Using the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Sr. Theresa Noble, a formerly fallen-away Catholic, gently covers the necessary elements of approaching those who have left the Church. She encourages you to meet them where they are while emphasizing the importance of the faith.With her gentle encouragement, she will lead you to continue to hope for their conversion, so that you might share the joy of the Father when The Prodigal You Love returns home.
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Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSPForeword by Father Dave Dwyer, CSP
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The prodigal you love : inviting loved ones back to the church / Theresa Noble, FSP ; foreword by Fr. Dave Dwyer, CSP.
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1. Ex-church members--Catholic Church. 2. Non-church-affiliated people. 3. Church work with ex-church members--Catholic Church. 4. Prodigal son (Parable) I. Title.
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For my parents, Jane and Chris,who loved and prayed me back to the Church
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.
“When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’
“So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’
“Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
— LUKE 15: 11–32
CHAPTER ONE: A Story of Hope
CHAPTER TWO: The Foundation of Humility
CHAPTER THREE: Listening to the Holy Spirit
CHAPTER FOUR: Finding the Balance: Love and Truth
CHAPTER FIVE: Responding to Illusory Ideas
CHAPTER SIX: Accepting Doubt and Embracing Doubters
CHAPTER SEVEN: Why Our Faith Matters
CHAPTER EIGHT: Respecting Free Will
CHAPTER NINE: Prayer Is Key
CHAPTER TEN: The Power of Suffering
CHAPTER ELEVEN: Be Saints, It Is All That Matters
CHAPTER TWELVE: Becoming a Person of Hope
Standing in the back of church after Mass, I’m shaking hands with the good People of God as they stream toward the light beyond the doors. Most slow their pace just enough for me to give the briefest of blessings on their upcoming week as I attempt to convey slightly more sincerity than a flight attendant saying, “Bye now.” I like to think I’m working an assembly line of grace.
One person in the crowd has a more pointed agenda, however. She stops right in front of me and grasps my hand, while the rest of the congregation re-routes around us as if we were a construction zone during rush hour. With a distressed look on her face, she implores, “Father, please help.... My heart is breaking. Please tell me what I can do to get my son to go back to Church.” I offer a sympathetic look that strains to express my own and the Church’s genuine concern for one of the lost sheep. At the end of a short exchange, I recommend prayer and perseverance, although even to my ears this sounds like a platitude. As the woman walks away, inevitably unsatisfied with my lack of a solution, all I can think is, “I really wish that gift shop just behind me had a book that I could recommend for her—a book that addresses this pastoral problem well and even lays out the process of inviting your loved ones back.”
The bad news is that this is not an account of one particular Sunday. Replace the woman’s face with a different one, exchange the word “son” for daughter/grandchild/niece/husband/friend/ loved one, and this scene is repeated in the life of a priest way too often. Wrestling with this issue goes beyond the clergy, too. It is not hyperbole to suggest that every adult practicing Catholic has at least one person in their life who is away from the Church and the sacraments—a lost sheep who has slowly wandered off, or a prodigal child who ran away with disdain. In fact, research has shown that if we were to count all the so-called “former” Catholics together as a group, they would be the second-largest religious denomination in the United States, outnumbering even Southern Baptists. That’s a lot of people! How can we get them back? How can all of us be agents of change?
The good news is that you’re holding the book I and so many others have been waiting for. Finally, I have an answer to, “Father, what can I do?” We’ve heard a lot in the Church lately about what recent popes have called the New Evangelization. Sometimes this can become a very “churchy” enterprise at the level of diocesan-wide programs and theological symposia at Catholic universities. A slightly more “Jesus approach” would be to go about it one on one, face to face, heart to heart. That’s why The Prodigal You Love: Inviting Loved Ones Back to the Church is the New Evangelization par excellence. Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, has given every adult Catholic a spiritual handbook for loving people (not haranguing them) back to the community of faith. She reminds us that we are not only called by Christ to this important mission, we are—all of us—quite capable of carrying it out.
As a Paulist priest, welcoming distant Catholics back to the Church is something very close to my heart, as it is ingrained in us even before we begin our seminary studies. The ministry my brother Paulists have tasked me with at present (www.BustedHalo.com) consists of creatively finding new ways to reach out to young adult Catholics. They’re the elusive 18 to 39-year-old crowd who prefer the label “spiritual but not religious.” These days most are part of the millennial generation, who, as both faith-based and secular sociologists tell us, eschew identifying with any large institution, particularly church. The stats get more daunting with every published survey. At present, a third of American adults under thirty years old claim no affiliation with any organized religion—a number that has tripled in just a couple of decades. If anything has become clear to me in my ten years in this ministry, it is that we select few who do this for a living (indeed, as our vocation) cannot possibly invite back to the Church the millions of people who are not practicing their faith. We need your help! Selfishly, I see this book as mobilizing a global task-force of New Evangelizers. And now that you’re reading this, you are one! But don’t be scared: it’s really quite simple.
