A journey through nature

Part 3_Photo 5_field in gold_sized for blogThe Camino de Santiago Experience of a Divine Word Missionary
(Part 3 of 5)

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

The journey continues as Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD walks El Camino de Santiago and absorbs the beauty of God’s creation. During the summertime, as many as 1,500 pilgrims reach the cathedral per day. In this third installment, Marlon ponders the impact of the journey.

Being an early riser gave me an advantage when I traveled as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago in Northern Spain. I am one who habitually wakes up early in the day and feels energetic.

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On the pilgrimage, many seekers woke up early to begin walking before sunrise. On several consecutive mornings, our group began walking in the darkness of the cold morning. In predawn, we could not see our surrounding. I followed our lead, who carried a flashlight as a guide. I was scared walking alone in the dark.

I maintained a close proximity to my companion so I would not get lost in the middle of the forest. At one point, I did not notice that my group was far ahead of me. I missed the sign and lost the right path. I’m grateful to my fellow pilgrim who came back to find me. I did not want to be alone in darkness.

What I enjoyed most about beginning our walk early in the morning was the chance to witness the amusing first light in the sky before sunrise. I fell in love with the marvelous scenery as the sunlight gradually filled the sky. The horizon dramatically unfolded its beauty before my eyes.

It seemed like the fields, mountain, trees and animals rejoiced with the pilgrims. What a wonderful mystery nature is! The dynamics of nature teach us to journey out of darkness towards the light.

Part 3_Photo 4_Mass at chapel

Some pilgrims came to the Camino with a weak faith. They were longing for God’s companionship and seeking direction in their faith life. One afternoon while attending Mass in a parish church, I was moved by a woman who began weeping upon hearing the Scripture reading. The tears that flowed down the woman’s face the moment she heard the Word of God reminded me how the sacred Scriptures serve as a guiding light and the comforting presence of God during dark moments.

During the Camino, pilgrims give themselves a chance to acknowledge and allow God to be more closely present to them. As Saint Arnold Janssen said, we know that we cannot solve all problems with the strength we now possess, but we hope that the dear God will grant us all that is necessary. For we know God is there, and we always know where we can find God, where God allows Himself to be found and is waiting for us.

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The backpack

Part 2_Photo 3_Bunch of backpacks_sized for blog bannerThe Camino de Santiago Experience of a Divine Word Missionary
(Part 2 of 5)

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD, who is completing his Cross-Cultural Training Program in Spain, continues his series on El Camino de Santiago. He walked the pilgrims’ route with a group from parishes that he served in Madrid. In Part II, he muses on the baggage that we all carry.

The Camino may not be easy and fun for those who hate walking long distances while carrying a heavy backpack. I can imagine the suffering of those who are impatient when dealing with unexpected and inconvenient situations. These matters are not a bother, though, for pilgrims who long for a Camino experience that is one-of-a-kind, special and indelible on one’s heart.

A meaningful Camino is attainable when a pilgrim pays attention to his or her surroundings, such as signs, people, feelings, thoughts, desires, intuitions, desires and encounters along the way.

My backpack made all the difference in my Camino experience. I was grateful that a friend lent his durable backpack to me. I intentionally brought only basic and essential items: a fleece jacket, hat, toiletries, towel, raincoat, flashlight, sleeping bag, a pair of dry-fit shirts, shorts, socks and undergarments. I did not want my back and shoulders to suffer from the heavy load.

Other pilgrims possessed a variety of backpacks. They carried backpacks that varied in color, size, shapes and brands. Seeing the pilgrims walking in front me with their different and colorful backpack was like watching butterflies. Some backpacks were filled with only important content to help them survive the journey.

Pilgrims often consider their backpacks their best companion because it is with them most of the time. There were, however, some pilgrims who suffered and complained about their bags. There were those who did not properly pack. Along the way, I saw personal items, such as shoes, shirts and sleeping bags, lying on the side of the road.

