"'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'" -- J.R.R. Tolkien

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Star of the Magi

Well, it’s been over two months since my last post—a time of great discernment, critical reflection and self-evaluation, and change.  I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking, praying, and being with people: the young of Bolivia, fellow volunteers, and the Salesian sisters who oversee the daily operations at my new service site in Okinawa (a two hour drive from Santa Cruz).  Most of all, I continue to muddle through this ‘Bolivian Experience,’ one that has proven to be full of unforeseen challenges and hidden blessings, an experience far different than I had imagined.  But, as I’ve constantly been called to remember since that first day, this is God’s project, and while God may at times have a funny way of going about things, God never leads me down the wrong path.

More on all that later. 

An example of the ‘surprises’ God has had in store for me throughout this journey is the amount of traveling I’ve been doing.  I certainly didn’t anticipate such a tremendous amount of travel—the fact that I packed only warm-weather clothes, left my camping backpack at home, and didn’t even think to bring a jacket can attest to that.  When I went abroad to Spain during my third year of college, I packed with the intention to travel; when I came to Bolivia, I came with the intention to work hard and come to know a new community.  And yet, in the past three weeks, I’ve hiked through the mountains and valleys of Samaipata—a nearby destination in the Santa Cruz department—explored Cusco, Peru and Macchu Picchu, flew to the highest capital in the world, La Paz, and crossed Lake Titicaca—the highest altitude lake in the world—to hike across the Isle of the Sun.  Now I find myself on retreat in Cochabamba, wearing, most likely, dirty clothes because I haven’t had time to wash them—again, a testament to the fact that I hadn’t planned on traveling.  Don’t worry—I’m sure I have the same question for myself that you are all probably thinking: “Do you ever do any work, Eric?  Didn’t you go to Bolivia to volunteer?”  Believe me; I thought I did!  And I know I will—once the school year begins in Okinawa, I will be teaching a handful of classes, most of the English-speaking variety.  And certainly I have accomplishments from my time in Santa Cruz to look back on.  But what have I done to earn all of this travel?  Is this really why I flew across a continent, gave up nine months of my life? 

The answer, quite frankly, has to be ‘yes.’  Because I know this is where God wants me to be.

And so, as I hiked through the mountains of Samaipata, I thought and I thought and I looked at all the beauty around me.  What am I doing in the jungle?  What am I doing walking through these mountains?  Sure, hiking is fun—I really enjoy it.  But why am I here?  To meet God, I realized.  Why do I go anywhere?  Why do I travel?  Why do I leave home?  Well, I have to assume it’s to strip myself of all my ‘Eric-ness’, to get down to the bare bones of it all, and to meet God as I am.  As I’ve noted many times throughout this journey, I’m out of my element in a very big way; the outward, material ‘things’ that made me ‘me’ at Fairfield, on Regency Drive, at Mary, Mother of the Redeemer, or at Archbishop Wood don’t always shine through or even prove to be relevant.  But that’s okay, because God wants to meet me where I am, as I am, and a lot of times those outward ‘things’ might get in the way.  So, here I am, trudging through the jungle, following a path I’m not sure exists, emerging onto valleys that I’m pretty sure belong in Middle Earth, passing cows and donkeys, and looking out at a never-ending range of mountains, each one brimming with greenery.  And what am I to do with all of that?  Take a picture?

Sure, that’s something.  But I couldn’t help recalling the story of the Transfiguration, of Peter and Jesus and the sights the Apostles witnessed.  I had to stop trying to ‘do;’ I had to stop trying to figure it out.  I had to merely be.  Because God was in Samaipata with me, showing me Godself, beauty, peace, serenity.  God was inviting me—reminding me—to strip myself of all my ‘Eric-ness’.  Quite frankly, it’s impossible to go to God as I want to be or as I think I should be.  I can only go to God as I am.  The story of the Transfiguration isn’t one that notes some particular movement within the Apostles, some profound moment of brilliance or great act of social justice.  It’s merely an experience of God, of the Divine, of whatever we may want to call that Spark from Beyond.  And that experience is a gift.

