A couple of years ago I was coming home from a wedding reception in Tijuana, in winter, about 2:00 a.m. While I waited in line at the border in drizzle and showers, a boy around ten years old approached my car. One of the legion of Chiclets vendors, he held out a box with little packs of candied gum and opened his mouth and moved his tongue. No sound.
His face glistened with rainwater, feverish sweat, or tears. His eyes looked like chocolate milk, as if the brown had faded into the whites. He was rocking slowly back and forth. I took a packet of gum and dropped two quarters toward his box from a couple of inches above it, but at the wrong moment he rocked back and the quarters dropped to the ground.
His mouth opened, his tongue moved, he managed a step toward the next car, then paused and stood rocking as though gathering strength for the trip. I had to get out and pick up the quarters and place them in his box, which he then held up higher, thinking he still owed me a packet of chicle.
I used to play baseball in Tijuana. Our shortstop lived with his mother, brothers, and sisters in a shelter made of four refrigerator crates and a plastic sheet. Because they were squatters, they didn’t get their choice of lots, had to settle for a ledge just below the rim of the Carton del Sol just south of Smugglers Gulch that runs across the border.
One rainy night their home washed into the canyon. All but one of his brothers and sisters survived.
Since then Tijuana has built entire colonias of decent basic housing. Yet faster than the place is improved, the people keep coming, the slums grow, the poorest of the poor multiply.
The place spooks me. But not half so much as did the thought of going to stay there with an order of priests. It’s not that I’m anti-Catholic or anti-Christ. But my paternal grandmother was a deranged, abusive Christian. Most of my life, I step into a church, it feels like I’ve been stuffed into a closet with a gang of molesters and pickpockets.
The Missionary Fathers of Charity live about a half mile from the Terminal Central de Autobuses at the base of Otay Mesa, a mile or so from the river that splits Tijuana into an east and west side. The colonias that surround the seminary are called Marua and Arenal. Out behind the bus terminal is a large swampy pond, the laguna. Beside it stand a few hundred shelters made of scrapwood, chicken wire, corrugated plastic, and tin. The better ones use some bricks, concrete, occasionally stucco. Some have at least one or two glass windows. The lots are about 30 feet square. A few of the homes are old travel trailers. If the laguna were pristine and full of trout, this wouldn’t make a bad campground for about 500 people. But the laguna is stagnant and foul, and ten times that many live there.
A vivacious woman named Patrice who’s teaching crafts at the seminary’s summer camp tells me the colonia built up around the seminary. As soon as the fathers arrived in 1988, squatters began settling there to be close to the church and the missionaries.
The seminary occupies several acres. The buildings are square, flat roofed, made of bricks and concrete blocks. All painted white, surrounded by a white block wall. A Mexican fellow watches the drive-in gate. To the right is a kid-sized soccer field, to the left a large covered patio sided by an L-shaped building of classrooms, workrooms, guest quarters. Straight ahead is the main chapel, a hall about 50 feet square, with a high ceiling and concrete floor. The seating is benches, and in front two carpet mats where the seminarians and priests who aren’t officiating kneel, sit, or stand for their rites and adorations. Above the altar is a cross the Superior General found in Germany and delivered here because it pictured the calling of the Missionaries of Charity. It represents Mary standing beside Christ crucified, reaching up to hand him a vessel of water. Lettered on the wall beside it are the words TENGO SED. “I thirst." From John 19:38.
Behind the classrooms are gardens of vegetables and succulents. In the center of one garden is the statue of a guardian angel. Behind the chapel, west of the gardens, is a horseshoe-shaped building of dormitories, kitchen and dining hall, a library, and a smaller chapel surrounding a Spanish-style patio. There’s a back field with a volleyball net and row of eucalyptus along the fence, on the slope above the laguna and the slum called Rancho Riviera.
I used to teach at the University of San Diego, which overlooks the bay and harbor, where the gardens are green and manicured, the buildings full of hardwood and inlaid tile, where many of the classrooms have solid mahogany tables and padded chairs. Though the differences are blatant, there’s a similarity between USD and the MC seminary; they’re both clean, solid, tended lovingly. It’s as if the college were the home of a proud baron, the seminary occupied by his humble identical twin.
The morning I arrived, the fields and classrooms were bustling with children from about 8 years old to 12 and with young men, the seminarians, wearing matching blue-sleeved baseball undershirts. At the turn of the hour, the kids marched in ragged lines behind banners emblazoned with their group names: Hijos de Maria, Querubines de Jesus, Cruzados de Cristo.
With the help of a few local teenaged volunteers and Patrice, supervised by the Vicar General, the young men led the children in crafts, in soccer and basketball, and in Bible study, using songs and recitations. The youngest priest and a brother who uncannily resembles a friend of mine now long dead, were teaching the Ten Commandments. The brother sang a song about them, pounding his guitar exuberantly. When a boy socked another in the arm, the brother paused in his song to remind them that Jesus asked us to love one another and that "peleando no es amor."
Around noon the children marched into the outside chapel for a prayer and lunch of hot dogs and beans. The guitarist brother helped serve then took charge of showing me around. He’s from Casa Grande, Arizona, 28 years old, beginning his third year with the MC Fathers.
Perhaps on account of his likeness to my old friend, surely because of his cheerful goodwill, I felt close to him and at ease before I’d known the guitar-picking brother a minute. About books alone we could’ve gabbed for days. He’s a fellow I’d gladly take as my confessor. I couldn’t imagine him judging me or anybody harshly. In the library, while he stacked my arms with books about Mother Teresa, others by Jacques Maritan and C.S. Lewis, I found myself quizzing him about certain mysteries and talking about my divorce and worries about my teenaged kids — though I’m not apt to go looking for advice from a guy 20 years younger than me.
We sat on a bench in shade, in the garden near the guardian angel, while he fielded my questions about their order.
In 1948 Mother Teresa was granted permission to go out from the Sisters of Loreto, from the school for girls where she lived and taught in relative ease and comfort, to walk the streets of Calcutta, find the poorest of the poor, and minister to their needs. The brother explained that she’d felt Jesus calling to her, saying, as he’d said from the cross, “I thirst.” He wanted her, she realized, to help quench his thirst wherever she found it. Particularly in the poor, sick, and dying. Because each of the poor, she tells us, is Jesus in his distressing disguise.
Joined by a few of her former students, young ladies from wealthy Calcutta families, Mother Teresa founded the Missionary Sisters of Charity. In 1950 they became an established order of the Catholic Church. Their hospices, orphanages, hospitals, homes for the aged, soup kitchens, and all, have risen up around the world.
The Missionary Brothers of Charity, whose calling, like the Sisters, is to minister to the physical needs of the destitute, was established in 1965. Then in 1984 Mother Teresa established the Missionary Fathers of Charity, whose purpose differs from the Brothers’ and Sisters’. While they may feed, clothe, or nurse the sick or poor, their primary function is to minister to people’s spiritual needs and perform the rites of the Church.
Presently the Fathers are located in Tijuana and Rome. Young men will first visit the Tijuana seminary for what they call a “come and see” of a few weeks or months. If they feel called, they must spend a year as an aspirant dedicated to discerning if the calling is real. By the end of this year they’ll know both English and Spanish. For the two years following, they’ll be designated postulants. During this time they study theology and philosophy at the diocesan seminary in Tijuana, a few miles from their compound. The fourth year they become novices, and though their studies may continue, now their time is largely given to prayer and contemplation, as the year will conclude with their actual vows, the canonical initiation into religious life. After their vows, they’ll go to Rome, where they study theology four or five years prior to ordination.
As priests they might be sent anywhere. Three or four priests will live together and visit their neighbors to decide how they can best serve the people.
The youngest priest, three months ordained, invited me along on a bicycle ride into the shantytown called Rancho Riviera. He was going there to recommend to God a man who’d died of cancer a few days before.
The seminary has a couple of old “paper boy” bikes with fat knobby tires. A bike of lesser stamina would’ve collapsed on the rocky, rutted hardpan road. We were following a young neighbor who wore the wary frown of a guerrilla. It was midafternoon, siesta time, and most of the people outside the shelters were standing or squatting in groups, filling the rare patches of shade. A few women washed clothes in corrugated tubs. Some men were raising a wall on what appeared to be a new outhouse down by the laguna. The priest slowed to chat with some friends and parishioners, then the neighbor pulled over beside a low wooden fence.