To me, the backpacks depicted the burdens of life. They represented health issues, family problems, financial responsibilities, relationship conflicts, job concerns, identity crises, and the list goes on. Each of us has concerns, burdens and challenges in our daily lives. Like the pilgrims’ backpacks, we carry the burdens of life on our shoulders. Most of us have experienced that point where we feel that the burden is too cumbersome and we can no longer bear it.

There were some groups that traveled without a backpack. They hired a carrier service to transfer their backpack to the next destination and freed themselves from the burden of carrying a heavy backpack during the walk. Some might say that the ability to carry a loaded backpack on our shoulders shapes and molds a person into a true pilgrim. Others might say that each of us must learn to understand our own limitations.

We need someone, such as our family, relatives and friends, not necessarily to carry our burdens but to assist us. Above all, we must humble ourselves to embrace the truth that we need God in our lives. Let us live out the words of Saint Arnold Janssen, “To humble yourself truly and deeply before God and others is the best way to receive the divine light and help for the future.”

The quest and the questions

Part 1_Photo 3_Are you a seeker sign_sized for blog bannerThe Camino de Santiago experience of a Divine Word Missionary
(Part 1 of 5)

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Frater Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD, who is completing his Cross-Cultural Training Program in Spain, is an enthusiast of sacred and religious places. When he heard that the remains Saint James the Apostle are believed to be kept in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, he jumped at the chance to partake in El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), a pilgrimage to the site. He shares his journey in this five-part series. We invite you to begin the journey.

El Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s oldest pilgrimage routes, a journey across Northern Spain toward the Cathedral of Santiago in Galicia, where pilgrims can view and venerate the apostle’s tomb.

Like many pilgrims, I entered into the Camino in hopes that the walk would deepen my spiritual growth and transform my life. Along the way, I also met cyclists and hikers who were simply seeking an adventure.

Some individuals journeyed alone while others preferred to journey with a group. I walked with a youth group called Verbo Joven from one of our Divine Word parishes. The group consisted of 26 individuals—18 teenagers, four parents, two priests and two seminarians. While we hiked as one community with a shared goal, each of us had a different and significant reason for partaking in the Camino de Santiago.

The week before I left for the Camino, a confrere visited me in Madrid. As we caught up on each other’s lives, he repeated the following phrase several times: “My brother, do not lose Him.”

His message baffled me as I prepared to leave for the trip. As I pondered his words, more questions began to emerge in my mind:

My God, am I losing You in my life?”

“Am I walking away from You?”

“Am I happy with the level and quality of my relationship with You, my Lord?”

At that point, I could not answer those questions with any certainty. I happened to begin the Camino on the second anniversary of a special occasion in my life—my profession of vows as a Divine Word Missionary.

I looked back and reflected on the many things that have transpired during the past few years. The Camino signs along the path, showing the distance to Santiago, reminded me of the many crossroads in my vocation journey.

Thinking about my life in Spain—learning another foreign language, adapting to the lifestyle and culture, and understanding the faith life of the people—has helped me become more conscious of my discernment of the religious missionary life and whether it is truly the life that I want to live.

Questions are a natural part of life. During the Camino pilgrimage, each time I saw a sign indicating the distance to the destination, I asked, “How many kilometers left?” I kept asking the same question again and again. I realized that every time I asked the question, I received a different answer. Whenever I saw the sign with the distance, I knew that I was getting closer to my destination.

In Christian life, we also have lots of questions particularly about the quality of our lives and how we see God’s role and involvement in our lives. Sadly, many of us who have confusing and troubling questions might become weak in our faith in God.

The Camino gave me precious time for meditation. Where do we come from? Where are we going? What must we do? I thought of so many life questions that lead me closer to God. When we are overwhelmed with life’s questions, let us be still. God is there waiting for us to be open to His great revelation.

Saint Arnold Janssen said, through meditation, our inner life will be made perfect. This is very hard work and is a task for our whole life. Therefore, let us strive after it unflinchingly through cooperation with divine grace to reach perfection.

