Monday, April 21, 2014

Dear family and friends,

I send you the most special of Easter greetings!  I hope that the joy and freedom of Christ fills your lives in a special way this Easter Season.

My Easter weekend in La Victoria was a beautiful and exhausting experience. But for your benefit, I will content myself with the Easter Vigil experience, although Holy Thursday and Good Friday were both wonderful as well.

After some discussion with my housemates Annelie and Kristina (Eliud being with her family this week) we decided to go to the Easter Vigil Mass Saturday night, and then have a special breakfast Sunday morning.  I attended an Easter Vigil Mass two years ago, but this was a different experience entirely, as you might guess.

Good Friday afternoon when the service was finished, the priest reminded us all that the Vigil Mass would begin precisely at 10pm Saturday night on the property of the Schoenstatt Sisters.  The German girls and I exchanged incredulous glances, as the service itself that day had begun 45 minutes late, as customary for events.  After a time, we know that any event or meeting will start from 15 to 40 minutes late, but we can´t help ourselves from arriving on time, just in case.

That night, accordingly, the three of us stood outside our house, armed with candles and cameras.  For some reason, this time people took the priest seriously.  For about an hour ahead of time until 10pm, the congregation came to the area to wait. Luckily for us, the gathering was in the driveway right after Casa Maria, our house and we found a spot in which we thought we could see.

Two minutes after 10, we began the Mass with the blessing of fire.  All of a sudden, the space between the small bonfire and the people was nonexistent.  I could barely see anything, but thanks to the priest´s handy-dandy little truck, I could hear it very clearly!  Due to the walks and different church activities, his beat up pick-up is equipped with a microphone and speakers.  Anyway, very shortly, the Easter candle was lit and the people from the front shared their light with others, and in a few minutes the whole crowd had lit candles.  Some were big, some were small, others decorated, kind of like the people who held them.

Slowly, we processed from the Schoenstatt Grounds to the parish church, a walk of about two blocks.  For the entire time, we were singing the refrain of a song about Christ the light of the world, as the cantor belted out verses on the microphone.  I have to admit, I was afraid for my hair.  There were so many people, children, teens, adults, and elderly, each with their own candle, and we were all walking pretty close to one and other.  But, I made it through without incident and arrived at the church unsinged.

The Sisters had warned us that we should bring chairs from the house, as they also did, because the chance of getting a seat in one of the pews was small.  So, Annelie, Kristina and I all brought chairs.  Long story short, I ended up standing in the back of the church, along with many who had not brought chairs.  The aisles, empty spaces and yard also had extra people who did not fit in the pews. After the priest processed into the sanctuary with the Easter candle, the people quickly followed in, filling the space with bodies, the air with smoke from their candles, and the room with their light.

Note: It is rare to have complete silence here at any event at all.  Really.  I went to a funeral, wedding, baptism, prayer events, Mass, and for each one there are always people talking.  Ideally, according to the man speaking on the microphone that night, we would have had silence coming into the church, but that was an impossibility, as we all knew well.

The Mass commenced with an upbeat song led by the Schoenstatt Sisters and was then followed by the readings.  I did not remember this from my other Vigil experience, but I will never, ever forget this one.  We had eight readings from the Old and New Testament, interspersed with prefaces, prayers, and psalms.  My feet ached!  I had made the dreadful mistake of wearing new blue sandals for Easter, whereas I should have known better by now.  Hah. Silly me. After each time the priest and people stood up, I expected the Gospel reading, but it was only for a prayer and then the rest of the people sat down again.

When it was finally time for the Gospel, I had abandoned caution and removed my sandals, putting them under a chair along with my candle, which had finally blown out in the wind from the open door behind me. There were so many people that I could not take a step backwards or to the side for fear of trampling a neighbor, and two ladies were seated in chairs in front of me.  Sadly, although I understood the Gospel and homily at the time, now I can´t remember what they were.  I think that it was somewhere around midnight at that point, and I had been awake for the last 18 hours, so my standing position actually providential in that I was not in danger of dropping off to sleep.  Although, that would have been near impossible.

