Dear Family and Friends,
I recently visited a most incredible place; the world-famous Canaíma National Park, which boasts a stunning collection of upland prairies, table-top mountains (called ‘tepuis’), forests and waterfalls—together known as the Gran Sabana. It was a three-day trip that I took with two other missionary priests of the diocese, one from Poland and the other from Guatemala.
At a certain point, I found myself standing at a Venezuelan military checkpoint with a skeptical soldier rifling through my backpack looking for contraband. He did not appear to be in a friendly mood and simply kept repeating under his breath, “American, huh?” The first item of interest he found was my Spanish Bible which he proceeded to leaf through meticulously one page at a time. “It’s a Bible,” I said, and for a moment I considered asking him whether he cared to read it, but I thought that might be pushing my luck.
The next item he found certainly appeared to be more incriminating. “What’s this?” he asked, as he held up a small metal cylinder which, I had to admit to myself, did in fact look suspiciously like a shell-casing or a small grenade. It was my travel-size aspergilium—used to sprinkle holy water during liturgies—which I had forgotten was in my bag. As I awkwardly tried to explain it to the soldier, I unscrewed the cap and proceeded to demonstrate its function by sprinkling holy water throughout the small office. He looked on in silence, evidently nonplussed. The soldiers ended up letting us pass through and I suppose that it was the first (and probably last) time that their checkpoint had been blessed with holy water.
Somewhat forgetfully, and perhaps naively (well, in retrospect, most certainly naively) I had failed to bring along with me any form of identification, such as my passport or driver’s license, thinking that I would not need them when traveling within the country. Yet, about every 100 km or so on our drive we had to pass through a checkpoint, and while most were either unstaffed or barely more than a speed-bump in the road, the soldiers at the checkpoint leading into the national park—who obviously took their job more seriously—asked to see our identification. Fr. Tadeo, the Pole, calmly told the soldier in charge that he and Fr. Antonio were priests working in the diocese of Ciudad Guayana, and that the deacon, who was visiting for the summer from the United States, had not brought any identification with him. To that, the soldier retorted, “That’s a lie. That’s a lie. An American without any papers? I can’t believe that.” Fr. Tadeo calmly answered, “Let me tell you, neither can I, but it’s the truth.” Thanks Father, I thought.
Fr. Tadeo, who had recently visited the Twin Cities along with Fr. Schaffer, went on to explain to the soldier that I was from Minnesota, where all the people are so nice and trusting that they never carry any papers with them. Not entirely accurate, but flattering nonetheless, I suppose. In any case, it seemed to work and the crisis was averted.
Aside from that little misadventure we had a wonderful time on our trip to the Gran Sabana. The place is truly one of the world’s wonders, looking like a strange mix of the African savannah, the American West, and the green hills of Ireland—all interspersed with patches of jungle and cascading waterfalls. Apparently most geologists believe it is one of the oldest landscapes on earth, which, along with the primeval beauty of the place, makes one understand why it was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 literary classic, The Lost World. If ever there were a place where dinosaurs could still be found to roam the earth, this would certainly be it.
The climate in the Gran Sabana is much more temperate than that of San Felix, which was a welcome relief. There is one main highway leading through the heart of the park, which we explored at a leisurely pace, stopping at a few waterfalls and scenic vistas along the way.
As we traveled around and were treated to the wonders of nature, I found myself reflecting with joy and thanksgiving in my heart that God should have brought me to such a place. For those of you who don’t know me as well, I spent much of my childhood watching the Discovery Channel and wanting to be a biologist in some wild, far away place like Africa or the Amazon Rainforest—and now, here I was, under circumstances I could never have predicted. In choosing to pursue God’s call to priestly service, I suppose in some ways I had believed that meant ‘giving up’ such dreams in order to follow His will. Yet God, in His infinite goodness and personal care for each one of us, marvelously finds ways to fulfill even the smallest desires of our hearts even as He calls forth from us a greater and more perfect love. It brings to mind the words of Our Lord, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matt. 6:33). So often the acceptance of a vocation is portrayed merely as an act of self-denial and sacrifice on our parts—where in fact it is a pure gift to us from God, the One who is never to be outdone in
Such are the adventures which, in God’s providence, I have been able to experience in the last three weeks or so of my time here at the Archdiocesan mission in San Felix,Venezuela.
More to come!