Sunday, February 04, 2007

On Tarantulas, the Missions, and Distractions in Prayer

I was visiting a missionary sister in a poor barrio called Los Alcarrizos in the Dominican Republic in the summer of 2000. Sister "Anita" (aka Sr. Ann Joyce-Peters) is like a superhero; Mother Teresa and Wonder Woman wrapped up in one. She works with the Haitian migrant workers, the poorest of the poor, in a batey on the fringes of a sugarcane plantation. And she is loved deeply by those whom she serves.

I had the chance to visit the batey a couple of times, getting there via "motorcycle taxi." (Imagine 3 people on a vehicle the size of a moped. The driver, Sister Anita, and me. Hilarious, death-defying, and the only way to experience life in the DR).

In her house, where she lives with an occasional missionary volunteer, other sisters, or just local helpers, she hosts a prayer night for the neighborhood. Once a week or so, a dozen people show up to read scripture or a reflection, or maybe to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.

One of the days I was there, we gathered out on the back patio beneath the bouganbilia, in the still very warm air that was filled with a host of fragrances, just as the sun was sliding past the branches of the coconut trees. There is nothing so powerful as to pray the psalms in the midst of a mission country. Suddenly you feel, as you hear words about the cry of the poor and a longing for freedom from the oppressor, that the ink on these pages is still wet. It's like time travel.

That night, as the prayers rolled from English to Spanish to Creole to French, and the palm trees started whispering their dark secrets, I noticed a massive black tarantula crawling up from the shadows on the plaster half-wall just beyond our prayer circle.

Oh boy.

Now, our thoughts can take us to a million places when we're trying to focus on the Lord; bills to be paid, errands we forgot to make, why mosquitos exist... The saints tell us to let them pass, like static on the radio as you go under the bridge. We're human! We're bombarded by stimuli constantly through our senses. It's natural to get pulled here and there when we stop and try to think One Thing. Just try not to focus on the static. Note it, acknowledge it before the Lord, and let it pass. Offer all of it up to Him and ask for the grace to see through distractions, as through raindrops on the windshield as we move towards our destination. If we fixate on the rain-spattered windshield, we can drive right off the road.

But there are exceptions to this technique...

There are distractions in prayer, and there are DISTRACTIONS in prayer. Big black tarantulas are capital "D" distractions, as St. Theresa of Avila notes in her classic work the Interior Castle (well, she would have noted it if she lived in the Dominican Republic).

Back to a Patio in Los Alcarrizos...

As this creature of darkness (sorry spider lovers but I've been conditioned by the system) made its way up the wall, pulling me and many others away from the rhythm of prayer, an old woman slowly lifted herself up from her bench and walked over to the wall. She picked up a small brick on the way, and WHAMMO!... she hurled it at the tarantula with laser precision! Returning to her seat, she picked up her prayer book and the people said "AMEN!"

I sat back and smiled. Life in the batey; where the women are strong and prayer is a battle. And you sleep with one eye open.


"The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God."

- Catechism, Section 2725
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