You know who makes it look effortless? Our Holy Father. In a very short time, Pope Francis has shown that we Catholics can be—indeed need to be—more charitable, loving and understanding when it comes to engaging people with whom we disagree. He has single-handedly shifted the Church’s approach to one that involves taking the Gospel to the streets, meeting people and saying, “I’d really like to hear where you’re coming from.” Like the pope, Sister Theresa pointedly yet gently reminds us that this process of stirring the flame of faith in the hearts of our loved ones is not all about what’s wrong with “them”; it needs to start with each of us, you and me.
Lest I come off sounding too much like a detached, professional clergyman, let me clearly say that I need to read and heed this book as much as anyone. I candidly admit to my own personal pain around my friends and family members who have left the Church. Much like you, it hurts me when people I care deeply about turn away from the beautiful gift of our Catholic faith. Even though I’m a priest, I have definitely felt helpless in certain situations not knowing how best to “work on them” to return. I too need to be reminded that I must allow myself to be conformed more into the likeness of Christ so that my loved ones cannot help but be attracted to the community that gathers around his table.
Pray with me for just a moment.... “Lord, in your wisdom and love transform my heart, renew my actions, make gentle my words, and in doing so, draw your children back into your loving embrace and to the community of your Church.”
Now I can’t wait for the next time someone comes up to me after Mass asking for help with their prodigal loved ones. Help has arrived!
FATHER DAVE DWYER, CSP
Thank you first to my parents who looked upon me with the Father’s love and prayed for me unceasingly when I was away from the Church. Thank you Kelly, Michael, Javier, Anthony, Kate, and Joanne for trusting me with your stories. I am very blessed to know you all. Thank you Fr. Anselm, Fr. Anthony, Michael, Lucie, Dan, Ami, Monica, and Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouvé, FSP, for your feedback in the editing process; your comments and changes were extremely helpful and humbling. Thank you Sr. Jacqueline Jean-Marie Gitonga, FSP; Sr. Khristina Galema, FSP; Sr. Carmen Christi Pompei, FSP; and Erin Nolan for contributing heartfelt prayers for the appendix. Thank you to my sisters in community; my siblings David, Sarah, Elizabeth, Mary Margaret; all my friends; and everyone who prayed for this book and continue to pray for its readers and for all of our loved ones who are away from the Church and far from God. May God draw them near to his merciful heart and use our lives as instruments of his peace and love.
If you picked up this book, it is likely that you love someone who is away from the Church, or you might want someone you love to become Catholic. You may think about this reality often, or you may hardly think of it at all. But you picked up this book because something in your heart tells you that you could respond to this situation in a better way.
Even Jesus had a hard time getting through to his friends and family. He lamented this reality in the Gospel of Mark: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house” (6:4). When Jesus was among friends, relatives, and people he had known his whole life, those who should have known him best, “he could do no deed of power” and “he was amazed at their unbelief ” (6:5–6). Perhaps we feel this way with those we love most. We do not understand why they cannot appreciate the gift of Jesus in the Church. We feel powerless to sway them, to move their hearts.
Some might even say that the evangelization of our loved ones, proclaiming or re-proclaiming to them the Good News, is an almost impossible task. This is good. Sometimes we need to face difficult tasks so we can see that all goodness comes from God, not us. It is not by ourselves that we accomplish anything but “through him who strengthens” us (Phil 4:13). Precisely because it is difficult and requires holiness, the evangelization of our loved ones is an intense path to sanctity. The task of evangelizing our friends and family is not for the fainthearted or those weak in faith. It is a hidden work without fanfare or instantaneous results. We work in the knowledge that we may not be successful. Jesus himself was not successful in calling all those he loved to him. But we can be sure that trying is always better, for our loved ones and for us, than not trying at all.
In the Book of Isaiah, we hear the prophetic words that foreshadow the person of Jesus: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench” (42:3). Our loved ones may be bruised, through their own behavior, the behavior of others, or both. The light of their faith may be dimly burning or nonexistent. But we are called to be like Jesus, to tenderly and compassionately guide our loved ones to the healing gaze of the Father and to the burning fire that is his love.
