5 Authors 40 Days

I am keeping a Lenten blog as part of Busted Halo’s 5 Authors 40 Days series. It can be found on my Web site, www.brianharper.net, or by visiting the link above.

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The Doctors Are In

The following article originally appeared in the January 22, 2014  edition of Busted Halo. It can be found at www.brianharper.net or http://bustedhalo.com/features/the-doctors-are-in. My thanks to Barbara Wheeler for her work in publishing the piece.

When I was diagnosed with pericarditis — an inflammation of the fibrous sac around the heart — while volunteering in Peru, the reaction of a number of people surprised me. Until that point, most of my Peruvian friends had demonstrated no medical proclivity whatsoever. Suddenly, I had no shortage of people anxious to share any tidbit of therapeutic information they could.

“You’re lonely,” said some. “You need a girlfriend. Or more male friends.” While I appreciated their concern that I was living with four female roommates, this theory seemed to fall short in explaining how my heart’s membrane swelled to unhealthy proportions.

“You are so skinny,” offered the cooks at the parish cafeteria where I ate. “You aren’t eating enough.” Again, while I was grateful for the guidance and extra helpings of lunch, this did not really match anything my doctors told me.

“Why aren’t you wearing a jacket?” exclaimed the women selling crafts in the plaza of the Andean town where I lived. “You’re going to get sick again!”

I filed each piece of advice away with all the rest, regularly noting that I should probably confirm with real physicians whether there were any connections between the state of one’s pericardium and the things my friends were saying. I did not, however, think it necessary to bother my cardiologist with every hypothesis. This was particularly true of the suggestion that I was infected by some kind of leech while swimming in South Africa four years ago.

I thought this penchant for over-participating in others’ health lives was an annoying quality of my Peruvian friends. When I returned to the United States for additional care, however, the practice did not cease.

Despite never having visited or read much about the Andes, a number of acquaintances seemed to think Peru was awash with bacteria and diseases. If these people were right, I was incredibly lucky not to have caught something sooner.

“Maybe it was the altitude,” some proposed.

“Did you develop that theory at the medical school you never went to?” I wanted to ask.

Listening to people present strange and usually incorrect ideas about how I contracted pericarditis has been a frustrating part of recuperating. The fact that my doctors haven’t determined a specific cause of the ailment (SPOILER ALERT: pericarditis usually results from an unidentifiable virus) evidently bothers people so much that they need to offer either glib reassurances (e.g., “It’s all going to work out fine”) or uninformed speculations as to why I am sick.

My preference would be for everyone to call it like it is: “No one knows why this is happening, so too bad for you.”

I have learned that such a reaction is contrary to human nature.

History’s greatest thinkers have spent ages arguing whether we are inherently good or evil. I doubt I have much to add to the conversation, but my recent medical adventures tip the scales in favor of innate goodness. Saying there has been no limit to the number of people who comment on my health is really to say there’s been no limit to the number of people who want to help.

I truly believe that often the impulse to assist others and make a valuable contribution wins out over knowing we have little to provide. When Peter found himself in the presence of Jesus, Moses and Elijah, he offered to pitch tents. When Father Maximilian Kolbe and nine other prisoners awaited death in an underground bunker at Auschwitz, Kolbe reassured his fellow captives with prayers, songs and words of encouragement. Such efforts may have made no tangible difference, but they are remembered today as beautiful examples of people ignoring fears of uselessness and giving whatever they could.

The past eight months have been a royal pain. I spent two convalescences in a hospital in Peru, left work, returned to work, left work again, took a fruitless trip to Lima to ascertain the cause of my disease and finally departed my service placement six months early for treatment in the United States. I am currently taking an obnoxious assortment of medications and trying to navigate a culture shock that leaves me wondering what would happen if everyone’s smartphones stopped functioning for 20 seconds.

It has been a tough time, but through it all I have experienced unending generosity from friends in both Peru and the United States. People have reached out with hospital visits, phone calls, cards and gifts. Even when they know there is little they can do to make life easier, they still try.

So whenever someone tries to hearten, heal or diagnose me, I try to smile past my irritation and remember how fortunate I am to have so many doctors, trained or not, looking out for me.

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Tunisia. Egypt. Libya. Syria.

The latest country facing internal conflict and violence is also the world’s newest: South Sudan. According to Al Jazeera, a month of fighting in the country has left more than 1,000 people dead and, according to the United Nations, another 400,000 displaced.

