Saturday, August 20, 2016

It's Not Complicated

Yesterday's very basic gospel set me to thinking about a beautiful exchange I had on a very difficult day with one of the youngest pilgrims, a girl of 11.

Here's that gospel:

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them,
a scholar of the law, tested him by asking,
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him,
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart,
with all your soul, and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Mt. 22:34-40

She was sitting next to me in a bus, and as was happening with significant frequency in those days, I was crying. Just tears running down my face.

She asked me some basic questions about what was wrong. I gave her basic answers, explaining that I was sad. She told me, simply, that she was sorry that I was sad.

Hours later, we sat near each other again, and again she asked me how I was.

I was deeply aware of two things. First, her simple act of noticing and sharing my sorrow earlier had helped me significantly. Secondly, I was experiencing something that God had taught me a profound lesson about twenty years ago. The lesson was about what it looks like to love God and love neighbor. My "teacher" in the lesson was the Blessed Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, beholding and sharing in the suffering of her Son. Her lesson was that she wanted other people simply to look at Jesus, not to turn away from Him, not to be absorbed elsewhere, but to behold Jesus, even if it was simply on the level of seeing a man suffering, and responding with the heart. "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy."

So I told my young friend I was feeling stronger, and thanked her for helping me. That her being sorry for my sadness reminded me of Mary's love.

We need not making loving God and loving neighbor so complicated.

One Approach to the Language Barrier

I came across this meme today:

It reminded me of one tiny incident that I witnessed recurring a couple of times during the pilgrimage.

The scene: large gatherings with someone presenting in a language other than English. People were applauding what was being said.

I saw: some of our younger pilgrims who had no clue whatsoever what was being said agreeing among themselves to clap loudly and with great enthusiasm when others did, sometimes more loudly than others.

Sure, they were being kind of silly. After a while it was a tad annoying. But through that, I saw something else. One of these pilgrims had expressed frustration with language early on, and that is something that easily cuts me to the soul, or it sure did after living in Japan. It was more tolerable this time, but it is difficult for me, having a language barrier between myself and other people.

These guys were being snarky and silly, but they weren't rolling over and playing dead and moaning in exaggerated seriousness, as is my tendency when faced with a barrier. They were making fun of the barrier, which is the first step to overcoming it.

So in between being a little embarrassed for them and a little annoyed by them, I was actually very proud of them.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Few Cultural Differences

Even a month in a different country seems not long enough to make reliable generalizations, so instead, allow me to make a few observations about the cultural differences concerning how people act, Americans vs. Poles.

Before we embarked on pilgrimage, Iwona, our Polish missionary to America leader, discussed how Poles tend to see Americans, generally speaking, and one adjective she mentioned was "friendly." A few weeks into the trip, this came back into my memory. When I first heard it, I sort of internally shrugged and thought, "Ok, whatever." But as I was in Poland, it dawned on me that there would be a flip side American impression: Poles are rude.

Hold on. Let me finish.

I think I came to this conclusion mostly because of walking on populated streets. I tried again and again to make eye contact and smile or nod hello. Not a taker. This is not unlike my experience of Japanese culture (although when I lived there I got a lot of stares from almost everyone for being a young white woman). It is probably not unlike any culture where as soon as you step outside your door, you are in public. It is a way of coping with little sense of space or privacy, and so you make it by essentially ignoring the people around you. I understand it. But it is not the American way I'm used to. In my town at least, there are so few people about that eye contact and a smile or nod or an explicit "hello," if not some actual comment and greeting, is the polite thing to do. To not do it is reserved to desperate types, the ones who seem hard and sad.

My dilemma is that by nature I am far more the person who wants to just walk past and not make eye contact. By my internalized social conditioning and sense of social guilt, I am the one smiling and saying "hello." So when I found I was getting nowhere with greeting Poles this way, I stopped. Then I felt a little horrible and wrong. I have yet to find a culture that feels natural to me all the way around.

There were a few other exchanges that, while they didn't strike me as rude exactly, did strike me as occasions that simply would not happen in the US.

The first happened on our first day going around Wroclaw. A large group of us went into a cafeteria-type restaurant where orders were placed and paid for, and then food was gathered in another area. We had a group of Polish teenagers with us who were supposed to be helping us figure out what to order, since the menu on the wall was all in Polish.