The home of the deceased was upscale for the colonia. Stucco, two glass windows in front. One large or two small rooms. A plywood floor. Inside was dark. Nobody in there except a diapered infant who lay on its back in the doorway, squirming. The front patio, large enough to accommodate the casket, a dozen or so mourners, the father, and me, was half shaded by a blue plastic tarp.
I waited outside the gate, shy of death and of invading strangers’ grief, until one of two men who seemed at the center of the family — middle-aged guys, the dead fellow’s brothers or compadres — waved me in. Each looked as if he’d been sleepless for a couple of days, fasting, drinking pulque.
It was mostly women gathered around. Neighbors kept joining us. Nobody there was very old. A girl who walked in nursing her baby could’ve been as young as 12, the widow no more than 40. She and most of the others looked Indian. Several of them had light splotches on their faces caused by a disease carried in the laguna water.
While we stood ten minutes or so and the priest chatted softly with the widow and the woman closest to her, I longed to become invisible and seemed to nearly accomplish it. On another day, I might’ve been a strange and interesting character, but not now as we grouped around the casket.
In the Mexican way, the father, a blond gringo, didn’t rush anything. He stood and gabbed softly like any other mourner until it appeared all the guests had arrived and the widow looked ready. One of the sleepless men buried his face in his hands. The father took his vestments from the shopping bag he carried and slipped them over the gray work clothes the MC priests wear.
The ceremony, in Spanish, with prayers and sprinklings of water upon the veil of the corpse, only took a couple of minutes.
After the father paid his respects to the widow and family, I followed him out the gate. As we reached for our bikes, the sleepless fellow who’d buried his head in his hands asked my pardon, pulled the father aside, and led him a few feet up the road. By now the man was weeping. They talked several minutes. Maybe, I thought, the death and ceremony had inspired the man with concern for his own soul. On our ride back, I asked the priest. He said, “Oh no. He just wanted me to help find a car to take them all to the cemetery.”
The priests and seminarians have come to Tijuana from everywhere. The youngest, once a student of business at San Francisco State University, was one of the first priests ordained by the Missionary Fathers. The Vicar General, from Toronto, and the Superior General, from San Diego, have been with the Missionary Fathers from the start, having previously been ordained through the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. The father who has served longest with the Missionaries of Charity is a native of India and one of a handful of priests ordained by the MC Brothers. He spent 25 years with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, in the streets seeking out the dying and destitute, in a home for the mentally and physically handicapped, and in a home for lepers. The Novice Master is from Winnepeg, Canada. The priest who smiles most is Polish.
The brothers have arrived from France, the U.S., Argentina, Poland, Haiti, South Africa, India, Mexico. There’s a quiet, gentlemanly brother from Ohio, who studied engineering then lived and worked in Detroit until a couple of years ago. I asked what led him from his profession to this life. There was a common route, he said, by which people arrived here. Most all of them had unselfish parents, at least one of whom taught that happiness lay in helping others more than in helping oneself; many had worked as volunteers in one of Missionaries of Charity soup kitchens or homes and gotten inspired by the beauty and selflessness of the sisters; and each of them felt that the choice was prompted by a calling from God.
There’s a brother from Argentina, 22 years old. At 18 he left home to join the MC Brothers. Handsome, animated, energetic, I’d have made him for a pro soccer player. He told me that all over Latin America, the religious are caught between the Leftists, who think they’re reactionary, and the Rightists, who fear them as potential revolutionaries. In Peru he’d been stopped by the police at gunpoint and interrogated. Mexico’s safer, he said, though it’s only been two years since the church became legal. Between the Revolution and 1990, people in religious orders couldn’t vote. Churches or even homes used to celebrate the Mass could be confiscated at the whim of the police or government.
The oldest postulant, 36, looks like a young professor outside of whose office door coeds would line up waiting. On a bench beside the garden overseen by the angel, he gave me the story of his meandering road to the order.
“Well, I grew up in a middle-class, Protestant family in Seattle, and my dad was very much invested in business. When I was getting older, we moved to a wealthier but much less happy neighborhood. There my loss of innocence happened. My parents were always pretty good people, but in this neighborhood the families would drink and fight. The kids were more spoiled. It was in the 1960s and ’70s, and so I noticed a big contrast between the middle-class values being proposed and the American ideals and the ideas of the capitalists — my dad was really idealistic about the free-market economy — and the big contrast between all that and some of the realities you saw — the Vietnam war, so many young people disenchanted with the models adults gave them. I remember John Kennedy being shot in Dallas when I was eight years old. And Martin Luther King. I remember writing a paper when I was 12 about Hiroshima. So I was being exposed to some of the dark side of American life and life in general. And my father took us sometimes to visit places people were suffering, like a school for severely retarded people, and we visited people who were deaf, who couldn’t speak. My mom was always attracted to helping, refugees from Vietnam or Cambodia, elderly people. But my father had a very strong ethic of business and survival and being responsible for your family and not letting yourself be so guided by your heart that you didn’t take care of your own life.
“Even though my father was always kind and generous, he resented my mom, like she was just overdoing it, acting like a co-dependent, looking for somebody who needed her help. It’s funny, I only heard this within the last two months — but for years Mother Teresa’s been her biggest hero. Even though my mom’s not Catholic. She’d never said anything about it.
“Some people say that charity doesn’t work, that it makes people spoiled or dependent. But Mother Teresa has told us to look at how many religious orders around the world spoil the rich. Give them inexpensive schooling, give them excellent service at their churches, and look how many things the wealthy people receive that are free. And consider how the air is given freely. What if God said, okay, for one hour of air you have to work four hours? Or sunshine. God pours out all these things. Mother says, 'Well, why can’t we spoil the poor?’
“I mean, you take a fish to a poor person and someone gets mad because you’re not giving them a fishing pole — and what if they don’t live near the river? You have to build them a house on the river and give them a fishing pole?
I mean it’s such a traditional argument that to help the poor at the bottom is a negative thing to do, and I've grown up with it all my life, the theory that there’s a trickle down, that if you work to build the great corporations all the benefits will trickle down. It just doesn’t happen.
“Not to get into politics, but that’s why I was involved in social justice and peace issues for a long time. When you begin to learn with an honest and open mind how the United States absorbs and consumes the vast majority of the world’s resources with just six percent of the population of the world and you wonder how it happened, it’s not just because we’re more motivated. And it’s not just that we’ve got a better system, but it has also to do with military power and the CIA and all this, you know, and the colonial system, creating markets.
“But people who are privileged find excuses for not making sacrifices on behalf of those who are not privileged. And of course some people aren’t motivated to work, some people living on the streets could be trying harder. But many, many others simply lack the opportunity or they lack something in terms of their own abilities, or maybe they lack the education that we had. Maybe they didn’t have sufficient nutrition when they were young. Maybe they’ve grown up with enormous wounds, and because of their woundedness they can’t do what we do. And some of those people — for example the American Indians who are on the street — maybe they still cannot accept our value system. Or maybe for some reason our value system of competition and rising to the top in a materialistic way doesn’t appeal deeply enough to them that they’d be willing to make the sacrifice necessary.
“I grew up with certain prejudices, naturally, although, thank God, I had exposure to people of different ethnic groups, and my parents encouraged that. But still I have stereotypes. For example you come to Mexico — it’s true that things are inefficient here. It’s true that there’s corruption in the government. But you find a deeper value in community here and a deeper value of human relationship. It doesn’t mean the marriages are better, but it does mean that people take more time to speak with each other. At least the kids tend to be more loving to each other. I don’t like to idealize the families, because a lot of fathers leave and there’s a lot of infidelity. Still, it’s different here. There’s a certain warm-heartedness, an openness. I hope it has something to do with the Catholic culture, even if their Catholic faith isn’t practiced much.”
The postulant continued, “When I was 16 I went to eastern Washington volunteering with a program where we helped migrant farm workers. It was run through the Council of Churches of Washington state. This was around Yakima. It was my first exposure to Mexican American culture. I helped teach in a school, and helped build houses. I got introduced to Our Lady of Guadalupe then, too. It was a wonderful experience to volunteer at the school. I had 30 second graders, all fluent in English and Spanish. Good kids.
