to their bathing suits and sank into a hot-spring pool downslope from the cabins. I took the opportunity to sneak off into the darkness and pray compline under a sparkling starry sky. If only I knew the constellations as seen from the Southern Hemisphere! I could think of God’s challenge to Abraham to count all the stars of the sky or the grains of sand below his feet. With my nearsightedness, I know I could not do it. I could only marvel. Most wonderful of all was the moonrise. I saw a lemon-yellow globe, nearly full, float imperceptibly upward from the horizon, casting a viscous streak on the surface of a pond. While my tour partners steeped in 90-degree water, then found rest under heavy blankets, I stayed out in the subfreezing air until 11 that night. I was enchanted by the stars and especially the moon, the smiling eye of a long-lost friend. It took a while to come down and let sleep take over. My clothes were dusty and dirty; my mind was running, running; my soul was full of prayer. 

Eleven hours on the road through the desert, from flats to hot springs past lagoons and geysers. A full day, for sure. Impossible to imagine, impossible to forget. Here ends the second day and the second part of my travelogue. Stay tuned for the third and final part.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Uyuni (1)

Greetings and blessings to everyone. Here begins a short chronicle of my travels through Uyuni in the department of Potosí in southern Bolivia toward the borders of Chile and Argentina, June 19-23.

Two short and easy flights brought me to Uyuni last Wednesday morning. During the taxi ride into town, I thought to myself that I had stepped into the Wild West at the turn of the 20th century. Dry, dusty streets; low-hanging sun, long shadows, and a wide horizon all around; and mostly two- or three-story buildings of the same color as the sun-baked earth. All we needed were some horses, some tumbleweeds, and some six-shooters! 

Although it was morning, it was possible to check in at the Toñito Hotel. For me, the name of the hotel was a good omen: Toñito is the diminutive of Tonio, the nickname for Antonio, or Anthony. After settling in and resting a while, I ventured out to the town cathedral and spent some time there for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. During this journey into the Bolivian wilderness I would be nowhere near a church for days, so this was my last opportunity until returning to Cochabamba to be in the presence of Christ in the sacraments. Thus I entered into a spiritual communion with Christ before the Blessed Sacrament before entering into the sacramental presence of Christ in creation. The earth would be an altar; to it I would bring a sacrifice of praise for the beauty of the earth and for the fruits of all creation. 

During the afternoon and again the next morning I purchased a few liters of water and Gatorade to keep hydrated and packages of cookies and crackers for snacking between tour meals. In the town Wednesday, I was glad to lunch on a filet of trucha, being a happy pescatarian. After a lazy afternoon reading the World War II novel All the Light We Cannot See, I had an excellent eggplant-mushroom-onion pizza at the hotel restaurant. Then, an early retirement to bed. 

The tour proper began the next morning, Thursday. Grace and I had arrived the day before; two Maryknoll volunteers, Lillian and Rachel, arrived in the middle of the night. To our quartet the travel agency added two English-speaking companions, Barbara and Michael, a couple from Slovakia. Our guide, Frankie, has led travelers through the Bolivian wilderness for over four years. He turned 26 on Saturday; he was given a proper serenade from his tour group. 

Much of the next 55 hours would be spent in a Toyota Land Cruiser. Frankie is a master of four-wheel stick drive. Into the truck we went, the smaller folk among us riding in the rear and the larger folk toward the front, though we rotated seats every day. 

The first destination that Thursday morning was the so-called “train cemetery,” where many locomotive boilers, tanker cars, and skeletons of boxcars lay sunken and rusted since the early 20th century. It has long been a challenge for Bolivia, a nation whose economy has depended on mining, to conduct international trade efficiently. Bolivia has existed without a coastline since Chile invaded 140 years ago and seized 250 miles fronting the Pacific Ocean. For us, the remains of the steam locomotives were a reminder of economic promise and challenge. 

Next we drove into the salt flats, and it was like going from earth to the moon. We had to remind ourselves continually that it was not snow we were seeing on the ground from here to the horizon. Before going deep into the flats we arrived at Colchani, beside the Salar de Uyuni. Here were lanes of artisanal booths hawking all manner of goods, mainly textiles and, naturally, articles manufactured or crafted out of salt. We could also learn a little about the methods of salt extraction from the Salar de Uyuni. Ovens are used to dry the salt, which is then formed into cakes. From there we drove on in wonder at the sheer vastness of whitest rock under bluest sky. We reached a pavilion where the flags of many nations’ pilgrims were left like a reminder of pride and possession of this very Bolivian but very universal place. We ate lunch in the great hut that centered the pavilion. Frankie catered all our meals, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and at each meal we ate with grateful hearts. I could eat as a vegetarian every time; at this meal, I enjoyed a vegetable omelette, quinoa, cucumbers, and a banana.

After lunch we drove to a very empty expanse of the salt flats. Here we paused for a good hour. Frankie had the tour group pose for trick photos and videos, playing on perspective to make it seem like a toy dinosaur was a massive reptile ready to devour us, or a giant was lifting the lid off a pot of human stew. Amusing and ingenious, I know, but I was in more of a contemplative mood, so I peeled away from the photo session and lay flat on my back, face half-covered under sunglasses and hood, to commune with this quiet world of salt and light. It was good to feel the solidity of the salt under me and the truth of the light over me. Gradually, a contemplative mind overtook everyone, and we lingered in the minimalism until our hour was over. From the flats we drove a short distance to Isla Incahuasi, an oasis of cactus, coral, and mountain. Up and over the west face of the mountain from the north to the south we walked. As I sat near the Toyota waiting to depart, with the sun lowering in the sky behind me, it appeared to me as though the cactuses were raising their arms toward the bright burning heavens, bestowing a benediction to the maker of the fiery light they could convert into life. Another short-distance drive, and our septet was alone, far from other touring teams, watching the sun set. I prayed evening prayer and faced the setting sun, offering an oblation of praise as I saw, as if frame by frame, the orb sinking below the distant mountains. 

A long drive followed, both on dark desert highways and off any beaten paths, until Frankie had brought us to our hostel, where we ate vegetable soup, eggs, and French fries, or papas fritas as it is called in Bolivia. After a hot shower, I lay down to sleep in a room built out of salt bricks with salt mortar. Indeed, save for the metal roof and wooden moulding around the windows, the entire hotel was constructed out of salt. 

Here ends the first day of the tour, and here ends this post. Look for the next installment; it’s coming soon! Until then, I wish all my sisters and brothers in Christ a very happy solemnity of the birth of Saint John the Baptist. May this great prophet pray with us and for us; may John continue to prepare the way for Jesus, the Anointed of God.

Sunday, June 23, 2019


Hello once again from Cochabamba. The wings of human ingenuity and the wings of kindly angels have borne me back here from Uyuni.

