A Basilian Candidate in Cali- Reflection Essay

1 Jun

This reflection is dedicated to Fr. Francisco Amico, CSB, and was written upon his request.

 

 

I went out seeking love

and with unfaltering hope

I flew so high, so high

that I overtook the prey.

 

That I might take the prey

of this adventuring to God

I had to fly so high

That I was lost from sight…

 

The higher I ascended

in this seeking so lofty

the lower and more subdued I became.

I said: No one can overtake it!

And sank so low, oh, so low,

That I was so high, so high,

that I took the prey.

 

-St. John of the Cross (1548-1591)

 

Each time I read this poem, which was written in a time of reform, not only of the Carmelite Order to which St. John of the Cross belonged, but of the whole Catholic Church, I believe it more to be an appropriate summary of my time spent serving in Cali, Colombia, as an associate of the Congregation of St. Basil.

 

As I begin to write this reflection on what will have been nearly six months in Cali by the time I arrive back in Canada in June, I am returning to Cali from a visit to Casa Annonay, the Basilian house in Bogotá. The altitude of the Colombian capital city is noteworthy. At approximately 2 600 metres, Bogotá is higher above sea level than all but two other national capitals in the world: La Paz, Bolivia, and Quito, Ecuador. Owing to its altitude, Bogotá’s slogan is the city “2 600 metres closer to the heavens.”

 

I also had the opportunity to visit the Basilian house in Medellín, which includes a balcony on its third floor with a beautiful view of the city center from the heights of the barrio Olaya Herrera. This balcony was one of my favourite places to write, to pray, and to contemplate God’s wonderful gift of nature. Cali, which is in the valley of the Río Cauca, also has mountains, though it is generally flatter in topography than Bogotá or Medellín. In Cali as in Bogotá or Medellín, the Basilians are continually prepared to serve the poor. I believe this to be one important difference between the principal charism of religious in South America and those in the North.

 

Prior to arriving in Cali, I had never encountered such a level of poverty as there exists in a part of our parish named La Playa. My first visit to this section of Puerto Mallarino was emotionally difficult. In La Playa, many do not live in houses, but instead these people live in basic shacks that barely serve as shelters against the elements. The damaged streets have a foul smell and they fill with water during storms. The risk of flooding exists continually due to rainwater that often greatly increases the level of the Río Cauca, the river that flows nearby. It is perhaps even sadder that other barrios exist that are in the same or worse condition as La Playa. Those that live in these neighborhoods frequently cannot afford an education for their children. Often these are persons displaced by the corruption and violence that stain this country with such great social and economic potential.

 

I walked through La Playa on other occasions: Once I served as a translator between two Basilan priests, the General Councilor Father Gordon Judd, who had been visiting from the United States, and Father Pedro Mora of Cali. This visit to La Playa happened during a manual labor period when instead of heavier physical work, the local superior, Father Francisco Amico, requested that I accompany Fathers Gordon and Pedro to practice my Spanish. Yet another walk through La Playa was with the other Basilian candidates living in Cali. In March, we went to cut palm branches for Palm Sunday. In the Sacred Scriptures, palm branches have a double meaning. Firstly, they signify martyrdom and suffering, such as that lived out every day by those in the lower-class barrios, who understand better than the rich that Jesus’ death is intrinsically a glorification of the Lord (cf. John 12:16), even more than in relation to His Resurrection that is more obviously glorious. Secondly, the palm branches represent joy and celebration. When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, the crowds acclaimed Him with palm branches, the Jewish symbol of the Feast of the Tabernacles. (cf. 1 Maccabees 13:51, 2 Maccabees 10:7) Those multitudes also remembered the raising of Lazarus, friend of Jesus, from the dead. Thus for us, disciples of Jesus like Lazarus, death is not an event separate from resurrection; in order to share in the glory of Jesus’ Resurrection, we must also be ready to share in the suffering and in the shame of the crucified Christ- to carry our cross daily and to follow Him. (cf. Mark 8:34; The Imitation of Christ II, 11) This is an important lesson that the poor teach us when we are prepared to journey with them.

 

Along with the humiliation of poverty, those that live in the underdeveloped barrios also share a joy that without doubt comes from the Holy Spirit. Colombia’s fertility rate is remarkably high compared to that of Canada, and therefore there are numerous young Colombians. Many of these children suffer the same afflictions as do people of their parents’ generation, for example the aforementioned poverty and violence, family breakdown, drug abuse and trafficking, and theft that is frequently a sign of disadvantaged persons trying just to survive. However, amongst all these social ills, the children possess faith and hope that confound those that have an abundance of material goods but dearly lack that which is most important: confidence in the omnibenevolent God.

 

The first Mass I attended in Cali was only a few days after arriving in Colombia in January. I went with the Basilian Father Wally Platt to a Mass with the profession of vows of some Franciscans. The choir, entirely composed of children, sang beautifully. I remember only two or three words of the entrance hymn, along with the magnificent smiles of the young singers, who sang with all their being of “faith and hope.” Unfortunately at that time my level of Spanish was not sufficient for me to understand the rest of the Mass, but the initial hymn along with the image of the children’s faces are forever fixed upon my memory.

