Camino to Morocco, Chapter 27

May 17th, My Darkest Day

Last night I lay in bed, unable to sleep, blaming the heat and loud Arabic chatting from the adjacent room. But the real reason was clear. My plan to go to Chefchaouen tomorrow was absurd, and only an excuse. So many people had told me how beautiful and quaint this little village was, almost like in Switzerland, and I just “had to go there.”  But this wasn’t why I was here. I wasn’t a tourist, on holiday. I was, like Dr. Tom in “The Way,” here, on “family business.” I hope to someday return for those reasons, but it will be with my wife, and certainly not on May 17th.

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What I needed to do was to back to ALIF (the Arabic Language Institute in Fes) again to talk to Cullen’s Professor. We had met, earlier in the week, but not really talked.

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I needed to sit in Cullen’s chair in room 100 again and see “his” classroom.

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I needed to sit in the courtyard and drink coffee and eat almond cake. I needed to wander around the university library and gaze in amazement.

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I needed to eat a camel-burger and drink a chocolate shake at the Clock Cafe. I needed to drink mint tea at the corner table in the cafe with pool tables. I came here to see the world through Cullen’s eyes. One last time, for him, with him.

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But I didn’t want to. It would mean saying goodbye, it would mean that I was checking these things off, and throwing my clump of dirt onto the casket. I didn’t want to, but I needed to.

I jumped out of bed, and swung open the door to again tell Allal that there had again been a change in itinerary. We are NOT going to Chefchaouen tomorrow.

And so we did all those things, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute.

On the last stop of the day, Allal had run across the street to digitally capture the moment. I sat at the cafe sipping mint tea, and he shouted to make the peace sign, because he knew our Cullen always did this in pictures.
And now, the end of the day, for some reason, and it was always unpredictable, I melted.

Allal pleaded with me not to cry. Today was the first time this year’s journey had immersed me here. I’d been in Morocco over a week, but this was the first time I would visit that place inside where I had such little control. After almost three years, I was, for the most part, in a really good place. But sometimes, and it was hard to predict the catalyst, the emotions would let loose. I had spent the day vicariously as my son, seeing these things with the same blue eyes we had gotten from my father. We tasted the same mint in every cup of tea, and overwhelming cumin and other spices in the food that was so different from what we had both eaten at the same table. We were drenched with same sweat, and burned with the same sand. We were feeling the same cultural amazement, and now had heard the same professor in the same room.

“Please, Mr. William, please don’t be so sad. Please don’t be always crying and sad!” This actually caught me a little off guard, because I wasn’t “always” crying, and certainly didn’t think I had been acting sadly. These moments were now few and far between. And even now, I wasn’t blubbering and wailing like I used to do. It was just a few tears running down my cheek, and probably wouldn’t even have been noticed under my sunglasses if I hadn’t started wiping them away.

“Cullen is with Allah, and it’s a beautiful thing, a wonderful place!” I’d had quite a few conversations about religion in the El Harrami household, and it was touching that he now felt comfortable saying such things in an attempt to console me.  “He is at salam, (peace).”

One of those conversations with Allal included his sister-in-law Nisrine, who knew well the observance of Islamic law. And not just the ritual observance, this family seemed to have dug pretty deeply, and knew in their heart that their’s was the true religion. So, I’m not so sure they were thrilled with the place I was willing to exit our hour’s-long conversation. If I was such a truth seeker, why would I be content with my “false religion?”

I suppose “turnabout is fair play.” Being reasonably well versed in Catholic apologetics, I was used to responding to concerns from Protestants dispelling misconceptions about the RC tradition. At the end of the day, we Christians really do agree on much more than we disagree on, and certainly the most important tenants.

In fact, my then evangelical wife Sharon and I had had this very conversation on our first date. She was incredulous that I thought my faith tradition was right and others’ were wrong. Not that it’s a perfect church, precisely because I (and other humans like me) are part of it; rather I hold that She’s been guided by the Holy Spirit through apostolic succession for 2000 years. If I didn’t believe my faith was the “true” one, I’d most certainly be somewhere else.

Anyway, so here I am, a guest in a home who thinks any reasonable person who takes the time to learn about the prophet and his writings, couldn’t possibly come to any other conclusion. In their minds, they were as “right” as I am. The fact that I have all sorts of rebuttals for Christianity, and “gotcha” questions for my Muslim family was irrelevant. Perhaps we were both, in our hearts, as good, as faithful, and as loving, as we were called to be. Perhaps our very same God had revealed Himself differently to different cultures, in a way most appropriate to them, and their customs, and traditions.

I sat silently there with Allal for a few moments, for a few reasons.

I did need to recompose, but I also rather enjoyed hearing my new friend, who had never even met my son, be so confident that he was in paradise with Allah.  The phrase Muslims almost always use to greet includes, “Salam,” which means “Peace,” or “God’s Peace.”  This struck me a bit, since Cullen often lifted his hand with the peace sign in photos.

Allal looked directly into my eyes as I lifted my sunglasses to wipe them again, “I know this, my brother, because he is your son. He must be so much like you. You are so loving and such a good person, my brother.” This was a bit much for me also, so I lowered my glasses again, took a final sip of mint tea, and said, “OK, let’s go.”

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And so I had done what I had intended to do. Cullen had had quite a “reversion,” a return to his baptized faith tradition when he had been here in Morocco. He had returned with a faith I was am in awe of.