Advent: Presence in sacred waiting

Advent blog_Our presence_Dec 2017

by Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

When I was six, I had an unforgettable experience that left an imprint on me. Due to miscommunication, my parents failed to pick me up after school.

I would have risked going home by myself, but it was already dark and I did not know the way. I was terribly scared. This event happened in the days before cellphones. The school office was closed. I had no choice other than to wait.

I did not cry. However, I felt helpless and alone. That childhood experience impacted my attitude growing up. My trust became fragile. Consequently, I developed the “I’m in charge” and “let me handle it” attitude. I became independent to a fault. I took control and manipulated situations to avoid anxiety in waiting.

There are moments throughout our lives when we find ourselves waiting in frustration. Despite our efforts for better outcomes, we feel stuck in situations that nobody wants. In as much as we want to quickly ease the pain we face, we find ourselves lost, not knowing how to manage ourselves.

People who recently have relationship breakups struggle; they sometimes need time to help them regain their self-worth. Individuals recovering from addiction tussle to keep themselves sober. Families with a seriously ill member sometimes fight with one another due to financial burdens, care-giving concerns and emotional distress. With a desire to give their children a better life, many single parents are exhausted, having two jobs to make ends meet.

Often, it’s impossible to fix our life problems in a short time span. We sometimes have to struggle under agonizing circumstances for quite a while. The perplexity of everyday life might make us doubt the presence of God. We might live as if there is no God.

The season of Advent is a sacred waiting period. When observed, the season makes us aware of our ongoing journey into a deeper reality. We can learn how to travel the journey with the examples of our faith models in the Advent narratives, people who prayerfully experienced sacred waiting.

In the Gospel of Luke, the old Zechariah and Elizabeth, felt hopelessness while waiting to have a child. Yet, they remained righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees. After waiting for a long time, an angel sent by God said: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall name him John” (Luke 1:13). Zechariah, Elizabeth and John show us the divine work of God in a family who stays together in sacred waiting.

Joseph may have been disillusioned, resentful and afraid when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy. He could have followed his immediate plan of quietly sending her away. Instead, he took time to discern. In a dream, an angel of God told him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21). He gained courage to follow God’s salvation plan.

Mary opened herself to God’s will by accepting the Archangel Gabriel’s words, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus” (Luke 1:30-31). Selflessly, Mary said yes to God’s call. Her acceptance of God’s will encourages us to wait in confident assurance. Regardless of the difficulties that lie ahead, God will never abandon us.

We might be afraid of the uncertainty. Advent reminds us not to be afraid to bring ourselves before God. We are invited to recognize again God’s existence.

We are summoned to reflect and be present in sacred waiting. As we journey through the Advent season, let us bring our minds, hearts and spirits into contemplative awareness before God. When we bring our worries and burdens to God, time is nothing.

Theologian Ronald Rolheiser wrote, “To give birth to what’s divine requires the slow patience of gestation.” Advent has come. Spend time to reflect on your meaningful experiences of waiting. Pray to God for help in recognizing His divine presence in your sacred waiting.

Advent actions for busy people

Blog_Advent reflection_Dec 2017 Five practices for a meaningful and grace-filled Advent
By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

Advent, the period when Catholics prepare for the birth of our Lord and reflect on the Second Coming of Christ, is a time of great anticipatory joy. However, it also can be a challenge for those of us who aren’t practiced in the art of waiting.

Most people don’t want to be on a waiting list. We have developed a rush-hour mentality—expecting swift messaging, express shipping, instant cooking recipes, high-speed Internet connections and quick passes to avoid long lines in amusement parks. Many of us have short attention spans.

Due to our preoccupation, we don’t always notice how our fast-paced, high-tech world has conditioned our minds to accomplish tasks as quickly as possible. This season, let us purposefully slow down and reflect.

Let the Good News lead to a healthier lifestyle. Allow me to share some of the practices that I hope will help make your Advent journey a blessed one.

