06 July 2009

The Three

"I was invited to dinner," the Crosier father said from the pulpit, "to a family's house in Kinshasa. In order to feed me, their guest, the family had to fast for a week." He went through the anticipated series of statistics: the hunger, crime, corruption, rape and general misery that inflict the Congo and so many other regions of that continent. The Church, he said, was the only stable force in a country that has experienced devastation for the last five centuries.

A few weeks ago I met with a monk-friend, who had spent the duration of last summer in a fledgling monastery in Zimbabwe. The experience held him fast, so much so that he has contemplated moving there permanently. When I asked him what was the allure, he quietly responded that it was the simplicity of the people, the zeal of their prayer and their hope for a future that will take them away from their near-constant suffering.

The other night a friend called, deeply troubled, about an encounter he had in Swaziland a few weeks ago. Eating dinner with his host family, the young boy in the house asked him if he had thanked God for what was before him. This simple question impacted my friend, so much so that in the weeks since, he finds himself haunted by the question as it pertains to his life. "I have so much."

Things come in three. This is the superstition of those anticipating tragedy and loss. I thought of this last evening at mass, when the missionary ended his homily by singing the Our Father in the tribal dialect of the people he serves. In the course of a month, I've heard three separate accounts about encounters in three separate African nations by three unique individuals. In the middle of the priest's singing, I found myself gripping tightly to my knees, a subtle tingling inching up the length of my spine.

What any of this means is up for further reflection. I am not totally ignorant of the plight of people in Africa. As a boy, my mom spent a good while in the central part of that continent, came home and has been haunted ever since. I have read my share of articles, watched documentaries and broadcasts on the latest act in the centuries-old tragedy that grips the place. And yet it is only in these recent weeks that these pieces of information begin to take on human flesh.

The undercurrent of these three accounts is that the person telling the story has been forever changed. First this monk: he flirts heavily with the notion of leaving behind the relative comforts of religious life in America to do something, he says, that might make a difference. Second this friend: a young man blessed with fortune and talent, being asked for the first time if he is grateful, as he continues to unpack the depth of the experience. Finally, this Crosier father: a passionate man on fire for the faith and the Congolese, who has stared down the barrel of a gun with the knowledge that more than twenty of his brethren have been martyred in the last forty years. And yet he remains. The monk longs to return. The friend does not yet know how it will unfold.

And here I am, the strange recipient of these accounts, wondering forcefully of the meaning of it. Wondering if in some distant future I will be called to that place or if these things serve as a reminder to live simply and to work in my own limited capacity for the alleviation of the widespread heartache and despair that inflict our race, to such a degree no disease or plague has ever achieved.

"It is their hope," the priest cried out from the pulpit, arms flailing in the air, "that brings me back. They have nothing and yet hold to hope with a strength I have never seen anywhere else."

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