This week, I will try to get some posts up to describe what I saw on this journey. Mountains and flats, deserts and lagunas, llamas and flamingos: it is marvellous what God has wrought through nature. I kept thinking about Jesus’ words: You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world (Matthew 5:13, 14). If only the historical Jesus of Nazareth, who we believe uttered those words about salt and light, had seen the flats of Uyuni, stretching for thousands of square miles under a deep blue sky! Ah, but as Christ he is present in the wonders I saw. I will ask my partners on the tour to send me their photos so I can share them via the blog. It may not be National Geographic, but it will be something! 

Today, a travel day, has been a good day for prayer and reflection. The fruits of these meditations I hope also to share on the blog. Thank you as always for your prayers for me, for those dear to me, and for those I am still learning how to greet as my sister and brother.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Otro Hiato

A postscript to the previous post:

The blog will be quiet until late Sunday evening. Do not worry! I just prefer to stay offline while I travel through Uyuni. Whether there is wireless access on the salt flats or not, I choose not to be encumbered by my laptop computer. And we will not talk about my cellular phone, which has been useless since I left United States airspace. We will be roughing it for three days, so I will record my thoughts and impressions and prayers the old-fashioned way, in a paper notebook, provided my fingers are not too numb from the cold. As I did a few weeks ago, I hope to post retroactively about my experiences in Uyuni. And if my compañeras will be kind enough to share some of their photos with me, then I will share some pictures with you through a Google Photos album.

That is about all I have to say right now. Please keep all of us from Maryknoll in your prayers as some of us journey to Uyuni and its salt flats, while the others, including Brother Scott, go to the Jesuit missions of Chiquitanía in the department of Santa Cruz. Traveling mercies to all.


Hanging out at Maryknoll again on this sunny and warm Tuesday afternoon. It is pleasant enough on this late autumn afternoon that I do not need to wear my brown Capuchin hoodie over my habit. Tomorrow, however, and the next four days will be much different, while I am traversing the salt flats of Uyuni in the heights of the Altiplano. I will need every layer of warm clothing I have and then some to keep from feeling cold. Literally, summer will change to winter. I am as ready as I will ever be. Well, that is not saying much: materially, I am ready to go, because all the plans have been made and my things are packed, mostly. My body is ready to go, but my spirit is feeling a peculiar reluctance to go forward. Somebody, give me a push!

Because the flight to Uyuni via La Paz leaves at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning, I will miss the whole day of classes at Maryknoll. This is not what I intended, but there were no flights to Uyuni available in the evening. But it is all right: after all, the language teachers take the students out into the city on cultural field trips every other Thursday. The Uyuni tour begins on Thursday morning. Is this not another cultural outing writ large?

Anyway, here I am, writing to you from the mission center to while away the afternoon. Some diversions are in store this evening. First, at 5 p.m., students and staff from the Maryknoll community will gather on the concrete cancha tucked away in the gardens for a match of volleyball. They gather faithfully every Tuesday to serve, set, and spike. I retired from team sports when I was about, oh, 17 years old. (In my senior year high school physical education classes, I opted to exercise in the weight room.) So I will be a willing spectator to the fun and games. After volleyball, many of us will join Silvana Martinez, who does public relations for Centro Misionero Maryknoll and is a good friend of the Capuchins, at a restaurant to celebrate her birthday. We are eating at a place called Muela del Diablo. The name means Devil᾽s Tooth, but I choose not to read too much into that! This place is located near the Recoleta district, if not in the district itself, where many fine restaurants can be found. There is pizza and also some vegetarian options among its late-night fare, so I should have no problem finding something good to eat.

I will call it a night around 8:30 or 9 p.m. and part from our company in the hope of getting six hours of sleep at Convento San Francisco. I would like to rise by 4:30 a.m. and head out for the airport at 5 in the morning. I cannot believe this trip is going to happen. How did it come up so soon?

Monday, June 17, 2019

Ha Sido Dado

“Let it not be in vain that you received this grace of God” (2 Corinthians 6:1). 

Humility begins, I guess, in remembering that we have received so many gifts. 

We are ourselves, each of us, a being given by God. If we hold on to the memory of this truth, and if we stay in the experience of being given, then the grace of God will not have been sent in vain.

Knowing that we have been treated kindly, we will be kind to others. Knowing that we have received more than we deserved, we will give to others more than they deserve. Knowing that we have been loved before we loved, we will love others before they love. 

Can we do it? Can we remember like this? And can we render, not according to the standard of justice, but beyond that standard according to the order of mercy? 

Yes, if we go beyond reciprocity, if we go beyond quid pro quo. I would have to forget whatever it is I think I am entitled to and focus only on making an excellent offering in honor of the stupendous generosity that preceded me. Stay there, and the miraculous can happen. Leave that place, and loss is what enters. 

I am not sure what these thoughts have to do with the day-to-day particulars of my Bolivian journey, or the continuing internal struggle with God. Maybe it all comes back home in the Psalms: “Praise the Lord, my soul; and do not forget all his gifts” (Psalm 103:2). 

Even as I wrestle with an angel of the inscrutable, unknowable God whose ways I challenge, I remain devoted to Jesus Christ, and I chase the wind to grasp a wisp of the Holy Spirit. But Jesus Christ comes from that selfsame God, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from that selfsame God. The Son and the Spirit: it is all grace, it is all God. 

And it is all good, although I do not know how it is good for me. 

Perhaps that is not the point or never was the point. Much as I wish that God would let me delight in all the goodness just for myself, or especially in the particular goods I find most pleasing to me; or, most especially, be delighted in by somebody else, this is not how it works in the economy of grace. I am a partaker in the goodness of creation and the coming new creation, but I am not its possessor. Others may partake in my life and enjoy the goodness being given through me, but they cannot claim me, even if I want them to claim me. 

How very far this seems from la vida cotidiana, but in fact it gets to the heart of the matter.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

La Trinidad

Today is Trinity Sunday, which in Christianity is the celebration of the mystery of the Holy One made manifest in the three persons of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

In Bolivia there coincides with Trinity Sunday a unique celebration, Fiesta del Gran Poder (“Festival of the Great Power”). It is a synthesis of Aymara folk religion with Roman Catholicism that has sustained a strong popular devotion to Jesus Christ, el Señor del Gran Poder. The devotion began in La Paz with a 17th-century painting of the Holy Trinity that depicted God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit with mestizo features. People in La Paz began to pay homage to the figure of Jesus Christ the All-Powerful in this painting, and miracles were reportedly granted to them. A cult grew around the figure of El Señor del Gran Poder, despite the controversy, and a shrine was built during the 1930s to display the painting for veneration. In the following decades, what began as a candlelight procession by a few Aymara folk on the fiesta grew into a dance festival and ultimately into a massive street festival. Thus this weekend, as is the case every year on the weekend of Trinity Sunday, La Paz is the place to be for the carnival-like atmosphere that Fiesta del Gran Poder brings. 

