Monday, July 25, 2011


Three Sundays ago, three days after Joel and I returned from a month-long visit to the United States, we went to Sunday Mass at our chapel, Exaltación, and heard the parable of the Sower (la parábola del sembrador), amply expounded upon in the homily by Padre Juan Francisco, a La Sallette priest hailing from Boston, Massachusetts (he has been in Bolivia for decades).

For two Sundays in a row, July 10 and 17, the Sunday lectionary abounded with parables based on the sowing of seeds: first, the parable of the sower and the different destinies of the seeds that landed on different types of soil, and the next week, the parable of the sower who sowed good seed but his enemy came in the night and sowed bad seed among the good, as well as the parable of the mustard seed. Here is the reading:

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matt 13:1-9

On that day, Jesus went out of the house and sat down by the sea.
Such large crowds gathered around him
that he got into a boat and sat down,
and the whole crowd stood along the shore.
And he spoke to them at length in parables, saying:
“A sower went out to sow.
And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path,
and birds came and ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, where it had little soil.
It sprang up at once because the soil was not deep,
and when the sun rose it was scorched,
and it withered for lack of roots.
Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it.
But some seed fell on rich soil, and produced fruit,
a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Whoever has ears ought to hear.”

Matt 13: 18-23
“Hear then the parable of the sower.
The seed sown on the path is the one
who hears the word of the kingdom without understanding it,
and the evil one comes and steals away
what was sown in his heart.
The seed sown on rocky ground
is the one who hears the word and receives it at once with joy.
But he has no root and lasts only for a time.
When some tribulation or persecution comes because of the word,
he immediately falls away.
The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word
and it bears no fruit.
But the seed sown on rich soil
is the one who hears the word and understands it,
who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

I watched and listened as Juan Francisco walked around the church, asking the people in the pews to share the ways that they heard the word of God. The children said that they heard it from their parents and teachers. The adults said that they heard God’s Word through the Bible and at Mass, as well as witnessing it through their families, the priests, and one another. The emphasis in this parable, I noted, mentally, was in hearing and understanding the word. Fearful that I would be called on as Juan Francisco walked around the church, seeking his homily from his own flock, I mentally racked up some answers in the best Spanish I could muster. I was glad that he merely welcomed back Joel and me as he passed by our pew (a row of white plastic chairs). But as I reflected on the parable, I could see that God’s word in my life had for a brief time been choked by “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches.”

Before leaving Bolivia for our trip home, I was distressed about many things in my life as a missioner, and thus frantically searched the Bible for answers. I probably was playing “Bible Bingo,” in which I randomly opened my Bible, hoping that some comforting or instructive words would leap off the page and into my uneasy heart. I found some interesting but to me, obscure, passages. My life at that time was chaotic and disorganized, and it seemed that my relationship to God, and God’s word, was the same.

In the States we experienced a hectic round of visits with friends and family. There was little time to attend Mass, except on Sundays. Even in the St. Charles Catholic Church in Bloomington, IN, where Emer and her husband Alin live, which we consider our Bloomington church, I took Communion “the wrong way,” accustomed as I was to dipping the host in the chalice, the way it is done in many churches here in Bolivia. The Eucharistic minister told me that “we don’t dip anymore.” Another cultural adjustment as one returns home.

During the months of May and June, I felt lost in the world around me, and unintegrated when alone. My world was upside down (boca abajo) in the month of May, and in June, I experienced the confusion that naturally comes with being back home in the States.

Somehow, though, when Joel and I were in the States, we were able to do many positive things:

