Gladys Aylward: A Heart for China

Last week I had the chance to speak to a group of local women — and my mother, who had never heard me speak in public until then — about a group of women I’ve come to regard as my spiritual mothers: Women whose example led me, as surely as Moses led the Chosen People to the Promised Land, to where I am today. They (clockwise from upper left): My confirmation namesake, Amy Carmichael; Gertrude “Biddy” Chambers, widow of Oswald Chambers; Gladys Aylward; Mother Teresa; Elisabeth Elliot; and Corrie. ten Boom. (I’ve linked each of their names to my favorite books by or about them, in case you’d like to learn more.)

Like Moses, most of them did not “cross over,” as I did, into the Catholic Church (Mother Teresa is the only professed Catholic among them). And yet, each of them left an indelible stamp upon my spirit through their lives and writings.

Tonight mom and I finished reading the book about Gladys Aylward, the British missionary to China (1902-1970), whose story was retold (with great liberties) in the movie The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. After twenty years preaching the Gospel to teems of people suffering under Communist oppression, she felt the Lord call her back home. At first she was incredulous — she had by that time become a Chinese citizen, dressing like them, eating like them, even thinking like them. And yet, she said,

“England, seemingly so prosperous while other countries passed through terrible suffering at the hands of Communist domination, had forgotten what was all-important — the realization that God mattered in the life of a nation no less than in that of an individual…. I knew that I must go back to the land of my birth. I must return to do what I could to dispel the spiritual lethargy that had overtaken so many. I must testify to the great faith of the Chinese church. I must let people know what great things God has done for me” (The Little Woman, 136).

This was nearly fifty years ago, and yet not much has changed. The “underground” Church of faithful Christians continues to suffer and to struggle, and even to die.

Pray with me for the Holy Father, for the Christians in China … and for all those on the front lines, who seek to ease the suffering of the “least of these” who continue to suffer simply for naming the Blessed Name. Mother Gladys, pray for us, that we might not be afraid to stand with your beloved people.

Another much admired figure, from the Civil War era at Notre Dame, I’d like to write about one day: Sister Angela Gillespie.

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Day 3: Adventure!

For the third day in a row, a mysterious cell phone woke me up at 4:30. I had expected crying babies … phantom technology, not so much. At first I thought it was my upstairs neighbor, until I met her, carrying a flashlight, on the stairs. “Oh, I thought it was YOUR phone!” Turns out, the phone in question was in a locked apartment that belongs to the woman who runs the Center … who was on an outreach and would be back the next day.

First Mass 052617Ah, well. I decided to try out the public transport system in order to make the 8:00 Mass at the church near the town square. I grabbed a handful of change, my dictionary and Spanish-English Bible, and a water bottle and headed out. The gate was locked, but one of the mamas offered to let me out if I’d pick her up some diapers. Seemed like a fair exchange.

Now the thing you need to know about roads in this area is that they are not for the faint of heart. They are serpentine and narrow, and the “shoulder” is an abrupt drop-off; a truck coming from the other direction could startle you into making a turn that would take out your undercarriage. No joke. At night this is particularly scary, since the fog flares at regular intervals, obscuring oncoming traffic and the hazard cones that they erect in the middle of roads in lieu of actually, you know, repairing them.

But if it was my turn to go, at least it would be on my way to Mass. So I got on the bus, sat next to a nice young woman, and attempted to ask if I needed the same bus on the way back. Judging by the horrified look on her face, I must have said something like, “Can I have your firstborn child?”  So I sat quietly until I saw the church spires, then got off the bus and hoped for the best.

First Mass 052617The Eglesia de San Benedicto offers adoration before Mass in a side chapel. I went in and found a seat, and watched as each person who entered the room went to the tabernacle, gently stroked the front, resting their hand on the vessel for a moment. Some approached the tabernacle on their knees. One white-haired old gentleman got as far as my pew before spotting a tiny white stone in his path, the size of a lentil. “Phht,” he snorted, swiping it out of his way. It made me smile … apparently piety has its limits.

Feeling self-conscious about not having properly (culturally speaking) reverenced the tabernacle on the way in, I made my way to the front as I prepared to leave. I knelt and stroked the lower edge of the ornately carved tabernacle. At that moment, I thought of the woman who clutched the edge of Jesus’ garment, desperate for healing. It is the gesture of one who is utterly convinced of her own dependency, and unwilling to bypass even the tiniest chance for healing.

EMPANADASAfter Mass I ventured out to find diapers, then some galletas (cookies) to share at lunch, chocolate chip and mango-flavored empanatas. Seeing these little pies reminded me that I had not yet found the local specialty, cheese filled pies made from Turrialba cheese. So I fixed that.