We were slow to work out the options and slow to decide. The woman at the cashier got quite upset and showed it. She wanted us to hurry up, and to stop blocking her fan. We were clearly being annoying customers.

Another woman gave me my food. My daughter had ordered lemonade, and this woman also got a bit grumpy that we didn't know the difference between carbonated lemonade and non-carbonated lemonade. We took our food to the outdoor seating as quickly as we could.

I double-checked later with one of the Polish teenagers. "She seemed mad at us. Was she mad at us?" Oh yes, she was, she affirmed.

Americans who like to stay in business just wouldn't dream of grumping at customers like that and would instead of course do what they could to be helpful. Then again, most Americans who got grumped at would walk out and not come back. We were a bit at the mercy of the cheap food.

Another exchange that was as amusing as it was surprising was in a museum in Krakow, where due to a small problem I developed the need to borrow someone's cell phone at the entrance desk. I turned to the woman in charge of storing over-sized backpacks.

Me: "Could you help me?"
She: "No."

It was later suggested to me that probably the woman simply did not speak English, and I surmised this as well. But again. Can you imagine any American setting where someone is asked for help and they simply are told "no," without some move to at least ask what the need was, to explain why help couldn't be offered, or to find someone who could help? Even if the ultimate answer actually was, "no"?

So I just told her "Oh.....kay...." and waited to speak to another woman I had heard using English. Made a mental note, of course, that her story would be retold any number of times...

I thought of all this just this morning as I went to my car and found the driveway we share with our neighbor blocked by a vehicle parked behind mine. I was in a bit of a rush, and knocked loudly on the front door, and then at the side door. A few minutes later, a bleary-eyed young college gent answered the door, trying not to make all of himself visible out the door.

Me: Sorry to bother you. I have kind of an urgent need to get out of the driveway, but there's a car blocking it.
He: Oh, you're fine! No problem! Oh, Yeah. I'll have him here in just a second and move that. Thanks!
Me: Thanks... (walking away, wondering why in the world he just said "thanks")

This is an American way to do a polite exchange that really masks being annoyed and completely flustered. It is also amusing, when you think about it.

I took a group of volunteers to the English-speaking center for one of our work slots. Upon arriving, I needed to find the head of volunteers, and so spoke to an American man at the Info Desk. It was also an interesting exchange. I asked him simply for contact with a certain person, but within a short time he had ferreted out the information that none of us had eaten lunch and that our passes for food would not work to feed anyone at that site, and he had offered to find extras so that we would not be hungry. I recognized this as the American tendency to Be Helpful. By that time, I had a feeling that no Pole would have inquired about our stomachs, and if I might have mentioned it, they might have told us how hardship was good for our souls, and that they had not eaten since last Tuesday. With all that said, I'm not placing a value judgment on American Taking Care. While I greatly appreciated it that day (we were handed 250PLN for food for 13 of us), there can be a point that Taking Care can be overdone, or over-expected into a sense of entitlement.

But beyond all that, I have to say that the Poles that I actually spoke with had the most wonderful, open hearts I have known. Americans that you first meet might give you their social best in the first five or ten minutes of knowing you, but it might take five or ten years to go any deeper than that. Most of the Poles I met seemed genuinely interested in significant conversation. Some began the exchange with describing their deeper conversion or their love for Jesus, and they instantly found their way into my heart. Even those who really struggled with English struggled enough to share some pretty vulnerable aspects of their lives.

So maybe Poles aren't really rude and Americans aren't really superficial. Maybe with St. Paul I agree the most: the only thing that matters is a new creation.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Theology of the Body Will Never Strike Me the Same Again

Ok, this is definitely a processing post. Maybe someone will have something to say in response.

Within an hour of arriving in Poland, my daughter and I made our way to our first host family's home. A teenage girl met us, led us through a gate, through a courtyard, into the apartment building and up the stairs. And more stairs. And more stairs. They lived on the top floor.