It is much more sedate here in Cochabamba this afternoon. It has been unusually cloudy of late, with nearly overcast skies yesterday and today. Fierce winds swept through town on Saturday, also highly unusual for this time of year. I took a walk through the city center yesterday afternoon, and I could not believe how many heavy limbs had fallen from the palm trees that line the median of the great promenades. Things will return to the seasonal norm this week, with clear skies, warm-but-not-hot days and cold nights. 

I am almost ready for the trip to Uyuni. I am debating what to bring and what to leave behind. I will probably bring the bare minimum. It will be sunny and clear throughout my stay from Wednesday, June 19, to Sunday, June 23. But it will be wintry. The low temperature at night will be 20, while the high during the day gets no higher than 60. I am wearing my heaviest sweater and bringing my gloves and both of my brown hooded jackets. Although the climate is sub-polar, the risk of sunburn is high because of the abundant sunshine and the brightness of the flats. For the first time in my life, I have purchased sunglasses; well, not exactly sunglasses, but polarized lenses to cover my prescription eyeglasses. And I will be carrying sunblock. Also necessary is a sleeping bag for the two nights we will be out on the flats. Travelers can rent sleeping bags from the travel agency; that is what I intend to do because I do not want to be encumbered on the airplane rides from Cochabamba to Uyuni and back. 

Earlier this morning I made my regular visit to Nuestra Casa. I read more witches’ stories to the girls and played a form of bilingual Bingo with them: hear a word in Spanish, find the English equivalent on your Bingo board. Many thanks to Señora Aracely, the woman volunteer who helped the girls pay close attention and behave very well. Now doing laundry so that I will have my heaviest jeans and sweater available for the trek through Uyuni. This evening, Eucharist at Templo San Francisco and one last convivencia with the student friars before they depart the convent tomorrow for a four-week recess. During that time they will have pastoral work in various sites. We will see them again when they return on July 14.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Más Sí

“ ‘Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’ ” (Matthew 5:37). 

For a moment, the ramblings of this ongoing travelogue yield to the sane and deeply knowing words of Thomas Merton, excerpted from his book Thoughts in Solitude. My thanks to a parishioner from Church of the Good Shepherd for sharing them with me. 

O Kind and Terrible Love 

To you, Lord, I will offer a sacrifice of praise. 

Let this be my only consolation, that wherever I am, You, my Lord, are loved and praised. The trees indeed love You without knowing You. The tiger lilies and corn flowers are there, proclaiming that they love You, without being aware of Your presence. The beautiful dark clouds ride slowly across the sky musing on You like children who do not know what they are dreaming of, as they play. 

But in the midst of them all, I know You, and I know of Your presence. In them and in me I know of the love which they do not know, and, what is greater, I am abashed by the presence of Your love in me. O kind and terrible love, which You have given me, and which could never be in my heart if You did not love me! For in the midst of these beings which have never offended You, I am loved by You, and it would seem most of all as one who has offended You. I am seen by You under the sky, and my offenses have been forgotten by You—but I have not forgotten them…. 

Remembering that I have been a sinner, I will love You in spite of what I have been, knowing that my love is precious because it is Yours, rather than my own. Precious to You because it comes from Your own Son, but precious even more because it makes me Your son. 

Here ends the prayer of a spiritual master and here begins again the protest of a rebel. Why should it be anyone’s consolation, and their only one at that, that God is loved and praised? What does it mean to offer a sacrifice of praise to God, or to desire that God be loved and praised? My apologies for the obvious questions, but at this moment the answers do not seem so obvious to me. 

Over the years, I have become aware of the distance between my desire and my love (which is another way of saying God’s desire). Over the years, I have asked for and been granted the grace to make renunciations so that God’s desire remains in me and increases in my desire. Now I am at a point where I can see myself even more sharply than I could when I first joined the Capuchin Franciscans, when I made my first vows, and when I made my perpetual vows. God grants me more vision. And God puts to me the challenge, in this hour, to make the renunciations more real, more true, more profound. This is where I am now. I have to ask God to make the Yes of yesterday even more of a Yes today. Today I am more aware of the No I have been saying at the same time, all this time. Now I have to ask God to turn the No that was really a No into a Yes that is really a Yes. Do I really want to do it? 

What I know, let me learn to love again. What I do not know, let me learn to love, too. What I want only for myself, take it away, take it away. What I do not want, what I have not wanted, that is, God’s desire, let it come to me anyway through the Holy Spirit for the sake of Jesus Christ, God’s desire in person. Amen.

Friday, June 14, 2019


A good afternoon and a good weekend to all. 

What was the most important takeaway today at Maryknoll? It was not the learning about how to buy things in Chile, useful though that may be, what with the expressions of courtesy and proper grammatical forms. It was not the fiercely contested Scrabble match, either. Rather, it was the cultural interview in the fourth period. This week, I met a woman from Haiti named Joanne. This put us on the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. And it is the latter nation whose heritage shapes Inwood, the neighborhood where I live and work. Joanne took me into the communitarian ethos of the people of the Caribbean. When someone lacks something, be it housing or good health, the community provides. It is not in the character of the people to seek help outside the community. The community is the source of strength, the place of plenty. We swerved into a description of the common food and drink, with some kindly pokes at the Franciscan vegetarian. 

I think the meeting went well. Perhaps Joanne could come back in two or three weeks to continue the conversation with me and mi profesora. That is, if she does not mind sitting in a small classroom on a lovely Friday morning with a friar whose brain is sputtering by the fourth hour of study. 

I am beginning to know better what I want to do in these Friday conferences. There are two things that come to mind. 

First, I would like to listen to lectures and then have some time for dialogue. I would like a guest from the Caribbean or Central America to teach me about the history and culture and religion of these peoples. These two regions, the Caribbean and Central America, are both necessary. The people who faithfully fill Church of the Good Shepherd and who animate Inwood culturally, socially, and economically are U.S. citizens or legal residents who themselves or whose parents and grandparents came from the Dominican Republic. But a preponderance of the newest immigrants to New York City comes from Central America, especially El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. These women, children, and men are not citizens. They are undocumented. These immigrants are not part of the parish, and they do not necessarily live in Inwood, but I would like to help them, as do a growing number of Anglo members of the parish. 