And now I felt it too. He’d told me that every movement of every day he had felt proselytized, even assaulted in faith by so many here. I certainly hadn’t felt that way, but it was easy to see how a 18 year old could feel this way. And you had to be awe-struck, and even admire, their faith. Five times each day we would hear the Adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. For some reason (I’ll address later), I wasn’t allowed to (visibly) be present to view worship in a mosque, but I found this most interesting, even compelling.

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It’s been called the most beautiful sound in the world, when the muezzin calls to prayer. I would differ in my preference, but I kind of get it. To be so focused on God, and doing what you feel is your reason for being here is a beautiful thing. it’s not all about me, it’s about why I’m here.

I saw so many things during “this year’s Camino.” This has been a culture shock x 10. On any of several occasions I saw things that would have made my son return from this place so changed, so deep, so much better than me.

I am thankful for so many things, and so many people – and you all know who you are. This has been quite a ride, and I am definitely better for it. Much love.

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I realize this is kind of a sad post, and i apologize for that. Lots of good, happy, and funny posts still to come. May 17 will likely always be like this. Sorry.

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“As-salamu alaykum”

Everybody Remembers a Mike

I think Dewey and Vaudean Gimlin used to see me for what I was back then – Eddie Haskell, Wally Cleaver’s best friend on Leave it to Beaver.  And although this was pretty correct, their son Mike and I used to feed off of each other.  This is why we were best friends for about a fourth of my life.

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Every time Mike got into trouble, Dewey pretty much blamed me.  My long hair was probably why Dewey saw to it that Mike’s was never more than about a half inch – he was too curly to allow a military “flat top,” but this was the general idea.

Although I went to St Francis Xavier and he went to public elementary school, weekends and all summer long found us together.  He was classmates with Paul Ensor and the three of us would always be together in some combination, typically together, and inseparable.

These were the days a mom could drop her 10 year old at the pool, and not see him again until dinner-time, and she’d still be a “good mom.”  Back when we’d get up before daybreak on Saturday and fly off on our stingray bikes with fishing poles and spend the entire day at the ditch (crick for some of you), and come back with a “mess-o’-catfish” or empty handed, and burnt and exhausted, and fulfilled with what growing up in Sikeston, Missourah meant.

I remember one Saturday morning, knocking on the aluminum storm door.  Normally it would be unlocked, and I’d peck on the front door, if it was even closed, and I’d hear the official welcome, “Come on in Billy!”  But today, Mr. Dewey opened the front door, and spoke to me through the glass.  His voice was stern, but that’s just how he was sometimes, especially if he was scolding Mike for participating in some of our shenanigans.

“Bill, Mike’s pretty sick, and won’t be able to ‘come out to play,’ today.”  I assumed it must be contagious, because they normally asked me in.

“Oh, yes sir, uhm, ok, well.. Mr. Gimlin, please tell him to get better quick, my sister’s having a party this afternoon, and we’re gonna spy on them!” (Eddie Haskell indeed)  “Sure, Bill, I’ll tell him.”

No big deal, we’d catch up later.  Off I zipped a few blocks away to my classmate and other best friend Bob Leible’s house. We probably watched Johnny Quest and ate Alpha Bits and then played catch or whatever.  Mr. Dewey or Miss Vaudean must have called Mom to let her know what was going on, because that evening, when I finally got home, she sat me down and told me that Mike was pretty sick, and not to go back over there until they called back to say it was OK.   “But Mike’s going to be OK.”  She was emphatic.  I remember the emphasis, but I knew that already.  “Of course Mike was going to be OK.”

Pretty sick to me meant the flu, or strep throat, or ‘chicken pops,’ or even a really bad sunburn.  I had little concept of “pretty sick,” and certainly no concept of what pretty sick might lead to.  My Grandpa and Grandma, and Papu and Mamu were all still alive.  Mamu represented what really sick meant.  She lived upstairs in her house in a steel bed, and whenever I was brought along to visit, she’d mumble my name repeatedly and nonsensically the entire time I was there.

I take that back.  I did have a concept of death, but only from a far distance.  When I was probably only 12 or 13, one of the kids on my street just disappeared.  She just stopped playing with other kids and me.  I remember her house, and that she was really sweet and nice, and very cute, and in band with all of us.  Before anyone really knew she was gone, we were told that our little friend Kim Inman had died from something called Reye’s Syndrome.  None of us went to her funeral; I guess you’re just supposed to shelter kids from depressing stuff like that.

Anyway, Mike had been gone about a month before I was told that he was in the hospital in Memphis at St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital with a thing called Hodgkin’s Disease.  “Whew! At least he didn’t have Reye’s Syndrome!”

As it turns out, Hodgkin’s disease is a form of Leukemia. And today, it’s a form that can generally be put into remission.  Back then, the odds weren’t quite so good, so they basically threw the chemotherapy kitchen sink at them.  Afterwards he had radiation, which meant that even after he got home, it was weeks before I could see my best bud again.

Flash forward 40 years.  Now we had buried all four of our grandparents, I’d said goodbye to Dad in 1998, and then held Mom’s hand as she passed just a few months ago.  Death and mortality were often on my mind, and I was grappling with existential issues.  One of my remaining close Sikeston connections, Dr. Sam, called me to let me know that my dear old friend Mike was in the hospital, and probably would not come home.  He thought I should know.

And so I went home one last time.  Not counting Mom’s funeral, it had been over ten years since I’d been here.  Would Sikeston always be home?  And it had been 30 years since I had seen Mike, except a few minutes at the one reunion.  Why would I drop what I was doing, cancel my full appointment book to see someone I didn’t really even know anymore?  Why would I care?