I left for Peru only a few days after returning from Samaipata with three of the volunteers from Santa Cruz.  I was tired, I felt guilty for traveling again, and I assumed myself to be horribly under-prepared for the trip.  But God felt it just to dazzle my senses again with sights I can hardly do justice to by word or image.  Just the city of Cusco itself—a fantastic combination of European and Latino sensations, relaxed but bristling with people and culture and life.  We biked down some of the mountains near Cusco and back into the city itself, stopping at ruins, an animal refuge, and at overlook points that demanded wonder and awe.  And then Macchu Picchu itself: waking up at 4 AM to start trekking alongside the chattering river with nothing but a few slivers of sunrise to light our way, trudging up a winding path and gradually rising higher than the clouds, seeing the puffs of white clouds slithering between and above and below the grand peaks and valleys of the mountains all around, nearly tip-toeing through the early morning air of the ruins of Macchu Picchu, catching mere glimpses among the cloud coverage, climbing nearby Wayna Picchu, sweating and stopping and smiling and laughing at the sheer amount of climbing we had to do, getting to the top and sitting on top of a mountain gazing down at everything, lost amidst the white of the clouds that were below us and around us and above us, catching glimpses of the ruins below, and then, finally, walking amongst Macchu Picchu itself.  What do I do with that?  Take a picture?  Come on. 

How difficult it is for me to be present to moments like that.  Weird, right?  But I’m always so anxious to scoop up whatever new tidbits of experience I can and then hustle home so I can process and reflect and share with others.  What am I doing in the moment?  Worrying about taking advantage of everything, making sure I have enough money to pay for food, trying to figure out what the best route here or there is, etc, etc.  So much for that Transfiguration moment, right?  Rather, I say, “Those mountains are beautiful; now I want to climb them.”  Or, “This culture is fascinating; I need to buy BOOKS.”  So much for the expert traveler. 

Throughout Advent I found myself particularly drawn to the story of the Three Magi, especially as I continued to remind myself of why I had come to Bolivia, that ‘star’ I myself was following.  The star is important; for me, it’s that encounter with God, that desire to come to know who and what God is for me and where God desires me to go next.  This is the ‘star’ that brought me, in a big way, to Bolivia, to Santa Cruz, and eventually to Okinawa.  But as I found myself traveling more and more, the story of the Wise Men spoke to me in a different way.  The story broke itself down into three parts: seeking God, encountering God, and returning with God.  I jump too quickly to the ‘return’ stage, so anxious to go back to the comforts and controlled life I lead at ‘home’—wherever that may be at the moment.  Rather than stressing over the ‘seeking’ stage—what to pack, or what am I going to actually do, or I really need to focus on this other thing—I should armor myself in the light of the star God has given me, specifically.  How will this new step in the journey bring me closer to the star?  Rather than jumping up and down like a fool once I finally reach the ‘encounter,’ trying to fit it all in, take the best pictures, remember every moment, talk to every person, I need to just be.  What could the Magi do in the presence of God?  Sure, they offered gifts, but I’ll bet they were much more struck by the wonder of it all, much more engulfed in the presence of the moment.  And finally, though I so quickly rush to the ‘return’ stage, I have to remember myself, especially in light of humility.  I may have learned a thing or two but I can never know it all, and I have to be aware of that.                

And sometimes, when you’re ready to return, say, from the Isle of the Sun, and you’ve spent all day crossing the island and you’ve arrived at the dock for your boat with an hour to spare, a lady says, “Oh, you’re boat isn’t docking here, it’s docking on el otro lado.”  And sometimes el otro lado means the other side of the mountain and so you off and go climb the damn thing all over again only to find that in fact your boat isn’t there and you have to haggle with another boat captain to ensure that you get off the island before night fall. 

That’s a more extreme example. 

And so I now find myself in Okinawa, a post-WWII Japanese immigrant colony that now has a colorful cultural mix just a few hours outside of Santa Cruz.  Yes, I am STILL in Bolivia; no, I’m NOT in Japan.  (Maybe one day?)  Which moment do I find myself in?  Like I said, this ‘Bolivian Experience’ has been a doozy so far, but God is very much at work.  I am still ‘seeking;’ that’s what guides the decisions I make, from the day-to-day to whether or not to go on retreat.  I am certainly ‘encountering;’ how else can I justify so much seemingly ‘useless’ time?  For God, no time is useless; it’s just me who can’t always figure it out.  God is present in each moment, in each person, and I think those moments of ‘success’ may be ones I never fully recognize.  And ‘returning?’  Well, I’m doing that too, in a sense, because every experience brings with it lessons and morals and things to think about.  But as I go forward, it’s the story of the Transfiguration that I try to keep foremost in mind—where is God manifesting Godself to me in this moment?  Do I have the eyes to see it?  Do I have the will to accept it?  Most importantly, am I able to go to God as I am, or do I continue to hide behind who I want to be? 

I have four more months to figure it out.  At least, in Bolivia.   


  1. I love this. Everything that you said really speaks to me especially with Jamaica. I'm so excited to chat soon. Love you!

  2. Thank you for your reflections on your search for/journey with God; for your openness to wherever he (thru the FMAs, or your fellow volunteers!) wants to take you. Peace be with you!