Second, I would like to have strategy sessions. I would like to learn how to foster a shared community from among the English-speaking and Spanish-speaking peoples in my parish. I would like to see a more united community. The Anglos and the Latinos of Inwood do not mix with each other very much. If Broadway is the spine of the neighborhood, then Anglos are the west side of the body and the Latinos are the east side. There are, to be sure, a number of people from each community who cross Broadway to live and work and recreate with each other. I have learned from these model neighbors. But I would like to learn more. I would like to learn methods to help the Dominican culture and white non-Hispanic culture integrate. I would like to have more tools for promoting a social justice ministry that builds relationships and produces leadership between Anglos and Latinos. Maybe I can meet on Fridays with staff from Maryknoll’s own Mission Formation Program and Personal Development and Leadership Program. 

These are some early arising suggestions that I hope the language program team will take under advisement. Once more, my thanks goes to Señoras Kitty and Tania for the arrangement of the cultural interviews these last three weeks.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

San Antonio

Not so fast, pilgrim. Not so easy a day today. Sputtering with words and wishing that classes had ended two hours early. It is a mystery to me, why some days go easily and other days go hard. I cannot fall back anymore on the excuse that I did not sleep and have less than the minimum of energy necessary to work. It is not true. Pondering my ineptitude only makes me irritable, so it is better just to declare that my Spanish was not functional today, chalk up the loss, and forget about it. 

I returned to the convent and to a banquet lunch in celebration of Saint Anthony of Padua. This feast is a big deal for the Franciscan friars. You see, Saint Anthony lived in the first generation of the Franciscan movement. As the branch in the Franciscan family tree of consecrated men with the most ancient roots (there also being the Capuchins and Conventuals), the Franciscan friars claim Saint Anthony as their own. Moreover, the Bolivian province of Franciscan friars is named for Saint Anthony of Padua, making this also the patronal feast of the national fraternity. So all the tables and chairs were brought out into the cloister passage, the fine cloth and chinaware were brought out, and they served good wine and beer and sparkling juice to go with the sumptuous meal. This helped a little to bring me out of my language malfunction funk. 

But the luxuriousness of it made me just a bit uneasy. It always creates a dissonance within me when friars put on lavish meals for the feast days and solemnities. It is not the celebration I oppose, but the richness of it, and also the time and energy sunk into the preparations. Of course, you might have a look at it and say I am being too scrupulous about poverty. Perhaps so, perhaps so. But this is how I feel about the privileges that have accrued to us over the centuries. It has long since gotten to the point (and beyond) where it is often impossible for the most established members of the Franciscan family to live anything near the life of minority that the early Franciscans practiced collectively as well as personally. Our benefactors and partners in ministry simply will not allow us to experience precariousness. Not only do we live above the poverty line, but generally we live far from those who live without the minimum necessary to survive. Thus brotherhood and sisterhood is something practiced among ourselves but not with the outcasts and the disinherited. Prayer and contemplation do not effectively bring the empty and yearning heart outward to other empty and yearning hearts. This calls for continual conversion. This calls for a return to minority, to a closeness to the poor and humble Christ in today’s outcasts. This I say first of all to me, who fears the encounter and the consequences of surrender. 

Okay, enough exhortation. Let me turn to prayer, so I can consider anew what the poor and humble Christ bids me to do, and respond as Saint Francis and Saint Anthony did, with complete and unconditional affirmation. And let me congratulate Brother Leo ahead of time on the occasion of his ordination to the diaconate this evening en route to his consecration as a priest in the year to come.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019


A brief pause before going to Nuestra Casa to begin the watercolor project. I feel a little more fatigued than yesterday, but that may be in anticipation of the long afternoon ahead. Time always goes slowly for me at Nuestra Casa with the girls on account of my slow and clumsy Spanish and the general awkwardness of being there. But we will do the best that we can to open up spaces for creativity, curiosity, and compassion (and other positive things that begin with a C). There have been a couple of new arrivals, including a teenager who is nearly blind and suffers intense headaches or migraines. Sadly, there have also been departures, or as Señorita Pamela put it, escapes. Two of the older teenagers ran away late last month. The shelter is by nature a transient place, but you do not want to have episodes like this. I worry for those two girls because it is not safe for them to return home, and it is definitely not safe to live on the streets. Where have they gone? I can only hope against hope that they had plans to be received by responsible elders or peers they could trust to protect them without violence or compromise to their well-being. Please send your prayers to all the girls and women of Bolivia who live at risk of abuse or worse traumatic events. 

Yesterday evening: a pleasant couple of hours in the company of the Mennonite volunteers, with good food and good conversation. I hope to visit a couple more times before I depart in August. 

Today at Maryknoll: acquiring knowledge of the various usages of the conditional tense and the imperfect subjunctive tense and the future tense. Hats off to Profesor Osvaldo for making it all easily comprehensible and leaving Grace and I amused in the process. The weekly conference was about the new year celebrations observed on the first day of winter, June 21, by all indigenous peoples of Latin America, and particularly the Andean and Amazonian peoples. Time prevents me from going into detail about it, but perhaps I will write a retrospective post after my trip to Salar de Uyuni, where I will be next Friday when the new year celebrations commence. We thank Señora Vicente Mamani, a friend of the Maryknoll community from La Paz, for visiting us and giving us a brief but comprehensive exposition on both the new year celebrations and the rituals associated with the feast of Saint John the Baptist on the following days, June 23 and 24. Eucharist followed at the Maryknoll chapel; I have attended Mass here for three consecutive days and participated as lector in the liturgy. I feel confident and competent proclaiming the readings. 

A brief lunch, and now to post, then to the shelter, then a brief dinner back at Convento San Francisco and evening prayer before going to Teatro Adela Zamudio for the benefit to support pediatric heart surgeries. A full day today and a full life here in Cochabamba, with its frequent changes of pace, with its ups and downs, with its sunrises and sunsets.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019


In my wallet I am carrying a ten-boliviano ticket for admission to a benefit for a foundation that sponsors children who need heart surgery. The benefit is happening tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Teatro Adela Zamudio, a performing arts center on Avenida Heroinas in shouting distance of Convento San Francisco. The theater is ridiculously close to the convent, the time is right, and the cause is excellent. So, although it is a Wednesday, my long day with volunteering at Nuestra Casa, I will gladly go and see the show and support these needy children and their families. 

In the process, I will have my curiosity about Teatro Adela Zamudio satisfied. The theater is named for the Bolivian woman who can rightly be considered a modern founder of the nation. She is praised as an incisive woman of letters and a formidable proponent of the dignity, rights, and power of all women of the nation. Schools, statues, and streets commemorate her, and so does this theater. Whether the theater does more than bear her name to advance her legacy, I do not know. I can find out. 

I will also find out how much of a Spanish-language performance I can follow. At least I assume this performance is in Spanish. If any of it is in Aymara or Quechua, well, I shall be sunk. Regardless, here comes a worthy expedition into the arts. 