Pope Francis related an incident that reveals one of the most important aspects in evangelizing one’s own family and friends. He said:
I recall the story of a young man, twenty-two years old, who was suffering from a deep depression. [He was a] young man who lived with his mom, who was a widow and who did the laundry of wealthy families. This young man no longer went to work and lived in an alcoholic haze. The mom was not able to help him: every morning before leaving she would simply look at him with great tenderness. Today this young man has a position of responsibility: he overcame that problem, because in the end that look of tenderness from his mom shook him up. We have to recapture that tenderness, including maternal tenderness.1
Take a moment to imagine the loved ones you had in mind when you picked up this book. Picture their smiles, their laughs, and the goodness you know is in their hearts. Perhaps you can remember times in their lives when they were devoted to the faith. You may have recent memories, moments of hope, when it seemed your loved ones might have thought about returning to the Church. Imagine them now back in the Church, sitting in the pews, receiving the sacraments, praying, in strong relationship with God.
Visualize who your loved ones can be, who they were when they were only imagined in the mind of God at the beginning of creation. Hold your loved ones in your mind with a gaze of tenderness, a gaze that sees not their flaws, their sins nor failures, but who they are when they are at their best, who they are deep down inside. Look at them with deep love and recognition; see the person God made each to be. This is the gaze that can change our loved ones, because it is the gaze of God. With this tender gaze of the Father upon his wayward children, we can lead our loved ones back to the Church. It is possible. Come with me on a journey to find out how.
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
— John 3:8
Like so many others who have left the Church, my story tells of hurt, rebellion, and disillusionment. But it also tells of God’s never-ending patience and enduring love. Just as the father in the story of the Prodigal Son waited expectantly for his son’s return, God always stood at the window, waiting for a sign of my return. Like the prodigal son, I began to make my way back down the road, and God ran to me the moment I came around the bend. My Father ran and threw his arms around me. He did not ask if I was truly sorry, or if I would leave him again. He asked no questions. Instead, he welcomed me, gave me the finest robe, and put a ring on my finger. This story of return to the Father is the story of us all, of you, of me, and of your loved ones. I tell you my prodigal story so that you may see hope for your loved ones in it. The details may differ, but I pray that, like me, your loved ones will choose to begin their journey back to their Father’s home, where God is waiting to run to meet them.
When I was a child, I loved God with all my heart. My devout parents centered our family life on the Catholic faith. The liturgical rhythm of the Church was the heartbeat of our family. My father was a professor who led an evangelism program at a Catholic university. From a young age, I shared my father’s enthusiasm for evangelization. When I was only eight years old, I coaxed him into allowing me to attend one of his evangelism classes. Much to the amusement of the students, I filled out the workbook and contributed with gusto. I participated in door-to-door evangelization with my father and handed out religious tracts downtown. Although my interest pleased my father, I did none of this under pressure; a real fire burned in my heart. My fiery faith was authentic, but not yet strong enough to withstand the powerful dousing effect of suffering and cold logic.
Despite my youthful fervor, I was always a natural doubter. When I was about five I doubted the existence of God for the first time. As I climbed the stairs to the second floor of my family’s house, suddenly, like a snake pouncing, a thought stung my mind: “What if God doesn’t exist?” I felt as if the walls of my secure, warm home had fallen, and I was surrounded by an empty blur of white, the shrill stillness whistling in my ears. I dismissed the thought almost immediately, but the doubt remained, dormant, like a sleeping volcano under the deceptively calm surface of my soul.
Over time my doubts about the existence of God began to resurface as the pounding rain of life’s suffering gradually broke down my strong faith. Unfortunately, most of my family’s challenges involved people and organizations tied to the Church. My father’s career as a theologian was primarily dedicated to evangelization and serving the Church. However, several difficult situations arose, both in his teaching post at a Catholic university and then in his work as the director of religious education in another diocese. My father began working for a secular college. He did not want to stop serving the Church, but all too common politics and divisiveness led him to do so. In the midst of all this, I unfortunately saw some Catholics, including priests and religious, acting in some very un-Christ-like ways. I was a sensitive and impressionable child, and these experiences scandalized me and served to push me further from the faith.