Then, after the Gospel, we dove right into the sequence of prayers for the Church, fellow Christians, Jews, all people, those in need, governments, and everyone else.  Then, we renewed our Baptismal promises, which was fun in Spanish, and in memorial of our Baptism, we were sprinkled with holy water.  I say sprinkled, but perhaps should say drenched.  The priest is of a charismatic personality and does nothing by halves.  He had a bunch of branches that he used to throw water over the congregation.  As the choir sang out Agua Viva, he traversed the church thoroughly, water at hand.  When he came to the  very back, where many of us were packed standing, he passed right in front of me.  As the space was small, he was maybe a foot away from me.  He looked directly at me and SPLASH.  Shower time!  And so it continued.

Randomly, throughout the Mass, either the choir or the priest would call for an applause for Christ, and the church would ring with the clapping hands as the people sprang to their feet to celebrate their King´s resurrection.  And at the sign of peace, when we wish each other Christ´s peace as he himself did, complete strangers embrace each other as friends as goodwill overflowed.

The offertory, where the gifts of bread and wine are generally offered to be changed to the Body and Blood of Christ, was special.  There were more items presented, each one with a significance that was announced as it was presented.  We had flowers to symbolize the beauty of creation and the blossoming of life within us, food for the sustenance God provides, a Bible, water, and many more things.  I love symbolism, and this way of thanking God while giving back His gifts was an interesting way to think of ordinary things in a different light.

After communion and the final blessing, we sang the final song with much gusto.  

The music for this Mass was amazing Dominican hymns complete with guitars, keyboard, tambourines and drums.  The choir´s enthusiastic harmonies added to the general beauty.  I don´t know if I had mentioned this earlier, but we don´t have missalettes or songbooks.  For the songs, the choir leads and for the most part the people know the songs.  If not, by the third refrain, we have the gist of it and can at least join in.

If I had to describe the music in a word, I am not sure what I would say.  Enthusiastic?  Inspired?  Catchy?  Strong?  Loud?  In reality, it was all that and much more. Especially for the Mass responses the crowd sang with such enthusiasm that you would have thought they had waited all of Lent for those moments.  Clapping, swaying, waving, are all normal expressions of participation in the music.  Even if the words escape you, you can still keep time by clapping.

And the last song was no exception! The choir outdid itself for the last song; there was clapping, swaying, waving, the full participation of everyone.  It was so filled with Easter joy and triumph that people were literally dancing down the aisle on the way out.  No kidding!  And loud! 1AM and whole families, elderly and all of us were going strong.  If the Apostles had enthusiasm like them, I can see how they conquered the world for Christ. A friend next to me screamed a Happy Easter but I could barely tell.

So by the time we finished at the church, it was 1:15 AM Easter morning!  Whew!  What a vigil!  Kristina, Annelie and I walked back, carrying our chairs, the songs still ringing in our ears.  The guard at the Nutrition Center, which is on the Schoenstatt Sisters´grounds, told us that he could clearly hear the Mass from two blocks away.  Not a surprise.

Sr. Lucia invited us to the Shrine, where the Sisters would sing the Regina Coeli.  It was beautiful!  The priest had followed to hear it as well, and then wished the Sisters and us a blessed Easter and goodnight!

A few more minutes passed as we exchanged Easter greetings with the Sisters.  By this time, our 6pm dinner was only a memory, and Kristina told me that I had to understand that although we would still eat together later that morning, it was time to eat then.  so, we had bread in the kitchen before we attempted to go to bed at 2:30 or so.  I still had cards to write, so I was up until 4 Easter morning. Did I eat a jellybean or two?  You can bet that I did!

So yes, in conclusion it was a long, but probably one of the most beautiful Masses that I have ever attended.  The music, people, and liturgy made for a heavenly experience :)

Later, Annelie woke me to an Easter feast.  There were only three of us, but we had each prepared something for each other, and then the Sisters had given us more things, so we had sweet bread, lamb cakes, German cookies and muffins, my banana muffins, bread, maizena (a breakfast pudding) and fruit.  It would have been enough for days!  As we ate, we discussed our different family traditions, both as individuals and by country.  It is so interesting to hear about how we celebrate. Dominican, German, American; but all children of God and therefore a family.