For the second consecutive day, the fount of conversation kept flowing. This was true especially in the third and fourth class periods one-to-one with Profesora Sara. In effect I gave her a two-hour tutorial on how the Roman Catholic Church declares saints nowadays. I do not remember how we came upon the topic. I think Profesora Sara steered the conversation in the direction of religious topics, and from there I kept the train a-rolling. Somehow we went from talking about the hierarchy of holy days in the Church to the feast days of the saints to how saints become recognized universally as saints. An overview of church history brought us to the present, and here I gave a description of the process of promoting the cause of a holy woman or holy man for canonization. Once again, though in simplified language, I seemed to find the words, the phrases, and the grammar I needed, with very few pauses for thinking. Whatever is happening, it is working well. In fact, Profesora Sara told me I should become a catechist or do faith formation in a parish somewhere in Cochabamba. Apart from conducting a few classes at Church of the Good Shepherd with Betsy Roman, our coordinator for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, I have not done catechesis since I led confirmation classes for middle-school children at my hometown parish, Our Lady of Grace, in 2004-05. Those classes were in English, of course. I make note of what Profesora Sara said because she is the second person after Señora Janneth at Nuestra Casa to affirm I can do ministry with Spanish-speaking peoples. 

Tomorrow morning, Profesora Sara and I will compare our ideas for upcoming conversations and make plans. Another cultural interview has been scheduled for Friday, thanks to Señoras Kitty and Tania, this time with a woman from the Caribbean. Indeed, the train keeps a-rolling.

Monday, June 10, 2019


Maybe it is the benefit of full nights of rest. Maybe it is getting three good meals daily. Maybe it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Maybe it is the excellent pedagogy of the Maryknoll language program. Whatever the causes, I am cautiously pleased to report a very good day of classes in which it seemed like I found an enlarged capacity for sustained conversation. I felt like a chatterbox in the first two periods with Profesor Osvaldo. At the mid-morning coffee break I was concerned that I had spent the store of words I had for the day, and I would be tongue-tied for the third and fourth class periods, when I go solo with Profesora Sara. But that was not to be the case. To the contrary, I kept talking and talking. It was an equitable exchange, too: I was giving as much as I had to give, and Profesora Sara was giving as much as she had to give.

Dare I say that Pentecost has come to me? Before today, had there been a day when I was able to keep a conversation going freely for two 50-minute periods on my own with my interlocutor? No, there had not. Had there been a day when I did not have to struggle to find the words? No, there had not. 

How did it come so easily today? How did the gift of sustained conversation come through now, as if all of a sudden? I’d like to know so that I can repeat the outcome tomorrow and every day thereafter. It cannot be as easy as just talking, is it? There has to be something more to it, right? 

Whatever went right, let’s hope it keeps going right. To that end, Profesora Sara asked me to generate a brainstorm of ideas for themed conversations. As I mentioned in a previous post, the instructors wish to move me into conversations that are meaningful for my ministry context. So we will have, hopefully, more cultural exchanges focusing in on the peoples of the Caribbean and Central America. We will talk about pastoral ministry in a parish environment. We will talk, as we did this morning, about religious life and its distinctive characteristics. I am sure Profesora Sara will have many questions for me in this area that will open up a discussion. 

After classes I lingered at Maryknoll, attending Mass celebrated by the Korean student priests, then having lunch with my guru Father Ken. Our conversations dilate my soul, and when we part I feel like I can walk more closely with Jesus in the light of God. I’ll be hanging out at Maryknoll tomorrow and Wednesday as well for midday Eucharist. Another visit to the Mennonite volunteers is also coming up. 

Plans for the trip to Uyuni and its salt flats are coming together. It looks like four of us from Maryknoll will be joining a three-day tour with other travelers. My flight has been booked; accommodations have been arranged. Things are definitely taking shape. More information to come before the journey commences next Wednesday.

Sunday, June 9, 2019


“When you send forth your spirit, they are created and you renew the face of the earth” (Psalm 104:30).

I wish everyone, everywhere, peace and every good thing on this solemnity of Pentecost. In my opinion, among the holy days of Christianity, only Easter is more important than Pentecost. One of these days I will find the words to express to you how important this holy day is to me. On this solemnity in the year 2000 (it was June 11), I was confirmed and received the Holy Spirit. Through all the ups and downs in my life; through all that I have seen in this world, I have kept faith because of this one confidence: that the Spirit of God, the Spirit made available to everyone through Jesus Christ, is with us. Even now, in this time when I wrestle with God over many things, I remain a disciple of Jesus because of the Holy Spirit that lives in us and among us and gives us a most unlikely power.
At this time of the Christian liturgical year, I look forward to the story of the descent of the Holy Spirit; I look forward to the rite of confirmation, when others are anointed with oil and receive the Spirit that I believe has grasped me. And I relish the music of Pentecost, which celebrates the coming of the Spirit, the fulfillment of Christ’s work of salvation. This year, the words of the Pentecost sequence, the great hymn to the Spirit, move me more than ever. They are bringing me great solace at a time when I feel like I know God so little and my love has become so small. But I hope this dry period, too, will pass; and the great Spirit who has been so good to me before and filled me with abundant life and the strength to love, will grasp me once again, if I but surrender to Her. Thus these words comfort me and become my most fervent prayer. In this attitude of watching and waiting, I share these words with you. 

Pentecost Sequence 

Come, O Holy Spirit, come! 
And from your celestial home 
Shed a ray of light divine! 

Come, O Father of the poor! 
Come, source of all our store! 
Come, within our bosoms shine! 

You, of comforters the best; 
You, the soul’s most welcome guest; 
Sweet refreshment here below; 

In our labor, rest most sweet; 
Grateful coolness in the heat; 
Solace in the midst of woe. 

O most blessed Light divine, 
Shine within these hearts of yours, 
And our inmost being fill! 

Where you are not, we have naught, 
Nothing good in deed or thought, 
Nothing free from taint of ill. 

Heal our wounds, our strength renew; 
On our dryness pour your dew; 
Wash the stains of guilt away; 

Bend the stubborn heart and will; 
Melt the frozen, warm the chill; 
Guide the steps that go astray. 

On the faithful, who adore 
And confess you, evermore 
In your sevenfold gift descend; 

Give them virtue’s sure reward; 
Give them your salvation, Lord; 
Give them joys that never end. Amen. Alleluia.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

¡Ya Ven!

Dear God, 

This is your servant, Brother Anthony, speaking again. I have been pondering the dialogue between your risen Son and your servant Peter that hopeful morning after breakfast. Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” three times. He was asking Peter the question not for his own sake but for your sake. Peter was really saying No all along, which is why Jesus had to ask three times (or more) to move Peter toward a deeper conversion and a genuine Yes. No, Peter really had not loved; up to that moment he had loved neither you nor his neighbor. 