All these things, combined with other family difficulties and topped with the drama of teenage angst, stirred up the perfect storm within me. At fourteen years old, shaking my fist at God, I left the Catholic Church. My parents, thinking this was only a phase, forced me to go to Mass on Sunday. But I was finished. In my heart I had left the Church. I absolutely refused to be confirmed, and when my parents brought it up, I angrily asked them if they really wanted to force me to receive the sacrament. I insisted they would have to drag me to church if they wanted me to be confirmed. I was angry, and I trusted no one. The hypocrisy I had seen among Christians convinced me that it was possible to be a good person without God. I decided to set off on my own.
The faith my parents had carefully and painstakingly instilled in me since childhood quickly dissolved. For reasons that will become clearer later in the book, my formerly strong childhood connection with God, left unused, eventually broke off completely. I became an atheist. Idealistic, nonconformist, and full of anger, I quickly entered the teenage subculture with which I could most identify: I became a punk. Through a friend at my high school, I started to go to punk rock shows and sneak out at night. I chopped off my long hair and started dying it: pink, dark red, platinum blond, anything but normal. I left behind big floppy hats and floral prints for safety pins, chains, and anarchy symbols. I maintained my place on the honor roll, which kept most of my illicit activities unnoticed, but at the same time, a dark world began to absorb me. Before my parents knew it, I had changed from a quiet bookworm into a troubled, angry, and brooding teenager.
At the end of high school, I was accepted into an elite women’s college on the East Coast. I was thrilled. This fit my self-image as an intelligent, urbane atheist who would show the world that being a good person did not require imaginary gods. I left the punk rock culture behind; I figured the drug use and related risks would hinder me from making something of myself. Of course, I continued some dangerous behavior, just not enough to get caught in the undertow. But I still wanted to live in rebellion against the status quo, so I lived to separate myself. I listened to obscure indie music, read existentialist philosophy, became active in various causes, and ate only vegan food.
During this unlikely time, without even knowing it, my angry heart began looking for God again. It started with a conversation about miracles. One day a friend and I were sitting on a stone wall, swinging our feet and chatting about transcendent things. I casually said that I believed in miracles. My friend said, “Oh, you mean amazing things that science can explain?” “Of course not,” I said. “If something can be explained, it’s not miraculous.” My friend aptly pointed out that atheists do not usually believe in miracles. “I know,” I grumbled. If I believed in miracles, then they had to have a logical cause. “What could cause a miracle?” I thought. At this point I had rejected God for so long that I didn’t even think of him as a possible explanation.
My natural attraction to the supernatural led me to look for answers. Like many seekers, I chose the religion furthest from my own. I began reading Buddhist texts and taking philosophy classes on Eastern spiritual thinking. It fascinated me. My exploration of Buddhism helped me begin to accept mystery and paradox. At one point I went to hear a Buddhist monk speak at my college. In some way, his words made me feel as if I were lifted out of my ordinary life. “Desire is the source of suffering”—it sounded so easy and yet so difficult! I began to become open to a deeper reality present in the world than what is readily apparent.
My college was originally Quaker and was near a meeting house so, out of curiosity, I started to also explore the Quaker faith. I began to occasionally attend Quaker meetings (a weekly worship service). The Quakers provided me with a non-dogmatic setting (I would not have accepted anything else) in which I began to explore spirituality again. In that simple wooden building, people gathered for an hour in silence. During the meeting, individuals would stand when they felt they had a message to share. In that pregnant, peaceful, and silent atmosphere, without being aware of it, I began to explore the long silence that had become a wall between God and me.
After college, as part of my independent quest to be a good person and help people, I joined Teach for America, an organization that places college leaders in low-income inner-city and rural schools around the country. The summer after my graduation I was trained in Los Angeles and then was sent to teach a third grade class in Miami. On the first day of school, all of twenty-one years old, I sat behind my desk wide-eyed and anxious, waiting for my students to arrive. The thought of the awesome responsibility before me filled my heart with fear. If I did not do a good job, I feared that my students would leave my classroom more disadvantaged than ever. Most of them had already fallen behind academically. For the first time in my life, I faced a situation I doubted I could handle.
The first month, I went home every day, threw myself on my bed, and cried. Not one of my students could read at grade-level, if at all. By the end of the year, they would need to pass a standardized reading test to move on to the fourth grade. Many of the kids had serious behavior problems. Their difficulties at home, the violence they were exposed to, and the sad family situations they faced continually shocked and saddened me. I began to search desperately for something that would help me keep my head above water. I realized that in order to help my students, I needed to mature and grow as a person.