 

The smile is its own language, transcending all incapacity to communicate with words. St. Francis of Assisi is famous for having said, “Preach the Gospel; if necessary use words.” Furthermore, the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians impels us to pray for the gift of interpreting languages rather than feeling proud of being able to speak in them. St. Paul says, “If I pray in a tongue, my spirit is at prayer but my mind is unproductive.” (1 Corinthians 14: 13-14) Children and the poor illustrate how best to interpret the language of love and of goodness that God preferentially teaches to the simple. (cf. Luke 10:21, Proverbs 9:4)

 

The Parish of Our Lady of the Assumption (Nuestra Señora de la Asunción) serves three barrios in the eastern part of Cali: Andrés Sanin, Siete de Agosto, and Puerto Mallarino. The main church building, as well as the Basilian house and a school, Instituto Nuestra Señora de la Asunción (INSA), where I am finishing my five months of teaching French and English, are in Andrés Sanin. The area served by the parish also includes chapels in the other two barrios. The poorest neighborhood of the three is Puerto Mallarino. I enjoy going to Mass and serving as Acolyte in all the sectors of the parish, but the encounters with the people of Puerto Mallarino, especially the smallest ones, give me a great sense of delight that resists written description.

 

I have told most of the story of Palm Sunday. While the Basilian candidates, including myself, were carrying the palm branches through the streets of Puerto Mallarino, the children eagerly came out from their houses to greet us. Thos living in our parish recognize the service provided for them by the Basilians, and they respond with immense gratitude. Many have little education and are poorly catechized, and they regularly confuse Basilians in formation with our priests. I was equally confused the first time a man greeted me in the street in front of the main church, “Hello, Father!” This was a great honor for me, however unmerited on my part. This mistaken greeting nevertheless helped me to remember that I should search and pray for holiness in order to live by my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience that are as of yet unofficial, and to live the life to which God calls us all together: to be, according to our Christian Baptism, priests, prophets, and kings. (cf. 1 Peter 2:9)

 

I am also deeply moved by my encounters with one particular child from Puerto Mallarino after every Mass that I serve there. The Hail Mary is always sung as the recessional hymn. In each of the three churches of the parish, there is an image of the Mother of God tenderly carrying the Divine Child. Following the hymn to the Virgin, a child whose name escapes me smiles at me and asks me to lift him up. As soon as he is in my arms, he says, “Open your mouth!” I do not know why he always asks me to open my mouth, but when I do as he wills, his smile grows. The sight is priceless- the image, I believe, of the face of God Himself. Jesus gives us two important teachings, one concerning children and His Kingdom, and the other about the proper role of the mouth. Firstly, the Lord said to His apostles, who were attempting to prevent the children from coming to Jesus so that He could touch them: “Let the children come to me, do not prevent them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the Kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.” (Mark 10: 14-15) Secondly, Jesus scolded the Pharisees: “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34) As I have said, the smile, especially that of a child is its own language, revealing the fullness of Divine Love in the humblest heart and seducing my own. (cf. Ste. Thérèse of Lisieux, Autobiographical Manuscript C, 36vo)

 

To teach the students at INSA during this time in Cali was a great privilege and pleasure. While all Basilians in whatever step of religious formation have the opportunity to connect with youth, it is rare that a candidate is able to teach daily classes in the school. This immediately implies a difference in the relationship between the candidate and the student. I admit that it is easy to feel attached to the children, as well as to allow one’s self to become frustrated with those that show little effort in their studies or with those who have discipline problems, but that ought never to obscure the main objectives of the educator: to use a portion of one’s own knowledge in a specific subject area, and also to permit one’s self at times to be taught important values by the students.

 

At INSA, the majority of the students come from the most humble economic strata of Colombian society. There are six such economic levels in Colombia, where the poorest are in Stratum One and the richest persons are in Stratum Six. Thus, some students at INSA come to class not having eaten, or in any case showing signs of the sadness of their situation at home. Nonetheless most of the students want to learn, and they respect and honor the teachers. It was interesting above all for me to be able to respond to frequent questions from the pupils about some of the details of Basilian life or of Canadian culture.