  • We gave a talk about our mission work at a small prayer group in Antioch, Tennessee (St. Ignatius Catholic Church)
  • We gave a short presentation to the postulants at the St. Cecelia congregation mother house in Nashville, Tennessee. This group was the newest class of Dominican sisters, of whom our daughter’s very good friend Courtney Barnes was a member. 
  • My family celebrated my father’s eighty-eighth birthday, combined with Father’s Day. Almost everyone was in attendance, except for my younger sister, whose daughter just happened to give birth to yet another great-grandchild, in Henderson, Tennessee, at the time when my father was being celebrated. 
  • Joel and I celebrated our thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.
  • Joel, Emer, Alin (Emer’s husband), and I had an early celebration of Joel’s sixtieth birthday.
  • I had long conversations with our daughter, and so did her dad.
  • I had coffee with my dissertation director, whom I had not seen since defending my dissertation, twenty-three years ago when I was pregnant with Norbert. My advisor continues to be the same steady, sharp, witty, and supportive person that he was years ago when I was struggling to write my doctoral thesis. He still looked the same, continues to work in and be eminent in his field, and remains one of the best listeners I have ever known. He had a peaceful spirit, this man who had been generous with his mind and spirit in supporting all of us who had come into the English doctoral program because we loved literature and enjoyed thinking, talking, and writing about culture and books. It was an honor for me to introduce him to my daughter, Emer, who is now embarking on her third year of graduate school in the same English program. As he spoke with her about the classes she was taking and her professors, it was evident that he continued to maintain an interest in the department from which he had retired fourteen years ago.
  • I reconnected with friends and family, sharing many meals with them, or just taking time to enjoy long, undistorted telephone calls (Skype does not always provide clear phone conversation in Bolivia).
  • I re-encountered our home in Mount Juliet, and endured the sadness of walking through our empty house that has not been rented since January. It was in need of upgrading, as the realtors say, and we hope that if we can’t sell it by the end of the summer, it will be ready, once more, with improvements, for rental. 
Although there were many moments of clarity, cohesion, and purpose while I was on vacation, I also had moments of unease. During my visit home, I received an email from Megeen White, a veteran FMS missioner who had given us workshops while our class of missioners was in formation. She sent me a message that struck home: was I giving myself enough time to reflect, pray, and just rest, mentally and physically, from the stress of working with so many people in need while on mission? I will add to that some advice that I had received from a Mexican immigrant who talked with me before I went to D.C. for formation. He told me that while on mission I would need to pray for at least two hours in the morning before embarking on my work each day. Not much of an exaggeration of what is truly necessary, I would say, given my experiences here.

So, I was ready to hear the parable of the sower when I returned to my home church in Barrio Majesterio in the South Zone, in Cochabamba, Bolivia. What is the word of God and where do we find it? My answer is this: it is, of course, to be found in Scripture. It is found in spiritual writings; in the Franciscan office; in poetry, novels, essays, in op-ed pieces in newspapers and journals; in the words and actions of the priests, sisters, friars, and missioners with whom I worship and work; in the children I tutor each morning, in the college students I work for and with at the pastoral juvenil, near the large public university, San Simon, and in the words of the inmates at El Abra, whose conversation with me after class makes me feel that I can somehow continue to carry on the work of accompaniment in El Abra that was first begun by Fr. Mike Johnson, who worked in this prison for six years, but who is now at St. Camillus in Silver Springs, Maryland. His picture is in the vestry of the Catholic church at El Abra prison, a portrait of his unmistakably North American face, his attire, a Franciscan habit, and in his arms, El Abra itself, the priest protectively holding it in his arms. His legacy at El Abra is still in force, and one day, both he and the inmates hope that he can return, if only for a visit.

Hearing the word of God is both a disposition and an action. Indeed, as Juan Francisco said, God’s word may be found everywhere. After this Mass, I determined that I would start a Scripture study class—not too different but in a small way, of course, from St. Francis’ literally rebuilding God’s church, San Damiano, brick by brick, when he heard God commission him to “rebuild my church.”

When I asked others about beginning a Scripture study class, I was told that one already existed. So Joel and I started to attend the class on Thursday nights, in the spirit of Franciscan accompaniment. One night after class, as I walked one of the Maryknoll volunteers home, I heard her talk about her future as a sister in the Carmelite order. She extolled the virtues of fulfilling her calling both in her daily work and as a sister. Her graduate work combined Hispanic culture, and translation of literature. She was very excited about the prospect of combining the life of a contemplative with her chosen career. Her vision of her future was inspiring to me: I was in awe of the young person, younger than my own daughter, who was going to dedicate her life to God. I thought of Courtney, whose novitiate class we had addressed on our vacation, and I was moved deeply by the thought of so many young people who had given their lives to God.

