Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Inspiration from Magazines

We've received two college magazines, recently: one from Pomona College, which I attended during my freshman and sophomore years, and one from Gonzaga University, which David will begin attending this autumn.

In the Pomona magazine, I normally briefly scan the articles, look to see who has had a book published, and check on my class (and those around mine) for news of anyone I know. This time, I read an article that took my breath away, and I want to share part of it with you.

Though the gates of Pomona College have inscribed upon them this saying, "Let only the eager, thoughtful, and reverent enter here," I didn't see a lot of reverence in daily life.  On the other side of those gates is a farewell message: "They only are loyal to this college who, departing, bear their added riches in trust for mankind;" yet service and humility were not taught or modeled, in my young awareness. Perhaps I was too narrow-minded at the time to see properly; I thought I saw mainly ego and cut-throat competition. Yet I have been blessed by the first-class education I received there, and am deeply thankful for it.
I had been very sheltered growing up, and was naive to the ways of the world, when I was admitted to Pomona. I knew I was lucky to be there; I was admitted from the waiting list. Everyone student was near the top 10% of his/her class. If you were known as one of the "smart" ones in your home town, you were no big deal at Pomona; everyone was smart. Though I made some wonderful friends, and thought the quality of the teaching and the beautiful campus were great gifts, in my junior year, I transferred to a small, provincial (and academically inferior) Christian college, where I completed my degree in Fine Art. (My father was against this, and regrets my decision to this day; I suspect he may be right.)

The article in Pomona College Magazine, which you can read in full here, tells the story of a young Pomona graduate, Carlo Diy, who was moved by the disparity between the advantages he enjoyed and those without advantages in the larger world around him. The natural response, for him, was to go to Haiti; his first time was in January, 2007:
"He was assigned as a volunteer coordinator but also wrote for the charity’s website and taught English to the medical staff. His day-to-day duties ranged from the mundane to the grotesque. He helped unload large containers
of supplies and picked up people at the airport. But he also washed the lifeless bodies of children who died at the hospital at a rate of one per day. And he picked up the decomposing bodies of unclaimed dead at the city morgue, their rotting limbs sometimes pulling apart in his hands as he tried to lift them into cardboard coffins made by the agency’s orphans.
     Before too long, Father Rick’s words would haunt him. At one point, Diy himself was tempted to flee from Haiti and leave behind the people he was trying to help.
     The crisis came in April 2008, when riots again broke out in the capital, this time over soaring food prices. Monitoring the unrest became a part of Diy’s daily routine at Pediatric Hospital St. Damien Chateaublond, located in a compound near the airport, northeast of downtown, relatively removed from the turmoil.
Every afternoon, he’d run up to the roof scanning the skies for columns of black smoke, the signals that vandalism, looting and violence may be getting closer. From his provisional watchtower, the nervous lookout fashioned a pragmatic
defense for any scared shepherd who puts self-preservation above saving his flock.
   He’s “the kind of shepherd who wants to see his family again. And surf El Porto in Manhattan Beach again. And learn to drive stick-shift. And maybe have kids someday,” wrote Diy in a blog under the title “Brutally Honest Corner” posted on
his Haiti website, “I’d love to be a hero, but I’ve made promises to the people I love. I’m not dying here.”
   Diy completed his full 18 months before returning safely to Southern California two months later, in June 2008. But the suffering he had seen still assaulted his senses. The repugnant smell of death, the wail of a grieving mother, the heart-rending routine of lifting the spirits of sick children only to watch them die. He had trouble reconciling two realities, one of comfort and excess, one of constant misery. There were days back home in the peaceful L.A. suburb of El Segundo when he found it hard to get out of bed, and all he could do was cry.
   Then the massive quake struck Haiti on Jan. 12. As the disaster unfolded, Diy started receiving news that some of his friends had died or been injured in the collapse of the charity’s former hospital building. He felt so useless sitting at home so far away. When he heard from fellow volunteers around the world who were rushing back to help in the recovery, he knew he had to join them. “You can’t claim to be any kind of a friend when something like that happens, if you don’t go and do something, at least to show up and show solidarity.”
   The entries in his daily diaries after the quake are filled with the horror of the destruction, and an intensified, trembling anguish over the near-hopelessness of the situation. On Feb. 6 he wrote: “I can’t help but keep thinking that there are only two types of people in the world—those who will give their lives in the service of something, like making Haiti more livable, and those who will not.”
   But in his journal he also turns to his faith: “Mass was all about Calvary. Jesus took the worst possible torturous death and opened up to us everlasting life. … Father said that’s why you go to Jean Joseph’s crushed house where you can smell the stench of his unfound, decaying brothers and sisters … and say a Mass. That’s what we do as Christians, to stand at Calvary and try to redeem a terrible situation.”
I was inspired to read about this young man whose spiritual and intellectual riches are truly being lived out, just as the founders of the college had hoped. May he be blessed, and continue to share his gifts with the world which needs his spirit so much.