So it is with us. Up to now, who among us could answer Yes truthfully to the question? No, up to now, we have not loved you. 

And there are many among us who cannot say Yes to you. I would like to advocate for them before you, because I think I understand why they cannot say Yes or have in fact said No. Dear God, I think a lot of people do not believe you love them. I do not speak of those who do not believe there is a God; it makes no sense to say “God does not love us” if we do not believe there is a God. I am speaking now only of those who believe there is a God but who do not believe you love us, dear God. 

Did Peter want to talk back to your Son and turn the question back to you? Did Peter want to ask Jesus three times (or more), “Does God love me?” Maybe Peter could not say Yes to Jesus because deep down, he never could accept that you loved him or anyone. I can understand this kind of doubt. There must be millions of people who believe that you act, and powerfully at that, but your acts are not acts of love. No wonder that people take your name in vain and use you with bad intent to malign ends. It is easy to misuse you when we believe you do not love us, that love is not your nature, and mercy is not your name. 

You have acted, but you have not loved. That is where I imagine many people stand in their convictions, when it comes down to it. What do we do with this? Is this the truth, or is it us projecting our sins and faults upon you? How are we to know that you are a loving God? How am I to know I am a loving person? It is hard to know. Sometimes I believe that all I ever do is act upon others, but to believe there is love in what I do is only an illusion, or worse, a delusion to justify myself. When you look at the world today, dear God, you can understand why many believe no one has ever loved anyone, and you have never loved us. Is this the truth at last, cold and hard, without illusion or delusion? If it is, then where is hope now? 

Dear God, I think our last, best hope is in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is somewhere, I am sure. I call on the Holy Spirit to come to the battle within us and among us. People are fighting; people are raging. Without the Spirit, we are lost. But the Holy Spirit is the commander of love and the commander of life. So I call on the Holy Spirit to come already! Do something to us; do something around us. Do something to me. Otherwise we will fall down into dust and death forever. Even nothingness will not exist anymore. Come, helper. Come as Christ promised. Come to our assistance and make haste to help us. Help us to believe that love is real and that you are love and that we have not deceived ourselves in hoping that your activity is truth, goodness, and beauty. Help us believe that if you are a God of love and life, then we, too, can be partakers in love and life. Amen. 

Friday, June 7, 2019


Another bright and warm afternoon in Cochabamba, with another dry and cold night to follow. My laundry is hanging to dry in the hot sun over the burning concrete cancha where the brothers expect to play volleyball tonight. 

Another week of classes done at Maryknoll, and we are already at the midpoint of this six-week term. The students will change their teacher teams on Monday. Grace and I will receive a new pair of teachers, so we say adios to Profesoras Liliana and Karla for now. A twist in the schedule: in the third and fourth class periods, Grace and I will be separated to work with different teachers. The reason for this is to focus our conversation on the areas of work in which we specialize. For Grace, who is studying nursing, it is health and medicine. For me, it is social ministry in cultural context. 

The last two Fridays, we have been splitting off during the fourth period for these contextual conversations. Last Friday I visited the office of social mission of the Archdiocese of Cochabamba. Today, thanks to Señoras Kitty and Tania, I had a conversation with Brother Edgar, a member of the Little Brothers of Jesus, a religious institute inspired by Blessed Charles de Foucauld. Edgar hails from Cuba, which brought our conversation closer to the contextual mark. I have requested opportunities for cultural appreciation that focus on the Caribbean and Central America, from where many of the Latino communities our Capuchins serve in New York and New England originate. Many of the families who worship at Church of the Good Shepherd come from the Dominican Republic. The majority of the immigrants seeking asylum in the United States today come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This year, the Capuchins provided temporary material support to two such families from Central America who have been granted legal status. There is so much more the friars would like to do, in their particular ministries and as a provincial fraternity, to provide comfort and a welcome to our most vulnerable immigrant neighbors who are seeking a new life after surviving unspeakable poverty and violence. 

Learning Spanish has been one thing. Acquiring a sensitivity to and appreciation for the particular Spanish-speaking peoples who make their home among the friars is another. We have already been broadening our cultural learning beyond Bolivia to other countries and peoples of South America, including Argentina and soon Chile. Now it is time for me to connect to the peoples I will be ministering with directly. There is, of course, no substitute for spending time with the people of Good Shepherd and Inwood. Now that I have more fluency in the language, I believe I will have more courage and confidence to enter into la vida cotidiana of my New York City neighbors. 

Off now to a gentle afternoon and low-key evening. Most of the brothers will join the volleyball game. I refrain from playing or observing the sports, which start close to 9 o’clock. I try to keep a low-impact routine now at night, as I aim to keep insomnia under control. It’s what I have to do. Coming up this weekend: some social time tomorrow afternoon with Brett, a Jesuit from Australia who is studying with us at Maryknoll; and the Sunday morning visit to the girls’ shelter, to tell more witches’ stories.

Thursday, June 6, 2019


Today is El Día del Maestro, or Teachers’ Day, in Bolivia. Prayers of gratitude fly to everyone at Centro Misionero Maryknoll, from the language program staff to the mission formation team to the communications team to the secretarial staff to the groundskeepers and custodial team, for preparing and maintaining an excellent learning environment.

As promised, Profesora Karla took Grace and me to a museum operated by the public university, Universidad de San Simón, featuring the natural history and cultural history of Bolivia, especially our region of Cochabamba. 

Profesora Liliana set the table for us during the first period of class, giving us a preview of what we could expect to learn. This led to an excursion into the ritual sacrifices made by the ancient Andean peoples to propitiate Pachamama for the sake of a good harvest. There were and are parallels in Andean cosmology between the fertility of the earth and the fertility of the human species, and the signs and symbols of sexuality play a significant role in the sacred rites of the people. Vestiges of those rituals remain with Bolivians today, as witnessed by the sacrificial offerings of infant figures to Christ crucified, in gratitude for fertile land and fertile families, during the celebrations of Santa Vera Cruz in Tatala early last month. Of course, the knowledge that, in the past, human beings were sacrificed as well as animals and plant offerings left us uneasy. (Rumor has it that in La Paz today, the most marginalized members of society—the homeless, the mentally ill—are sacrificed when major construction projects, such as of skyscrapers, begin.) As Profesora Liliana explained it, there is no good-evil duality in the Andean cosmology. Death is a part of life; thus, sacrifices even of humans was seen as simply an aspect of the unity of all creation, living and defunct. This is not to condone such sacrifices, by any means—it is a way of understanding the incomprehensible and unspeakable.