At the same time, I was jealous of the Maryknoll volunteer, soon to be a Carmelite sister. Her life as a contemplative sounded so compelling and sweet. Before becoming a Franciscan missioner, I had been struck by the service of Franciscan friars, priests, and sisters: they were dedicated to serving the poor, working for peace and justice, and caring for mother earth. They were constantly busy, and when I joined the Franciscan family, I feared that it would be difficult to find time for the personal reflection and reading of Scripture that I enjoyed while living in my home in Tennessee and while in Divinity School at Vanderbilt.

When I was in formation at Casa San Salvador, on Quincy Street in Washington, D.C., our schedule was indeed busy, and I was never one to make demands to have time alone if someone seemed to need conversation or company. I had told myself that availability to others mattered more than my own desire and need for personal prayer, reflection, and reading of Scripture or other literature that sustained me. My time in both Carmen Pampa and Cochabamba had brought had created more demands on my time, with an intense call to serve those closest to me.

After speaking with the Maryknoll volunteer who had chosen a contemplative lifestyle,it struck me that I too could lead a contemplative life as a missioner, and so I would. I desperately needed to spend more time with the Bible, in simply reading, writing, and reflecting. I needed more time to pray. The anxieties that choke the Word are real, and while all of my experiences both here in Bolivia and in the United States are part of my identity and growth, I did need to spend more time with the word of God.

"The seed sown among thorns is the one who hears the word,
but then worldly anxiety and the lure of riches choke the word
and it bears no fruit.
But the seed sown on rich soil
is the one who hears the word and understands it,
who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.”

To reiterate, hearing the word of God is both a disposition and an action. I needed to perform the act of “hearing the word of God,” as well as remain open to its revelation in my life. Many people who read my blog have spiritualities that are different from my own. They have other ways in which they are present to God. They have places where they go to find the Divine. They read other kinds of literature and appeal to inspirational people in their lives.

My way is to read the Scripture and to pray. I have accepted that my lifestyle is both contemplative and active. The four charisms of the Third Order Regular spirituality are Conversion of the Heart, Poverty, Contemplation, and Minority. For me, Conversion of the heart and Contemplation are the two Franciscan charisms that have received short shrift in my life. But even when I examine the charism of Conversion, I note that this charism has three elements, only one of which engages the contemplative life. The first element consists of acknowledging God in the living word, in the words, deeds, and teachings of Jesus. The last two have to do with adoring God in one’s lifestyle, and serving God by working for justice and peace. As for the charism of Contemplation, the Rule of St. Francis says that “because we are made in God’s image, it is possible for us to seek union with God as we do God’s will. Thus, the Franciscan does not flee the world in order to ‘escape’ to God, but seeks immersion in its sacramental reality.”1

In the end, all reflection leads us to God’s incarnational world. I am not worried about my contemplative life drawing me away from the world, but I am worried that my immersion in the world might pull me away from God. Like many students who spend two hours studying for every hour in class, I may need more time in reflection than in actual mission. In Jesus’ words, hearing and understanding God’s word does not diminish one’s productivity, but increases it:

"But the seed sown on rich soil
is the one who hears the word and understands it,
who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.
Additionally, the Hebrew Bible states, as found in the lectionary on the same Sunday,
Thus says the LORD:
Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
Is 55:1-11

As the priest told us, God’s word comes to us in many ways. In Jesus words, “let anyone with ears listen!”

1Franciscan Morning and Evening Praise, The Franciscan Federation, Third Order Regular of the Sisters and Brothers of the United States. Washington, D.C.: Franciscan Federation, 2009. 742, 843.

Our Wednesday breakfast group that meets after morning Mass: Sr. Lilly (Maryknoll, from Louisville, KY), Brother Adrian, Maryknoll volunteer Willa (California), Padre Juan Francisco (from Boston), Padre David, Sr. Maggie (Maryknoll, from Tanzania), and me

Padre David blessing the people after Mass

The San Damiano Cross

San Damiano Church in Assisi
Francis was commissioned by God to "rebuild my church" while praying in this chapel.
Apparerently, God was speaking figuratively, not literally.
Still, the church seems to be in good repair.

Our unweeded garden

1 comment:

  1. This was such a helpful reflection for me, Lynn. Thank you for sharing it with us. What a great exemplar of Franciscan Action and Contemplation. It is so easy to take for granted the word of God in our day to day lives; this is an important reminder of God's constancy in our lives; we just have to take the time to listen.