Camino to Morocco, Chapter 1

Having only packed two pair of trousers for my two week trip to Morocco, I was less than thrilled, but the Irish stewardess clearly was, as she doubled over in laughter.  This was contagious and instantly about six rows were all in stitches as I stood to reveal my purple crotch, drenched with Virgin Airline’s finest vintage, and now running down both legs.  “Laugh it up, Ginger!” I encouraged her, who was still giggling uncontrollably, “I know, I know, it’s all good craic!”  Katie informed us all that she would promptly wet her pants if she didn’t stop laughing, and the other attendant agreed, as if this was very normal and typical.

This is just a teaser.  If you (for some reason) want to follow this year’s “Camino to Morocco,” please go to my other blog: click here, and don’t forget to click the “follow” button, over there, as well as “like,” and leave your comments and suggestions!

If you want to scroll down, you’ll see, in reverse chronological order, last years Camino to the shrine at Lourdes, and, several pages down, 2013’s infamous Camino de Santiago.

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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”

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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Saints & Mass Intentions – Part 2. And Morocco

Always a little teary and short of breath when I hear my son’s name at church as a soul we’re praying for, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the next intention.

If you haven’t glanced at “Part 1,” please scroll down a bit first; its a really quick read.

The kneeling moments after communion often touch me deeply, for a number of reasons.  As a devout Roman Catholic, I totally accept that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ, quite literally.  Even non-Catholics have shared with me how moving the reverence in a Catholic Mass is for our Lord.  And if you truly believe in His presence here with us, how else would you behave?  This in itself puts me in a special place.

The second reason is that one of my last memories of Cullen, my eternally 19 year old son, was kneeling next to him at an adoration service where the Holy Eucharist was present on the altar for us to reverence, meditate, and in an Ignatian way, to contemplate on.  Sarah Kroger was the music minister, and I’ve always been so very moved with her worship music.  After kneeling in prayer and adoration of our Lord, for over an hour, I looked over at Cullen.  I truly expected him to be dis-engaged, even texting, or at least at this point, sitting.  An hour is a very long time to kneel.  I was taken back to see my beautiful boy, kneeling in deep prayer, tears running down his cheeks, and a smile on his lips.  I was then also brought to tears.  My son knew my God in a way that I am, to this day, still in awe of.  He was conversing with our Lord, and so many of my prayers had been answered.

When he was a little younger, around 15 years old, my son was pretty typical.  Rebellious and a bit of a smart aleck, Cullen preferred staying with his Mom, cause there were few rules there, particularly concerning curfew, weed, and sleepovers.  He resisted going to Mass, and often butted heads with me on a few issues, but in retrospect, probably rooted in frustrations he had not yet come to terms with.  He was much more like me than he could admit at the time, with a deep seated compass and a very conservative nature.

A self described “polyglot,” Cullen was fascinated with all things linguistic.  At 17, he was fluent in Spanish, French, and conversational in German, Korean, Chinese, and Arabic.  He was up at all hours of the night studying Rosetta Stone and reading, and Skyping with friends all over the world, practicing and attempting to speak without accent.  Extremely intelligent, he was awarded his AA degree (having dual-enrolled at the local community college, he had completed his first four college semesters), and graduated from his high school after summer school his Junior year.  So, nine days after his 17th birthday, Cullen started Florida State University as a Junior, with majors in Spanish and Chinese Mandarin.  Wow.

Cullen participated in an international studies program in Fez, Morocco the next Summer, where he would earn enough credit hours to qualify for Arabic as a Minor degree.  After that 6 week study program, he was to stay for two weeks in Barcelona, Spain with the sister of his mother’s best friend, who lived there.  He planned to drop by to see us for a short weekend, then return to FSU to start the Fall semester.

We texted with a phone App periodically, but I do vividly remember Skyping with him one evening with his Moroccan family walking back and forth in the background.  At some point the elderly grandmother started shouting at him, glanced at me on the computer screen, then shouted again.  He laughed and explained that it was time for the family to eat dinner, and she treated him like all the other kids in the family, scolding him for not being seated at the table and ready.

I also remember vividly having the very serious conversation about his “orientation” in a Muslim country.  I pleaded with him to take this stuff seriously when he was there, because I wanted his head to come back attached to his body.

It was also around this time when I dramatically changed my approach to praying for him.

I am a pretty religious guy; I seriously study scripture and Church teachings, and try to apply them to my life.  I constantly converse with God, all day, every day.  I ask for favors and intercessions, I give thanks, and I beg for guidance.  So you could say I “pray” all the time.  However, at times, I have a much deeper, contemplative prayer time, such as after Communion.

