From: Pilgrim Road
“Are you waiting for a lift across the river?” asks Father Roger in his British-flavored Spanish.
“¡Ah, si, Padre! ¡Gracias!” the young man answers as he steps toward the rear door of our four-wheel-drive. I suppose that he’s been sitting beside the two-rut track here for a couple of hours.
I’m riding in the front seat next to Father Roger, looking ahead through the dusty windshield at the boiling brown froth of the river that lies between us and the low greenery on the other bank. Several broad sand bars split the Piray into a dozen wide channels of unknown depth. We’re on our way to a village outside of Santa Cruz in central Bolivia to see the newly reconditioned church that dates back to the time of the first Jesuit missionaries. Once you leave the main highway, there’s no paved road to this village. What’s worse, it’s on the other side of the river – and there’s no bridge.
During the past few weeks in the rectory of the English-speaking missionary priests of the Saint James Society, I’ve heard a few casual stories of one or another driver starting to ford some angry river and then getting carried off by the current. One such mishap had befallen a missionary not too long ago as he, his vehicle, and his passengers got washed down river. “He was okay, though. Wound up on a sandbar twenty yards downstream. I had to go out in the four-wheel-drive with the winch on front and pull him out,” the narrator had said over desert. River crossings attempted during very high water can end much more tragically, though. Everything depends on how high the river is.
Our young passenger perches on one of the two bench-seats that face each other just behind me, and the padre shifts into first gear. With visions of river water sloshing in onto my ankles I lift my knapsack off the floor, trying to be casual about it. I sneak a glance between my feet to check for articles that may float away when the water starts spurting through the doors.
“Well, here we go!” our driver announces cheerfully, as we lurch down the muddy track that gives way to the sandy slope of the riverbank. The first of the swift, coffee-colored strips of river lies right in front to us, and we plunge straight into it, in what seems to me a great act of faith. I ask myself, “How does he know that this channel won’t turn out to be six feet deep?”
Now we’re completely surrounded by the muddy water, rocking along up to our nonexistent hubcaps at a pretty good clip. Once I get used to it, it’s sort of thrilling – just like in those articles I used to read as a kid in Maryknoll Missions Magazine. I look out my side window and watch the foamy water sliding by. As I stare down into the ripples beside me, I’m hypnotized, and all sense of time and distance disappears.
“…he had been a missionary down here for several years by that time.” Father Roger, almost shouting to be heard over the rumble of the engine, has begun a story. I’ve missed some of it already. He continues, “The river had been rising for several days, and the padre figured he’d never be able to drive across. It was ‘first penance’ day for the children in the mission church out here, and the catechists had the kids all excited about making their first confession. So he decides to drive out on the slim chance that he’ll find the river passable. He turns off the highway and comes down the same road we just did. He meets a fellow along the way who gives him the bad news – no chance of driving across that afternoon. The kids will just have to wait for another day….”
Whoosh! The wheels on the left side slump into a shallow dip in the river bed and my stomach jumps. Father Roger doesn’t seem to notice, though, and goes right on with his tale as we crawl up onto a low sandbar and then plunge into the next channel.
“But the padre figures he’s come this far so he may as well go on anyway and have a look at the river for himself. He continues on the road until he comes around that last bend right down by the river, where we just picked up our passenger. And guess what he sees there?”
Swoosh! We list sickeningly again, this time to my side. I stare wide-eyed at the bottom of the door, but all is still dry.
“Well, sure enough,” continues the unperturbed Englishman behind the wheel, “the water was indeed very high – too high to drive through. But there, lined up along the road on his side of the river, were all the children, dressed up and waiting for their first confession! The parents had seen that the ford was too deep to drive across, but they didn’t want their children to miss their first penance. So the fathers picked up their children and put them on their shoulders and carried them through the water to the priest’s side of the river. And there they were, all ready for him when he got there.”
Now we’re slithering up the opposite bank, all four wheels churning in the loose sand until we’re back onto the bumpy ruts of the mud track as it continues through the scruffy shrubbery and ragged trees. The relative safety of the jolting ride on solid ground soon lulls me into thinking about those fathers on that afternoon a few years ago.
So many sincere parents give their families so much – in the way of material things. Those poor Bolivians couldn’t give their children video games or electronic toys, dancing lessons or Little League baseball. Many probably couldn’t offer them an education, or electricity in the house, or even decent drinking water. But they were able to give them the most meaningful gift a Christian parent can give a child – a God who loves us and forgives us. When the rising river threatened to keep the priest from getting to their church, the parents decided that if God couldn’t get to their children, then they’d have to bring their children to God. So, hoisting their sons and daughters onto their shoulders, they set out. Across the ford they came that afternoon, laughing and shouting, wading through hip-high water, feeling for footholds, all the time carrying on their shoulders their little ones, bringing them to meet the God of forgiveness.
I wonder what those little Bolivian boys and girls learned about God that day when their fathers lifted them onto their shoulders and delivered them across the seething river? I know they learned something about being a Christian parent.
A few houses start peeking out from behind the low trees now, then a wide clearing appears up ahead.
By the end of life’s journey, a Christian’s shoulders ought to be aching with the effort of bringing others to meet the Lord through kind deeds, courageous example, and life-giving words of encouragement. More than once, I’ve had the experience of being lifted up and carried by someone right to the feet of the God of Mercy. On one occasion, I had to go to a brother and admit that a careless mistake of mine had just ruined the new electric typewriter I’d borrowed from him. His gentle response gave me an unforgettable lesson, a sense of what God’s forgiveness must be like. Do I ever do that for people who come to me to apologize?
“That’s it up ahead there, on the left!” Father Roger is pointing out the old Jesuit mission church. “That’s the church those parents left behind when they took their kids across the Piray for first penance.”
I hope that from now on, when I meet someone in need of forgiveness I’ll remember the example of those determined fathers and mothers who hoisted their little ones on their shoulders and carried them across the river.
Conversion means turning to God in a spirit of repentance for our sins. Think of one area where you particularly need God’s forgiveness, and ask the Lord for pardon.
Is there one particular person who has taught you a lot about forgiveness? How often do you introduce others to the God of forgiveness by forgiving them?
Sacred Scripture (John 8:3-11)
The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
Rule of Benedict (Chapter 27, “The Abbot’s Concern for the Excommunicated,” vv. 8-9)
The Abbot is to imitate the loving example of the Good Shepherd who left the ninety-nine sheep in the mountains and went in search of the one sheep that had strayed. So great was his compassion that he mercifully placed it on his sacred shoulders and so carried it back to the flock.