Lessons from Good Pope John, Part 3: Detachment and trust

This is the last post in a series about the exemplary life of Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose feast we celebrated on October 11.  Today’s post is on detachment and trust.

John allowed God to carry him through life, just as his father carried him on his shoulders when he was a boy. His motto was “obedience and peace”—he was always conscious about the need to be content following God’s will for him.

John wrote often about the need for detachment and trust in God during his time as a young man in Bulgaria, where he was stationed as a papal ambassador.  He didn’t want to go, and called Bulgaria his “cross.”

He wrote: “I’m sincerely ready to stay here until I die, if obedience wants it. I let others waste their time dreaming about what might happen to me.  The idea that one would be better off somewhere else is an illusion.”

He also wrote: “Once you have renounced everything, really everything, then any bold enterprise becomes the simplest and most natural thing in all the world.”

This attitude was one he carried with him as he called the Vatican II council, when many doubted his ability to carry out such a large task—councils require the coordination of 2,500 bishops.  John didn’t let others’ negative opinions hold him back, nor did he let his old age keep him from starting a new project.

John knew he wouldn’t see the end of the council, not to mention its effects in the world.  Just a month before opening the council, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  He died a year later in 1963; the council concluded in 1965.

But as John told his good friend and secretary, “it is an honor just to begin.”  He knew that the mission of the Church, that God’s will, was bigger than himself.  “If I die, others will come,” he said.

And many have come after, continuing the work that John began. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, we are reminded of our call to do that in our own ways.

Most saints, or those deemed “blessed” like John, are celebrated on their death day.  But we don’t celebrate John on June 3, the day he died.  Instead, we remember him on the date of Vatican II’s opening, October 11th.

And I think that’s how John would want it.

Check out Parts 1 and 2 on humor and humility and compassion and courage.

Empty plane seats

This post goes along well with my last post “Returning to the river,” in that it expands on the importance of trusting in the divineness of our own imaginations.

On each of my three flights to Amman during January, I had an empty seat next to me.  This made the plane rides relaxing and enjoyable, but not simply because I could stretch out and didn’t have to squeeze by someone on my way to the bathroom…

~~~

Before I left for Amman, I was concerned about how I would transition, how I would feel navigating a new home alone.  Because I am so close with my family and friends and talk to them often, I was uncomfortable with the thought that my contact with loved-ones would be less frequent, and that I’d feel more isolated.

But then the most basic and yet profound thought struck me over the head: I won’t be alone.

This idea seems unsurprising.  Of course, God is with me and is in everything I encounter (I’ve talked about that much in recent posts).  But this insight was different.  I realized that I not only can find Jesus in the people and places around me, but I can find the person of Jesus—the physical, social, emotional human being—around me as well.  I can picture Jesus doing everything with me.  I can talk to him, be held by him, and share my excitement, anxiety, and sadness with him.

This understanding brought me so much peace, and my concerns seemed to slip away.  Navigating this journey would be so much easier, since I had someone doing it with me.  Though I didn’t know yet what life in Amman would be like, I had already started imagining Jesus there with me.

I prayed this prayer the night before I left for Amman:

Dear God,
Help me let you be my companion.
Walk with me in the streets.
Sit and drink tea.
Lay down next to me as I read your book.
I know I don’t need to ask; you’re already there.
Just give me a wave in the face if I forget you’re with me*.
Amen

(*This is a reference to “On Religion,” an excerpt of Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.)

The day of my departure to Amman arrived, and I boarded the plane in Indianapolis to Toronto to find that the seat next to me was empty.  When I sat down on my London-bound plane, the chair beside me was again unoccupied.  And a third time, when I boarded for Amman, the seat next to me wasn’t filled.

But I quickly realized that these seats weren’t empty—someone was sitting there.  It was like God the Father had booked the seat for his Son.

I imagined Jesus there, next to me.  Barely able to contain my excitement after speaking in Arabic with one of the Canadian flight attendants, I gave Jesus a fist bump.  In an airport bathroom, I looked over at him as we washed our hands.  (Apparently Jesus is the only man allowed in the women’s restroom.) When I went to sleep and stretched across the seat, I rested my head on his lap.  Jesus’ presence tempered my anxiousness and brought comfort.

For me, one of the many beauties of Christianity is the way it embraces the physical, human, and historical world.  The person of Jesus inhabited time and space many years ago, a fact that allows us to bring him into this world again.  (It’s hard for me to explain my understanding of this fully.  It’s a combination of personal revelation and Church theology I’ve learned.  I need to do more reading on this in order to better articulate the more visceral understanding I have.)

Since I’ve been here, I’ve often found Jesus beside me, participating in my life.  He lounges on my host sister’s bed as I write this post, or squeezes in on the couch with my host family while we watch Arab Idol.  When I start feeling sad or uncomfortable or nervous here, I realize it’s because I haven’t been bringing Jesus into the picture.

A few weekends back, Jesus sat with me for a long time on the mountain where John the Baptist was executed.  I looked over, up the hill a bit to where he was sitting, and when we made eye contact, he scooted across the edge of the cliff down to where I was. I could hear the gravel pulling on his clothes as he shifted down the hill.  I remembered the Bible passage in which Jesus sits alone after hearing the news of John’s death, and I felt like we were experiencing that moment again together.  He didn’t have to be alone in that pain, just as I never have to be alone either.

Mukawir, the mountain on which John the Baptist was executed.

What do I call moments like this, I’ve wondered, when I see so clearly my Lord with me?

I think they are visions.

That may seem like a gutsy thing to claim.  Heck, I’m not Moses or Juan Diego, who saw God in a bush or Mary on a rosy hilltop.

But I think claiming to see visions isn’t the scary—or outright crazy—thing it initially seems to be.

During the last several years, a few friends of mine have told me they had visions, and I completely believed that they had.  But I wondered how they came to them? I thought, how could I ever receive a vision?, as if visions are things that come to us from the outside.  As if we have no control over the images that are presented before our eyes by God.

But from my own experiences, imagining Jesus with me, I understand now that visions don’t come from without.  They come from within, from inside our own hearts and minds.

Ignatius vision of Jesus at La Storta.

Mystics like Teresa of Avila (whose name I took at my Confirmation), Ignatius, and Rumi didn’t receive external images, ones imposed on them from the outside.  They simply trusted their imaginations, and realized that God was in the images and the stories they created.

When I think back on my own visions, it feels like the line between God’s work and my own has been blurred, and I know that’s because God’s divinity resides in me.  My creation is His, and His is mine.  I can trust these images and find meaning in them. I can intentionally bring Jesus into a situation, but that doesn’t make his presence any less holy.