We all have “Mike’s” in our histories.  And when we peel back layer after layer of the onion, we discover that person impacting our lives in ways, over the years, that we’d never really considered.

A cruel word by a classmate, an ass-kicking by a bully, or judgement from a parent or the pulpit seems to linger in our subconscious for decades, We remind ourselves how ridiculous this is looking back, but the effect is profound regardless. That’s why shrinks have patients shout at empty chairs, and say things previously left unsaid, but apparently helpful to finally get out.

Likewise, good experiences and loving words affect us as well.  I don’t think this gets nearly enough attention.  Mike was a good friend, and a wonderful person.  We went different directions at college time, and we fell into vastly different crowds. Years later, Mike shared some tears and heartfelt regret over some of the things that happened during those years.  I would grovel for not including him as a groomsman when I got married.  I hadn’t seen him in years, and I honestly forgot about him.  When we open up and share honestly, it seems to encourage others to come clean also.  He had lots of regrets.

I have plenty too.

But, “back in the day,” Mike and I had so much fun, and so many good times.  We told each other everything.  My first steady girlfriend was his girlfriend’s best friend.  (I later tried to date his wife’s sister Dolly, but he thought it was a terrible idea, because she was a “good girl,” and I was a dog).  We played tennis and worked out together.  We were in band together (with Paul and Kim and many of my friends).  We partied together, SEMO style, and navigated together to all the “farm parties,” in some random barn, or “back 40.”  I vividly remember listening to Willie Nelson, The Marshall Tucker Band, Bob Seger, and Rush, as we drove down the blacktop country roads in my Cutlass T-Top.  One time we got lost, and stopped in the middle of the road, with 10 foot corn on both sides, when a giant irrigation rig rolled out and dumped about a hundred gallons of water into the open car, completely drenching us, and filling my floorboards.

And then there was the time I was riding shotgun in Mike’s beloved, yellow Mustang Fastback as he drove us one Summer afternoon to the movie theater.  We were laughing so hard that he wasn’t paying attention, and ran that stop-sign.  I saw the sign, and the oncoming car from the side street.  Screaming “Mike!” I loosened my seat-belt and jumped into his lap. The impact destroyed the entire passenger side, and it’s door rested against the center console.  Although I look back and chuckle about it, Mike never could.  He had put his best friend in danger.  And he loved that car.  No really, he loved that car.

I suppose this is all part of the “human condition.’  So much of who we are, what we become is from our histories with those in our life at the time.  I am thankful that I knew Mike, and that he was my friend.

Why do we find ourselves “close” with certain people anyway?  How do we, just instinctively become brothers with a few of them, but just acquaintances with others?  Is it God’s providence, or just the way things just turned out?  I don’t know.

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Today is Mike Gimlin’s birthday, and I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately.

What I do know is that I’m so glad I got that call before Mike died.  We held hands and laughed until we cried about the old times. So many things I can’t share here, but suffice it to say, we lived lots of our young lives together.  I apologized again for not asking him to be in my wedding.  I felt guilty that all of my old friends had embraced him, but I wasn’t around.  Paul, Andy, Chuck, everyone but me.  I was so happy that at least they had been there.  As he dosed off, I looked at the medical record sitting on the counter.  The chemotherapy and radiation from decades ago had damaged his kidneys, and everything else was now also shutting down.  He opened his eyes again and just started talking again, as if we hadn’t paused the conversation for 10 minutes.  Mike turned his head and asked what I had brought in, probably hoping it was brownies or something.  “It’s my bible, Mike.  Would you like me to read to you?”

“Yes,” he whispered, “Yes, I would.”

I turned to what I had previously selected, the story of David slaying the giant Goliath.  And that “All things are possible through Christ, who strengthens me.”  And there I was, holding my friend’s hand, reading scripture to him, when Mike’s wife Denise, and her “good” sister Dolly walked in.  Not really sure why I think that’s funny, but I do.

I hugged Mike, as he lay there, knowing this was his deathbed.  As I turned back to wave from the doorway, I turned to see tears streaming down his cheeks.  I went back for a final embrace.  “Thanks for such good memories.  I will see you again, good friend.”

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Look back over time.  How many “Mike’s” have changed you?  They were there to laugh with for many good times, and to lean on through some bad ones.  We’re quick to blame our rotten-ness on rotten people who we’ve chosen to let darken us.  Perhaps its time to remember the good people in our formation.  Thank them for being such a good person when you needed one.  They’re the standard we compare the others to.  Call someone today that you haven’t thought about for years, and thank them for good memories.  If they’re gone, thank them when you pray.  I’ll bet they appreciate it, either way.  Much Love.

Pounding the Door in Morocco, My Continuing Camino

As the dreaded 17th of May, our darkest day, draws near, I’ve been asked multiple times where this year will take me. My friends and clients just seem to know that the middle of May will find me on a sabbatical, of sorts.  In 2013 I hiked west from St. John Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain, the infamous Camino de Santiago.  This pilgrimage was depicted in the Martin Sheen movie called The Way, which my son Cullen and I watched the day before he would leave us forever.

2014 again found me at St. John Pied de Port, but last year I walked east to Lourdes.  This famous shrine, where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette proved most fitting.  Who could know my grief more than the mother of Jesus after having lost her own son?

These are pretty clearly aligned with my journey and my faith, but why on Earth would I travel to one of the least Christian countries on the planet?  How could this piece possibly fit into the puzzle called my life?  Why would Fez be relevant to Cullen, my family, or my faith, on this journey that I often refer to as my “Camino?”

