Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Vigil of Thanksgiving Day in the U.S.


It is the vigil of Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. and I find the atmosphere at the Jesuit Center on Jebel Hussein to be serene. I’m the only person in the building and not much activity is happening out on the streets. Some workers are setting up for the Abdali market below the Center, but the street noise on Al-Razi is quiet. I know I am projecting, but if feels like everyone is settling in for a quiet evening. The cold air (70 degrees) has hampered outdoor activities so the streets roll up earlier when darkness descends.

The Arab culture is aware of, but isn’t quite sure how to celebrate Thanksgiving. The markets sell frozen turkeys and all the ingredients that are used to make a traditional dinner. Fall decorations meagerly dot the mall-scapes, but there aren’t many maple or oak trees here so colored leaves are a foreign decoration for many families. I’m trying to make a few by doing some watercolors, but I am a novice at this craft.

Exteriorly, it will not feel like a holiday in Amman. We’ve been invited to dinner on Friday by a very kind parishioner, but the day itself will be devoid of football games, hearing about traffic jams, turkey drives, meals at shelters, and time with family and friends. We won’t have the two and a half days off that mark the fourth week of November, but we’ll make sure to slow down tomorrow. It is my favorite holiday of all.

I am not fretting what I don’t have because I feel very full from what I do have. I have your friendship and care to support me. I am grateful for the many emails, cards, and Skype sessions that have helped me in my transition during these two plus months. I am touched by your concern for my well-being and your interest in knowing what my life and ministry are like. I’m grateful for your prayers, especially in my three bouts of illness and during a confronting culture shock. You give me reason to thank God for each of you.

I feel like St. Paul in many of his salutations in his letters. This one is from Philippians.  “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ… And this is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more…” I feel like a missionary in the line of St. Paul.

I’ll tell you what I do miss. I miss being with you when you or a loved one is in the hospital or facing an uncertain medical test. I wish I could be there when a loved one has died or even when a pet had died. I miss sharing your sorrows and fears and your dreams, hopes, and achievements. I miss being there for your birthdays or significant celebrations. I miss singing in the chorus, landscaping, going to coffee houses or museums, and I miss retreat direction. I miss being there as each day passes and we grow a little older. I miss the ordinary things of being with you, having a phone conversation, or going out for a meal. I miss being with you in the ordinariness of your lives.

In our Constitutions, Ignatius and the first founders stress the importance of the “union of hearts and minds” of its members, and you are part of that extended family. I feel secure of that in my work. I’m proud of the many of you who support me and the Jesuit mission in prayer. This is not easy work. It is not an easy place to be. What is easy is that I know Jesus Christ is present to me and to the many people, Muslims, Jews, Christians, or otherwise, who are bearing with suffering or are caring for neighbor in a loving way. It is easy not to think of oneself when others are in such demand.

I am navigating my way. I have the solid support of the Jesuit community in Amman and in New England. I have four co-pastor friends who are my brothers in mission and I’m grateful for their hospitality and good counsel. I have dedicated parish leaders who want a vibrant, meaningful prayer and worship life. I see generous Christians who genuinely want to care for one another. I’m humbled by the goodness I see.

The Middle East is complex beyond belief. Sometimes portrayal of life here is too simplistic because many forces operate below the surface. Tension here is real. We are safe and we know there are undercurrents among the people that can go in any direction. We have solid planning in case anything harmful develops. We are prudent and we are not presumptuous. We know danger can surface in unexpected places, but we know that we, as American Catholics, are not targets of anger. The people are grateful for the work we do for its citizens. Much of the tension is between classes. In fact, many of the situations that are present in U.S. politics are present in this society.

The Amman mission is a “school of the heart.” It teaches one how to survive with limited resources. It causes us to dig deeper into ourselves and into the heart of Christ. We are a small group and we are dependent upon one another. Daily Mass and our one mission keep us united in fraternity. We want to preach the good news of the Risen Christ in a kingdom and region that accepts and tolerates Christians, but has governmental preferences and services for their Islamic citizens. It creates a way of life that I cannot yet describe.

The poor are all around. Refugees from Syria and Iraq and poor workers from Egypt come looking for subsistence work and safety. The tragedy with the poor is that they often do not know what resources are available to them to pull them up from their station in life. Too many make decisions that keep them in their current state or in a downward spiral. Regardless of who they are, I want them to know of the freedom and dignity that are available to them through God. I have no idea if I am making the right choices or making a difference. This is a place where effectiveness cannot be measured and I have to suspend many of my expectations and assumptions. I have no idea what my preaching does for people. The language barrier is immense, but I hope they can see the goodwill and the prayers I have for their happiness. Love and suffering. This is what we all have in common. Love and suffering.

I’ll end now. I just meant to give you a brief update and to say many, many thanks for your care and support. As I say Mass in the morning, I will lift all of you up in prayer. That should set your day right because I am eight hours ahead of you. Know that I will pray for the happiness and warmth of your gatherings tomorrow. I wish you and your loved ones many good moments throughout your day so that you can savor the great love that you have for one another – even in the midst of family arguments, estrangement, and heartbreak. It hurts a great deal because you care a great deal. Enjoy the small details of your day. Linger on the good that is there. I’ve witnessed a great deal of your goodness and I will tell Christ how happy I am to know you.

Thanksgiving blessings.

John