Wednesday, August 8, 2018

may I introduce you to my friend Edith? today is her feast day...

"Thy will be done," in its full extent, must be the guideline for the Christian life. It must regulate the day from morning to evening, the course of the year and the entire life. Only then will it be the sole concern of the Christian. All other concerns the Lord takes over. This one alone, however, remains ours as long as we live... And sooner or later, we begin to realize this. In the childhood of the spiritual life, when we have just begun to allow ourselves to be directed by God, then we feel his guiding hand quite firmly and surely. But it doesn't always stay that way. Whoever belongs to Christ, must go the whole way with him. He must mature to adulthood: he must one day or other walk the way of the cross to Gethsemane and Golgotha."
                                   ~Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Edith Stein
[Link to my biography of Edith]

“[O]nly in daily, confidential relationships with the Lord in the tabernacle can one forget self, become free of all one’s own wished and pretensions, and have a heart open to all the needs and wants of others.”

+     +     +

Like Christians in the early centuries, I was confirmed at the same time that I was baptized. Although in my case, it all happened on my way home from the hospital – and just a mere three days after I was born in the city of Pinar del Río, Cuba.

As my parents explained, everything was so uncertain and chaotic in 1960 Cuba that our pastor and family friend suggested it. Castro’s government had already shipped, literally, hundreds of priests out the country on a boat, and no one could predict how long, or if, any priests would be allowed by the communists to stay behind.

After moving to the United States as a teenager and seeing how confirmations here are done, I felt a bit cheated that I never got to pick a patron saint.

Fast forward a few decades. Writer and dear friend Colleen Smith contacted me with a book idea, one that had been offered to her fist—but that she discerned would be a better fit for me: a biography of a Jewish convert, Carmelite nun, and soon to be saint.

When I first began reading about Edith Stein, I was more than a little freaked out.  Edith was a gifted, renowned philosopher, a brilliant writer and speaker—and I was entrusted with the task of writing her story and introducing readers to this phenomenal woman.

I began by ordering all of her books that have been translated into English by ICS Publications (Institute of Carmelite Studies), which of course, did nothing to appease my anxiety.  Stein was a prolific author and her texts were rich, academic and spiritually profound.

I looked at how others told her story and found out that there had been a number of biographies already published by people much better versed in both philosophy and Carmelite spirituality. 

Everything changed when I picked up Volume 5 of Edith Stein’s Collected Works: “Self Portrait In Letters 1916-1942,” translated by Josephine Koeppel, O.C.D.

In her letters, I met a young woman who loved God so deeply, so profoundly that, like the original apostles, she dropped everything she had and knew in order to follow Him completely.

I fell in love with Edith, my self-adopted patron saint, reading her letters.

Today is the feast day of this beautiful woman, a saint who continues to teach me that everything, down to the smallest detail, has coherent meaning in God’s all-seeing eyes.

I invite you to come to know more about her in my biography, Edith Stein: the Life and Legacy of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. 

I guarantee that you will fall in love with her, too!

Friday, June 29, 2018

final lessons from my Camino, 15 years later


It’s official.

As the month of June comes to an end, it marks 15 years since my dear friend Pat Stankus and I marched into the city of Santiago de Compostela—culminating our pilgrimage across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago.

In my Camino journal, I made a list titled, "things I have learned this final week."

But really, they are lessons from the Camino:

  • ·      a country church bell can be rung softly or loudly. I did both!
  • ·      all of creation is an open book (St. Benedict), symbolically expressing—and portraying, the sacred
  • ·      There is always shit on the path
  • ·      Old or new, shit always stinks
·      at least for this pilgrimage, I was not meant to walk in boots, but in sandals
  • ·      people in Spanish churches sing loudly, even at daily Mass
  • ·      my grace is sufficient for you
  • ·      eucalyptus leaves are a piece of heaven—and nothing like the ones you find at Michael’s
  • ·      sheep don’t like to be sheared
  • ·      I can still sing the lyrics to songs I learned in my childhood and have not sung since then
  • ·      The butterflies and wildflowers play silent music with their colors. Remember!
  • ·      I love Spanish food
  • ·      I love Spanish wine
  • ·      I may never fully understand why I did this
  • ·      Bidden or not bidden. God is present
  • ·      Every pilgrim will go home describing a different Camino.
  • ·      Threading your blisters with a needle & thread and betadine really does work
  • ·      You can get blisters on top of blisters
  • ·      Creation’s beauty does not cost or weigh anything
  • ·      Your heart sees and recognizes joy (as well as sin) simply through presence
  • ·      I doubted the guidebook. But, yes, cheese can be shaped to look like a breast with a nipple
  • ·      I love Spanish cheese
  • ·      Yo soy el Camino 

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

15 years after my Camino: Isodoro

I walked into the albergue at Hospital de Órbigo limping, as usual. 

After checking in and getting my Pilgrim passport stamped, I went straight to the bunk bed, took off my boots, and put on sandals to let my blistery feet air out. 

A man wearing a name tag that said Isodoro saw me walking across the courtyard, nodded, and smiled. After washing and hanging our wet clothes in the back patio, Pat and I went off to find a meal at a place that had been recommended.

Hours later, we came back and discussed weather and details about the next phase of the Camino with Isodoro, the main hospitalero. Pat returned to the bedroom, and I remained outside, taking time to write in my journal:

"We are staying in an albergue run by the parish here. It's old and medieval (used to be a pilgrim hospital!) and quite rustic in its accomodations. There's a tiny kitchen, two very uncomfortable showers--but a very good feel to the whole place. There's a beautiful courtyard where everyone gravitates to and chats, and there's a beautiful painting of Santiago [St. James] heading up the mountain--just as we'll be doing later this week! 

As you come in, there's a memorial on the wall to the martyrs and holy people of the 20th century: Romero, Kolby, Edith Stein!, Gandhi--and a sign at the bottom that reads:

Yo soy el Camino, la Verdad y la Vida 
[I am the Way, the Truth and the Life]

We are in a small [bed]room with huge beams--with a wooden ceiling that feels very cold.  

Right now I am sitting in a small chapel by the courtyard that has a statue of a baby Jesus with its sacred heart exposed, an image I've never seen before...

This is a holy place.

Lord, I surrender my feet to you. I give you my blisters, my pains, my aches, my soreness, my strenghth and my lack of it. What I am to walk must come from you. I know that I can not do this. I can't fix it. I can't carry it. I will not make it. Make my feet yours, Jesus--I trust you will do it."

As I walked out of the chapel, Isodoro came to find me. 

"You're having trouble with your feet," he said in Spanish. I smiled in response. 

"Here, let me see," he gestured, inviting me to sit down. I hesitated. Is he really asking to look at my feet?

Isodoro patted his lap and waited, sitting across from me. I timidly placed my left foot on his legs, and he gently put his hand on it, reaching for some sort of a nursing kit he had nearby.

For the next few minutes, in my own personal holy washing of the feet, this stranger who didn’t even know my name patiently doctored both of my feet. With the greatest tenderness and attention, he cleaned, mended, and laced each of my blisters, including two huge blisters on my heels, one new from that day’s walk.  

Sunday, June 24, 2018

15 years after my Camino: following the shepherd

One early morning before the misty fog had lifted, Pat and I headed west through the town where we had stayed the previous night, following the Camino’s trademark yellow arrows. 

In the outskirts of the village we passed an old cemetery, and instinctively began to say out loud the Church’s traditional prayer for the dead: 
“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And may perpetual light shine on them. May these souls and the souls of all the faithfully departed rest in peace. Amen.”
At the end of the cemetery grounds, we turned right and stood, literally, at the end of the town facing a forest--with no apparent yellow arrow or marker of any kind that we could follow. 

Pat and I stopped, looked at each other and at the pebbled path, which split two ways in front of us. 