In the long Vigil Mass, I offered it specially for my family and for all those who have touched my life  in any way or will in the future.  Chances are, if you are reading this, it was offered for you. Thank you!  Blessed Easter to all!  I keep all of your intentions in prayer here.  I hope that each of you had a restful day with family and friends.  God bless you all!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dear friends and family,

Part Two: The Return. Guess what?  I am back in the Dominican Republic!  After four months of Wisconsin winter, I decided to come back to volunteer in the Nutrition Center for a month before I start school in August.  Long story short, I have begun another chapter here in La Victoria.

To add to the fun, I wanted to surprise my old housemates, Eliud and Annelie, so I requested that the Schoenstatt Sisters refrain from telling them that I was coming.  Instead, they were told that an American girl was going to stay for a month and that her name was Marie.

The flight was fairly uneventful from Chicago to New York, but after arriving in Santo Domingo, I encountered a slight problem.  My entry papers were inspected and approved, I bought my visitors´card, and found the baggage claim.

 But of course, then I encountered a problem.  After watching numerous bags of all descriptions wind around and be picked up by their relieved owners, I was still standing there.  My duffle bag came through, which was wonderful because it contained clothes and small things for the children of the Nutrition Center.  Lucky for me, I was only missing the suitcase with my clothes and malaria pills. Although I was not the only person  waiting an uncommonly long time, as the minutes ticked by and stretched on, I began to wonder what could have happened.  Maybe someone grabbed it by mistake, or I missed seeing it, or it was lost.  The possibilities seemed endless.  I stood there, praying that I would eventually find it and that I would have still someone to pick me up, as I was an hour late due to flight time and the unforeseen baggage problem.  And so it was until off in the distance, rudely abandoned on the side of the terminal from San Juan was a black suitcase with a bunch of colorful ribbons.  Watching it closely lest it disappear, I limped my way over, backpack and duffle bag in tow.  Sure enough, my bag had been taken with the flight that went from Chicago through San Juan to Santo Domingo, instead of passing through NY with me.  Gladly, the customs officer just waved me through, and I could begin to look for my friends.

They, of course, did not know who to look for, so I was searching for the Schoenstatt Sister accompanying the girls.  In general, a person in a habit or uniform is easy to find, even in a crowd.  In fact, I did not find them first; as I meandered down the aisle, I heard an unmistakable exclamation, ¨CLAIRE?!?!?!¨ from Eliud.  Of course, there was much more that was said.  They couldn´t believe that it was, in fact, me.  Eliud poked me in the arm as we drove to La Victoria to ascertain that it was reality. She joked that I might only be a ghost or a dream.

Nor do I blame her, as I can hardly believe it myself.  When I came the first time (for those who read this blog, you know a bit of what I mean) my experience was incredible; half of my impressions would take weeks to adequately describe.  Now, it seems unbelievable that I could be blessed with another opportunity to work and learn here.  As of now, I have plans to teach English, care for children, help with a May celebration, and learn how to prepare Dominican desserts, as well as studying Spanish and working at the Center.

Speaking of the Nutrition Center, no one there knew either that I was coming back.  So, the screams started as I walked up to the building and through the gate.  ¨CLARA?!?!¨ Yes, sometimes I enjoy surprises, when they aren´t given to me.  Because my classroom was the farthest one from the entrance, I came to it last.  through the metal slates of the windows, I saw the teachers stand up and peer through, and the children began chanting my name.  As I opened the door, the whole class converged on me, still shouting.  The teachers had to help me up!  They all remembered me!  Considering how many volunteers have come in and out of their lives, this really touched me.  In the three days of class that we have had since I returned, they have stuck to me, especially the troublesome boys that were my favorites.  (I couldn´t help it, they were only naughty because they needed some attention)

There is so much to tell!  Since I have the time and Internet at this moment, I would like to describe my experience last Friday at an activity called Via Crucis.

One reason that I wanted to come here now, was that I want to see Holy Week traditions here, especially since I could not stay for Christmas.

Via Crucis are prayed every Friday during the Season of Lent.  Basically, it is the Stations of the Cross, where we remember and meditate on the different steps and encounters of the last journey of Christ to the cross.  There are fourteen stations, and at each and between each one different prayers and meditations are given for reflection.  I have prayed the Stations of the Cross before, but not in this particular way.  All the other Fridays this prayer is held in the village of La Victoria, with the stations at different points throughout the town.