“Back in Seattle I continued to work promoting the cause of the United Farmworkers. It was a little hard though, because I got involved politically and then realized there were some ambiguities, like when I was picketing Safeway, I wasn’t always sure where all the information was coming from and how credible it was. That early experience with political involvement made me realize I had to grow a lot and to learn a lot.
“I went to college at St. John’s in Santa Fe, New Mexico and had another big exposure to the Catholic Church and the Hispanic culture and also to American Indians. I used to participate in some of the fiestas and processions. I started to get very interested in the Catholic Church, and I got to know more about Our Lady of Guadalupe. See, Our Lady plays an important role in all this, because I think it was around this time that I began to realize that Mary was more than just a simply historical personality as she is for the Protestants. I mean, to many of the Protestants you could say she was accidental. It was time for Jesus to be conceived so God looked around and found a nice woman. But for the Catholics, from the beginning of time God knew what was going to happen and He had already chosen. Mary still had the freedom to say no or yes, but since she was a holy woman, created sinless, chances were good she would say yes.
“At the same time, I was beginning to realize that Jesus was a living, active person today as much as he was at the time of Pentecost in the early Church, and that took away all my interest in gurus and other religions. And when I discovered the Catholic Church having such an immense tradition of community life and contemplative life and of holiness and of service, that also put an end to all my exploring other religions. So by 1978 I knew that eventually I would probably become a priest or a monastic.
“Then for a couple of years I was working in isolated areas like northern Idaho, teaching at a small school, and in northern New Mexico, three summers at a Boy Scout ranch. And Alaska, gold mining, various jobs. These were growing experiences for me. It was during those times in isolation that I decided I really needed to move in the direction of the ministry. And since I didn't know where to go in the Catholic faith, I chose to go to an ecumenical center for studies, but it also happened to be fairly liberal. So the Catholicism I was learning was more progressive and more inclined toward justice and peace. But I never was much taken by liberation theology. Even though I was progressive in terms of my politics, I always wanted to deal with the basics and not to mess around much with scripture. I didn’t like people interpreting scripture in whatever way they wanted.
“In 1981 I became a Catholic. I was at the Pacific School of Religion, which is part of the Graduate Theological Union. The Pacific School of Religion is multi-denominational.
“When I became Catholic, I was certain I would be come a Jesuit. I was attracted to the Jesuit life, and it seemed that was where the Lord was leading me. I was also attracted very much to the Franciscans. The Jesuits because of the strength of character and strong educational standards, and they work in missions, in social justice, with education. The Franciscans, I like the commitment to community and to poverty and to the poor. I knew about Mother Teresa, but at the time she only had sisters and brothers and I felt drawn to the priesthood, so I didn't consider joining her. I’d known about Mother Teresa since I was in high school, and I always felt that she was probably a saint.
“After I became Catholic, after many years of searching for a spiritual home, it was like a rite of passage for me. I changed, became a more secure person, I felt stronger.
“Meanwhile, I was extremely concerned about whether we'd even survive as a planet. At that point they were beginning to build new weapons systems. They were talking about space-deployed weapons, which were against international law. They were building Star Wars. Reagan was investing incredible sums on these weapons. I think it was Eisenhower who said something like every warship launched, every missile fired represents theft from the poor. I don’t remember the exact quote, but it affected me a lot because it was obvious the money had to come from somewhere, and whether you take it out of tax money or whether you inflate the economy, print up the money, it ultimately costs the people who’re at the bottom of the pile. Also, the constant Cold War, the skirmishes, the points of tension around the globe, this was all absorbing our resources, plus there’s the psychological cost of always living in fear of being destroyed, which a lot of young people have been growing up with in this generation.
“Once I met this really eccentric man in Washington, in church. I loved his analysis. He said you could reduce the whole experience of our generation — mine, not his — to this: You’re a little kid watching television. ‘M-I-C, See you real soon. K-E-Y, Why? Because — We interrupt this program to bring you the latest broadcast from the Bikini islands — KA-BOOM — Back to our regular programming. M-O-U-S-E.’
“That’s the contrast we had to grow up with and that represented the ideals of our culture and the lacquer they try to coat everything with. Everything’s still this way. They give us the nice, fluffy story, and in the meantime there’s the incredible horror so many live with, whether it’s the bomb or drugs or crime in the street. It’s Bambi meets Godzilla.
“I wrote that paper on Hiroshima when I was 12 and, either because my father told me to add this or because it was something I read, I concluded with a statement that it had to happen because if we didn’t drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we would’ve had to invade Japan. Trying to explain away the whole horror of the thing instead of just leaving it there and just saying, ’Hey, it was horrifying.’
“So I got involved in the Peace Walk. We walked all the way from Seattle to Israel. That was in ’82 and ’83. A 7000-mile trip. We had no official sponsors, but it was organized by a Jesuit priest and a group of lay people organized by the Jesuits. There were three priests involved and a Catholic nun. There were Protestants and Catholics. The senior member had been the Catholic chaplain for the crews that bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. He went to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki about a month after the bombings. He still had the censer, you know the thing they put the incense in, from the Catholic church in Nagasaki which was completely wiped out. Nagasaki was the Catholic capital of Japan. It’s where the martyrs had been killed and where St. Francis Xavier had a lot of success. So you had Christians, some of them Catholics, in the name of God, with the blessings of the Catholic priest, destroying the Catholic center of Japan.
“So we had people of all kinds. And then after Israel I continued to the Soviet Union with another group trying to help bring reconciliation. I went back again with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Most of the people in it are Christian — there are a lot of Quakers. It’s been very instrumental in, for example, the Philippines, when they had their peaceful transition.
“I was becoming more political, but there was always a Christian dimension. To me it was essential that there be a faith dimension, because I worked with people who didn’t have faith. During 1984 and 1985 I worked with people who had other motives for working for peace, who had all kinds of agendas. Some were very angry, some had power trips. Some had a vision that led them to do things in the course of their peace activity which contradicted their goals. It was disillusioning.
“It seemed to me the world situation was not getting any better. I began to think, if God allows there to be a nuclear war, I’m not going to be able to stop it. I went through that stage, it lasted four or five years, where I was so concerned about the situation of the world that I couldn’t easily focus on the long term. But during that time I started to see that even if I have to go through ten years of formation before I can be a priest, if God wants me to become a priest, everything will be in His hands. So at that point I began looking at the Jesuits again, very strongly. But I was also interested in social justice politics in Central America, particular the conflicts in Guatemala and El Salvador. I made trips down there.
“I never expected that I would join Mother Teresa, because she’s not politically involved. That’s a big thing with Mother. She’ll say other people may be called to political activity, but they aren’t called to the Missionaries of Charity. The Missionaries of Charity are for something else. No one can deny that Mother Teresa and her sisters have a tremendous impact on the political situations of the countries in which they work. But she refuses to get involved in political activism.
“The Fathers were in New York City when I first found out about them. At that time I was very heavily invested in the Franciscans. Also, New York City’s the last place in the world I want to live. And I was in transition. I was going through a re-evaluation of my whole life. I decided to finish my studies in theology.”
Back in school, I left off all the activism and I was looking for signs of what road to take. And finally several things came strongly to me. One was, I wanted to work on a deeper level for change in the world, not as an activist. And I wanted to move much closer to the Catholic faith, to grow in that sense. The third thing was, I wanted to go to a religious order where there would be an opportunity for deeper prayer. And I wanted to make a commitment to the poor.
“There was a poor family I knew quite well, and they’d had difficulties, and I had a very strong sense that we all were going to Medjugorje, which I had known about since 1983 when I was in Yugoslavia.”
According to the testimony of six children, on june 24, 1981, on a hill outside Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, the Virgin Mary appeared. The first day she stood in silence, but the next day she spoke. She’s spoken during most every visit ever since.
Dear Children, God does not want you to be restless and indecisive but totally abandoned to Him. You know that I love you, and that I bum with love for you.
For that reason, dear children, decide also in favor of love. May love prevail in all of you so that daily, you may burn with the love of God and experience it for yourselves. Not human love, but God’s love....
Do not deceive yourselves in thinking I am good but my brother, who lives next to me is not good....