Visit someone who longs for your presence and needs your service.
After receiving the good news from the Archangel Gabriel, our Blessed Mother Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth to share the joy of being chosen to bear the Son of God. Mary stayed with Elizabeth, who also was pregnant. She went not only because she longed to see her cousin but also to provide assistance to her.
Presence with service is one of the best gifts we can offer to others. You can bestow the gift of presence upon a family member, friend or colleague. Or you can go to a prison, hospital, senior home, orphanage or homeless center.

Keep a daily Advent journal.
In the Bible, prior to the Annunciation, prophets foretold the birth of Jesus, the Messiah. Jeremiah prophesied of the Messiah. Isaiah spoke about the ruler. Micah said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. They are three among other prophets who foretold the birth of Jesus. In their writings, they described their deepest desires, longings and hopes for the coming of Jesus.
We can do the same. We can crystalize our thoughts and feelings about our waiting and preparation for the coming of Jesus by journaling. Your journal entries can be as simple as a word, phrase or sentence. You may want to use a daily devotional book for Advent to guide you. Committing your excitement, frustrations, achievements and struggles to paper can deepen the experience of Advent.

Be imaginative and create your own Advent masterpiece.
Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem and looked for a place to stay.
Other than that, we don’t know much about their journey, their period of waiting and preparation for the birth of Jesus. However, Advent is full of signs and symbols with profound meanings: candles, wreaths, trees, stars. These symbols serve as windows to God. They give us a glimpse into the mystery of the Divine. Creating art can help you fill in the blanks. You can draw, paint, sculpt, or crochet. During the process, reflect upon ways that you can welcome Jesus into your heart. Producing artwork can help you direct your mind and heart in the spirit of season. God can transform these ordinary objects into gifts of grace. We, too, are transformed in making art. Try it! You may be surprised by what you can imagine.

Participate in an Advent retreat or reconciliation service.
When Zechariah, Joseph, and Mary encountered God’s angels each one responded with humility and acknowledged their unworthiness.
Advent is time for us to reflect on renewing our relationship with God. It is an opportunity to look back and reflect on all the things that have happened throughout the year. Surely, there are many things that we did of which we are proud. There were also times when we stumbled in our lives, times that made us feel broken and unworthy. Local parishes often organize Advent retreats and common reconciliation services to help the faithful to prepare spiritually. Our participation is a great gift to Jesus.

Attend the Eucharist daily during Advent.
The Scripture readings during Advent offer wisdom and understanding of our Christian faith life.
We go to Mass not for pep talks and entertainment but for real-life transformation. We go to Mass not to feel good but to be blessed by God’s goodness. Our presence in the Holy Eucharist is a sacred moment during which we experience inner connection between expectation and the fulfillment of our waiting. In the Eucharist, we see and feel Jesus’ presence. It nurtures our longing and strengthens our hope. If we allow ourselves to remain still in the Eucharist, we realize that we are not waiting for Jesus’ coming. Rather, Jesus is waiting for our response to His Divine love.

No matter how fast-paced and hectic our daily schedule, we should find time and seek occasions in which we can pause, breathe, wait and be blessed by God’s grace. Advent season offers time to slow down and the opportunity to experience waiting—preparing ourselves for Jesus in a profound and spiritual manner. May the grace of Advent be with us all!

Generation Z and spiritual companions

Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels

By Marlon Bobier Vargas SVD

What is All Saints’ Day? How many Catholics remember that Nov. 1 is a holy day of obligation? Young people who belong to Generation Z (those born after 1993) might not even know that there is a day to recognize and honor the lives and works of saints, both known and unknown.

Some people claim that saints are irrelevant in today’s fast-paced, high-tech and secularized society. The influence of advertising has urged Generation Z to strive to follow their most-admired personalities on social media. They want to know all the nitty-gritty details about the personal lives of celebrities—the more personal the details, the better.

For Catholics of all generations, however, saints of yore and even contemporary saints can be admired personalities from whom we benefit by learning of their virtuous lives. Devotion to saints can grow from understanding the Apostles’ Creed, a component of the Catholic Mass. Let us not simply say, “I believe in the communion of saints” without a deeper knowledge of its meaning.