The year before he went to China, Cullen participated in another international study semester in order to garner the credit hours necessary for a “minor” degree in Arabic.  This would accompany his minor in French, and dual majors, in Spanish and Chinese.  Bear in mind, this was at age 19. William Cullen Klein would graduate from Florida State University in two years with four degrees, after finishing high school in two years, concurrently completing his AA through dual enrollment.

Although FSU did not have an official class placed in Morocco that Summer semester, Cullen fearlessly agreed to go it alone.  He was driven to get the credit hours only this trip would provide, so he would graduate with his four degrees, on the rushed schedule he had so carefully crafted.  But why was he in such a hurry? It was as if he knew his own timeline.

Cullen Climbing Stairs     Cullen leaving

Sorry, but when I start talking about my son, I just seem to go on and on and on.  And so, since I never tire of doing that, let’s do it some more.  This is an excerpt from my CRHP weekend retreat witness:

I loved my daughters more than life itself, but a man wants a son… On my own 34th birthday, William Cullen Klein was born.

(originally about 30 more minutes of my bragging about him here, and then:)

Adolescence was upon us and so was fear, confusion, and anger. This, of course, was manifest as rebellion. Good times and kind words were a distant memory.  The ball games, camp-outs, and fishing trips, dozens of concerts together, tossing the ball in the back yard, and even getting our Tae Kwan Do black-belts together – these were all a lifetime ago.  He hated me, my values, my Church, my house.

His unfortunate every other weekend with us served up dinners together with my new wife and two additional siblings, a midnight curfew, breath check, and of course, mandatory Sunday church. 

I realized that much of his behavior and emotions were from confusion and anxiety over those issues I’ve written about previously.

For years, I would kneel and beg God to remove his heavy burden. I prayed constantly, and made all sorts of offers, if Jesus would just show some of that compassion that I had heard so much about and make my son “normal.”

But I tried so hard for him to realize I didn’t reject him. I loved him so very much and I wanted him to know that it was truly unconditional. And I was so scared for him. 

So, about the time Cullen turned 17, I stopped begging for God to make him “normal,” and being angry at Him for being so cruel.  I began to recognize that I have a big God. A huge God that I could never begin to comprehend. A magnificent, omnipotent God who had made no mistakes, and is in control.

And so I started to simply pray for Cullen. That Jesus would meet him where he was. He had made Cullen the way he was for a reason, and that he was an incredible person, so smart and so beautiful, inside and out. And so I prayed that the creator of the universe would reach out and embrace my son

He loves him. He understands him. Through Christ, He IS the personification of love. And so, I prayed simply that they find each other. That God’s will be done.

Cullen spent the summer after his sophomore year studying on an exchange program in Morocco. I warned him about “you know what” before he left, and in that culture, well… I emphasized how much I loved him and wanted him back alive. He rolled his eyes, but knew both of those things were true. I prayed for him daily at Mass.

I was shocked at how God answered my prayers as soon as I changed the context of my prayers. I was amazed at the son that returned from Morocco.  Had his orientation changed?  Of course not, but it no longer mattered.  They had met.

“Dad, I looked out from the airplane in Barcelona, and you’ll never believe how glad I was to see a cross at the top of a church. He said every person, every day tried to convince him that Islam was the only way to God.  And so he kneeled with them in prayer several times each day. (They just didn’t know he was praying silently those prayers that he once found boring and pointless.)

My new Cullen wanted to go to Mass with us; he even had us pick him when he spent weekends at his mother’s. He went to adoration of the Eucharist, and truly knelt in prayer for hours. Not only had “they met,” Cullen had has a relationship with the creator of the Universe that I will forever be in awe of.  We’d stay up late discussing God, and Scripture, and theology. I reminded him that the word disciple means “learner,” not blind follower. Dig deep and learn about the real, historic Jesus, his teachings and how and why He loves us.”

So now, my dear friends, you see why Morocco is calling to me.

Cullen had a persona that was magnetic, and so even though he had no Florida classmates on the Fez University campus, he was adopted by new friends from Chicago.  I had no knowledge of this until Katie approached me after Cullen’s accident.  She and Victoria, and so many other kind loving beautiful kids from DePaul University reached out to my son and made him part of their own group.

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Cullen at DePaul table

Cullen had told me that he made friends with some classmates, and how funny it was, because he enjoyed talking with that upper-midwest, Chicago, almost Sarah Palin accent.  When he talked that way he had us laughing so hard we cried at the dinner table.  We still do, and although we’re not laughing so hard, they’re still very fond memories.

Morocco is the most religious country in the world.  99% of the country claims to be Sunni Muslim, the small remainder are Sufi Muslim, with about 360,000 Catholics, 50,000 Protestants, and 8,000 Jews.  Morocco is, in fact, the most Western of the African Muslim nations, both geographically and politically.  Religious diversity is allowed and encouraged, although it is still a capital crime for a citizen to convert away from Islam.

Katie and Victoria have planned quite an itinerary for me.  They’ve prepared a few phrases to learn (which I have on flashcards in my pocket), a history of the culture and relevant current events, and contacted a host family for me to stay with.  They’ve even arranged a guide for me to translate and take me to the University in Fez and places where they went with Cullen.

Unfortunately he was so fluent in Arabic and French that he was the only student placed in a family that spoke no English, so I’ll not be staying with them.  However, stopping to break bread with that family will undoubtedly be one of the first stops my “guided tour.”