When you pray, you are so much more beautiful. You are like flowers, which after the snows are bursting with beauty in their indescribable colors...."
In 1987, the postulant sold everything and took himself and the family that needed help to Medjugorje.
“It’s a very powerful place. Such a strong, tangible presence of God and of Our Lady. Like the guy that did that article in Life magazine put a note in the front saying it was unusual that he would publish something like this, but there’s just something about the place that touches people very deeply.
“I spent 75 days there and witnessed people who were apparently healed of illnesses and addictions, but what affected me more was to witness marvelous changes of heart, people who’d felt hopeless regaining their faith, numerous reawakenings of spirit.
“When I came back, the call was so much clearer and stronger and I had so much hope, and I was so encouraged, because before I saw a lot of evidence that God was just allowing the world to go to hell. At Medjugorje I saw abundant evidence that God does care. Fie just can’t erase the effects of human free will.
“Which led me to visit the Tijuana seminary of the Missionary Fathers of Charity. After a couple of visits, I decided to stay.
“Thinking back to the world I came from, it seems that people who work to succeed in anything, even if it’s by joining good causes, either become bitter, or disillusioned, or proud.
“Another big lesson for me has been, if you want to be sure to find Jesus, not only do you go to Calcutta and find the most destitute person, but you go to the person who is ugliest, most hideous to you, to the one who’s hardest for you to accept. From that person is where Jesus will talk to you."
Mother Teresa has said, “Our work calls for us to see Jesus in everyone. Fie has told us that He is the hungry one. He is the naked one. He is the thirsty one. He is the one who is suffering. These are our treasures.”
“Maybe,” the brother speculated, “that’s why when we see poor or sick or dying people it’s hard to watch. Maybe they’re Jesus calling to us and we don’t know how to respond.”
This few acres feels set apart from our world. The brothers and fathers — it’s not like they stroll around serenely contemplating the heavens. They have tasks, duties, and goals. Maybe it’s restlessness that’s missing, or worry, as if there’s no doubt that what they need to accomplish today, they will, and tomorrow will handle itself.
In part I blame this peace of mind on the rhythm of their days. At 5:00 a.m. they rise, dress and spend an hour kneeling or sitting on the carpet in the chapel in prayer or meditation upon the Eucharist. Around 6:30 people in the neighborhood arrive for the morning Mass and communion. There are 20 or so minutes for breakfast. After washing dishes, during this summer camp time, all but the novices go off to their work with the children until about 1:00 p.m. There’s lunch, a half hour for rest, a few more hours of work or study, until 6:00 p.m., when they meet in the little chapel for another hour of prayer and meditation. After dinner there’s a half hour of recreation — ping-pong, a board game, conversation. At 9:00 p.m. until 5:00 the next morning, the men keep silent. No one talks unless they have to.
Beyond the silence, every minute or so a bus roars out of the station or a truck drones, struggling up the hill to the mesa. As late as midnight, some politician’s mouthpiece might cruise the colonia blaring a message over the truck-top loudspeaker. From off in the distance, rattling closer, a radio will screech gringo rock, and when the car bounds past on the rutted hard-pan, you can’t hear the song over the clatter of springs and bolts breaking. Later, a mysterious explosion will jolt the night awake, shocking me into some reverie.
One night I lay thinking about Sylvia, the mother of my best friend who died long ago. Sylvia’s large, intense, blond, uses a cane. Several years back, she flung open her door, pinned me with her cat eyes and demanded, “What’s the meaning of life?"
I retreated a step, pondered a while, and asked if I could get back to her in a couple of weeks.
“The meaning of life,” she declared, “is to know love and to serve God.” It was a line she’d gotten from a priest during her stay in an orphanage at the Mission de Alcala about 60 years ago.
The summer after Sylvia passed along the meaning of life, my wife and I separated. She and my kids moved home to San Diego while I remained up north. Around me the daily temperatures doubled, as did the weight of every object I lifted, including my feet and arms. Birds that used to sing began cawing. The pines and redwoods withheld their scents. Air and water turned brown and gritty. Attempting to survive, I bought a few books. A guide to poisonous mushrooms in our region, in case I decided to give up. A TV pop-psychologist’s book called The Viscott Method. And the one I needed — No Man Is an Island, by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, poet, and theologian who wrote wisely on a vast range of subjects — solitude, Nazis, the Eucharist, self-esteem, Zen, Bob Dylan, pure intention, mercy.
To my surprise, the topics that revived me were solitude and silence. I’d always been coached that in misery you ought to seek out friends to give solace and distraction. Hence, I’d been distracting myself with friends and their chatter, as well as with fiction, illusions, daydreams, and toxic substances for about 25 years. Now, a few weeks with the telephone unplugged, with an hour each morning and evening devoted to sitting on my porch, another hour or so to walking through the forest park, holding to my resolution that I would seek out no company and minimize speaking, even in the class I taught — these portions of solitude and silence refreshed me, gave me hope, made me send at least a few of my demons sulking away.
Dr. Viscott helped by offering a program by which we could rethink our childhood for about $90,000 less than psychoanalysis would cost us. And as a bonus, the doctor, like Sylvia before him, revealed the meaning of life. He says it’s to let the life force have its way with us, enchant our being, and lead us to become what we simply are. Translated from the agnostic language, that’s, “to know love and serve God."
I'm not good at such early rising, but by 6:00 a.m. I’m showered and ready to join meditation in the chapel. On the carpet with the brothers I’m uneasy as a self-conscious goose among swans. Not quite sure if there are certain allowed postures, I sit with my legs curled up, imitating a brother who looks most comfortable. Up front, beneath Mary handing a cup to Jesus, the Eucharist sits on an altar, the center of most everyone’s attention.
This receiving of bread and wine, which I guess is a mystery even to saints, is doubly mysterious to me. A mystery and a puzzle. I’ve taken communion a couple times, but in a Protestant church where it seems more symbolic, less urgent than it does here. Thomas Merton wrote of his daily communion as though it were a joyous addiction and antidote for something poisonous that otherwise afflicted him.
Following Mass, everyone on the carpet lines up to take communion. I’m game. I line up behind the last brother. Fortunately, my guitarist friend who’d already returned to his place on the carpet gave me a tug on the pants leg and whispered that in a Catholic church, you’re supposed to go through some preparations before you take communion.
Though I blush easily, here I don’t need to. Because I imagine there’s not a person in the seminary who would laugh at or patronize me. I don’t see anyone who’d take pleasure in derision. These guys, if nothing else, are kind and humble. I suspect none would judge himself as more holy than me or anybody.
Patrice, who first visited the seminary when her brother was a novice, has taken an apartment nearby. She’s volunteered at the summer camp, the orphanage, and the soup kitchen. One day after lunch we sat in the shade and I asked what she thought of the fathers and brothers.
“Well, they’re special. Honest. Caring. Simple. They’re devout. The sisters too. I started volunteering at the soup kitchen, staying with a family up the hill here, and was only going to visit a week, the second time, but I’ve been here a year and a half. I stayed three months the first time, when I came to visit Jim, my brother. This time, I stayed with my friend Maria Dolores’s family in the colonia, and I was working at the soup kitchen. I wanted to stay another week, but I had displaced the household, the older daughter gave up her room and she had to sleep with the other girls. I mentioned it to the sisters at the soup kitchen and they said, ‘We have this trailer. Move into the trailer,’ and I stayed three or four months before I took the apartment, and I just worked every day in the soup kitchen, and then when the summer camp started here last year I came and worked at that. The kids are beautiful.
“I just love it here. I was raised with nuns and priests, and I didn’t have a very good opinion, especially of priests. I saw so much hypocrisy and I just rejected it all. Then coming to meet people like these men and the sisters, and seeing the outrageous work they do, it’s phenomenal.
“Now I’m a practicing Catholic again. They’ve been very good to me. They’ve helped, they’ve counseled me. I’m a lot happier with myself. I’ll miss them a lot when I leave.
“They’re all personalities, they’re intelligent, and they just have hearts as big as you can imagine. I mean they’ve got humor. The most irritated you’ll ever see them is during this summer camp, trying to get all these kids doing things at the same time. But you can see they’re happy as can be, the kids love them, they do incredible work, they really do. They go around the colonia, visit families. They don’t hard-sell the religion, you know, they give people the opportunity. A lot of the people around are Jehovah’s Witnesses. But the fathers don’t shove the Church down anybody’s throat. By example — that’s how they won me over, just because of what they do, and who they are.
