From: Pilgrim Road
The bus floats noisily on the sluggish stream of traffic and exhaust fumes. A few minutes after crossing the bridge from Brazil into Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, we come to a stop near the Paraguayan Immigration Office. My three fellow passengers and I get off the bus and meekly follow our driver into a dingy office where a uniformed man is slumped behind a cluttered desk. While his thick fingers crinkle the pages of my passport he slurs an incomprehensible question at me in Spanish. After months of traveling in foreign countries, I’ve found that the best solution to the problem of the incomprehensible question is simply to give an immediate and confident answer of some kind. So I nod and reply in Spanish that I’ve just visited the Iguazu Falls and am on my way back to Bolivia via Asunción, Paraguay. He likes this answer – I wonder what the question was? – and shoos me on my way with a friendly toss of my thoroughly thumbed passport.
We climb back on board and drive to the nearby bus terminal to pick up about twenty-five more passengers. Soon the almost-full bus finds the busy two-lane road that will take us all the way across Paraguay to Asunción. I settle into my seat next to a window for the five-hour ride.
In the past three days of visiting the breathtaking Cataracts of Iguazu, I’ve been in Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, bringing to fifteen the number of countries I’ve visited in my sabbatical travels. As comfortable as I am traveling in strange new places, wherever I go I’m always conscious of being an outsider, of being “different.” People seem to be able to spot me from a mile away as a foreigner.
Once, for instance, after browsing for some minutes in a little souvenir shop in Brussels, I walked up to the counter and the saleswoman said, in English, “You are an American, of course.” I exploded in fairly voluble French, “But I haven’t said a word! How do you know I’m American, madame?” She couldn’t explain it – she just knew, that’s all.
And then there were those vendors selling little packets of sugarcoated peanuts in the parks of Paris. They prided themselves on spotting me at a hundred meters. As I approached one of those little carts its owner would ask smugly in bad English, “A beeg bahg or a leetle bahg, sir?” I always ignored him and answered in French, “Un p’tit, s’il vous plait!” How did they know I’m an American? Was it the way I walk? Or maybe the way I wear my clothes?
A French woman who had studied for years in London and spoke fine British English heard me make an announcement at a multilingual Mass at Mont Saint Michel. She said to me afterward, “I love the way you pronounce English! I could listen to it all day! Say some sentences for me!” Even if Londoners might not share her gushing enthusiasm for my unmistakable American accent, people who hear me speaking English certainly can tell where I come from.
We’re out of Ciudad del Este now. Along each side of the highway runs a wide swath that includes a dirt service road, strips of weeds, scraggly trees, and sometimes a bus stop shelter or a tumbledown snack bar. Along the outermost edge on either side widely varied buildings face toward the traffic. A flashy new Toyota salesroom sits uneasily beside a car repair shop of unpainted wood with a dirt floor.
Different nationality groups do have certain characteristics that are more or less typical. A particular Italian bus driver comes to mind. He pulled to a stop at this traffic light on the route into Florence. He looked both ways to make sure no cars were coming, then drove merrily through the red light and across the four-lane highway.
In Cologne, Germany, the pedestrians arranged themselves in a neat row on either side of me, their toes at the edge of the curb. The people facing us on the opposite side of the street did the same. We were waiting for the traffic light to change. No one moved until the signal said to walk. Don’t even think about crossing against the light!
In Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, my stroll around downtown revealed only about four traffic lights. Drivers there just work things out among themselves without the help of red lights at intersections.
Traveling from one country to the next for some months has helped me to appreciate the remarkable variety that exists among various cultures and peoples.
We’re now well out in the campo, the countryside. Cows and burros graze in the grass and gravel beside the road. Little children pad around in the red dust in front of pink or lavender one-room houses that face the highway in sets of four. Fountain-bursts of ragged palm leaves gush out of the ground without benefit of tree trunks. Slender pines make strange partners for the squat palms.
We seem to take on the characteristics of our homeland. I remember a phrase from a second-century biographer named Ennodius, who describes a local priest this way: “There was the outstanding priest, Bonosus, as celebrated for his holiness as for his noble bloodline, a Gaul by family origin but a native of Heaven.”
I gaze out of the smudged window at the volcano-shaped mounds of red earth beside the road – anthills as tall as a man – and I start to think.
Actually, all of us are natives of Heaven. Hmm. What would happen if I began to act like a native of Heaven? I’d probably speak with a recognizable “foreign accent.” People would know by my speech that I’m from somewhere else. The tones of kindness and patience in my voice would give my identity away. “Aha!” they’d say. “We know where you’re from!”
Benedict tells his monks, “Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way.” But he continues in the same sentence, telling them exactly how they should be different from others: “The love of Christ must come before all else.” If I carried myself the way Benedict suggests, with charity, trust, and humility, people would be able to recognize me as “an American by birth but a native of Heaven.” From a hundred yards away they could tell my real country of origin, or at least know that I’m “not from around here.” In fact, the gospel calls every Christian to be that way. We’re all natives of Heaven, after all.
We crunch onto the dirt service road and pull to a stop in front of a Japanese pharmacy that sits beside the road next to a Japanese store-restaurant in the middle of nowhere. An Asian couple climbs aboard, and we roar off, leaving billows of dust and smoke.
The sun is sinking behind clumps of blue clouds that float on the watery orange sky. A young boy on horseback rides like a ghostly shadow among the slender trunks of tall palms, their shaggy heads silhouetted black against the sleepy sunset.
It’s just about dark now in central Paraguay. Shouldn’t I be feeling lonely or sad or at least ill at east? After all, I am alone in a strange land, thousands of miles from home. But I don’t feel like a foreigner this evening. No, right now I sense that I’m a fellow citizen of everyone on this bus. Our passports say we’re from different countries, but we’re all, like that saintly priest Bonosus, natives of Heaven, and all on the road together, returning to our Heavenly homeland.
I flick off the dim reading lamp and peer out into the darkness. On the horizon is the first faint glow of the lights of Asunción.
The Lenten call to conversion challenges us to act according to our true identity – citizens of Heaven. What is there about your way of living that would tell people that you’re a citizen of Heaven? On the other hand, are there perhaps some ways in which you’ve begun to act instead like the people around you who think that Earth is all we get, and who are more interested in power and money?
Benedict insists that Lent be a community observance; in fact, he specifically forbids any monk to practice any kind of penance without the abbot’s permission, so that the season can be observed by “the entire community.” Lent, as he sees it, is not a time for retreating into a closed little world of God-and-me. Just the opposite: by calling us to works of charity, and by helping us to recognize our own sinfulness and our need for redemption, Lent reminds us of our common humanity with others.
Sacred Scripture (Philippians 3:18-20)
For many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conduct themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach; their glory is in their “shame.” Their minds are occupied with Earthly things. But our citizenship is in Heaven, and from it we also await a savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Rule of Benedict (Chapter 72, “The Good Zeal of Monks,” vv. 7-12)
No one is to pursue what he judges better for himself, but instead, what he judges better for someone else. To their fellow monks they show the pure love of brothers; to God, loving fear; to their abbot, unfeigned and humble love. Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us all together to everlasting life.