We don’t really appreciate what we have and hold dearest until we feel a life without.  And so perhaps that’s why my son rediscovered his Christian faith in one of the world’s least Christian places.  I have no doubt that’s a device our Lord used as he relentlessly knocked on the door of his heart.  I imagine the intensity turning to a fist pounding on that door when the muezzin chanted the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, five times each day, until he opened it.

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“Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. (Luke 12:36)

 

And this will be consolation I hold dearest, deep in my own heart.    I have so much to be thankful for.

I leave on May 5th, and return May 19th.

Please keep me in your prayers –

Much Love.

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Leaving Peter

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Waymarker on the Camino de Santiago

 

It was early morning on the 8th day of my hiking the Camino de Santiago, and, as I approached a group of three ladies, I could tell they were speaking English.  This wasn’t entirely unusual, as about a third of the pilgrims I encountered spoke my language, but I hadn’t understood anyone since dinner the night before.

As I closed the distance behind them, I realized they were Irish, speaking with quite a brogue.  We introduced ourselves, with the typical small-talk, and they inquired as to whether or not I´d been to Ireland.  Well of course these stories of  Camille, my oldest daughter being a many time American Irish dance champion, with the resultant trips overseas, including Ireland came out.  Soon we were discussing our friends Donica and Sheena (I never can get the Gaelic spelling of their names right, so I won´t even try), who own a B & B in Roosky, in Rosscommon.

As we chatted about such stuff, we walked through a typical small town in rural Spain, with the one beautiful village Church crumbling.  Of course this then became a topic of discussion including the magnificent cathedrals throughout the place in much need of repair, and the consolation it brought to see at least a few of them being restored.

I made the passing remark that the churches in ruins were perhaps but a commentary of what has happened to Christianity throughout Europe and beyond.  The Irish ladies, from a wonderful island that had provided perhaps more priests than any other part of the world, then commented that the church scandals had really damaged people´s faith, as well as any support of religion whatsoever, especially in Ireland.

The light-bulb, of course, then went on.  I pointed out that throughout life, our leaders – our parents, elected officials, scout leaders, friends, mentors, and yes even our priests and ministers are in fact “waymarkers.” They serve to guide us, to point the proper direction, to guide the way.  The problem is that all of these “waymarkers” are simply human beings, with all the weaknesses, frailties, and sinful tendencies that all of society, all of us have as humans – it is the “human condition.”  Not to belittle the scandals, or any sin for that matter.

***

The Camino de Santiago is an assortment of routes that lead to the Cathedral of San-tiago (Spanish for St. James), where St. James the Greater, one of Jesus three closest companions was buried.  Along these routings are markers to let the pilgrims (perigrinos) know that they, indeed, are on the right road.  Most of the times the markers consist of a small, simple yellow arrow, painted on the street, curb or side of a building.  This instills much confidence after hours of hiking that the weary traveler is traveling in the right direction.  Outside the cities, towns, and villages the waymarkers are constructed of concrete, small pillars about three feet tall, with the symbol of the Camino attached as a ceramic tile to its side.  These are strategically placed to greatly aid the perigrino by confraternity volunteers, and are greatly appreciated for the same reason.  You come to expect these at regular intervals, every few miles, and start to feel lost and question your path when you haven’t seen one recently.  Its rather easy to daydream, or get lost in thought, contemplation and prayer and miss an indicator which may have indicated a turn, for instance.

Most of the waymarkers along the road were in excellent condition, well maintained with fresh “clam-shell” icons, and a coat of paint.  A few had a few cracks, but were generally in acceptable shape, and served the purpose of guiding us in the correct direction.  However more than a few were in dis-repair, crumbling, and a couple in a sad pile of rubble on the ground.

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Crumbled Waymarker on the Camino de Santiago

 

And so the metaphor seemed obvious.  Because our way-markers are also human, they can crumble, like we can, and often do.  “Still,” Irish Eileen exclaimed, she’d “not be going back into a church anytime soon.”

“Fair enough, I replied, “but perhaps this gives us some thoughts to ponder.  The fact that our way-markers crumble doesn´t stop our journey, only to throw our hands up and quit.  Furthermore, we leave the paths ourselves, even when they’re well marked, by not paying close attention, or thinking we know a better way.  “Eileen laughed and muttered under her breath, “Something tells me you’re no longer talking about Spain.”

“Of course I am, but not ONLY the Camino de Santiago, also the Camino de Life!”  Just a few days ago, I left the marked path because someone from Germany told me there was a more direct way.  I left what I had known and trusted because I had heard there was a better path.  Soon I was on a cow path that lead to a stream, and I had to turnaround and look for a way back to ‘the way.’  That was an honest mistake, probably my misunderstanding.  But some people even lead us astray intentionally, because they don’t even think there even exists a final destination, and to them, it’s all about today, having fun, screwing everyone along the way.”

“And sometimes those we trust the most, just let us down.  Our parents fail in their marriages, or have addictions; our friends really aren’t; and those who we look up to just fail.  Because they’re all humans, they’re screw ups like us.”

“Although I doubt he coined it, a famous Jesuit retreat-master named John Powell SJ, shared this advice:

You don’t leave Peter because of Judas!

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“So you’re right, it’s not just about being here in Spain.  It’s about being fully alive.  Everywhere we turn, we’re told to enjoy the moment, you only live once – ‘It’s all about me!’  Well, it’s not ‘All about me!’

“An ‘All about me’ attitude creates a selfish, entitled mentality.  This draws us away from the path, and gives those in power license to use people, and destroy lives.  The President that cheats, the priest or teacher pedophile, the addicted spouse.  Then the victims and observers, ironically, take their own ‘All about me’ attitude that they get to make their own rules, because someone they once trusted was frail, and human, and made mistakes, even horrible ones.”