At the museum, a guide led us swiftly through the paleontological wing, from the Paleozoic Era to the present geological period, giving us a capsule version of the evolution of Earth and life in what is present-day Cochabamba. The remainder of our hour was devoted to a sweep through an anthropological history of Bolivia, from archaic times predating Inca civilization through the Tiwanaku empire to the Inca reign to the colonial period and early modern era. Artifacts of the hunting-gathering period to the advent of agriculture and herding were displayed before us. The simple ceramics and carved stone objects told the story of a transition from nomadic existence to sedentary society, as the tools and utensils of la vida cotidiana appeared. So, too, the ritual objects that accompanied the emergence of polytheistic cults. I both marveled at and was taken aback by the mummified children and adults, their petrified bodies telling the tale of the funeral rites of a long vanished people. I was shocked by the exhibits of elongated craniums, formed (deformed?) intentionally with wooden planks and cloth bands from infancy to signify that person’s status or ethnic identity in their community. There was hardly time to contemplate the meaning of this obscure practice as we hurried forward through time to the colonization of the Inca civilization, and the early crude attempts by the Franciscans to evangelize the peoples. They did not yet speak Aymara or Quechua, so they invented pictograms inscribed on cowhide to teach the Ten Commandments to the peoples, and they fashioned rounded stone tablets with simple symbols set in relief to depict the mysteries and tenets of the Christian faith.

This is a rather rushed summary of only some of the exhibits that made a surface impression on me. I apologize for the lack of description and analysis! After nearly four months of cultural and historical excursions, I am beginning to reach a point of saturation. Of course, breezing through an entire museum in one hour is another reason for feeling like what I received hardly has begun to sink in. A third reason, of course, is that I could follow and retain only so much of what our Spanish-speaking tour guide said. He spoke well despite having more gums than teeth, but my mind was constantly wandering as I set to reading every sign and placard … that is, when I was not standing with mouth agape at the sight of mummified children with elongated skulls. Call it culture shock by way of a blast from an ancient past.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

La Verdad

“ ‘Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth’ ” (John 17:17).

I will be late for evening prayer! But I will post this item quickly, then meditate on these words from Jesus to God.

More odds and ends from these days: 

At Maryknoll, a welcome back to Michael, one of the students from the United States who studied here in February and March. He has returned to volunteer with the Maryknoll community. We are glad to have him here again. Also, a presentation this morning with Señora Kitty on the culture of the llanos of Bolivia, which comprise more than 60 percent of the terrain of the country to the north and east toward Brazil, and almost half of the population. Many sights and sounds and flavors to enkindle our hearts and enchant our souls. And I forgot the sports report in yesterday’s post: Grace and I bested Brother Scott and Joshua in our Scrabble rematch, with a great assist from Profesora Karla. Tomorrow: a trip to the archaeological museum in the city center.

At Nuestra Casa: a postponement of our next art project, working with watercolors using the primary colors in wet and dry media, until we get watercolor paper of good quality. I spent some time helping one of the younger girls with her mathematics homework until she lay her head to rest on the table, signaling that she wanted a siesta, at least from this activity. 

There is a Franciscan friar staying at Convento San Francisco while he leads a retreat for several contemplative orders of women religious, including the Capuchin Poor Clares who live in Cochabamba within blocks of the friars. He is Padre Carmelo, namesake of the diabolical dog who is our most unlikely, ahem, mascot. Carmelo the canine was named by Padre Kasper for Carmelo the human, because the pup, who I guess is something like a variety of the Highland Terrier, reminded him of his brother’s long flowing mane. I asked Padre Carmelo if he was both flattered by the comparison and enamored with his namesake. No comment on either count. 

Off now to the church for evening prayer and Eucharist. Yesterday we began a novena, or nine-day vigil, in honor of the great Franciscan preacher and teacher of the faith, Saint Anthony of Padua. Following communion, the people recite a prayer seeking the patronage of their heavenly Franciscan intercessor, who has become synonymous with miracle-making. I would caution you not to think of the suspension of the laws of nature and physics when you contemplate miracles; rather, I would invite you to think of a superabundance of grace operating upon and within nature to bring about powerful displays of the Creator’s healing and sustaining power. The words we pray in honor of this powerful friend of God refer to mysteries we can readily perceive, like the overcoming of death by life; the banishment of error by truth; the fleeing of misery; the healing (not necessarily cure) of the leprous and the sick; the freeing of prisoners; the subsiding of danger; the succor of the elderly; and relief for the poor. If these fruits of faith, hope, and love in action are miracles, then let us all depend on such acts, and let us call on the prophets and friends of God for help to make them so.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019


Some odds and ends for the day:

It has been and continues to be dry in Cochabamba. It has been many days since we had a light rain. I cannot remember the last time we had a heavy rain. Most of the days now are mostly sunny, with few clouds to be seen. Yesterday morning was the first time in a while that we had a mostly cloudy sky. Profesora Karla tells us this is how the winter season will be this year—cool and very dry. It would be no surprise if there is no rain at all between now and September. 

The student friars have come to the end of the semester and are commencing exams, many of which are oral. I believe they will be finished with examinations by the end of next week. They will have a winter recess which will be for about a month. Brother Scott recalls that the friars are away from the end of June to the end of July. So we will see them again, for about two or three weeks, before we depart Bolivia. For the interim, it will be a smaller fraternity, with only the perpetually professed friars remaining: Padre Juan Carlos, Padre Kasper, Padre Raúl, Padre René, and Brother Leo. Oh, and I almost forgot Carmelo, our canine, ahem, companion, and my bête noire. Or, to put it more charitably, the thorn in my flesh, my angel of Satan, to beat me and keep me from being too elated.

We will have a special occasion on Thursday, June 13, the feast of Saint Anthony of Padua, the Franciscan doctor of the Church. That evening, Brother Leo, who has been discerning a vocation to priesthood, will be ordained deacon by one of his fellow Franciscans who is a bishop over in the Archdiocese of La Paz. God willing, in another year or less he will complete his priestly formation and receive another laying on of hands. 

While we are talking about fraternal milestones, I would be remiss not to mention the good news from my home province. I am happy to report that one of our brothers, John Koelle, will be ordained to the priesthood this Saturday morning at our church in Yonkers, Sacred Heart. The ordaining bishop is our own Capuchin brother, Wayne Berndt, the bishop of the Diocese of Naha (Okinawa) in Japan. I regret missing this joyous occasion, but at least I was present when Brother John was ordained deacon a year ago in Massachusetts by another Capuchin bishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. Another upcoming occasion I hope not to miss is the perpetual profession of our brother Paul Fesefeldt. The provincial council recently accepted Brother Paul’s request to make solemn vows, on the recommendation of his fellow brothers. I am very happy for both of our brothers and wish them much grace and peace in answering God’s call to loving service of the Church and all peoples as Capuchin lesser brothers. When I contemplate who they are as fellow brothers in Jesus and Francis, and when I regard the commitment they have made, my spirit is far from dry—indeed, it gushes with the wellsprings of the Spirit itself.