~~~

All around—in the crowded coffee shop, inside the dry cleaners in my neighborhood, and on the crumbling, terraced hills of Jordan—empty seats are reserved, waiting for me—for us—to fill them up.

“Of course it’s happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
—Dumbledore to Harry, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Taxi Rides at Maghrib

After my first day at the university a few weeks ago, I jumped into a cab with a friend at dusk, stressed and tired from the long day.  My mind was reeling with the new situation and setting, preoccupied with the computer problems I was having.

But as I settled into the back seat, the cabby changed the radio station, and long, throaty vowels began to emanate from the speakers and fill the cab.  It wasn’t music, but a recitation of the Qur’an.

I quickly noticed that it was maghrib, sunset—one of the five times Muslims pray every day.  In the same way that the verses vibrated inside the car, the call to prayer, or azan, was echoing throughout the limestone hills of Amman.

As we drove into the increasing darkness, I felt a sense of calm settle in.  The seat seemed to cradle me as the recitation told me to rest and reflect.  Through the Arabic verses that I rarely understood, and through the peace I felt as I listened, God remind me of his presence in my life, and his increased closeness as I navigate my life in Amman.

I am in a new and different place here, and sometimes that newness and difference can wedge a feeling of nervousness in my stomach.  But during that taxi ride, God reminded me that as my life becomes new and different, God will also present himself to me in new and different ways.  God won’t—can’t—reach me in the same way he does at home or at Georgetown, because Amman isn’t Indianapolis or D.C.

The key is that I must be able to recognize these new and different manifestations, even if they exist outside my usual experience, or even outside the practices of my own religious tradition.  This ability to recognize requires courage and a deep trust in the limitless and mystery of God.

Amman at maghrib

Maghrib has become my favorite time of day here, not simply because of the pink light that rests over the hills, but also because of the azan that calls me to remembrance. It calls me to complete an Ignatian “daily examen” of sorts, to recognize the new ways God reveals himself to me in the laughs of my Arabic professor and the big blue eyes of my 2-year-old host sister.

My experience of maghrib reminds me of the end of a poem by the 13th century Muslim Sufi mystic, Rumi:

Sunlight looks slightly different on this wall
than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still one light.

We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities, from a light,
and when we praise, we pour them back in.