The clash, which cannot be adequately summarized here, manifests itself as ethnic in nature, but there are clear political and leadership failures that initiated and often drive the day-to-day actions across the country. The Dinka, which include President Salva Kiir, and the Nuer, which include Riek Machar, the former vice president that Kiir has accused of treason, have experienced many years of tension and mistrust. As Washington Post blogger Max Fisher brilliantly and succinctly lays out in “9 questions about South Sudan you were too embarrassed to ask,” many cultural, religious and historic factors have contributed to the tragedy, which began when Dinka members of the presidential guard attempted to disarm Nuer members last month. The after effects of colonialism and many years of fighting with the Republic of Sudan, the country from which it seceded in 2011, have certainly played a part.

i-ACT’s work is about Darfur, a region in the Republic of Sudan and thus an area not directly affected by South Sudan’s current predicament.

As Fisher points out, however, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, a militant group that fought for South Sudan’s independence and now makes up its national army, “also fought in Darfur, on behalf of people there who wanted autonomy from the Khartoum (capital of the Republic of Sudan) government. More significantly, both South Sudan and Darfur were huge political and popular causes in Western countries, and especially in the United States. Outrage over Darfur made it easier to pressure Khartoum to allow South Sudan’s independence referendum; it also focused popular and political support within the United States, which proved crucial.”

i-ACT’s work is not political; it is personal. The Darfuri refugees we have been visiting in Eastern Chad since 2005 are people the we know by name. The students we work with in Little Ripples are young girls and boys who want little more than to go to school, play with their friends and live in peace.

We are deeply grateful to the countless people who support our work despite never having met our Darfuri friends. Their generosity reminds us that we, too, must support the thousands of suffering South Sudanese we will never know. In an oft-quoted line from Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This, as much as the historic and cultural strings tying the Darfur and South Sudan conflicts together, causes us to remember South Sudan and to hope and do all we can for their peace.

Written By: Brian Harper
Journalist and i-ACT Volunteer

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Today’s Vocation

The following article originally appeared in the December 6-19, 2013 print edition of National Catholic Reporter. My thanks to Caitlin Hendel and Dennis Coday for their work in publishing the piece.

It is virtually impossible to receive a Jesuit education without hearing about vocation. What you study, the job you will hold, the direction your future will take—Jesuits have a knack for presenting life’s most important questions as part of a grand vocation we all must discover.

Having studied under the Jesuits at Marquette University, I, too, have generally thought about my vocation in terms of life’s larger themes. Should my passion for writing dictate a practical major like journalism or would an English degree be truer to the person I am? Would I be happier pursuing a career in public policy or music?

A year and a half ago, my short-term vocation took me to the Peruvian Andes as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC). My primary work was teaching English, religion, computer and literature classes at a local high school. It was an incredibly rewarding opportunity. I learned innumerable lessons from my students, colleagues and friends, and I like to think I experienced some solid growth along the way.

Though my stint in JVC was an ample stretch of time, volunteering was obviously never going to be a definitive answer to the question of my life’s vocation. Many people asked me what I intended to do when I got back to the United States before I even moved to Peru. Neither this question nor my anxiety whenever it is asked have subsided now that my return has come to pass. Because for all my ideas of what I would like to do or feasibly could do, I am unsure what I will do.

Recently, I have had cause to think of vocation in a new light. A few months ago, I was diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the fibrous sac around the heart. My recovery involved two hospital stays, during which I had little more to do than read and watch reruns of Two and a Half Men.

Amongst the reading I found in my possession was Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints. The book is a wonderful collection of biographies of important spiritual figures throughout human history. The Catholic Church has officially canonized some, like Rose of Lima and Francis of Assisi. Others, like Albert Camus and Mahatma Gandhi, were not practicing Christians. Each in their own unique way, however, seemed to illuminate a divine spark in their very human lives. All pursued whatever their vocation was with singular courage and conviction.

As a member of an organization named after St. Ignatius of Loyola, the irony was not lost on me that, as the founder of the Jesuits did after suffering a cannonball shot to the legs, I was lying in a hospital, reading the lives of the saints and meditating on my own vocation.

Ignatius’s reflections led him to form a new religious order, venturing into the world to spread the Gospel and accomplish grandiose, heroic deeds for the greater glory of God.

My musings were a little more modest.

What struck me more than anything while reading All Saints were the countless small, slow and seemingly insignificant ways so many people’s vocations developed over time. The shapes of the saints’ lives often fell into place haphazardly and with plenty of fits and false starts. In many cases, a person’s vocation seemed less the major decision I always thought it to be and more of an arrival, a gradual accepting of God’s grace in her or his life.