Monday, June 3, 2019


Today at Maryknoll, and lately: We are moving at a pretty rapid clip through the lessons in the intermediate textbook. Already we are moving on to the third lesson in Unit 1. (There are six units of three lessons each in this textbook.) I do wish we could move at a little slower pace! Granted, everything in this first unit is review, or repaso, of what was covered in the first textbook, namely verbs in the present, past, and future tenses. Granted, it is time to kick into a higher gear and go with the flow of Spanish at a pace more natural to native speakers. But all the same, I do feel like I am running just above the velocity at which I am comfortable; and were this a sprint, I would be watching Grace and the teachers pulling away down and around the track. 

I suppose that if I were here for only six weeks instead of six months, I would be wanting to cover as much ground as I could before my studies ended. I would be living each day as if it were the last one I had. And there is indeed good sense in living each day as if there were no tomorrow—it would concentrate all your mind and heart and soul on what matters most. But I do have another ten weeks, or 69 more tomorrows, to go. So my sense of pacing and timing is necessarily altered. I want to run for the long distance and conserve my strength. This could be a formula for living a long life. On the other hand, it can become an excuse for complacency or timidity. I have many years ahead of me—no need to work so hard today. I don’t feel up to the challenge today—I will try harder tomorrow. Well, my tomorrows may be many, but what if somebody else’s tomorrows are not? I could amble along without a sense of urgency, but then I may not be as available or as able to be of help to someone who speaks Spanish, somewhere, back in New York City or Boston or wherever I may serve God, the Church, and all people. Often I find myself wondering, am I living as if God, the absolute future, is bringing tomorrow into my today? Am I welcoming the life that God brings when God brings it here from the future? Do I have the spiritual sense to tell when God is at work in me, bringing what is eternally new into time, and when it is merely me trying push my today into a tomorrow of my own choosing; or merely me trying to keep today from slipping away into a past I cannot recover, cannot redo, cannot remake? 

Ah, vague musings. Mind over heart and soul, again! Better to talk to God about the longed-for in-breaking of future time than only to think about it. Time to get into a wrestling stance and prepare once more to meet my mercurial Maker. 

Whatever the case, temporally speaking, my teachers do wish to press forward. Thus it is my task to follow as best as I can, in the classroom and outside. (Profesoras Liliana and Karla have been giving homework generously. Lots of reading and lots of listening.) In the meantime, I ask God to consecrate the hours, precious and holy, I have dedicated to these studies, and to the relationships I have made here with fellow students, with fellow friars, and with all of God’s people. To this I would add a request to God to consecrate the times to come, after I return to the United States, and help me anticipate the new encounters that an understanding of Spanish may make possible.

Sunday, June 2, 2019


“ ‘I am sending the promise of my Father upon you’ ” (Luke 24:49).

As I write this I am trying to block out the din of a Christian charismatic rock band playing in the rear cancha where the brothers usually bounce a basketball or kick the football around on Friday nights. Today the friars are holding a come-and-see event, or an expocarisma, to promote vocations to the Franciscan way of life. The brothers have been putting in overtime for this event. There are several tents lining the perimeter of the cancha with exhibits for various Franciscan groups of women and men. There is as well as a booth for the Young Franciscans, or Jufra, which is like an auxiliary for the Secular Franciscans, the international movement of lay women and men who follow the Gospel example of Saint Francis of Assisi without taking the vows of consecrated life. I believe I heard an emcee giving shout-outs to the youth attending this expo from different parishes of the area. 

God bless the Franciscans for trying any means they can to make their way of life more visible in a world that may be watching but is also growing indifferent and distracted by other things. Promotion of vocations to religious life is an increasingly challenging endeavor in an age when there are many more lifestyle options, Christian and otherwise, for youths and young adults; an age when there is a reluctance to make life-long commitments of any kind, to employment, to living in one place, or to marriage; and an age in which celibacy is seen as far less attractive or meaningful a way to live one’s sexuality and far more difficult to live with integrity. 

We Capuchin friars in the United States have entered into a dry period again when it comes to recruitment of men to our way of life and retention of those persons through initial formation. In our New York-New England province we have gone two years without a postulant class, though we will have two young men join us this year as postulants, thanks be to God. Seven years ago, I entered a novitiate class of 24 men from across North America and the Pacific. This academic year, the number of Capuchin novices across the continent was less than half that, and of that number a few were from outside North America, hailing from Australia. Keeping friars through formation has also been a struggle. In the last decade, the vast majority of our brothers in temporary vows left initial formation before making perpetual vows. It is normal for half or more than half of the men who join a religious community as postulants to leave before making perpetual vows. But it is distressing when a great majority of them depart, even when each of them has made a good discernment and had a good reason to depart. 

It does begin to make you wonder what God is saying to that religious community at large, doesn’t it? It has certainly made me wonder. God certainly has no special need for one religious order or another. But I have to ask, does God love our fraternity of Capuchins? What does God really think of us? Is God pleased with us? What is God saying about us, about our way of life, and about the way we live our life? We always have to read the signs of the times and respond to those signs through the framework of the Gospel.

Easier done when the Holy Spirit is with you. It is Ascension today in Bolivia. I continue to struggle with the mysterious dynamic of a God whose love presents and is then withdrawn. Christ leaves his friends with the “promise of the Father,” which is another way of referring to the Holy Spirit. But as those of you who have been reading closely lately know, I am having a hard time keeping the three persons of the Trinity, the one God, together. I remain in love with Jesus Christ the Son; I am always at peace with the Holy Spirit; but toward God the Father, the Other, the transcendent, I am feeling hard feelings. I know this does not make sense, because God is one and is Father and Son and Spirit all at once. Why would I excuse the Son and the Spirit when I accuse the Father of capricious activity? God is one, and the activity of God is the activity of the three persons. I will need the wisdom of someone more theologically and psychologically astute to help me out of my confusion and dissatisfaction. 

At any rate, while I have had episodes of unhappiness and sometimes sheer crankiness, I know that the renewal for which I long is not far away. Christ goes before us, to open heaven for us, which is to say, Christ makes our real selves and our true destiny available to us. Christ makes the life of God available to us, even when we do not know or understand what God is doing to us or what God wants to make of us. The Spirit comes to us even when everything else we cherish and love goes away from us. I say “even when,” but in the mystery of faith it may be better to say “precisely because” everything else we cherish and love goes away from us. 

So the world may continue to go wrong; the Capuchin family may dwindle and slowly go extinct; and all my personal dreams and hopes may be dashed. But the Spirit is still coming, and the reign of heaven is still on the way. It makes no earthly sense to affirm this, but Jesus did say that his kingdom is not of this world. All I can do, all I have to do, is stick around and have the courage to endure until what God has in mind is revealed.