Editor’s note: Becky, a current missioner in Cochabamba, Bolivia, reflects upon how her entire mission journey with FMS illuminates her present moment. She became a FMS missioner in 2018, and attended formation with class 34 in the fall of 2018. Upon discerning to be present to those in Guatemala, she left in January of 2019 to serve at Valley of the Angels, a Franciscan Orphanage in Guatemala City. Upon intense knee pain and learning she would need surgery, she discerned to return home to Mount Prospect, Illinois, in late March 2019. Through many changes at Valley, FMS has discerned not to send any missioners back to Guatemala in 2020. This led her to a period of discernment in the fall of 2019, when Becky realized God was still calling her to international mission and arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia in early January 2020.
Over the past year or so, as Formation and mission have encouraged me to take courageous steps towards sharing my heart with others, I have opened up to some people about many emotional wounds that had been festering for years as well as the challenging reality of living with chronic pain in my knees. Amidst many conversations and doctor’s appointments, I often heard the words, “It will get better with time.” Each time, finding myself annoyed, feeling like these words were a broken record, I would try to remind myself to be open and give this message a chance . Yet, each time I would once again find myself frustrated with how empty and simply untrue these words felt in my life.
Since then, I’ve reflected on how I believe that time itself is not a healer; rather, it distances us from the moments that caused us pain. In my experience, healing comes from engaging in the courageous work of vulnerability while simultaneously leaning on our one, true Healer, allowing God to lift the burdens that can have real weight in our lives.
I often avoid hard emotions within me, sometimes without even realizing it until weeks, months, or even years later. But no matter how long I avoid them, they always manage to surface. In these first months in Bolivia, I quickly started to notice that my mind and heart would wander back to memories of this time last year, when I was beginning my time on international mission in Guatemala.
I started to notice that these flashbacks were not going to go away, and would arise in me at different points throughout my days. And, as is typical in my inner world, I started to judge my thoughts and emotions. Girl, that was so long ago. You’re not in that moment anymore. Why am I comparing my experience in Guatemala to this new journey unfolding before me here in Bolivia? They are different, not meant to be examined side by side. God has brought you here, now. Why can’t you just live in the present?
In rare moments, when I feel more connected to the Divine within me, the judgement will lift slightly and I can see that, while I seem to be preoccupied with the past, present, and future, and while I may be stuck judging where my heart is versus where my feet are, God’s only focus is love.
So, in trying to invite love rather than judgement in, I felt more memories surface. I realized that the ache that felt deeply present in me was due to not feeling a sense of closure to my time on mission in Guatemala. When I left Valley of the Angels, a Franciscan boarding school in Guatemala City and our FMS ministry site, I believed that I would be returning home to Illinois for surgery and what I was told would be a speedy recovery. Then, I would be back at Valley in a few short months.
I remember that Saturday morning when I was leaving Guatemala. I knew the day was coming for about 2 weeks and I had avoided deeply thinking about it. All of a sudden, I found myself overwhelmed by the reality of downloading my boarding pass to my phone and stepping out of our missioner apartment to say goodbye to over 200 kids.
All the girls were outside of their dorms, and I walked around giving hugs, saying individual and group goodbyes. As I went around, one of the 3rd grade girls silently walked by my side, so close to me that I was often nervous about tripping over her. After a few minutes, I realized what was going on and I remember thinking to myself, Oh no. Come on, girlie. You’re about to make this really hard. Once I said goodbye to all the girls I started to walk back to the apartment on campus, knowing we had to get going to the airport in about 20 minutes. It became clear that this girl was going to follow me all the way to Chicago if she could.
Despite my knee pain, I bent down to her height, feeling like we needed to see directly into each other’s eyes for this chat. With tears racing down her cheeks, she simply asked me not to leave. Even in that moment, I was consistently trying to avoid the reality unfolding before me and desperately did not want to cry. But, upon seeing the tears rushing out of her innocent, brown eyes, they started rushing out of me, too. I held her hands, and in my broken Spanish attempted to tell her that I would return after I was able to recover from surgery and that it would go by so fast. And that sometimes when people aren’t able to be with each other in person, it is ok, because living in one another’s hearts is often stronger than being together face to face.
With water flooding my eyes, and an awakened, aching heart, I stood up, all too aware of the pain in my knees and the reason why I had to leave these precious kids. I told her it was time for me to go and that when she misses me to look for me in her heart. I couldn’t allow myself to look back and see if she was following me; I couldn’t take the thought of upsetting her heart anymore.
As I sit with this memory, I now realize that this kiddo was God to me: asking me to stop rushing through the moment, to be vulnerable and to get real with her about what was happening. She was inviting me to release emotions in the difficulties of saying goodbye to a new friend. As I’ve avoided the grief of not being able to return to Guatemala all these months, I am starting to see God bring these memories up in me to invite me into healing. Unfortunately, the time that has passed, in itself, has not healed the ache in my heart for what I thought mission would be and for the closure I wish I had. However, the space created between the moment and the memory has allowed God to gently invade my heart and invite me into vulnerability once again.
And as I sit here in Bolivia today, slowly and humbly attempting to learn about the indiegnous cultures that are so present to this land that I am now inhabiting, their wisdom about time also invites me to step towards the past. Both the Aymara and Quechua people, natives of the land that is now the Plurinational State of Bolivia, look to the past as what lies ahead and the future as what is behind. In fact, the Amarya word for past, nayra, literally translates to eye, sight or front in English. And the word for future, q”ipa, translates to behind or the back.
It makes sense that, in the U.S. culture where we have a future-oriented stance,, it is common to hear the warning, “don’t live in the past,” and pretend as if it’s not there. I have so often followed these Western cultural cues and not talked about past events, memories, or heartaches; I have not even given the past a chance to be a healer.
While I do believe that unhealthy fixation on past events or relationships can take us out of our present reality and leave us blind to how God is moving in the here and now, I am coming to more strongly believe that we can, and are in fact called, to look to the wisdom of the indigenous peoples around us and to adjust our stance to look to the past as well as rest in it.
So today, I try to shift my stance and look back on my time in Guatemala with love, instead of shame. I am choosing to believe that those memories hold wisdom and healing. In the same way that God can use our desires about the future to speak to our hearts today, He can use our memories of past events or previous chapters in our lives to illuminate what love means or where He is calling our heart to be in the present.
Reflection: I encourage you today to embrace the past, see what it has to teach you, and even to consider how it might want to heal you.