I only heard about this Thursday, the day before.  We were eating dinner together that night so I asked Eliud to describe Via Crucis to me, and asked if she would go.  After the description of how beautiful and special they are, I said that I would like to go.  ¨Claire, it´s far.  But far.¨ ¨that´s okay; I like to walk,¨I replied.  ¨FAR,¨she repeated, at least two more times.  Undaunted, the next morning I found out that one of the Sisters was going and would let me come too.

So after working at the Nutritional Center, we set out at 2pm.  It was a hot, humid day, akin to August in Wisconsin.  I had packed two water bottles, and Sr. Lourdes made sure that I brought an umbrella.  We started out in the village, right outside the parish church.  After the opening prayer and reflection, the column of people moved forward together; umbrellas open to shield them from the sun.

And so it began.  We walked, prayed, and sang together.  The distance between each station seemed longer as time went on, but that could have also been the heat.  As we progressed, the group became larger and larger.  A friend of mine, Yanela, was also walking Via Crucis for the first time, so we shared an umbrella, and endeavored to not lose each other in the crowd.

I don´t remember if I have ever described the country roads here, but I will do so anyway.  They are dirt, almost completely clay sprinkled with stones.  Clay has a tendency to be difficult when wet, and very painful when it is dry.  All of us had white dusty feet in a short amount of time.  I can´t imagine what some of the more sacrificial people went through.  They had removed their shoes in order to mimic more closely the original Way of the Cross.

The walking itself was at first not difficult.  Actually, I distinctly remember wanting to walk faster, but the crowd consisted of people of all ages: elderly, middle aged, pregnant women, and small children.  But after a time, the heat made things much more challenging.  For me, breathing was more difficult.  We were walking with only a small space in front of us, because there were so many people, which made it hard to see to avoid potholes and other hazards, such as neighbors´umbrellas.  From where I was I couldn´t tell where the procession began or ended, and as I already mentioned, it was hot and humid.

Normally, if I have participated in outdoor Stations of the Cross, it is in spring.  usually, the weather is cold and rainy, or occasionally very nice.  Realistically, Jesus did not walk in cool spring weather; I imagine that reality had much more in common with this Way of the Cross, where we were sweating, dirty, panting and exhausted.

Note: I liked it very much; I´m not complaining, only trying to adequately describe this walk

So normally, it is in the town, but because this was the last Friday of Lent, this Via Crucis was scheduled to walk to Mata Ma´mon, a country town.  Although I did not realize it at first, but when I had gone with the bus to drop off the children after school one day last December, I went to Mata Ma´mon.  The bus drives all the children to the Center who live too far to walk, and this was the last stop.

Towards the end of this walk, I admit that my prayer was not so focused, and I didn´t care if we went more slowly than normal.  But the whole experience of so many people offering their afternoon to remember and reflect on the Way of the Cross, and the manner in which they did it made an impression on me. We passed up village after village, always adding to the number of participants.  I lost count, but I think we went through four or five small villages, all pieced together in worse condition than La Victoria, finally arriving at our destination after three hours of walking/limping.  During this walk, I couldn´t believe that some of those people had chosen to do it.  Especially two cases, for one friend of mine, a teacher, is pregnant, and yet she walked with her husband.  In the other, a family whose small daughter is in my class decided to walk all together.

At the end of the way, we had a Mass outside, in which most of us had to stand.  I was trying to guess how many people were there at the end, but definitely upwards of 600.  It was packed. There were buses at the end of the journey to bring back those who lived far away, and so the three hours that we had walked was covered in 20 minutes of driving.  I stumbled in my house at 7:10 ready to sleep.  I later learned that they had not expected so many people, and some walked the whole way back.

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, had it´s own experiences, but I have exhausted my time, so I will save stories for later.  Right now, I am especially looking forward to Easter and this whole weekend.

Thank you for all the prayers and well wishes; you are certainly in my as well.  I´m sure that you will hear of many more stories in the weeks, and months, and years to come!  Please keep the Schoenstatt Sisters and their work in your prayers!

God bless,