Moreover, I started to see vocation less as an ultimate choice for what to do with my life than as part of the dynamic, ongoing process of discovering who I am in the world. Vocation need not only apply to vast subjects like what career I will hold or who I will marry. It also involves common, day-to-day details. As one of Ellsberg’s saints, William Stringfellow, said, “Vocation means being a human being; every decision is a vocational event.”

In his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, James Martin, S.J. movingly makes a similar point as he relates the story of Walter Ciszek, an American-born Jesuit priest who spent 15 years doing hard labor as a suspected spy in Russia’s Lubyanka prison. Quoting from Ciszek’s memoir He Leadeth Me, Martin explains how the priest came to discover his vocation, or “God’s will” for him, during his incarceration:

“[God’s] will for us was the 24 hours of each day: the people, the places, the circumstances he set before us in that time. Those were the things God knew were important to him and to us at that moment, and those were the things upon which he wanted us to act, not out of any abstract principle or out of any subjective desire to ‘do the will of God.’ No, these things, the 24 hours of this day, were his will; we had to learn to recognize his will in the reality of the situation.

The plain and simple truth is that his will is what he actually wills to send us each day, in the way of circumstances, places, people and problems. The trick is to learn to see that — not just in theory, or not just occasionally in a flash of insight granted by God’s grace, but every day. Each of us has no need to wonder about what God’s will must be for us; his will for us is clearly revealed in every situation of every day, if only we could learn to view all things as he sees them and sends them to us.”

It is important to intentionally consider where God might be calling each of us in a broad sense.  But it is also essential to avoid the temptation of only seeing life’s crucial questions as part of one’s vocation. Though I knew I would not be a volunteer for the rest of my life, that was my vocation while in Peru. As I now consider next steps and long-term goals, I also must remember that each day, my vocation need not involve much more than trying to gracefully face whatever comes my way. As the lives of the saints make clear, the bigger issues will often sort themselves out anyway, fits, false starts and all for the greater glory.

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Friends and Amigos

Original Article can be found at Marquette.edu

A few years ago, I learned that Marquette polls incoming students to find out why they choose Marquette. Many cite the university’s commitment to community service as a major incentive, as well as its top-tier basketball program. I like to think a few Chris Farley fans enrolled after seeing Tommy Boy.

The question led me to reflect on my motivation for choosing Marquette. Scholarship opportunities were a factor, as was my interest in the school’s journalism program. More than anything, though, I came for the community.

My parents spent part of their undergraduate years at Marquette, and my dad graduated from the School of Dentistry. Some of my earliest memories and closest relationships were born out of the friendships my parents made then. For as long as I can remember, going to Marquette basketball games with my dad meant meeting his old college friends at halftime. Annual Christmas gifts were Ardmore Bar T-shirts. During summer gatherings at the cabin belonging to the man who introduced my parents, we children watched while the adults briefly revisited their 22-year-old selves.

The takeaway was clear — Marquette not only provided an invaluable education and four years of fun, but also a formative experience and lifelong community. I wanted that.

I got my wish in spades.

I met friends in the residence halls, classes, study abroad programs in South Africa and Italy, jobs with The Marquette Tribune and the Office of Student Development, and extracurricular service experiences. During my senior year, I lived in a house with seven guys I met while living in McCormick and Schroeder halls. We made our mark by inviting then-president Rev. Robert Wild, S.J., to a dinner party. Inexplicably, but much to his credit, he joined us for supper, video games and conversation about all things Marquette.

As difficult as it was to graduate, I left campus content. Though I felt some concern that time, distance and the inevitable life shifts might not always bring change for the better, I was confident that the lessons and friends I made at Marquette would always be with me.

Interestingly, I threw the biggest wrench into the possibility of me and my friends staying close after Commencement. Though one friend took a job in San Francisco and another found a position in Florida, I decided to move to a little village in the Peruvian Andes to teach at a secondary school with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

My attraction to volunteerism can no doubt be traced to my Jesuit education, not to mention Marquette’s service opportunities that consistently emphasize the importance of being a woman or man for others.

Equal to these factors was my interest in building community. JVC has four pillars — justice, faith, simplicity and community — that unite to form the foundational theme of a volunteer’s experience. The idea is to seek justice for the people we serve; be witnesses to our faith; lead simple lives; and participate in community with fellow volunteers and friends, colleagues, students and neighbors from our host countries. I saw JVC as an opportunity to be a member of another vibrant and authentic community — much like Marquette.

