We are vacationing in La Paz by compulsion because of the blockade to the yungas (hot tropical valleys) that is keeping us from taking a mini van or bus from La Paz to our home in Carmen Pampa. The road block hardly seems resolvable by negotiation because the cocaleros (coca growers) are not only demanding that they be allowed to grow larger quantities of coca but are seeking the resignation of the vice-minister of the department of coca. Why would the cocaleros want this person removed? In my mind, he is someone who is not one of them and does not cooperate with their objectives and needs. Does a president remove someone from office simply because a group of protesters asks for that removal? Even though Evo Morales was the president of the coca growers union, I don’t think that he would undo his decision to place this person in the vice-ministerial role. Morales removes people from office if they are found to be corrupt, but not because a protest group seeks their removal. But we shall see.
Hence, I don’t think that we will have safe passage to the yungas for a while. We have an extended stay in La Paz, the city where Joel and I come once a month to get our checks cashed, so to speak, and buy those commodities, like cheese, wheat flour, or even items for the apartment, that are unavailable in Coroico, the tourist town just six kilometers (3 miles or so) from Carmen Pampa. I also have an internist here who sees me regularly.
The town seems European to me, and the apartment houses and homes remind me both of those in Cochabamba, and of those villas in the Alps, particularly in Bavaria. Oxygen is sparse, so we can’t easily climb the hills here that remind me of San Francisco—they are so steep—and Joel and I have to remind one another that we must stop to catch our breath. The coffee houses, the favorite one being Alexander Coffee, the parks, and the cleanliness of the city appeal to us. Artist shops (artesanias) abound, and the cathedrals offer us a sense of the holy as well as the artistic. We are going to the national museum today, as well as to the anthropological museum, which will tell us more about other indigenous groups in Bolivia. We want to take in the art, history, and current events of La Paz, and thus, Bolivia. The Spanish words are hard for me to remember, so I rely on Joel to write things down, feeling that I should be making my own list.
The question of what kind of person I have become has struck me hard. I don’t want to sightsee. I do want to learn about the culture and history of the country that I am calling my home for three years. Have I become a person entirely dedicated to performing my duty? What happened to the person who used to want to travel to other places, where I could visit cathedrals, castles, and the homes of departed artists, where I could re-imagine scenes from British or European novels taking place before me, or envision the ruins come to life with people from long ago?
Matthew Arnold, in his essay Culture and Anarchy castigated his nineteenth-century British audience for become so enmeshed in trying to fulfill their responsibilities, carried away by the “fire of duty,” that they were guilty of crushing the explorative minds of their artists, scientists, and innovative thinkers—those people whose genius could carry their nation to greatness. He wrote about the strictness of duty as that which could either quench or balance the expansiveness of consciousness. People needed to make room for the genius of those whose vision rose above morality. Don’t get me wrong: Arnold was a poet, an inspector of schools, a teacher whose methods many times over-rode his own reach for new ideas, and a literary and social critic. He was quintessentially Victorian in his energy, desire to reform the world, and stringent ethics. But he, like John Stuart Mill, not Jon Stewart, saw the need to create a society in which the geniuses of art, economics, science, and philosophy would feel enough at home to flourish and push people to encounter their visionary ideas and art.
Am I too much of a missioner, so driven by the zeal of duty, that I cannot open my eyes to the cultural horizons here in La Paz? Why am I so driven to return to my post, where my students are being taught by substitute teachers and I am not there to accompany the niňos in the children’s library or help with campus ministry?
Part of my response to these questions is that I am actually not fulfilling my duties in Carmen Pampa, but am here because of the bloqueo or blockade. Although people here in the house where I am staying, the Maryknoll Casa, have advised me to descansar, or rest, I want to return to my work.
But I will catch up on my writing, this blog, emails, thank-you letters, and my own journal writing. As I do this, I understand that while I am working, I am also encouraging my Hellenistic side to explore ideas around me, to contemplate this society and my own life. We missioners met in Cochabamba for a retreat just a few days ago in the sense that we ate together, talked a lot, and had a prayer service. In my view, at this point in mission, we are feeling the difficulties of being on mission. All of us have been sick, some more devastatingly than others, others have been overworked, well, all of us have been, and none of us have had enough “down time,” to use Clare’s words. Clare has inspired me because of her efforts to create balance in her life, despite continual illnesses for the past three months. She goes to exercise classes, always takes time for friends, and keeps up her personal journal, all with intentionality. And as all five of us sat down at the table in Clare and Nora’s apartment, where the missioners before us, Richard and Kristen, lived, and we read the Franciscan office together, passing the book around the table, I felt a surge of spiritual vitality that had been missing in my life. We were still in community, having come from the Casa Salvador in Washington, D.C., on Quincy Street, just a few houses down from the Franciscan Monastery. We were all “feeling it,” feeling the problems and dislocation of being on mission in another country. We wanted to do our best here, to find our niches, to walk with our friends in Bolivia in these difficult times. Being with them all somehow felt like being at home, and I did not want to leave, despite the fact that we all had work to do.
So Joel and I have returned to La Paz, and in a state of limbo, are trying to unravel all our thoughts about being on mission. By definition, being on mission is Hellenistic because we are expanding our consciousness. This is a euphemism because all of our ideas about how life should be are challenged. We need only to keep our minds open to experience new ways of doing, being, and seeing. As missioners, we are also enlivened by the zeal to do good. But what I think we also need is the space for contemplation, prayer, writing, and thinking. We desire so ardently to be available to the people that sometimes we are not available to ourselves or to God.
So, we are privileged to visit the national art museum today. The efforts to render the beauty of the world in art cannot be disregarded while we are captive in this city. Our sense of reality will be challenged and shaped by our encounters with new ideas, history (new to us), and art. A part of this realization that we must continually encounter beauty and ideas within our world is our belief that we have to grow larger in order to live in the worlds that we have come to. The Hellenistic view of the ever-expanding consciousness is indeed Franciscan. Francis may have said that there was no need to build a bookshelf because then he would have to find books to put on it, but he would have sanctioned Clare and Nora’s venture into the concha to purchase a bookshelf for those many books lying around their apartment. Francis was non-materialistic, but he was not against the ideas found in books, or the way that books nurture our spirits.
So there is a time to read books, write letters to friends (for if we don’t talk with them, how will we know who we are, who they are, and how we have grown?), go to museums as well as bookstores, art galleries, and cathedrals, both to pray and to just take in the beauty, and time to just look into the landscape and compare the mountains in La Paz to those in the yungas and Cochabamba. We are Hellenistic and Hebraistic because we want to love this world, appreciate it, and make it a more just, hospitable place for human beings, made in God’s image. And we must also write, for how will we know what we think if we don’t write it down? Here, on mission, in limbo in La Paz, one can be both Hellenistic and Hebraistic. One can find a kind of balance.