Before either of us could say anything -- and seemingly out of nowhere -- we saw a man walking ahead of us and heading into the forest on one of the paths, and we followed him. 

He was walking at our pace, dressed like the local shepherds, and was holding a wooden staff--but no backpack or bundle on his back.

We followed the shepherd in silence. I don’t remember for how long. 

Suddenly, just as he had appeared when we needed help discerning which way to go, we looked up and he was no longer there. But the yellow arrow painted on the tree showing us the way was as clear and detectable as a blue cloudless sky.

It wasn't until later that morning at our breakfast break, as Pat and I discussed how Providential it was that the shepherd appeared when we needed him most, that we realized that we each saw different things. 

Pat saw a young man dressed as a shepherd walking with a stick. I saw an older man with a beard dressed as a shepherd walking with a stick. 

Today I read a quote from the Book of Revelations that reminded me of our Camino shepherd: 
These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” [Rev. 14].
I want to follow the Lamb. I want to silently, without hesitation, follow the Shepherd wherever He goes, wherever He leads me.

Friday, June 22, 2018

15 years after my Camino: my walking stick

flowers I pressed and taped to my journal

doodling in my journal, Camino shell and cross

I did not bring a walking stick with me for our pilgrimage. I knew it’d be an important item to have, but I sensed that I would find one to buy somewhere on the Camino.

I was half right. I found a stick, on the side of the trail as we descended el Monte del Perdón, the Mountain of Forgiveness, right outside Pamplona. It was the first day of our pilgrimage on el Camino de Santiago.

I spent the rest of the pilgrimage learning how to use it.  

There was something cleansing, cathartic even, about getting to work on it with a knife at the end of the day.  Every night, little by little, I took a little bit more excess off the stick, shaving its bark and smoothing its surface.

At one point on the walk, a stranger looked at my crooked stick and laughed, then he tried to sell me his own staff, telling me in Spanish that mine was too brusco, meaning, too rough. 

I met a man named Jesus at one of the albergues. His last name was Ruiz, and we joked about the two of us being distant relatives.  When he saw me working on it, he pulled out his knife and used his stronger blade to smoothen my stick, gently evening out the rough "knots" in the wood so that it wouldn't hurt my hand as I held on to it throughout the day.

One night, I took a red pen and drew the Camino de Santiago cross on it.  This was my Camino walking stick (and yes, I brought it home as checked luggage!):

Friday, June 8, 2018

If you're wondering what my next book is about...

Today is the perfect day -- on this Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus -- to announce the topic of my next book -- a biography of Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe, a Sacred Heart of Jesus Sister from Uganda.

The book will be part of the wonderful series from Liturgical Press, "People of God" -- click here to see their other titles. 

Please pray for me as I run towards the finish line to complete writing the manuscript about this inspiring woman? -- and look for my article about her in the upcoming August issue of St. Anthony Messenger!

For now, here's a taste... introducing Sister Rosemary, from my writings:

Rosemary Nyirumbe, the youngest girl of eight children, was born and raised in a small village of huts with grass roofs within Paidha, West Nile, located so close to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that children cross the border to attend school in the neighboring country. It is 122 miles and over three hours on dirt roads from Gulu, where Sister Rosemary now lives. 

She laughs often, and heartily, as she explains how most members of her tribe, the Alur, are like her—short and robust. While their neighbors in Gulu, the Acholi, are lean and tall. 

Yet the same woman who jokes about her 5’ stature has also shaken hands with foreign presidents, kings, and NBA stars. Rome Reports described her last year as, “the Mother Teresa of Africa.”  

She is one of TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” (2014). She is subject of the book “Sewing Hope,” and a documentary by the same name, narrated by Academy Award winning actor Forest Whitaker (2013). She received the United Nations Impact Award and has been named a CNN Hero. She even had a song written in her honor, “Touched by a Rose,” by JAIA. 

But for “baby sister,” as her brothers, sisters and family still call her, speaking engagements and awards are simply platforms to tell her story. “I have the great opportunity to speak on behalf of people who cannot speak for themselves.”