“I’m not bound for sainthood by any stretch of the imagination, but I know I’m a much better person from having met these people and worked with them. And they let me express my love for the kids, and that’s something I didn’t realize that I had for all the years I was playing around at the bars. I bartended most of my life, since I was 18, and I’m over it now. I don’t want to get back into that again. Now I’m trying to decide what I can do. I’m pretty sure I want to be working with children, and preferably poor children. This is so great. The kids here are so much different than the kids in the States. For a while I worked at a preschool in Miami, and it’s a whole different world. These kids wouldn’t dream of talking back. They’re very family oriented and the parents are different. It’s just a whole different culture. They’re respectful. They kiss you good-bye after class. You think something like that would happen in the States? We had a Christmas party here for the children when I was visiting Jim, and there were 400 kids at this party, and like a half a dozen brothers and a couple lay volunteers, for 400 children. If that happened in the States there’d be negotiation for trade of hostages.
“At the summer camp there are 200 kids and no trouble. Just small, very minor things. In the States you’d be putting up a metal detector to take their guns away.
“I tended bar 15 years. That’s a whole different world. I mean, you have cash, you blow it, you party, you’re buying clothes, running around, you’re not paying attention to what’s going on. I’m over it. And I don’t need the money. I’ve learned to live a lot simpler.
“I would prefer to raise kids in this colonia than in a nice suburb where they don’t have any appreciation, and the parents aren’t going to give it to them and don’t spend hardly any time with them, they’re so busy dealing with their own lives. The kids here, they get their parents attention constantly, the brothers and sisters take care of each other, they walk arm in arm, they’re just very loving people. There’s so much love — it makes you want to help them."
“Is that why you do it?” I asked.
“Well," Patrice mused, “you do feel good to help these people, but it’s not like the only reason you do it, and you can’t feel good about helping people if you’re only doing it to impress somebody about what a great person I am for taking this family and feeding them or bringing them clothes. People from the States who come down, a lot of them I don’t particularly like. Maybe they have a van full of clothes, they just throw it out of the back of the truck to the mob of kids that’re there. They don’t give them the respect that they deserve. Hand them something if you’re going to give it to them. But I guess coming down with something is better than doing nothing at all.
“I got a lot of grief in Miami when I came back after being down here, and people said, ’Oh great, you’re working in an orphanage.’ They’d complain, ’Why don’t you do that in your own country?’
“I told them, 'These people wanted me to help.’ In Miami, before they’d let me work at the kiddie camp for 54.00 an hour, they had to fingerprint me, run background checks to find out if I was molesting children or I had stolen a car or sold drugs or something. Here it’s different. People judge you on what you judge other people on, you know, you take them at their word until they prove different. You can do a better job when you’re a trusted person than if you have somebody sneaking around, checking your every move.
“In Miami, now, my brother Jim is the administrative director of health and rehabilitation in Dade County and Monroe County. So he sees the abuse and neglect of the children and the crack babies and hundreds and hundreds of problems with poverty. But these people here, in a way they don’t really know they’re poor. You go to their house and it’s just like visiting any other family, they accept you and they feed you, they wait on you. There’s not a child that would have something they wouldn’t think to offer to somebody else before they take it themselves. They don’t have anything, and when they get something, they share it.
“I can give one reason the poor remain poor, and maybe always will, in Mexico anyway. Whatever they get, they share with their large family, with friends, neighbors. With strangers even. Patrice continued, “Tijuana, this part anyway, took a little getting used to. I was like, seeing the houses, thinking how can you live like this, but they just do. They get by and they’re usually happy.
“At first, they all look poor, but then you begin to see different levels of poverty. These people have money to buy water. These other people are getting their water from the laguna. They get all kinds of parasites and diseases. Even the water they bring on trucks is far from clean, but they drink it.
“I have this friend that’s a street guy who speaks English. He used to sell drugs in L.A. until he went to jail, and when he got out they deported him. He tells me about families, how there are so many kids in the tiny house, when they get to be teenagers the girls will go with guys, any guy who’s going to take them out of where they are. You know, I’ll be your girlfriend if you’ll take me out of here. That happens a lot.
“I know a family that — they have four or five girls and they’re one year apart and they’re leaving one year apart. The father’s a drunk. He doesn’t beat them up or anything. In fact the mother beats up the husband and he doesn’t hit her back. He just cowers. He drinks equal parts rubbing alcohol mixed with the laguna water. He’s a real character. He pretends he’s German. Growls all these nonsense words.
“They were living in a house right off the laguna. The rains came and flooded them out, so they moved into a house in another part of the laguna, and the rains came and flooded them out again.
“Last year, the mountain across the street washed down — if you look directly across, right outside the gate, you’ll see the part of the mountain that came down in a white, muddy river right into the church. It was about three feet high.
“Around the laguna, it’s not only floods but the winds come, the Santa Anas, fires blow through and massacre people before they can even get their kids out. Fires happen a lot. It happened to my friends. It’s why I came back, to visit Anna.
“She was burnt while I was here before. You know, it was winter, cold, and the little ones were home alone, and they have one of these four dollar barbecues. They built a little fire and they wanted more fire, so one of them poured gasoline on it and it blew up in Anna’s face. Really bad burns on her face, her chest, burned a lot of her hair off. And her sister Loraina was burned when she was a little girl, her whole back was burned when she pulled hot soup off the stove.
“The Shriners in L.A. are taking both girls, doing surgery on both of them. We sent an application and pictures. Anna had one appointment, then a followup. At the follow-up, I told the doctor about Loraina. Loraina’s 16. She has no hair here above her ear, so they’re going to do the same thing, like on Anna. They do a skin extension, where they stretch the skin on both sides of the burnt part and pull them together. The Shriners are fantastic.
“The soup kitchen, it’s outrageous — when I left here, the sisters were making the soup and bringing it in a truck, and pulling the truck behind the bus station and serving like that. When I came back nine months later, the kitchen was open for business. They were serving 200 people a night. They were just getting the dormitory part open, about 20 beds. They’ve got 70-some beds now,
“The sisters — I’m positive I’ve never seen them turn anybody away. If everything is eaten, they’ll come up with bread or something. It’s amazing what they can make, and sometimes they don’t have food, you know, they don’t go over to Lucky’s and go shopping. They depend on donations and divine providence, whatever comes their way. It seems to always work. When we’d be down to our last potato in the soup kitchen and somehow, somebody'd donate, somewhere it would come. It always happened.
“And they stand up to these tough men, and drunks. At the soup kitchen, out back there’s a field and these guys are out there doing thinner. The thinner is easy to come by and they come in, their hands are all burned up and their faces have got this blue color from the stuff. They’re waiting to be the last people in, because earlier the sisters say prayers and things and these guys don’t want to be in on that, so they come at the end, and if there’s any trouble the sisters handle it. I mean, guys want to jump up to their defense, but they wave them off. I’ve seen nuns half my size take off their sandal like they’re going to hit a guy, and the guy backs off. It’s amazing. They’re tough. They’re fun.
“I can tell you a story. It was a very cold day in winter. Raining. A sister, the superior at the orphanage, she went downtown to get some medicine and she came across a man who was lying in the street dying, and his friends were standing around drinking and they wouldn’t let her near him. She saw that he was really sick and she went and got a priest and went back, and the guy’s friend was lying on him trying to keep him warm, and finally they let them take him to the hospital where he died of encephalitis, which I guess is very contagious, so the sister and father had to get inoculated. But when the sister took the guy away from his friends, she promised to come back and bring them blankets the next day and they’re like, ‘Yeah, yeah, sure you will.’
“So, the next day — the sisters had some blankets somebody’d donated — she loaded them in a truck, and some of the brothers and I came along, and we went down to a rough part of town and found a couple of the guys, and they went and got the other friends. They were totally blotto on tequila.
“Sister traded them their tequila for the blankets. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen, to take tequila away from a drunk on the street. And they were happy, they hung around. One of the brothers had brought a guitar, and they sang, talked, they cried on each other’s shoulders. One guy had most of a bottle of tequila, and when sister reached to take it he started crying. It was so sad.