The term “saints” encompasses the church’s triumphant (all the souls in heaven), the church’s suffering (the souls in purgatory), and the church’s militant (those of us who are still on earth, aiming at sanctity). The unique and special communion depicts and upholds the sense of an all-embracing and belongingness in the community God.

We are all called to partake in the universal call for holiness, especially those who are here on earth. In a 2014 General Audience, Pope Francis said, “It is by living with love and offering Christian witness in our daily tasks that we are called to become saints…. Always and everywhere you can become a saint, that is, by being receptive to the grace that is working in us and leads us to holiness.”

Studies about Generation Z indicate that they seek something that enables them to feel like they are making a difference in the world. Responding to the call of holiness is indeed a way to make a difference. Why not take the path of saints?

Here are some ideas:

Let a saint be part of your life. Each life story of a saint gives us profound and inspiring thoughts on how to serve and follow God. There are many free apps, such as The Saint of the Day, that offer short and easy-to-read information about the life and work of a saint. Find out which aspects of the saint’s life you could relate to such as the things you have in common or how the saint developed his/her relationship with God.

Be unique. Nowadays, being unique is trendy. How about making your prayer life unique? Saint Teresa of Avila offers writings on how to develop and grow in our prayer life. Saint Ignatius of Loyola teaches us the way of discernment. Embrace global diversity by following Saint Francis Xavier who shows us how to deal with challenges in foreign missions. Feel lost and don’t know how to move forward from a dark past? Saint John of the Cross enlightens us on how to deal with dark and painful experiences. Saints are human beings, who like us, had joys, sorrows, weaknesses and problems during their times on earth. We can learn a lot from the saints.

Visit a parish. Every parish has a patron saint whose feast day is celebrated annually. Celebrating the feast of the patron saint of a parish helps not only to strengthen the identity of the parish, but it gives parishioners knowledge about the life and works of the saint, which can help them grow in their own Christian faith. If there is an opportunity, visit the sacred and religious sites that are significant in the lives of the saints, such as their birthplaces, churches where they were baptized, schools where they studied, communities where they worked, shrines, tombs, and other sites consecrated for worship or ritual.

Go on a pilgrimage. These are also awe-inspiring places connected to saints where they were born, baptized, educated, worked or buried. Other sacred places mark where miracles or visions were reported. Seeing these places in person help us deepen our belief that a life in holiness is possible. One example is the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Saint James the Great in Galicia, Spain. In Portugal, you can visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, where Pope Francis recently canonized Jacinta and Francisco, two of the three children who witnessed the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In North America, you can visit Saint Anne de Beaupré Basilica in Quebec, the National Shrine of St. John Neumann in Philadelphia, the National Shrine of St. Francis Xavier Cabrini in Chicago or the National Shrine of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos in New Orleans.

Pray through the intercession of saints. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church conveys, the saints in heaven are much closer to God than those of us still on earth. “The merciful love of God and his saints is always attentive to our prayers.” (No. 962) Therefore, we ask our family and friends in heaven to pray for us, to hand deliver our prayers to God.

Borrow from the saints. Sometime, we are overwhelmed by the trials we face in life. We seek words to articulate our thoughts and express our feelings. During those times, we can express our petition to God through the prayers of saints, such as “make me an instrument of your peace,” a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. When we are frightened and terrified by darkness in our society, let us pray with St. Arnold Janssen, the founder of the Society of the Divine Word and two communities of religious women: “May the darkness of sin and night of unbelief vanish before the light of the Word and the spirit of grace, and may the heart of Jesus live in the hearts of all. Amen.”

Sainthood comes to those who selflessly offered their lives to God. Members of Generation Z are characterized as self-starters and more accepting of others. To them, I say, why not include a saint in your life? Accept what a saint can offer you and be transformed. Regardless of generation, with the grace of God, let us all strive to live out our call to be saints here on earth.