“Of course we expect our leaders to have a higher standard.  And when they look at themselves in the mirror, I´m sure many are disappointed in themselves.  As I am many times.  As we all are, if we´re being honest.”

“Anyway, I’ve gotten off the path lots of times, and now I really feel like I’m back on it.  Look down, this road still leads to Santiago, there will be twists and turns along the road, with the need to have guidance when there is an obstacle.  The Church and all she offers, the Word of God, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the social gathering strengthening and supporting each other.  The fact that the markers sometimes crumble is irrelevant to the goal, the desired endpoint.  It’s not just about “me,” it’s about “God and me,” and because of that, its about, “You and me.”

They smiled politely, and said they’d be stopping for some lunch now, realizing I wasn’t going to join in the bashing of the monster they had encountered.  Not that we shouldn’t fight the monster, and we certainly must protect our children, but it’s important to have perspective, and realize that monster is everywhere, in some form.  Judas isn’t always the dark sinister figure in the shadows, often he looks back in the mirror.

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Those words were easy to say.  When the rubber meets the road, it’s often a bit more difficult.  My children have never been abused, or raped, or even taken advantage of.

But we’ve all been disappointed, and let down.  Just a few days ago, someone that I’ve grown to love and trust, and help me discern lots of important decisions acted in a way that, at the time, felt hurtful.  My human side reeled, and I felt indignant.  Then I did my best to stand back and learn those lessons that life has been trying to teach me.  These are still my friends, and have made decisions they thought were correct.

We all make decisions based on the information we have in front of us.  Seldom do we intend to hurt our friends, and so, in turn, we should give that benefit of the doubt to those we’ve invested our trust in. Sometimes a course of events appears to turn in a direction that we hadn’t expected or wanted.  With deeper consideration, we’ll likely find that we, in fact, are still on the path, or with simple adjustments can get back with an improved tool-set from this experience.

The direction of our Camino leads to ¨Santiago”  Let’s not give up the journey because we sometimes get lost or are confused as to whether or not we´re on the right road.  There is a right road, a correct path. It does exist, and we all do our best to stay on it.  Buen Camino

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Crucify Him!

Language Arts class in small-town Sikeston, Missoura High School English class included dissecting the minutia of literary classics of the day.  Among these was Harper Lee’s treatment of rape, class, racial violence, and justice (and injustice) in To kill a Mockingbird.  

Atticus Finch tells his tomboy daughter Scout to remember that “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”.  Mockingbirds never harm other living creatures, but simply provide pleasure with their songs, “They don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” ‘To kill a mockingbird’ is to kill that which is innocent and harmless—like Tom Robinson.”  

A color photograph of a northern mockingbird

Atticus is a small-town southern lawyer who raises the legal standard with his unpopular representation of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, named Mayella.  Finch’s children Scout and Jem, and their friend Dill are central characters and through whose eyes we see the plot unfold.

Scout soon must defend her father’s honor when classmates taunt that he’s a “nigger-lover,” and defuses a lynch mob as she stands by him blocking the door to the jail.  Atticus had taught Scout (and us) that mobs do not think, but rather act on emotion.  Atticus tells Jem to remember that mobs are “made up of people”, meaning that if a mob is broken down into the individuals that are part of it, then it is no longer a mob thinking with the emotional collective brain.  It is now just a group of individuals each with his own sense of right and wrong.

People, on their own, are far less apt to do the things that mobs do.  Mobs tend to rely on emotion and not thought, whereas people are more likely to use some thought before they act.  Even people who disagree on some issues can stand up for one another and protect one another.

Absent this, the mob creates headlines and horrible memories of Michael Brown, Rodney King, and Reginald Denny.

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One of the many symbolic side-plots, Atticus must shoot a rabid dog (a not so subtle racism metaphor) running in the street, although it’s “not his job to do it.”  This is clearly Harper Lee’s reminder of our own free choice to do what is right, despite whether or not it’s our obligation to do so.

And so we come back to Holy Week.

Jesus is approaching Jerusalem. Somehow word has leaked out that here is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee. Could he be the Messiah?

Word spreads in the gathering crowd. He’s riding on a donkey with her colt. Didn’t the prophet Zechariah say something about this? Could he be the Messiah?

By now the crowd is large. Then the actions start. Somewhere in the midst of all the people someone lays a branch on the ground in front of Jesus. Then someone else does it. Someone else lays a cloak on the ground. And before you know it seemingly everyone is doing it.

And such a clamor! Everyone is making noise, noise that comes together in a din, nothing very defined. Until, ringing out distinctly above it all, a word is heard, a prayer. Others join in. Finally, in unison, like a great choir, all around Jesus the crowd is shouting, “Hosanna!”

Save us, son of David, from the oppressive hand of the Roman rulers!

Save us from our sin, Jesus, you who come in the name of the Lord!

Of course you know what’s next.

It’s not just the Roman leaders here who think Jesus is a threat to the establishment. It’s also the Jewish religious leaders.

For many years the Jewish people have been under foreign rule. Uprisings have been attempted—even uprisings that were thought to be messianic. But now, at this time in history, the religious leaders have it pretty well. They are the “who’s who” in the city of Jerusalem. The Roman overlords give these religious leaders quite a lot of liberty. These religious leaders have grown accustomed to the respect shown them. And so on.

