During my time as a Jesuit novice (spring 2007) I spent a month working at a children’s hospital run by the Missionaries of Charity in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. That month was probably the most moving of my two-years in novitiate, the time in my life when the Gospel most seemed to take on flesh before my eyes.
The Gospel coming to life is, of course, a wonderful thing, but it is not always an easy thing, and my time in Haiti was no exception to this rule. I experienced several sustained moments of searing self-questioning regarding how I was living the religious life, and there was the heat, too, the lack of water, the sporadic electricity, the smell of sewage in the air—and all the sick kids in the hospital. Malnutrition, HIV/AIDS, parasites, burns, abuse, and on and on. Of all the places I had traveled in the world before then—Kazakhstan, East Africa, the Middle East—something about Haiti made it seem the most broken. The MCs’ compound was perched over an empty streambed filled with garbage, wandering pigs, and excrement. It stunk all the time.
There have been few times in my life when I was drawn so intensely to prayer as I was in Haiti, and yet I found myself often stuck, wondering what exactly I should be praying for. There were just so many needs crying out unmet: the individual wounds and diseases of all the kids, my own becoming-clearer-every-day shortcomings, even those lacks—quite different from the privations in Haiti, but real nonetheless—of my own society back home. I needed to pray for God’s intercession, but I didn’t quite know what I wanted him to do.
I have felt similarly these past weeks, following the earthquake’s aftermath, not knowing quite what to say to God. I haven’t brought myself to watch much coverage on TV. Commentators will occasionally describe such devastation as “unimaginable,” but I can imagine it all too well, and I don’t want to.
Feeling overwhelmed in prayer is not, ultimately, a bad thing, and God most certainly uses such feelings to work his will in our lives. In Haiti, I eventually found myself immensely comforted by praying Morning and Evening Prayer from the breviary, especially the intercessions from those two offices. All those prayers for God’s help—not just mine, but the Church’s prayers—seemed to say everything I wanted to say and everything I was forgetting to ask for, too. It is good to pray, not just on my own, but with the Church, especially at times like this, to be able to put myself into the prayer, knowing how inadequate my own words will be but also knowing that I am not doing so alone. The Church’s prayer begins and ends in the prayer of Jesus, and that is a prayer simply bigger than all our needs.
Very spiritually written: thank-you for keeping
The Ascetical Life alive for us adults
who don’t hear enough about it,
and yet it is all that we have, between us and God!
While the Secular World, lead by the Prince of Lies,
goes its own way but which is not that of God!
To believe is to have faith,
which is to know
we are never alone!
Great post, Anthony. I spent a few years in Ethiopia growing up (and return every 3 years or so) and have traveled extensively throughout Africa and Latin America. I can say that although I have never been there, I agree with you that Haiti is probably one of the most “broken” places on earth. I would never say it is “cursed” in the biblical sense like he who shall not be named. But there is a direct correlation between the tribalism, factionalism and voudou that plagues the island (and many places in West Africa, such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea etc with almost identical problems).
Haiti never congealed as a society, and a Haitian identity is only present among expatriates outside of Haiti. Internally, it is a hodgepodge of “tribes” (see: gang factions), special interests, and religious parasites that prey on the fears and superstitions of uneducated people. I truly believe the only thing keeping the “country” from decending into total chaos is the very committed presence of Christian people and religious, who try to live the gospel there in spite of insurmountable odds.
I thank God for people like you, and others who have been able to serve in Haiti at some point in their lives; something I cannot nor will I ever do. And I pray to God for the conversion of Haiti, and the safety and well-being of all people of good will in Haiti.
Anthony, I am struck with how your post beautifully illustrates that the circumstances through which God has us pass are an essential and not secondary factor of our vocation, of the mission to which He calls us. Thank you for sharing your experience with us!
Beautiful thoughts …just being a novice and experiencing the suffering and pain in the world was a great teaching moment as well as a deep spiritual moment for you. It’s difficult to understand “why” and “what” it is for Haiti to have to live through such suffering and devastation .. I dare not say as a “cliche” it’s the will of God ..but must work through the mystery that suffering presents to us. I continually read the Book of Job to attempt to get a sense of this in my own life. Good read, Anthony, thank you.
Upon reading this post, I can remember my own experience visiting a third-world Latin country. Several years ago, I traveled to El Salvador, and as you explain, witnessing such poverty is quite a moving experience. It truly is hard to “know” what it means to live without sanitation, electricity, and other basic needs until one sees it first hand. When I had just left the airport, for example, I noticed houses built along the sides of country roads with what looked like leftover pieces of sheet metal or deteriorating brick. At this moment, I too questioned the “why” of the situation and wondered how the crisis could ever be remedied. It seemed as though the list of things to pray for were endless. In the context of Haiti, I can only imagine how much worse the country’s situation has become post-earthquake.
Additionally, it is at times like this we should reflect upon both the gifts we have received and our call to be generous. We often forget that living in America, while not always perfect, has allowed us, along with millions of others, to live healthily, receive a quality education, and take advantage of employment opportunities. Although the current recession has diminished some of those benefits, they are still far more present in our society than locations such as Haiti. Thus, it is important to express our gratitude by taking a moment to thank God for these gifts. More importantly, however, we should consider our own role in assisting Haiti and all impoverished peoples. We all share a certain call to generosity and should explore ways in which we can fulfill it. Whether one can give a small donation or go on a service trip to Port-au-Prince, I hope we can all give our share.
Anthony, Thank you for sharing your personal experiences in Haitii. As a Filipino, I am taught time and time again of how precious resources such as water, shelter, food and etc. are, and I’m very privileged to have access to these resources. Many of the people from my parent’s country are also forced to live in small huts while scavenging for food in the local waste disposal site. Two years ago, I experienced firsthand what it looked like to live in poverty seeing kids and parents waiting for the waste truck to come to the landfill. Also, I am told of the immense sacrifices that the parents of these children make by starving themselves in an effort to keep their children fed and alive even though the food itself may be contaminated. As a person living in a consumerist society, I took for granted all the material gifts that I have received and have selfishly put away, only to be forgotten in as little as a day. The problem with our society stem from our consumer minded attitude of buying commodities to fill an empty hole in our lives. The people of Haiti do not have the privilege to buy such things, but I’m sure that like the Filipino people, they have a sense of community and self sacrifice that helps them get through their many hardships together. Many people in this world can learn to become more communal instead of isolated as only their communities can give console, advice, and help to them. They along with the larger Catholic community have the most satisfying thing of all, Jesus, who is the bounty of all things.