A Reflection by Claire Gallagher, Campus Minister
“If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” A quote often attributed to Woody Allen, though admittedly a little cliché, is certainly relatable for most of us at some point in our lives. I did a little research and found that this quote was most likely inspired by an old Yiddish proverb: “We plan, God laughs,” which made me think that certainly the Book of Proverbs must have something to say about it. What I found was Proverbs 16:9, “The human heart plans the way, but the LORD directs the steps.”
At 8:00 a.m. on Friday, June 7, as I waited to check-in at the New Orleans airport, Proverbs 16:9 and Woody Allen’s infamous quote were nowhere near my mind and heart. As I clutched my flight itinerary, passport, yellow fever card, and the handle of my suitcase, I was undoubtedly also clutching my own expectations for this trip – the plans of my human heart. In reading the Aparecida (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s letter to the bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean) in preparation for this trip, I felt I knew what it meant to be a missionary disciple. As Pope Benedict so eloquently wrote, “The disciple’s joy serves as remedy for a world fearful of the future and overwhelmed by violence and hatred.” (1.2.29).
I wanted to bring that joy. I wanted to be that remedy. I was ready to embrace the people and culture, to encounter Christ, and ultimately, to love Bolivia. Embrace, encounter, love. That was my plan. My bags were packed, I had been practicing my Spanish, and I was ready to bring the joy. We were flying from New Orleans to Miami, and from Miami to Bolivia. We would be in Santa Cruz by 3:00 a.m. on Saturday morning. I was ready.
Fast forward to 3:00 a.m. on Monday, June 10. After an unbelievable series of canceled, delayed, and re-routed flights, and a missed connection which resulted in a 24-hour stay in Lima, Peru, we had finally landed in Santa Cruz, three days after we had left New Orleans. At this point I was clutching nothing but my carry-on bag and my complete exhaustion. If Woody Allen’s quote is true, God must have been crying tears of laughter at this point. It was certainly clear to me now that the plans of my human heart were certainly left up to the Lord’s direction, or should I say re-direction, of my steps. But I was still ready. The plans of my human heart remained the same, but I had a renewed awareness and openness to allow the Lord to direct my steps. Embrace, encounter, love.
On our first day in Bolivia, we visited the Missionaries of Charity’s Hogar de la Paz, an orphanage and hospice for children who have special needs and the elderly. When we encountered the sisters, I immediately felt like I was in the presence of St. Teresa of Calcutta. It was in that moment that I realized the truth of encountering Christ in everyone we meet, but especially in the poor. If I could feel St. Teresa’s presence in these beautiful sisters, surely, I could experience Christ in the poor.
As we visited the elderly in their beds, the sister took the time to introduce us to each one of them. I locked my eyes with a frail, tiny woman in her bed. I thought to myself, “I wish there was something I could do to help.” One of the sisters, as if she had read my mind, turned to me and said, “They’re just so happy that you all are here.” What a humbling moment for me. The Lord didn’t bring me there to fix anything or “do” anything. They didn’t need that from me. All they wanted was my presence. They just wanted someone to be with them in their suffering, to be present. Wasn’t this what Jesus wanted in his suffering in Gethsemane? He only asked his disciples to do one thing – stay and keep watch with Him in that moment. Isn’t that what we all desire when we are in the midst of our own suffering? We just want someone to be with us, to accompany us, and to love us. It is this truth and universal desire, – the desire to love and to be loved, that connects us all as the Body of Christ.
This truth was echoed over and over again during this trip, but especially one evening towards the end. We attended Mass in a tiny church with nothing more than a simple crucifix and a humble mural painted on the wall of the sanctuary, and plastic lawn chairs for the altar servers to sit in. Yet, it was one of the most beautiful churches I’ve seen. I sat in misty-eyed awe of the beauty of the spirit of the people in this place of worship, all enthusiastically responding to the prayers and singing songs. I glanced to my left at the choir. I watched the guitar player strum the chords and sing his heart out to the communion reflection song, all while his toddler daughter climbed across his lap and wrapped her arms around his neck.
In that moment, I was struck by his complete and total surrender of self to the Lord. In that moment, he was truly offering all he had – his voice, his daughter, his love to the Lord. I realized this is exactly what the Lord was asking of me: to give myself completely to Him. I was called to encounter, embrace, and love Bolivia. But more importantly, to encounter Christ, to embrace Him, and to give Him all my love. Not just in Bolivia, but every day.
Reflecting on this moment, I was drawn again to Benedict’s striking words in the Aparecida: “We want the joy that we have received in the encounter with Jesus Christ…to reach all men and women wounded by adversities; we want the good news of the Kingdom of God, of Jesus Christ victorious over sin and death, to reach all who lie along the roadside, asking for alms and compassion…Knowing Jesus is the best gift that any person can receive; that we have encountered Him is the best thing that has happened in our lives, and making him known by our word and deeds is our joy.” I witnessed the joy of this humble musician and father in his encounter with Christ, and it called out of me my own renewed desire and need to encounter Christ.
This trip to Bolivia was nothing like what my human heart had planned it to be. But in allowing the Lord to re-direct my steps, it was so much more than I ever could have imagined. I was able to let go of the plans that I clutched so tightly, and to receive and embrace the love that the Lord has for me, through every experience in Bolivia. My challenge, now that I am back in New Orleans, is to adopt that mindset every day. In my ministry, in my relationships, and in my prayer and relationship with God – embrace, encounter, and love others, yes – but first and foremost, to let the Lord direct the steps to complete the plans of my human heart, so that I can more fully embrace, encounter, and love Him.