“She took his bottle over by the truck, and she poured out all but about three fingers, and she gave it back to him, and he just lit up. His face, you know. The guy looked so...grateful.
“We were out there three or four hours, singing and talking, in the rain. Some tough nuns.”
On Saturday there’s a Mass celebrating the assumption of Mary into heaven, three novices taking their first vows, and one, who had served another order before joining the MC fathers, taking his final vows — chastity, poverty, obedience, dedication to serving the poor. The brother from Seattle and the guitarist brother, joined by others for particular numbers, led a few hundred of us — family members, neighbors and friends — in praise songs in Spanish. Then the Mass by the Bishop of Tijuana, a local celebrity. Every Tuesday night he appears on TV.
In all the ritual it’s easy to lose sight of the enormity of what’s happening to the four brothers. They’re vowing to give up sex, romance, luxury, self-determination — all the stuff most of us live for.
That afternoon I made a characteristically dumb joke. I asked one of the four brothers, since he’s going to Rome and the vows he took this morning were temporary, if when they expire in a year he might take a week off before renewing them, say to flit over to Paris for some haute cuisine. He chuckled, then explained that even the temporary vows should come from a heart that desires and intends to keep them for a lifetime. As he spoke of the intention, he grew excited and elaborated upon it, until finally he broke off, questioning why he was talking so much. He left to run an errand, and I sat thinking. How could you not want to talk about the feeling, the day you gave your life away?
Later, Patrice accompanied me to the soup kitchen. On the way she pointed out a house with a sign hanging over the door. “Casa de Berta.” It’s a pretty little house, a couple of rooms, about 300 square feet. It’s solid, with a peaked roof, asphalt shingles, freshly painted wooden slats. It was built by the MC fathers and brothers for a tiny young woman, about 4-feet-10, maybe 90 pounds, and her several children. Her husband was shot dead about a year ago crossing the border. According to the story I heard, the Migra shot him. Berta’s most always at the seminary, for Mass or to help out. She smiles a lot, maybe because she’s got the nicest house in Colonia Marua.
The soup kitchen is a quarter mile or so from the seminary, behind the bus terminal, in a new, low-slung, flat-roofed building of textured block. A half dozen sisters live there. The yard is a gravel parking lot surrounded by a chain fence and a few young shade and fruit trees. There are several trailers. Patrice used to stay in one. Now two of them are occupied by volunteers, a young man from New Jersey and a young woman from Spain. The sisters, the live-in volunteers and some part-timers, feed about 150 people every day at 4:30 p.m. The food usually comes from benefactors around Tijuana. Occasionally a guy referred to as “that wealthy man from San Diego” brings down a truck-load of dented cans from supermarkets. They get day-old bread from an Oceanside bakery.
Beside the dining hall there are restrooms, with shower stalls that make them look like the places you’ll find at San Diego public beaches, only in place of showers they have spigots low to the ground and buckets, like the seminary brothers use.
The dormitories have plywood bunks, sheets, pillows, matching spreads. A little fancier than most youth hostels. There are two large dormitories for men, a smaller one for women. The few permanent residents are either too old, crippled, or sick to work. Recently there had been two men who stayed a few months while their legs mended — each had broken both legs jumping the border fence.
The rest of the 75 beds are filled every night, first come, first served. There are plenty of takers. Once you get a bed, there’s an eight-day limit before you have to go back on the list again. Sometimes the residents need help with baths or get unruly in the middle of the night, so the sisters have hired a young man originally from Acapulco, who for a time was a Tijuana street person, to help the men with their personal stuff and keep watch over the men through the night shift.
Families are usually directed elsewhere, as are the newcomers to the frontera, plenty of whom arrive on the busses every day, many planning to cross the border. The sisters direct these people to the Casa del Migrantes, a place that offers shelter, food, and advice on crossing the border, like how to avoid getting fleeced by coyotes, or killed.
Besides the dormitories and soup kitchen, in their compound behind the bus terminal the sisters run a medical clinic. One of the sisters is a trained nurse, and a doctor volunteers most every Saturday. There’s also a mobile clinic that two or three days a week takes a doctor around to outlying colonias and slums. The vehicle, a shiny new ambulance, was donated by Martin Sheen and Tony Robbins after Mother Teresa’s stay in Scripps Clinic.
While Mother Teresa was in Tijuana, lots of new volunteers from the States came down. The rush has tapered off now that she’s gone. Once again most of the volunteers are from Tijuana.
If you take the road from the bus terminal to the old, toll-free highway to Tecate and follow that between the river bed and the hillside covered with tracts of brick, block, wooden, or poured concrete houses, hardly any bigger than Casa de Berta, but nevertheless substantial enough to lend a family some dignity, you’ll eventually pass a sign pointing left toward El Hondo. From there it’s a dirt road into the colonia of more tracts up more rocky hillsides, past a couple of grocery stores and a neighborhood named after Jimmy (barter, since Habitat for Humanity has built lots of homes there. A mile or so up the dirt road, on the right, is the MC orphanage, where a few sisters, an older Mexican woman, and a couple of teenage girls care for about 30 children.
Patrice, my friend Maggie, and I arrived early in the afternoon, when the infants were down for their naps in a nursery room guarded by several images of the Virgin and a poster of a guardian angel lifting two children into her arms. One of those broiling, humid, dusty days in August, while the babies lay sedated by the heat, the older kids, none of them more than about six, in the day room and the shaded part of the patio, played with old dolls and toys.
The orphanage sisters were attending a fiesta at the soup kitchen. In charge was a quiet senora in her 50s. After Patrice assured her we had the Sister Superior’s permission to visit, she told us that they were out of water. The delivery truck hadn’t come when it was supposed to. They could have water sent from the soup kitchen, but it would take a while.
In my car was a small cooler full of sodas, mineral water, and juice Maggie had brought along. There weren’t that many. Each child got a small cupful, yet one little boy, about three years old, without taking a sip of his, offered it first to me.
The kids showed us around and made puzzled faces at our curious Spanish. When I tried to say something into my little tape recorder, I got swarmed, beleaguered by technology aficionados who never quite seemed to believe it was their own voices they heard.
Some of the kids, Patrice says, are truly orphans, while others have been deserted or so neglected by their parents that the soup kitchen sisters asked the parents to let them go for a time. They’ll go home finally, back to some place like Rancho Riviera. At least they get love, food, decent lives for now.
As we were leaving, a whole little crowd started bawling, the ones who’d been hanging on Patrice, Maggie, and me. “Oh,” Patrice said, “I hate that part more than anything else. I usually try to leave when they’re eating or something, when they’re distracted, because they always cry.”
In the car, Maggie asked Patrice, “What happens to the bigger kids?”
“Yeah, that’s the real problem,” Patrice said. “If they get in trouble when they’re bigger there’s a place for them, but the others, you know....”
I told Patrice about an article attacking Mother Teresa for creating an army of clones who went around nursing people just so they could indoctrinate them, convert them to a sick religion. “Get out of here,” Patrice said. “That’s what she’s doing in a Hindu-Moslem country? She doesn’t change or try to convert them. She has a saying: She doesn’t want them to be good Catholics, she wants them to be good Hindus, good Moslems, whatever their faith is. They don’t have to believe the Pope. I mean, if you live a spiritual life, it doesn’t matter whether you even have a formal, standard religion — that’s the way she and the sisters treat people, from what I’ve seen."
I asked the Novice Master to read that article, wherein Germaine Greer condemns Mother Teresa for acting too humble, and another by Christopher Hitchens, who contends she doesn’t act humble enough. Both authors imply she’s a demon out to orchestrate the ruin of our world by persuading the destitute to become Catholic and multiply.
The Novice Master’s a tall young priest who looks and moves as though blessed with an extra dose of serenity. He shrugged, palms upraised, gave a smile meaning what can I say? “This is surely not the first criticism Mother’s had. I remember in India, somebody wrote a highly critical letter to a publication and somebody sent it to her and said, Mother, you have to respond to this letter. She wrote to the author, saying thank you for all the adjectives. She’ll never respond to those things. She feels very strongly on the question of abortion, but she won’t engage in arguments about the principle."
Meaning he wouldn’t either. I sat a moment thinking of how, when people ask Mother Teresa to describe her work, she says, “Come and look.”