In November 2011, I moved to Andahuaylillas (pronounced On-duh-why-lee-us), a small town of approximately 5,000 people located roughly 30 miles from Cusco. In Peru, I came to feel a deep and genuine sense of fellowship with the students in my English, computer, religion and verbal reasoning classes, as well as with the other teachers and staff at the local school and parish. I grew to be invested in the lives of my Peruvian neighbors, and I lived with volunteers from the United States, Spain, Great Britain and France. I feel incredibly blessed to have learned from and shared in community with all of these people.

Coming from an accomplishment-based, North American mentality, it was refreshing to enter a culture where people are valued not for what they do but for who they are. I often found that as necessary as were the activities I completed while working in the school or parish, it was the time I spent chatting with women who sold their crafts in the plaza or hanging out with children and playing kiwi, a kick-the-can-like game, that was the most important part of my service.

It is a foregone conclusion that almost everyone who goes to another country for service work will eventually return home. Many questions plagued me well before departing my host country, not least of which was how to carry what I experienced in a way that honors both those I was serving and the loved ones to whom I was returning. Fear of culture shock left me worrying that I might not ever be able to function normally in North American society again.

My concerns were eased when the United States came to visit me in Peru last January in the form of five of my Marquette friends. Many people said they would visit when they heard my plans to move out of the country, but I did not expect anyone to actually make the trip. I had a fantastic week with Matt Hixson, Jeff Jasurda, Tom Molosky, Mike Muratore and Gabe Sanchez. We went to Machu Picchu, checked out Cusco, visited churches built hundreds of years ago and delved into local cuisine. It was wonderful to see those familiar faces and hear what they had been up to since graduation.

Some of my favorite moments of the week we spent together, though, involved seeing my two communities meld. I loved watching when my Marquette friends bought souvenirs from my Peruvian friends. An impromptu soccer game that sprang up between my visitors, some of my students and me was another highlight of the week.

Pretty soon, the week was over and, like at graduation, it was hard to say goodbye to my American friends. I had grown accustomed to them being with me in Peru. I knew it would be a long time before I would see them again. But any doubt I harbored about maintaining college friendships after college is resolved. The same sort of lasting community of friends that my parents formed as students in the 1970s, which I hoped to duplicate, is mine.

College is such a brief snapshot of life — four, maybe five years. People come to Marquette seeking fulfillment in countless ways, and they leave to pursue many different endeavors. What I learned from the alumni I met through my parents and now from my own circle of friends is that what keeps us coming back and coming together long after we graduate is a shared sense of community.

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What to Expect When Nothing is Expected

Throughout my time in Peru, I wrote occasional columns for The Fond du Lac Reporter, my hometown newspaper. The following piece originally appeared in the October 25, 2013 issue of the Reporter and can be found at http://www.fdlreporter.com/article/20131025/FON06/310250122/Guest-commentary-What-expect-when-nothing-expected

My thanks to Gary Clausius and Mike Mentzer for editing these articles and helping with this project.

The best suggestion I could offer someone moving to Peru is never forgo a bathroom. The runner-up is to abandon all expectations.

This is because life in Peru rarely goes according to plan. For someone coming from a culture that prizes order and concreteness as much as we do in the United States, the conspicuous absence of these qualities can be jarring.

When I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I signed on to work at a parish. I ended up teaching at a high school. When I began at the school, I expected to instruct English and religion classes. While I covered these, I also taught verbal reasoning and computer courses.

Prior arrangements were flouted in commonplace ways. This took shape in everything from last minute meetings to hastily prepared birthday celebrations.

The haphazard, go-with-the-flow style with which my Peruvian friends moved sometimes appeared feckless. On the other hand, it seemed to leave them more open to life’s ebbs and flows.

One of JVC’s tenets is living simply. The idea is that volunteers can strive for solidarity with people they serve by operating closer to the more basic circumstances of their host communities.

The goal is not to glorify poverty or reject fundamental human needs. It is to recognize that in living within or even well below their means, people from our host communities are often freer from the false sense of safety that comes with stringent planning or extravagant materialism. Because their lives so frequently fail to follow their desires, they are more likely to get by relying on and therefore appreciating intangible elements like collective effort and help from loved ones.

Over time, I learned to see how important such an outlook is.

In April, I was diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the fibrous membrane around the heart. After controlling the swelling through treatment in a number of Peruvian clinics, I went back to my routine.

Unfortunately, the ailment reappeared shortly thereafter and made it necessary to return to the United States for additional care. Stateside appointments have made it clear that recuperation will be much slower than originally anticipated. In layman’s terms, my time volunteering in Peru is over.