On the last page of the Gonzaga magazine is an article, written by a journalist alumna, discussing the Spiritual Exercises created by St. Ignatius of Loyola and their specific impact on her life. She quotes this prayer by Ignatius:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty
my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.
You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.
She writes further: "It's a radical prayer in this contemporary age, when we believe we can control most things with intellect and will. My father taught at GU's law school for 45 years, yet his intellect and his memories were annihilated by diesease. The prayer acknowledged my father's unique reality..." This insight is a gem of reality and humility.

I am already being blessed by this Jesuit university, even before our son takes his place there, as a freshman in the class of 2014. I'm thankful, and am looking forward to learning all that God wants to teach through this gift of a continuing education.

Finally (and on a much lighter note), I subscribe to Vanity Fair magazine, and must share a tidbit. In this month's issue, there is an excerpt from Christopher Hitchens' new autobiography. I am not a fan of Hitchens. I think he is terribly self-important and I disagree with many of his views; however, there are some fabulously funny quotes from his friends in the book. My favorite is a quote from Clive James about "an encounter with some bore with famous halitosis:" " 'By this time his breath was undoing my tie.' " Do admit: it's mean, but funny. And one more, about a book that Mr. James found to be terribly boring: " 'Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.' " 
Though I find this sort of comment hilarious, it's very unkind, and I sincerely hope that no one so critical will ever review my writing.


Karen said...

I'm at the place right now that's a terrible form of fatalism--"there's no fixing this broken world". Why try? I know intuitively that it's not right, but can't seem to fight my way through it. I like seeing how others deal with overwhelming suffering and admire those who get up and do something about it. I pray that one day I will be that person again. Pray for me, Karen.

P.S. Gonzaga will be wonderful for both you and David! How exciting!

Elizabeth said...

Karen, the blogger -- This was a beautiful post with so much richness to ponder. Which is what I'm going to do right now --

Elizabeth said...

Karen (the commenter) -- Karen of this blog sent me the following comment from the Talmud that I found immensely helpful:

Do not be overwhelmed by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

karen gerstenberger said...

Karen, I've sent you an email. XOXO

Kay said...

Wow! Where to begin on this post. It is hard to comprehend the differences.. plenty and poverty. Why? Why them? Why not me?

Sounds like David has a wonderful adventure ahead of him at a wonderful school! : )

Love your ending quotes. Too funny! :)

Tracey Axnick said...

Love this post, Karen. It's wonderful when you see someone reaching out and "becoming" Jesus' hands and feet. I love that.

Like you, I'm not a fan of Hitchens' either (He was Jon Stewart's guest on the Daily Show the other night... talk about self-aborption! wow....)

BUT the thought of halitosis being so bad as to undo one's tie....? Pretty funny... I think he might have also been referring to my sweet (but chronically halitosis plagued) dog Ruby. :)

Congrats to David going to Gonzaga - excellent school!