I’d been looking for several days and pondering mysterious things like a comment I’d heard after the novices took their vows about the vows offering freedom. I asked the Novice Master how that could be.
“Okay," he said, “the three traditional vows, chastity, poverty and obedience, serve as their primary purpose to free us from what is so easily disordered in regard to those three fundamental aspects of being a human person. Poverty — material goods. Chastity — love, sexual desire. Obedience — pride and self-will. Those are the three things the vows cover. Poverty, so there’s a certain freedom from the inordinate desire from material things. Chastity, so we can have an undivided heart for God. And obedience. All those three realities we live and accept because they were lived by lesus. So they’re very Christo-centered. That’s how he lived, and we want to live those three aspects in a stable manner, in a radical way. Part of the reason why our life is so different than the normal life is to remind people that the things we give up — they’re good, they’re fine and wonderful, but they’re not the whole story. There’s also this other dimension.
“The things we have to give up — though the vows are negative, they’re done for the sake of the positive — to be free, to love, to be available, to be able to serve that much better."
I told him that I’d imagined myself an MC father, and, to my shame, I’d been wondering if, even more than missing romance or free will, I might be constantly annoyed that I had to forever give up snacks.
“Yeah, well, part of the reason we do that — and there again, there’s nothing wrong with snacks — when I was at home I used to do all those things too, and I enjoyed them, but part of the reason we live some of these things in even a more radical way than other religious isn’t because we feel we’re better and why don’t you live simply as us — but because we want to work with and to be identified with the poorest of the poor. That’s why we don’t have all those things. You go to the colonia, they don’t have a washing machine, maybe a few have televisions or radios, but in India they don’t. The people who live in the streets don’t have all that. Certainly it would be nice at the end of a long work day to sit and watch TV or get one of the other little consolations, and again, they’re fine. But can our neighbors do that? No. They work in a factory all day, they go home, and they don’t have those things. To understand their lives, we feel we have to come down from a high perch. To understand poverty and help them, we have to live it. That’s the reason that we try to live like the poorest of the poor materially. Our fourth vow is full-hearted free service to the poorest of the poor.
“But Mother also has to say, we ourselves are the poorest of the poor. And it’s not just a nice thing to say. Interiorly, I am the poorest of the poor. I need to realize that I’m wounded, I’m broken, I need help, I’m not self-sufficient, that I need Jesus and his grace and his love and his help. Otherwise I couldn’t do this. Mother will often say, when people tell her she does wonderful work, ‘See how God uses nothingness to show his greatness.’ And she’s really convinced that in and of herself, when they say, ‘Oh, Mother, your work is wonderful, she’ll automatically say, ‘God’s work,’ and keep on going. Another expression she uses, she’ll say, ‘I am the pencil,’ and God can write a beautiful message even with a lousy pencil. So it’s not the pencil, it’s the message. So when I say I’m the poorest of the poor, it’s not just some pious thing to say, but I really come to experience that.”
One day, I confessed. I’d been eavesdropping on a seminary class while the vicar was talking about St. John of the Cross, his idea that before you can fully experience the nearness and love of God, you have to realize your brokenness.
The Novice Master replied, “Yes! It’s exactly related to what I was saying, that maybe even more than others, maybe we need this kind of life that’s relatively protected, in a sense, in that we don’t have the television and all, and that we have set times in prayer. Because if I lived by myself, maybe I wouldn’t be able to be faithful. I might say, well, maybe tomorrow. Or maybe later, and I’d never get to it because there’s something else I have to do. And so that's part of the freedom, I think, as well. The obedience to the schedule helps us. It’s protection. It’s not rules for the sake of the rules, but within these bounds...if you go this way then this way, wherever impulse takes you, then you’re getting off the road. The rules keep you on the road so that you can reach the end of the road. But they’re not ends in themselves.
“Reading John of the Cross, because he is very strong on the necessity of giving up, penance, mortification, stuff like that, you can say whoa, what a negative guy. But really, if you look at his life, you can see there was someone who was completely free. Certainly he suffered greatly, but that’s part of the mystery of the cross. It doesn’t seem to make sense when we say that you have to go to the cross to get to the resurrection or the new life. You know, the holier you get, the more you’re going to get the cross in your life as well, because you’re getting closer, being more like Jesus.
“Mother was visiting someone, a woman who was suffering terribly from cancer, and Mother said, ‘Your suffering is a gift in a sense that you’re getting so close to Jesus that he can kiss you.’ But the woman said, ‘You tell Jesus to stop kissing me.’
“St. Paul says the Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom. What we preach is the foolishness of the cross.”
I asked if he might speculate upon why it was that he and the other priests and brothers could be so genuine and friendly, why of all the places I’d landed in 40-some years, here I felt most suddenly at home. Why, as I watched the fathers, sisters, and brothers working with the poor, I didn’t sense that anybody felt aggrandized or higher than those they were helping. It looked more like equals sharing what they had found.
“That’s good,” he said.
“I think it’s connected with what I was saying about I’m the poorest of the poor. Because if I have that self-knowledge, I don’t have to think that I’m better than someone else, because I know myself, I know my brokenness, my neediness, and whatever good you see, whatever else comes with it is God’s gift, and His work. The prayer of Communion is, ‘Let us radiate Christ.’ The prayer after Communion is, ‘Dear Jesus, help us to spread your fragrance everywhere we go.’ So people should come away thinking not that father so-and-so’s a great guy but thinking somehow I sense Jesus working in there, and then that influence can come back in that person’s life.
“We can say in our past we’ve had opportunities our neighbors don’t have, for example, education and other things. Maybe these people will never do things that we did in our family, vacations and all. But that doesn’t make us anything better — we’re not the messiahs either, coming to save them, we’re just, to use Mother’s analogy, the pencil. That’s all. And again, a broken pencil, a wounded pencil but, there again you read St. Paul, he glories in his weakness, ‘For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ From Second Corinthians. Even Paul’s conversion was not from sin to grace. His conversion was to realize that he couldn’t save himself. Religiously, from the view of the Pharisees, he was perfect, but in the end he figured, I’m exactly up the wrong tree. Later he said. I’m happy with persecution, all those things, because when it’s like that, all the things happening around me I don’t understand, I give up my control and suddenly realize I’m free because I’m in God’s hands.
“Inside the community, those of us who live with each other, we see our foibles and good points as well, and then we can have unity, we can contribute. The result is not that we all become negative and gloomy and say oh, I’m a sinner and all that kind of stuff. And then again, it’s a paradox. So much of Christian faith, I keep finding, is paradox. Two things that seemingly are opposite, that human logic declares can’t both be true at the same time, but they are both true. So I can say, yes. I’m a sinner. I’m just a creature in comparison to the Creator, I’m worthless, just a poor sinner. Okay, that’s part of the picture. Humans have an infinite capacity for evil. But also, there’s an infinite capacity for good. So I can say, I’m that creature, that sinner, but on the other hand I have great dignity because I’m created in the image and likeness of God. I am redeemed by Jesus. God’s love is in me. Really. I’m the temple of the Holy Spirit. We can say if there was only one person, Jesus would’ve died for that one person. So the most fundamental rock-bottom foundation of my self-esteem is from God. Not from what this person or that person feels about me. We need each other on a human level as well, but our self-esteem, our proper self-love comes from God.
“My fundamental identity or the security of my identity is not what I have, whether I’m poor or rich, it’s not even the gifts or talents that I have. Those things are important, but I can’t hang my star on them. Fundamentally, it’s who I am, what I am, and that gives me my identity or sense of self-worth or self-esteem, and therefore I can develop my gifts and my talents, and then if something happens that I’m deprived of them or I can’t use them, I get crippled or something, then I won’t fall apart, because there’s something deeper.
“Here’s another paradox. In Mark 36,38, somewhere in there, ‘Those who lose their life find it (they give over, surrender) and those who gain their life will lose it.’ So the idea is there again self-transcendence. My focus is not on — I want to be happy, I’m looking, where can I be happy? A focus on self, in the end, doesn’t really work. So my focus is beyond self, toward God, toward neighbors, toward others, and as a result comes my own happiness, but it’s because I’m focused out. And in the same way we re happy here because we’re not thinking so much about ourself, about all the possible things I can be doing. I’m focused out, toward the others in the community.”