It was hot that day, at least relative to most of the rest of our stay. I was wearing my airplane outfit (and, yes, I took my son's tongue lashing for making him wear his heaviest clothes so he wouldn't be cold in the plane. We roasted.). The first thing I did was change out of jeans and long sleeves into my skort and a tshirt. There was no AC, as is typical for almost everywhere in Poland. I felt so much better after changing.

We spent a lot of time walking, and this was clearly not so unusual for the typical Pole, either. I was especially struck by the volumes of people hiking in the Tatra mountains. I was told the crowds were more immense than typical, in part because so many people had waited, as we had done, until after World Youth Day, to venture out for their holiday or Wandering time. But it was something to behold to see people of every imaginable age, families, older folks, nuns, teens, children, babies in carriers, middle aged and out of shape adults -- just everyone -- climbing these mountains. Sweating. Panting for breath, or not.

It's just stunning to me.

It was hot, sweaty, difficult work. If you needed to pee, the bushes were there for you. This was not about physical comfort. And yet a bazillion people seemed to really want to do this, seemingly because they knew it could bring some strength to their souls, their relationships, their community, their lives.

It was like they knew there is some connection between body and soul.

If you are in America and among Catholics and you say "Let's talk about the body," my gut tells me that everyone will immediately think: Sex. Modesty. Purity. Shame. Sin. Lust.

And right now my gut thinks there's something messed up there. Something truncated, something obsessive, something puritanical, something that shows we have given our bodies over to be comfort slaves.

I did notice a bit how women in Poland dress, even though this isn't something I typically notice. I would call their approach "practical." When there is no AC and you have a less than sedentary lifestyle, you wear clothes that are comfortable, allow movement, and show a bit more skin than is typical for a woman of similar age in the US. I saw very little that was unbecoming. I also sensed a general lack of an atmosphere where women worried about being judged by each other or about being looked at by men as meat. Everyone lived in the same temperature; everyone walked somewhere during the day. What was normal and unremarkable simply seemed very different than in my circles in the US.

I spoke with one of my new Polish friends about this a bit. She mentioned that she was part of a community of women where, interwoven into the fabric of prayer, Scripture, life in Christ together, was also this element of revealing the glory of God by physical appearance. Not by measuring skirts from the floor up or by how many finger from the collarbone were allowed to be seen, but by understanding what colors and styles look best, bring joy, and encourage women in how to not look like frumpy bags. Why? Because embracing and enhancing physical beauty is also part of coming alive in Christ -- this too is how we honor God with our bodies.

The women in question also walk long, sweaty hikes without portajohns in order to seek God.

And it is very interesting to me that young American Christians who are brave might ask someone to pray that they could win their struggle to be pure. But I've never heard someone wrestle in the same way asking for prayer to overcome addiction to materialism and comforts. Why is that?

St. John Paul II hiked those Tatra Mountains.

I heard one American give a talk while at World Youth Day. Do you know what the topic was? Modest dress, and chastity.

I'm... just...

There's a gap here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


I just got done writing about how I experienced a blanket sense of loving everyone (read it here). It  is true. To me, this means primarily that my heart is facing towards people, with the openness to give the good I have, and the ultimate good I have is the love of God that resides in my heart, and I give it primarily by interceding, especially in this blanket sort of style. (The I hate you part came from the bitterness of unmet needs and wanting to blame the anonymous crowd for not meeting my needs, for not being God. It's irrational.)

That being said, I tell you, don't like crowds. After awhile I might say I hate crowds.

Now, I don't mind this type of crowd:

At WYD Saturday Evening Vigil

and I actually found this type of crowd oddly enjoyable. And I was certainly in plenty of them.

I was glad when I brought earplugs when I had loud Spaniards yelling behind me in this crowd. I laughed as I put them in. It was my way of saying, "I love you, but I'm gonna protect myself, ok?"

Angelus at the Wroclaw Cathedral during Days in the Diocese.

The crowds that I struggled with were no one particular group of people. Rather, it was simply when this was all I faced, hour after hour after hour. For me, crowds bespeak alienation, isolation, loneliness. One cannot speak with a crowd. One cannot look into the eyes of a crowd. One cannot ask a crowd how it feels, and get anything but a meaningless response.

I don't like "people," I like persons. To me, crowds are the exact opposite of persons.

