If you are one of our astute regular readers (and aren’t all of our regular readers by definition astute?), you might have noticed that my postings this summer were rather sparse. You see, I was in the jungle.
The Jesuits, as most of you know, are a worldwide religious order, and, even though the order is divided into provinces, when a man becomes a Jesuit he enters the Society of Jesus, of which there is but one in the world. Our current Father General has placed great emphasis on the international character of the Society, encouraging provinces to work together across national borders and reminding us that Jesuits in formation need to be comfortable working in any culture.
All of this, along with the inscrutable workings of Providence, is to explain how I found myself at the beginning of June in a remote mountain village in northeast India. No phones, no internet, not even mail.
Did I mention that this village was remote? Picture bamboo huts raised on stilts to avoid the muck that forms in the rainy season, narrow muddy roads snaking from mountain crag to mountain crag and occasionally—especially during the rainy season—simply collapsing into the abyss below. Did I mention that I was there for the rainy season?
I have to admit that I had some misgivings about my accommodations at first. Oh, sure, this former Peace Corps volunteer was familiar with squat toilets and swarms of exotic bugs and foods that occasionally send you running through swarms of exotic bugs to reach the squat toilets. But a few times I had to suppress the thought, “What am I doing here?”
Of course, Jesuits are taught to pray for discomforts and hardships (or at least to pray for the desire for discomforts and hardships), and sometimes you get what you pray for. In time most hardships become significantly less hard, and I was soon engaged in one of my favorite activities—teaching—at a small school built on a mountainside with a view that sometimes made me think I was in an Indiana Jones movie.
I taught class five—the most advanced students in town—English, social studies, maths (that’s not a typo, it’s British English), and singing. The last is not exactly my forte, but if you ever run across a band of children singing the Notre Dame “Fight Song” in the mountains of India, you now know why. I did not teach catechism because the Church is subject to various degrees of legal suppression throughout that part of India, so I came as a cultural tourist, not a missionary.
But I did, of course, pray with our students and the villagers, all of them first-generation Christians; in fact, I learned a great deal about prayer from them. Despite the occasional persecution (a church was torn down in another village while I was there), Catholicism is growing phenomenally in northeast India, with all the graces and challenges that come to a young Church.
I remember one hour of adoration with the boarders from our school at which the children thanked God spontaneously for all the blessings of the week, and I was touched by the sincerity and directness of their prayers. Nowhere I’ve traveled have I found anyone so grateful as the kids in that village. One boy prayed very slowly and deliberately, “Lord, thank you for my body; thank you for my eyes, for my ears, for my hands…” And it struck me what a good and profound prayer that was, and I wondered, why do I never think to thank God for my eyes and ears and hands?
I thought of the Lord’s words about becoming like a child, words which should give us sophisticated postmodern Christians pause, if not reduce us to fear and trembling: “unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:3).
Another time—my first weekend in the village—I knelt on the hard concrete floor of a dilapidated former school building at Mass, the evening darkness closing around us—the electricity was out that day—and the rain pounding on the tin roof, a circle of light illuminating the altar where a priest read, in makeshift Hindi, words both strange and familiar, words as ancient and new there in the foothills of the Himalayas as they are at home in Chicago, or they were when first spoken in Palestine.
The next day was Mass again, in the upper room of a private home it took us four hours to reach on a road that was little more than a strip of slick mud through the jungle. I thought it must have felt something like this to tag along with Paul in the Acts of the Apostles. It’s perhaps no accident that that book never really seems to end.
That Pauline spirit, the spirit of Francis Xavier, is strong among the Jesuits of northeast India. The brave young priest I was with might be risking landslides and car crashes rather than shipwreck, but the message he carried was the same, and the message is worth the risks. And it was worth going to India to be reminded of that message—and its worth—as well.
As my time in India came to a close I had a conversation with another young Jesuit who had been working with tribal people for several years. I talked about learning to pray like a child, and he shared similar thoughts. In his studies a theology professor had once told him and his classmates that they needed to move beyond “their grandmother’s faith.” Out on mission he realized how beautiful his grandmother’s faith was. “When she prayed, she spoke to God,” he said.
And how much time, when I pray, do I spend thinking about speaking to God instead of actually doing so? I think it was Pedro Arrupe who said, “If you want to serve the poor, you must first learn to pray like the poor.” What luxury it is—what a pearl of great price—to pray like a child, to pray like the poor.