12:30 A.M. Monday morning, somewhere in space. The plane’s wings hover over South American mountains, the perpetual hum vibrating my seat cushion as the passengers around me are sound asleep. I am too attuned to the excitement and anxiety sounding in my mind close my eyes. Instead, I turn toward the silent glow beckoning through the plane window. Through the darkness, the moon’s face glows.
3:45 PM Saturday afternoon, home. Maybe it is the scent of the wind, the calling of taxi drivers or the hum of children shouting in the streets, the smell of unknown fruits, the taste of a new language on the tongue, the sun pouring forth through my window blinds. Something is stirring within me in each moment, a new flavor of chaos. I have yet to pause and soak it all in. The mountains surprise me each time that I steal a glimpse at them.
Sometimes, when I walk on the streets of Arequipa, I hear people shouting in Spanish and cannot even begin to understand them. When I ask for direction, I might understand half of what people may share. Somehow, it still feels like the entire city is alive with the language of the Spirit. It is not always the kind of language that is easily understood by the mind, the kind of knowledge that Spanish defines as saber. But it is the language of the heart, the corazón, which is the fruit that we share as we come to know, in the way of conocer, a love for a new city and a new family.
Since arriving in Peru nine days ago, God has blessed me with a long, deep breath of adventure. I have entered into new courses since stepping off of the plane (that was exciting), wandered with friends through the city, visited a bull fight and wandered packed streets during a city festival, and came to find words for prayer in a new language.
Today, I had a chance to exhale while recuperating from a common winter gripe that, according to urban legend, comes from wearing shorts at night time (my American mother also warns me against this). The gift of this day has been to rest and reflect on what a gift it is to be here, and to receive all that I have learned thus far.
One, it is incredible how wide and varied this earth is. The mountains that tower above this 7,000 foot elevated city make me marvel, without a doubt in my mind, that the world is beautiful. To see the city lit from the view of the Yanahuara viewpoint is a transformational moment, one that reminds me of the ephemerality of our cities and the eternality of God’s Kingdom.
Two, our bodies are living miracles. To be able to adapt to a new climate, water source, fruit, and waking schedule with just a few hiccups makes me wonder at the power of the human body to adapt and resist illness. It pains me how much I take my body for granted, often pushing myself too hard in daily life. This week, I am grateful to have had several nights and days of deep rest, and to breathe in the thin air of the mountains with open lungs.
Three, human beings. They are so beautiful, sometimes my mind can’t stand it. What compels a family to take in a gringa who barely knows Spanish, and to love her as she stumbles through the language? Perhaps when cultural boundaries fall away, we come to find an inherent essence that we share. The children at Mass on Sunday morning reminded me how God fashioned each of us out of deep, creative innocence, one that still dwells within us. Travel awakens us to come to see God in the face of the Other, and to be harkened by the light that weaves us in our diversity together.
This diversity has not always been woven together harmoniously. Tonight, a film about the conquest reminded me that my first ancestors to arrive on this continent came for the purpose of gold, power, and domination. They traveled by violence and force, until the cross and sword won over the indigenous world.
I find myself often examining my motivations for traveling. Do I want to run away from the problems of my own country to some exotic destination? Or am I sent for another purpose? The most modern form of travel, vía tourism, is usually motivated to encounter the Other through an educational and pleasurable experience. There is also the phenomenon, as my friend Quinn said, that tourists may not befriend other tourists out of fear of an inauthentic experience.
By contrast, the third path to travel is vía de peregrinación, or pilgrimage. This form of journey looks to others as companions, rather than competition, along the road. Through shared harship, there emerges communion. And rather than the path ending in the foreign land, it is just beginning.
Which brings me to the task of the pilgrim — to witness the face of God in others and in the challenges of the journey. In the thin space of this city, I am reminded that God meets us in the places where our vulnerability meets unpredictability meets our hunger for grace. We are bound to fail and make mistakes. Where we learn to depend on others to ask for directions, and find resilience in ourselves to walk the distance. Along the camino, we see beauty at the heart of each moment, and take time to exhale gratitude for what we have been given.
This semester, prayer comes from a place of desiring conocer, to know God, not just from the mind but from the soul. To know love in embracing strangers with a besito and dancing with them in the streets. I pray to know intimacy with the mountain air, to taste the fruit of the Spirit dwelling in this city, to soak in the depth of sabbath moments and know the gift of thin-air respites. To strip myself of old customs and walk into unfamiliar territory. To stand naked before the Divine and know my sins and blemishes are made into gift through God’s grace. And with each step of each day, I pray to quedarme in a word of prayer that is rich and obedient. A word that goes beyond cultural barriers, languages, ages, religions, and abilities. A word that is love – no more, and no less – wholly accepting. The word that is Christ, demanding the sacrifice of knowing we live with and for one another, as one community of pilgrims.
May your days be blessed with receiving help from the stranger, humility from the mountains and peace from the light of God within. Amen.
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
– John O´Donohue