The one way this works for me on any medium-to-long term basis is if the crowd is an audience, entirely focused on one thing, or at least without distractions from the focus being publicly communicated.

It was one of the factors that wore me down eventually.

But really, I can think of something more true to say than "I hate crowds." It is "I need people."

Traveling After 20 Years

When I set out on this pilgrimage, it had been two decades since I had done any significant travel. Oh, we'd traveled to Arizona and the Grand Canyon when my son was a toddler, and we'd done lots of car trips to visit the Grandmas, but I hadn't been on a plane since about 2003. Prior to getting married, I had traveled to Germany/Austria, Jamaica, Italy, the Holy Land, the Philippines, and I'd lived in Japan for two and a half years.  But all of that ended for me in 1997. And I was happy with that.

With the exception of the one month I spent in the Philippines, these other trips were short. The most outstanding memories of those travels were of being confronted with my own heart. With the exception of the pilgrimage I made to the Holy Land and to Italy immediately after entering the Catholic Church, that confrontation was mostly painful and ugly. And the two and a half years I spent in Japan were so interiorly painful and ugly that I could not calmly think about them until several years later.

Travel leaves one vulnerable and dependent on other people. And if one is not fluent in healthy vulnerability and dependence, of course a lot of unhealthy things can float to the surface. I told my kids the story of staying with my host family for a week during my high school trip to Germany. When asked if I were hungry, I typically said no, not because it was true, but because I believed that my hunger was an imposition on them which was rude for me to mention. And when they took me at my word, I stayed really hungry. This is how I functioned in relationship to my own needs at age 17.

By age 27 I was living in Japan as an English teacher "missionary" in a Catholic school. I naively chose to move there, thinking that because I had grown up with a Japanese-American friend I would naturally find friends among the Japanese, even thought I could not speak, read, or write in Japanese. I lived alone with little support from the order of Sisters in whose school I taught. I faced all manner of horrors residing in my heart at the time, and it really seemed the horrors won the day. In 1995 I went on a pilgrimage to Nagasaki with parish group where only one or two others spoke any English. I was so unable to cope with my own needs, so unable to form relationships, and so bitter that if I could have formulated my heart's words looking out on my fellow pilgrims, it would have simply been the blanket statement: I hate you all. I hate everything.

By the time I left Japan I was broken, was ready to admit I was a human, that I needed to humbly learn how to try, and that I need people. I like solitude, but I had tanked up instead on isolation and alienation, because I didn't completely know the difference between these.

Fast forward now 20 years.

On our first day with free time, my daughter and I hopped a bus and went to the city center in Wroclaw on our own.

You have to understand that I don't have a good visual memory, I don't have a good sense of direction, and I don't like to find my way when I don't understand the language. There was a secret part of me that wanted to go into fetal position at this challenge. But when you are leading your child, you suck that stuff up and act calm.

We got on the bus. I watched for the stop we needed. We got off and navigated. And I knew I had done this all before. And I was able to look like this had always been easy for me, that I had always felt welcomed in the world, and that anyone could go anywhere and do what they needed. My daughter saw that, and that's what's important, because now she can believe it, hopefully without all the anguish I put myself through. It made me feel completely spiffy, too.

What's even more profoundly important was the night-and-day difference from my prior experience I felt repeatedly throughout this pilgrimage. I looked out at an ocean of pilgrims, language and cultural differences aside, and I knew a new blanket statement: I love you all. I love everything.

Pilgrimage gives a mirror to the heart. Trust the value of what you see, even the horror, and keep walking towards the Lord.

These Win the Award for Most Useless Items Packed

Of all the packing suggestions made to me that I took to heart, I've decided that the most useless thing I purchased and brought to Poland was a metal water bottle. My daughter and I each brought one.

After one use for water, my daughter found the inside of hers stale smelling. I had a hard time keeping mine from falling out of the side pocket of my backpack during our flight. And once we arrived in Poland and began going from place to place, it was far more convenient to simply drink from plastic water bottles that were ubiquitous, since drinking tap water simply is not done there. The only possible advantage of using these may have been their claim to keep cold water cold for some time. A few days into the pilgrimage I simply stored these away in luggage.