Looking for something that would bring me peace, I tried meditation. I failed miserably. I would sit cross-legged on my pillow, nodding off to sleep, wondering, “Is this supposed to be so boring? What am I doing wrong?” Every morning I would practice yoga, trying to focus my mind. During lunch breaks I sat outside, looked at the bright clouds, and took deep breaths, counting the hours left in the day. I also started to attend Quaker meetings every Sunday. There I found a supportive community of very kind, highly-educated people, some of whom seemed as unsure about the existence of God as I was. I felt at home. I still did not profess a belief in God, but these spiritual practices soothed my spirit, and the Quaker community offered support and helped keep me afloat.
After I finished teaching, I took some time off and moved to California with my boyfriend, who was studying for his PhD. I applied to law school and envisioned getting into a top school and changing the world. I lived on the campus of the university where my boyfriend was studying. I was surrounded by successful people and the prospect of my own success, but I began to feel like something was not right. My sensitive heart gradually became aware of what felt like a deep chasm in my soul. Something was wrong, very wrong. But I felt deeply confused because on the outside everything seemed so right. So many people would have wanted my life.
Yet, I was not happy. One day as I sat outside my apartment under a tree, tears rolled down my cheeks. I was deeply sad but I didn’t know why. I rubbed the top of my hand back and forth against the rough bark of the tree until my skin was red and raw. I wanted my interior pain to be seen exteriorly. Otherwise, I felt as if I would go crazy. Anyone would have said my life was perfect. Yet, I experienced an emptiness that nothing around me could fill. Why was I so unhappy? What was this pain that seemed to rip me apart from the inside out? What was this terrible emptiness?
I had time before I would start law school in the fall, so I decided to take a trip by myself to Costa Rica. A local family hosted me while I worked at a nearby ranch, weeding the garden, carrying firewood, and cooking. Rural life suited me. The spartan living conditions and manual labor were actually a great relief. I felt liberated, free from the complications of life in the United States. I realized how differently most of the world lived from the affluent world into which I was lucky enough to have been born. Health insurance, stocks, retirement, savings, all the things that consume a post-college graduate’s plans, didn’t matter in this rural town. Yet the people had enough and they were happy. In fact, they were happier, with much less, than most of the people I knew back home. The anxiety I felt almost every day in my normal life melted away. I was at peace here working with my hands and living day to day.
I quickly noticed that almost every person I met in the small town where I lived believed in God. Even if they did not go to church, the existence of God was a given. At first, I tried convincing myself that they were just too uneducated to understand that God was an idea that intelligent people naturally moved beyond. But this mental tactic did not work for long. I realized that in many ways these people were much more mature and intelligent than I was. Perhaps they had not read Kant or Hegel, but they knew life. When I would spout off the freethinking, Western opinions of a spoiled American, my new friends would give me amused but patient looks. At first I felt indignant and embarrassed at their reaction, but I gradually began to realize my own immaturity. These people, who worked hard every day of their lives and believed in God with ease, knew more about life than I did with my many years of expensive education.
Arabela, the mother of the family I stayed with, was a strong Catholic. Every week she would walk with her two daughters to clean the church. It was a poor, concrete building with crumbling walls, but the people of the town painstakingly cared for it. Mass was only celebrated once every two weeks due to a shortage of priests and the rural location of the village. Every other Thursday, small groups of older women would make their way to Mass. Much to my surprise, when I first noticed the little groups of old ladies walking to Mass in the crisp morning air, I felt a pull to join them, but I ignored the feeling wondering if I was going crazy.
One day I felt the pull so strongly that I grit my teeth while working in the garden, trying to resist the feeling with all my strength. Then, for some reason, something inside of me gave and I surrendered. I dropped my hoe and walked to the church. The other volunteers at the ranch where I worked watched me strangely. I could feel their eyes on my back. As I approached the door of the church, conversation died down abruptly. The women waiting for Mass eyed me with suspicion and mild disgust. I was not welcome; I was a foreigner, and a badly behaved one at that! But then Arabela arrived; seeing me, she looked shocked, but a smile quickly broke over her face and she waved me over.
The presider was a city priest from the capital of San Jose. He was fluent in English and was delighted to see a foreigner attending Mass. He spoke slowly during the liturgy so that I could understand, and he would insert little stories and jokes in his homilies that seemed to be for my benefit. I started to go to the church whenever Mass was celebrated. Each time, the other women would give me dagger-like looks. But the priest was always happy to see me, despite the disapproval of most of the other church-goers. With a warm smile, he would reach out his hand to shake mine, and Arabela would pat the seat next to her.
One day after Mass, I went to the local pulpería, a tiny grocery store that also served as the bar for the small town. I was talking to some of the locals when the priest approached the pulpería
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