This news has been painful for many reasons, the most glaring being that I have been separated from a life that gave me great joy and purpose. Just as it was hard being away from family and friends in the United States, it is now difficult to be so far from people I care about in Peru.

Strangely, though, the unforeseen nature of my departure has allowed me to feel a new closeness with Peruvian friends. As I said, many of them live in humble conditions that require a willingness to accept uncertainty.

“How will we pay for our sick child’s medicine? What will happen to our cornfields if the rain does not stop?” I know people who must ask themselves these questions and press forward without answers.

While the concerns I face are not nearly as serious, seeing my volunteer experience come to such an abrupt finish and being unsure of where my current situation will lead have shown me what it means to welcome indefinite moments. Moreover, they have taught me that despite the security many of us seek through money or excessive preparation, we have little say over life’s good or bad surprises. All we control is the way we respond.

I did not know what would happen when I moved to South America; I learned that none of us ever really know what to expect. My Peruvian friends, however, demonstrated that patience, grace, humility, humor and community make it possible to live with ambiguity and embrace the unknown.

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Remembering Father Naus

How many times must one hear the same message before its point hits home?

John the Evangelist supposedly spent the last years of his life leading an early Christian community in Ephesus, where he was known for sticking to a seemingly simple sermon: “Love one another.” When an irritated disciple asked when John was going to preach on a new topic, he replied, “When you’ve followed this one.”

For the better part of my time as a Marquette University undergraduate, I played guitar at the 10 p.m. Tuesday night Mass at St. Joan of Arc Chapel. Each week, another John essentially offered the same homily his namesake had. Father John Naus, S.J., who served at Marquette in various capacities for nearly 50 years and died Sunday, presented  this theme by way of phrases, quips and quotes that are familiar to all who knew him:

“To see the world through God’s eyes, imagine the words ‘Make me feel important’ written across the forehead of everyone you meet.”

“The best cure for a bad day is a good friend.”

“To make a difference in one person’s life is immensely more precious than the value of the whole world.”

“To see the smile on their face, to hear the laughter of a little child…of a very old person…of someone who is ill…and to realize that you put it there, makes the holiest day holier still.”

Father Naus’s life highlights are oft-told and well-known in the Marquette and Milwaukee communities. He was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1955 and spent most of his teaching and ministerial career at Marquette. He lived in the university’s Schroeder Hall for 28 years and was a popular ethics, Eastern philosophy and philosophy of humor professor. Father Naus was most famous, however, for entertaining students and hospital patients as Tumbleweed the Clown, sending 4,000 Christmas cards each summer, interrupting university tours to teach prospective students the Wisconsin handshake and presiding over Tuesday night Masses.

The thread that connected all of Father Naus’s activities and actions was, of course, his love. I have never encountered someone more unquestioningly open to people than Father Naus. This applied to everyone he met. We used to frequently get lunch and even continued exchanging letters when I moved to Peru. He often made a point of telling me I was one of his best friends. While I have no doubt he meant it, I am also sure he said this about most people who had the good fortune of knowing him.

In the beautiful remembrances shared about Father Naus on Marquette’s Web site, much has been made of his wonderful, childlike persona and just how extraordinary his commitment to others was. As I reflect on these qualities, I realize that his love for others was, at least in part, fueled by his willingness to embrace his own lovable-ness. For while Father Naus thrived on making people happy and, as he often wrote in his cards, doing whatever he could to help someone, he was completely comfortable in letting others be kind to him, too.

He effusively lauded the Walgreens employees who sold him his Hallmark cards, graciously thanked anyone who held a door for him and responded to praise with a chorus of “Oh, but it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way…” I imagine this was especially true after a stroke in 2004 confined him to a wheelchair, but just as Father Naus was the most unhesitatingly caring person I have ever known, he was also one of the least self-conscious. He accepted and loved others because he accepted and loved himself.

So how many times must one hear the same message before its point hits home?

I probably attended somewhere in the ballpark of 80 Masses Father Naus celebrated, and every day, I struggle and often fail to practice that seemingly simple sermon he offered each week.

Who knows when Father Naus first heard John the Evangelist’s recurring homily. Who knows how many times it took to sink in. But at some point, probably very early on, it stuck. And every morning from then on, Father Naus rose, said his beloved “Jesus Prayer” and dedicated himself to trying to live up to it.

The Jesus Prayer
Live, Jesus, live
So live in me
That all I do
Be done by thee
And grant that all
I think and say
May be thy thought
And word today

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