 

During Holy Week, I presented on the lives of four saints of personal interest: St. Joseph, St. Basil the Great, St. Joan of Arc, and St. Theresa of the Child Jesus. Holy Week was a great success in general, in the house, in the school, and in the parish. Many in the community who attend Mass regularly contend with serious hardships, for example unemployment, sickness, and possibly of greater consequence, low levels of education and of instruction in the Catholic religion, although most of the people are true witnesses of Christ, possessing a level of devotion and of faith that is but a dream in Canada. We prepared ourselves for Holy Week in groups of residents- the “Little Communities- of each of the barrios. On Holy Thursday, we participated in the celebration of Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist and of the priesthood with twelve Grade eleven students from INSA serving as apostles during the washing of feet. (cf. John 13:1-20)

 

Good Friday was celebrated with an intensity that I had never seen in my native country. During the Way of the Cross, we carried the Cross along with a large statue of Our Lady of Sorrows. Following the Way of the Cross, the youth presented an enactment of the descent of Jesus from the Cross in front of the chapel in Puerto Mallarino, and then later a vigil took place in the church in Andrés Sanin, which was darkened to recall the emptiness that accompanies the death of Christ, who conquered the sin of the world. The Easter Vigil, the most important Mass of the year, was observed on the night of Holy Saturday to celebrate the Resurrection of the Lord, but also to evoke our common hope as Church in the return of Jesus Christ on the last day. (cf. Revelation 22:20)

 

We do not know when the Lord will come again to the earth in the same way as He ascended into Heaven. (cf. Acts 1: 7, 11) Therefore we ought always to be ready, as servants awaiting the arrival of their Master from a wedding ceremony (cf. Luke 12: 35-40), practicing Goodness, Discipline, and Knowledge in our religious life. My first experience of this form of community living was in the Basilian house in Cali, and I am filled with much gratitude and with a profound joy for having lived in Colombia for a significant part of my candidacy. The Superior and Rector, Father Francisco Amico, as well as Father Pedro Mora and all those living in our house are examples of virtue, of friendliness, of sound teaching, of patience, and of fraternal love.

 

I am currently preparing myself for the Basilian Novitiate, which will begin on 15 August in Windsor, Ontario, Canada and which will last one year. “Novitiate” and “Novice” come from the Latin word “novus” meaning “new”. I am continually discovering new realities in this pilgrimage with the Basilians. I pray to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to continue His work in me and to help me to follow His path. I also give thanks to our God for all my Basilian brothers who give me the strength of the All-Powerful, that each day I might be a better disciple of the Lord.

 

Religious life is, in a way, a microcosm of the entire Church. Finally, we are called not only to be good religious, brothers, or priests, but we are called to eternal life- to abide with God in the Communion of Saints, which is the most special community of all. In this valley of tears, we are acquainted with exile, poverty, and sadness, but we must place our hope fully in Heaven. This world, especially life in common, entails the experience of the whole spiritual topography that St. John of the Cross explained and of which the varied physical characteristics of Colombia remind me. If we desire to be saints, as St. Theresa of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, sister of the same Carmelite community that included St. John of the Cross, taught, we must firstly be humble and not be afraid to abase ourselves, to sink “so low” that God will raise us up “so high, so high” and that we might then take “the prey” that is Love…

 

Let us pray to the Lord of the harvest, so that He might send more good laborers who are faithful to His Word (cf. Matthew 9: 37-38), and that we might practice poverty in spirit and follow Jesus according to His commandments to love God, our neighbor, and ourselves with our whole being. We are always candidates and novices, attempting anew to learn the way of life for which the Creator has formed us. O Christ, be the instrument of reformation of all our imperfections and lift us to life everlasting. Amen.

 

 

I went out seeking love,
and with unfaltering hope
I flew so high, so high,
that I overtook the prey.

 

 

1. That I might take the prey
of this adventuring in God
I had to fly so high
that I was lost from sight;
and though in this adventure
I faltered in my flight,
yet love had already flown so high
that I took the prey.

 

2. When I ascended higher
my vision was dazzled,
and the most difficult conquest
came about in darkness;
but since I was seeking love
the leap I made was blind and dark,
and I rose so high, so high,
that I took the prey.

 

3. The higher I ascended
in this seeking so lofty
the lower and more subdued
and abased I became.
I said: No one can overtake it!
And sank, ah, so low,
that I was so high, so high,
that I took the prey.

 

4. In a wonderful way
my one flight surpassed a
thousand,
for the hope of heaven
attains as much as it hopes for;
this seeking is my only hope,
and in hoping, I made no mistake,
because I flew so high, so high,
that I took the prey.

 

 

I would like to include a special dedication to Andrés Felipe Zuñiga, my Spanish tutor and great friend during these six months in Cali, who assisted me in realizing my first article entirely written in Spanish (of which this is my translation to English) and is, I believe, an excellent example of the love of God.

 

Warren Roger Schmidt,

Associate, Congregation of St. Basil

22 May, 2008

St. Rita of Casia

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3 Responses to “A Basilian Candidate in Cali- Reflection Essay”

  1. Mathew James August 11, 2008 at 1:16 pm #

    Great post, it was very informative. I think its a must read.

  2. Mathew James August 15, 2008 at 10:06 am #

    Great post, it was very informative. I think its a must read.
    http://www.essayhome.net/

  3. canadiancatholicblog August 22, 2008 at 10:26 pm #

    Thanks, Mathew. I’m happy that you enjoyed it.

    WRS

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