But now this so-called prophet, this Jesus of Nazareth, is causing a stir. Not good, as far as the religious leaders are concerned. Not good, to the point that they want him out of the way—to the point that they want him dead! Yes, he’s that much of a threat!

Apparently they’re not the only disgruntled ones.  Whether it’s impatience, frustration, or something more sinister – truly evil, One of his closest followers, hand picked for redemption, has sold Him out for thirty pieces of silver!

Jesus is then tried in an early morning, nefarious kangaroo court, and found guilty on trumped up charges. Pilate, the Roman leader in charge of the trial, caves to the mob.  Instigated by the Jewish religious leaders, the crowd shouts, again and again, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

But here’s the worst part: this is by and large the same crowd that was shouting Hosanna just a few days ago. And now it’s, “Crucify him!”

We humans are fickle.

There are times we feel like nothing can come between me and Jesus. He has redeemed me; he is saving me from all my sin and wickedness; and he will lead me into glory. I know this in the bottom of my heart, down to the core of my being. And nothing’s gonna shake me. Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!

But you know how it is. Life sneaks in a sucker punch. We don’t see it coming, but all of a sudden the wind is knocked out of us. All of a sudden, we have questions, doubts, quandaries. And we begin to think, Maybe I’m not so sure about my faith after all. Maybe Jesus was just a man, that this story I’ve heard all my life, that this faith I practice, is just a complex Santa Claus story. Viscerally I believe, and not just with my emotions, but truly with my reasoning as well. But from somewhere creeps these doubts.  Maybe the crowd’s right after all. Maybe I should just give up, forget this emotional wave I’ve been surfing. Maybe I should just give in and yell “Crucify him!” with everyone else.

So then, what are you going to do?

And so, here we are on Palm Sunday participating in the annual reading of Our Lord’s Passion.  We get to the part where we’re supposed to be the worked up mob, “Crucify Him!  CRUCIFY HIM!!!”  My inner Pharisee feigns indignation.  “I would never have shouted that!”  Who am I fooling?  Of course I would have.

Jesus hand-picked these twelve from anyone in the world.  They lived with Him for three years.  They witnessed miracles. Firsthand!  They saw lepers cured; With their own eyes, they saw Lazarus and the small child raised from the dead!  Three of them witnessed the transfiguration.  They saw Him walk on water!

But they fell asleep when He begged them to stay awake.  Everyone of them (except John) deserted him and ran for their lives.  The man He trusted enough to hand over the “keys,” and whom He called “the rock,” denied him three times, cursing that He didn’t even know the Man.

And I think I’m better than they were?  I, who beg and plead for a deeper love and stronger faith, because of my human weaknesses?

God has the fullness of time, seeing the past, present, and future all together.  He knew these men would betray Him.  And He made me this way.  With all of my doubts, faults, and shallowness.  He knows I try.  He knows I love Him with all that my human weakness allows.  But, in fact, I am human.  “Lord I do believe.  Help my unbelief!”

What you are is God’s gift to you. What you become is your gift to God (Hans Urs Von Balthasar)

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Credits to The Holy Bible, Harper Lee, Cliff’s Notes, Vivens In Sacerdotium, Bill O’Reilly, and Wikipedia and Saint Augustine.

They’ve Taken Him Away

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It’s always startling to look up from the pews and not see the image of Christ up behind the altar.  Many churches place a veil there during Holy Week, or even the entire 40 days of Lent, to aid in our Lenten journey of “doing without.” Apparently this is an ancient custom, another tradition packed with meaning and symbolism.  It arose during the earliest times, reminiscent of the Jewish temple curtain, “torn in half,” at the moment of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. (Mt 27:50-51); (Mk 15,38); (Lk 23,45).

My German brothers I met on the Camino call this veil the Fastentuch, or “fasting cloth.”

Everything in the Church has meaning – everything we do, everything we say, every object and every action.  They either are truth, or they represent/remind us of scripture, or a calling to reverence for our Lord.  This is the essence of the “tradition” that is so confusing to those looking in, and mis-represented by so many “leaders” outside of the Church to their respective congregations.

From “crossing ourselves” to a Crucifix on the wall.  From Holy Water to statues.  From memorized prayers and a liturgical form of worship to vestments worn by the ordained.  Even if your own faith tradition doesn’t understand the relevance or scriptural basis for “traditions” such as these, certainly you can see the beauty in provoking a deeper atmosphere of prayer and reverence.

So anyway, the inner curtain of the Jewish temple separated  the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies, from all of us.

And so, this tearing open of the curtain with the death of Jesus opens up access to the inner sanctum, and we now may enter into our own relationships with Him.

The Lenten Veil separates the community from that image of Jesus we grow so familiar with, and tend to take for granted.  There are many places where any display of this symbol representing the very heart of our faith are forbidden, and actually subject to severe punishment.  When we look up and see the Cross of Jesus gone, it pulls viscerally, and creates a longing.  It symbolizes an emptiness of life without our faith, without Jesus.  We are truly alone, and life has lost all of its meaning.  

This is a form of physical penance, of fasting.  The vernacular term “starving” thus refers not only to material poverty, but to a spiritual nakedness of facing life alone, the futility of suffering for no reason.  Again, life loses all of its meaning.

Wikipedia affirms it in its German edition:

The somber custom is believed to come from a 9th century German practice of extending a large cloth called the “Hungertuch” (hunger cloth) before the altar from the beginning of Lent. The cloth – which hid the altar – was not removed until during the reading of the Passion on the Wednesday in Holy Week – at the words, “the veil of the temple was rent in two.”