I asked, “How did it feel when you took your vows?”
“In a sense,” he said, “it’s like giving God a blank check with your name signed on it, and you say okay, here. So the day of profession, taking the vows, I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen. And yet, you say, okay, here it is.
“I mean you have to go from dependence when you’re born, then increasing independence, and then there has to come a time when you go beyond that — you can’t give what you don’t have, so you have to develop independence, so you can say I have this and now in the end I realize I’m not independent, or I am only in certain ways, but then there’s something bigger than me. And I’m not self-sufficient. There again, St. Paul, he was trying to be self-sufficient, and he got to a certain point and then he realized that this was not the way, being the perfect Pharisee that he was, very sincere. And then he came to the point — in order for St. Paul to write, “I glory in weakness and I’m happy with persecution and suffering,” and all those things — we can say he knew he was one of the poorest of the poor.
“So it’s to my advantage to surrender. If God is God, I’ll let God be God. But there again, my focus is not on me, so in philosophical terms or psychological terms, it’s self-realization or self-actualization through self-transcendence. It’s giving up an illusion of freedom to gain a greater freedom.
“Obedience, not only to God but to our superiors in the church. Henry d’Lubac, for example, was silenced, and he didn’t go making a big stink and saying, 'Oh, this is unjust,’ even though in a sense it was, but he said I believe somehow that God is going to work through that person who has that gift of position or authority, that the authority the person has over me comes from God, and even if they do make a mistake, as Mother says, we’re infallible in obeying. So whatever happens, tomorrow they can send me to Rome or to the Soviet Union, or they can say at four o’clock you have to go there, and I can say, oh, at four o’clock I wanted to study, but the real conviction behind obedience is, even if that person is against me on a human level, even if he’s persecuting me or hates me, in the end God can work through that. He’s working through that. He doesn’t will the sin on the part of the person who’s persecuting me, but the conviction of faith is that even if He permits the persecution to happen, even through that, God is working. There again, Romans 8:28, ‘For those who love God, all things work to the good.’
“So you could be sent to Siberia — no matter what happens, God can bring a greater good. Or as St. Augustine said, if God allows an evil, it’s because he can bring a greater good out of it.
“And the obedience allows me freedom. I’ve already made my choice to obey, so I’m free from turmoil about it. No matter what happens. I’m in God’s hands.
“In a nutshell, the difference between freedom in the worldly sense and our freedom — the first is freedom from. From restraint, control. The other is freedom for. The vows, self-surrender, obedience, make me free for, so that I can love, serve, and all those things. I’m not free from this rule, that command. But we can call it divine freedom, because we say God’s not free to sin. He’s not free to do evil, but He has to have infinite freedom. So what kind of freedom is that — freedom for. ”
Every time I passed the garden, I peered at the guardian angel and thought about the angel that seems to be hovering around me these past months, opening doors and nudging me through.
Last fall I'd wake up and look out the window or take a walk at twilight and feel blessed by the light, the scents and textures. I’d get a phone call from a friend at just the right moment, snatching me out of some gloom that threatened, and I’d feel touched by a small miracle.
Aside from a few months when I attended Quaker meetings because I liked the singing, the hour of silence, the fact that nobody preached, and the location of the meeting place, about 50 steps from the house I was renting. I’ve never been a churchgoer. Now and then I’d visited a church with a friend and been most glad to escape.
But last fall I decided it just wasn’t fair that, the way I interpreted all these blessings, God kept showering me with wonders and I rarely even said thanks. So I vowed to go to a church, at least most Sundays, even if I found it torturous.
Of course I stalled. When the holidays arrived I made it to a Lutheran church for a sing-along Messiah. Then Jojo came to town. We’ve been friends for 11 years, and from the first, though you’d have been stretching to call either of us Christian, we’ve shared a fascination with angels. New Year’s Eve we took a walk on the beach at La Jolla Shores, where I’d spent a hundred or so days and evenings with my friend Eric, Sylvia’s son, the year before he died when we were 17.
Eric must’ve been the first reason for my belief in angels, since I feel he could be one of them. Yet I don’t imagine it’s him that’s been, especially since New Year’s, lavishing me with gifts. Maybe, though.
Several of the gifts have been material. Advances, editors calling to offer money the week after my regular job got cut to half time. My kids have been rescued from dangers. I’ve been given closer bonds and magical times with people. And there’ve been gifts purely spiritual, like the church I stumbled into. I'd only gone there because I was running late, the place was close by, and my cousin had told me what time the service began. Intending to give thanks and ditch before anybody could try to befriend or evangelize me, I sat in the balcony, sang a few songs, and then became captivated by the pastor.
I suspect he’s a genius. He’s surely more adept at illuminating text, at exposing the nuances of symbolism and parable, than any literature professor I’ve known. And every Sunday I go there comes a point in the sermon when a chill runs through me or a tear leaks out, as I realize his topic’s exactly the one I longed to hear.
And when I was asked if I’d be interested in spending some days at Mother Teresa’s seminary in Tijuana and writing about the place, I had to grin and sigh, recognizing another gift.
Because for several years, ever since I heard that Mother Teresa would be establishing places down there, I’ve wanted to visit. For 28 years, since playing baseball with that team from the Canon del Sol, I’ve felt as if I have unfinished business down there.
Now I know what the business was.
My friends from that ball team, some of their mothers, brothers, and sisters, as well as certain beggars and children selling gum along the line at the border or downtown gave me treasures. And I probably won’t find peace until, somehow, I return them.
In a great novel, J.D. Salinger has Seymour Glass tell his brother Zooey that he hasn’t the right to refuse to go on the air — they’re quiz kids on a radio show. If there’s no other reason, Zooey has to do it for the Fat Lady. Who is someone he’s never met, but she’s out there, sitting on a porch in an awful wicker chair, in terrible heat. Her radio on full blast, she’s swatting flies and she’s probably got cancer.
Years later, Zooey tells his sister Franny a secret he’s learned — that everybody out there is Seymour’s Fat Lady.
And the Fat Lady is Christ.
Mother Teresa and her people aren’t alone in believing that each of the poor, the destitute, or dying is Christ in his distressing disguise.
We may look at the sisters, brothers, and fathers in awe, wondering how they can willfully give up the temptations and comforts of our world. Or we might view them with disdain, believing they’re possessed with some peculiarly insidious neurosis.
Here’s another angle — suppose that Christ does live in each of the poor or suffering they serve. Then wouldn’t Christ, upon being ministered to, give some treasure in return?
One afternoon I was helping the brothers and the father dispense extra food to people from the surrounding colonias. The seminary’s food, like the soup kitchen’s and the orphanage’s, either comes from their garden or from donations, such as dented cans and marred packages from a Vons market. The brothers and fathers use what they need and give the rest to neighbors. From visiting in the colonias, they see who’s most needy and invite them to the dispensing on Thursday afternoons. I was helping pass out sacks of grapes and tomatoes, certainly not deluding myself that I was acting out of charity. I get paid for writing. The food wasn’t mine. I’d only chosen to work because I felt too restless to stand around watching. Still, I got as happy as I’d been in years, maybe ever. After a few days of puzzling I understood why.
If each of those poor women was Christ, no wonder I stood there joyously. If, years ago, each of my teammates who lived in poverty was Christ, and every time I whacked a base hit or scooped a wild throw out of the dirt, anything that lifted their spirits, they blessed me — not consciously, but within the spirit that lurks underneath their disguise — no wonder I’ve spent 28 years feeling I owed them.
The Missionary Sisters, Brothers, and Fathers of Charity get to experience that joy and repay that debt every day.
Sunday morning, a couple days after I returned from Tijuana, I took my place in the church balcony and thought, “Okay, Charlie, let’s see if you can hit the mark today.”
I’m no paragon of faith. I don’t expect to live through even one entire day without wondering if all the ways, the metaphors, I use to make sense out of this tragic and wondrous universe, if everything I believe is perfect lunacy. But I surely got faithful when, after a few songs and prayers, the pastor began his sermon about our calling to servanthood. Through scriptures and a story of several kids who’d lately returned from a Baja mission, he reminded us that God wants us not only to taste his love, but to serve.
Thinking back, what did Sylvia’s long-ago priest and the radio psychologist agree was the meaning of life?