As I ate, I composed one of those letters an editor hates to send: a rejection letter to an author who had worked hard on her proposal, but I had been unsuccessful in getting it through committee. The Gospel today spoke of a woman laboring to give birth, the joys and sorrows associated with that experience. In a certain sense, authors labor, too … And its always hard when the labor doesn’t produce a real, live book. And yet, I also knew that God’s plan for that author is not foiled by one closed door. I simply had to detach, and trust.

I made it back to the Center (via taxi, which was only slightly more than bus) around lunch time, tired but happy with the outcome of my first solo adventure here.

Home. Safe. Thanks be to God.

 

 

 

 

 

Countdown: Day 6

One week from yesterday, I head to Costa Rica to volunteer at St. Bryce Missions and visit with my friend Colleen Mitchell. Craig and the kids will join us as soon as school is out. Colleen has my Diet Coke (and, if I’m really good, margaritas as well) on ice, the rocker is ready on the porch, and they have already started lining up the babies for me to cuddle to my heart’s content.

Yeah, it’ll be rough. But I’ll try to soldier through.

It’s already been such a blessing to be a small part of this endeavor — it’s been touching to see people give so generously of their time and resources. My suitcase will be full of baby blankets, rosaries, and other gifts for the work there. Sarah is counting the days until she can see her friend Miss Colleen and paint the fingernails of the new mothers. Chris … well, I think as long as he doesn’t find a spider in his shoe he will be fine. And Craig has lost almost 20 pounds, so he can ride a zip line down the mountain. Because that’s HIS idea of heaven. (Just hope it’s not a one-way trip.)

If you are reading this, please pray for us as we travel, and for the work there. I will post regular updates, so if you don’t want to miss a single adventure be sure to sign up for the e-mailing list (to the right). Thanks in advance for going with us in spirit!

If you would like to help with the work, you can make a donation directly to St. Bryce mission here. Thanks so much for your support!

Lonely at Church?

clasped-hands-541849_1920Do you ever feel invisible at church? Have you ever gone to a church event and felt lonely? Do you watch people chatting around the room as your kids attack the donut table, and crave some kind of personal connection?

I’ve felt this way, especially after moving to a new home or church. Not knowing how my kids will respond in new social situations, I’m always on “high alert,” and it’s hard to relax. It doesn’t help that I am a lot like my father, and often feel anxious about breaking into new groups — rather surprising, given how much practice I’ve had at it over the years. But there you have it.

I’ve complained to God about this more than once, how Catholic parishes are so different from the church I grew up in, a country church of about 200 families where everyone knew everyone else by name and birthday. They were generous and welcoming to a fault. The year I went to Senegal, West Africa on a year-long mission trip, my church family raised the entire amount I needed–almost $12,000–in just a couple of weeks.   These were not wealthy people — but they welcomed us as family.

When I became Catholic, the very things I most loved about the Church — her rituals, her formality, her mystery — also made it difficult to experience that same sense of family with my brothers and sisters in the pew. A name in the bulletin was the only clue that someone had a medical need. If someone lost a job or had a financial emergency, there were food pantries and St. Vincent de Paul shops … but apart from Elizabeth Ministries setting up meals for new moms, I had no idea who needed cookies.

Women’s group. Choir. Youth Group. Couple’s “date night.” Donuts after Mass.  People were nice enough — at least one person always told us they were glad we came. But I was still longing for that sense of belonging, and never quite finding it.

Right after Easter, I decided I would start going to daily Mass until I left for Costa Rica, to volunteer at St. Bryce Mission. At Queen of Peace, morning Mass is at 8:15, preceded by morning prayer — a chance to learn how to pray the red book! Score! I could drop off my kids at school and go down the street to church, and get in a few minutes at Adoration before morning prayer and Mass. The same twenty people or so were there every day … my friend Kelly showed me how to use the Book of Christian Prayer.

Soon I was a regular, getting smiles and nods — and the connections began to come. Yesterday the president of the Jubilee women’s group came up to say they had decided to donate the missionary offering to me this year, to help St. Bryce Mission. And today between prayer and Mass, a man came up to introduce himself and tell me how much I reminded him of his sister. “She’s a beautiful woman, and so are you!”

As he turned to find his way back to his own pew, I sat and thought about what I’d just experienced. I realized that my approach of trying to get friends, of wanting to receive rather than to give, had been part of the problem. And I discovered that giving, in prayer and presence, is a wonderful way to belong in God’s family.