The building and placement of a fast cloth was – as a religious – with a few exceptions Tradition maintained until the 18th century only in Catholic areas, as Luther against this tradition of religious art pronounced as “Gaukelwerk”. Although they once extended far beyond the original boundaries, they remained after the Reformation obtained only in the formation bidding; occasionally there are still churches that maintain the tradition. However, it appears that the Lenten veil is being rediscovered as an art form, and many Protestant churches now participate in the custom.

And so as we joyously and jubilantly welcomed the Messiah Yeshua into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, we progress through the most holy of weeks.

We are encouraged to commit to our own sacrifice.  If we’ve never “given up” anything for Lent, or if we’ve failed to keep good on that intent this season, its time to recommit for these last seven days.  Again, it’s not what we sacrifice, its that we sacrifice.  And it’s not for Him, it’s for us.  Some small reminder of what should really be important in our lives.  Something that forces us to pause, to focus, to imagine being without.

Most certainly Jesus knew how the week would end – the suffering of His Passion, the panic and despair of his followers, and their jubilant ecstasy of his victory over death at His Resurrection.  As we remember and desperately miss our beloved family and friends who have departed, we take much consolation in the confidence that our Lord has torn open that curtain, embracing them as they enter to the other side.

Much Love.  Have a Blessed Holy Week, 2015.

The Evil Eye

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I don’t know if Helene Friedman is alive anymore, but I do have fond memories.  About half of what she said was incomprehensibly Yiddish, but I found her antics generally entertaining.  She was quite old and feeble, and an infamous “cat-lady,” who always seemed to just “appear out of thin air” holding two cat carriers.  The few dollar bills she could produce were damp from inside her brassiere, and her glasses were literally taped together.  One thing that sticks with me, after 25 years, is her saying something about “Kinna Hurra,” which she said was so I would not get the evil eye.  It was all a bit of nonsense to me, reminiscent of the “stink eye” mentioned in the movie Juno, or that unpleasant leer Michelle Obama whips out sometimes.  But apparently that’s not at all what she was referring to.

My Rabbi client was in the other day and I mentioned this, and he smiled amusingly at me like my Spanish clients do when I make an attempt at saying something coherent in their language.

“You must mean, ‘Kein Ayin Hora,’ which is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew, ‘Bli Ayin Hara.'”

“Yes, of course that’s surely what I meant,” I smiled back, equally entertained at myself.

“What the heck does it mean?”

The good Rabbi gave me two explanations.

  1. The more traditional describes the “curse” placed on someone who succeeds or attains goals or wealth.  A less fortunate person would look with great jealousy (ayin hara) at his brother and pray to Almighty Gd, complaining of the inequity.  The “evil eye” has effectively placed a “hex.”  The would result in someone acting or showing less evidence of success to avoid such a curse.  Likewise, if complimented, he might say “Kinna Hurra,” or actually spit afterwards, to avoid the curse (apparently evil spirits don’t like spit).  And so when one observes something good happening, he then quickly follows up with this expression, so as not to “jinx” the apparent good outcome.  (I laughed out loud because I remembered Helene actually spitting after uttering her kinnahurra, and how taken back I was that she would do so in my exam room!)
  2. The explanation he said he liked better was deeper, and probably more meaningful to me, as a Christian.  “One of your ‘Catholic Books’ is called Tobit  (I nodded, because  I had recently read these 7 books tossed during the reformation, and remembered it pretty well).  Well Tobit, as well as Proverbs, refers to the concept of the ‘eye’ as a window, letting in light.”

But the ancients also thought of the eye another way, as lights shining interior light of the body.  Psalm 38 talks about ‘eyes as having lost their luster.’  Of course you are thinking in medical terms, Dr. Bill, but this isn’t scientific, or medical.  It’s the observation that someone’s eyes show their inner character.

I shared that Matthew and Luke both talk about the eyes showing light or darkness within.  The Rabbi smiled approvingly, and continued,

So, Matthew and Luke make more sense now – if the eye is generous, it is bright and the body is filled with interior light or goodness. But if the eye is set on cursing others, the body is full of darkness.

And so, my friend, the little old woman in your memory was not only wishing you well, but paying you the highest compliment.  She felt you were generous and had treated her kindly.

I thought of Helene recently, which is probably why this story was in my mind when the Rabbi came in.  I was on a bus at the North American Veterinary Conference, shuttling between the two meeting venues when I looked over to the other side of the road to see an elderly woman running with a hand-written cardboard sign.  In her other hand she held a pet carrier that she was swinging wildly.  This strange sight caught the attention of the bus-load full of veterinarians, until the cage door sprung open and her few clothes and possessions fell to the ground.  Many people in nearby cars seemed amused, smiling as they looked away, but my stomach fell to the floor, as I continued to watch.  She dropped the broken cage and started wiping her face, over and over again, as her tears continued to stream down her cheeks.  As she placed her glasses back on her face, I saw the tape holding them together.

As the light changed to green, my bus rolled away, and I smiled to see brake-lights of someone stopping to help her.

And so, the eyes are the window to the inner character, and perhaps the soul itself.

Do we look away with Ayin Hara, an evil eye of inner darkness, or do we look compassionately with Ken Ayin Hara, a generous eye shining with an inner light?

I’ll continue to fail miserably, I’m sure.  However, I am beginning to recognize Him along my own journey to Emmaus.  I’m reminded of a prayer shared with me by a Jesuit at Whitehouse Retreat in St. Louis:

Lord, keep me ever mindful, that we are always in your presence.

 

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