For the longest time – for years, I prayed for Jesus to have the compassion to change Cullen’s orientation.  I knew it was so difficult on him, and that no one would “choose” to be attracted to the same sex.  A lifetime of prejudice and hatred was certainly going to accompany him.  I was sick with anguish about the physical and mental health risks.  And certainly, as I’ve expressed previously, I was concerned as to how this would affect his salvation.

It was about this point in time, after so many years, that I found myself no longer praying for my son’s “healing.”  “Normal” seemed to take a back seat to “healthy.”  I prayed for extended periods of time that Jesus walk with my son and keep him safe; To guide him in his decisions; To know how very loved he was; To realize that God was knocking on the door and it was time to open it.

God had made my son the was he was for a reason.  I’ll never know why.  It still seems unfair, and even cruel – unless there are other components to our relationship with Him that we just don’t understand yet. And, of course there are.

So I prayed, longer, and deeper, and more often than ever before.  I pleaded for my son to develop a healthy, happy relationship with my Jesus, who I knew so very well.  The Jesus I know loves unconditionally, because He is love, personified.  I begged for an intercession, by whoever was listening up there, to God to rescue my boy, to bring him “home” and keep him steadfast and righteous.

I had completed my 2 hour commute home from work on Saturday afternoon, about 2 weeks before Cullen was due to return from Morocco.  For some reason we had decided to go to Mass on Saturday, as something was going on Sunday that would keep us from all being together.  My wife Sharon had said something that led me to believe that my oldest daughter Camille was back in town for the day and would be joining us at Church, which I always considered good.  Apparently everyone was “in on it,” except for me.  So I remember being in a really good mood, anxious to see Cam and glad that she wanted to join us for Mass.  I’m sure I bounced, in my happy, dorky way from the parking lot to where I saw them gathered in the foyer in front of Holy Name of Jesus Church.

I remember the odd look on everyone’s face when I looked around and asked where Camille was.  Pregnant pause.  Then their eyes left mine, and looked towards the fountain, and the statue of Jesus.  Seated there next to Jesus was Cullen, with an ear to ear smile!

I get a little choked up every time I think of this scene playing over and over again in my mind.  We ran to each other and embraced, both with tears down our cheeks.

Not that my shedding a tear is anything unusual.  Everyone that know me, knows that I cry at SPCA and Hallmark commercials.

“Cullen!”  I exclaimed, “Why did you come back so early?”  I knew he had so been looking forward to being in Barcelona, in real Spanish culture, living with Spanish friends.  “Dad,” he explained, “When I was landing in Spain, I looked out and saw a Cathedral.  I never thought I’d be so glad to see a cross on the top of a church!”

“Every moment of every day,” he said, “Someone was trying to convert me to Islam … from the guy selling newspapers, to the pretty girl on the bench, to the host family.”  The proselytizing had taken its toll, and he was ready to go “home.”

From that moment on, Cullen was so very different.  He actually seemed like he wanted to spend time with me, with us.  He looked forward to going to Church, and discussing religion and spirituality with me.  At first I skeptical, it was just such a turn-around.  But it became more and more credible every day.  On Sundays, Cullen would call me from school, as he walked 45 minutes home from Church to his apartment, to discuss the homily.  How many college kids walk 45 minutes each way to attend church?

So, I digress.  But it does serve as background.  Anyway, it was August 27th of this year.  I was born on August 27, and so was Cullen.  That’s right, Cullen was my 32nd birthday present from God in 1992.  So of course I had requested Mass be said for Cullen on August 27.  And, even though I was expecting it, the mention of his name as the “special intention” of the day’s Mass found me squeezing Cullen’s cross pendant necklace, and looking down.

The rest of the Mass was a bit of a blur, except the mention during the homily of the patron saint for August 27th.

St. Monica.

The very same St. Monica who prayed and cried daily for the salvation and return to the faith of her son Augustine.

With all my heart I now believe in the intercession of the Saints on our behalf.  We are not here alone.  We are part of the “Communion of Saints.” The time/space continuum is certainly something that we, as finite creatures just can not grasp, but one thing is definite.  Is it a coincidence that Cullen and I were born on the feast day of St. Monica?  Lately I’ve just noticed way too many things and people woven together with that famous “red thread”  that Amy Hollingsworth discusses in Gifts of Passage.  I’ve come to the conclusion that there are no coincidences.

Life does not end with our mortality.  There is life on the other side, and it’s not somewhere else.  Our loved ones are with us in a very real way, and touch us in ways we can not even imagine.