During Christ’s temptation in the desert (MT 4: 1-11) during Lent, one of the responses he gives to the devil is “Man does not live by bread alone but every word that comes from God.” I have always thought this line from Matthew focused only on the revealed word of God, which we call the bible. Well, my time in Peru has helped me to expand my understanding of this passable to better perceive the many ways God shares his Word with us.
While living in Peru, I traveled a bit around the country to learn about the many different cultures of the Peruvian people. I saw wealthy areas and very poor areas. I noticed when I visited the poor areas of Peru that the people crafted beautiful public displays of Christian art. I saw people in the midst of poverty use their few resources to make places of beauty throughout their town and in their parishes, where anybody at any time could go, sit and be shaped by the beautiful art created by the local people. During my moments of prayer throughout those days of travel, my mind kept going back to the question of ‘why.’ Why would these poor people use their money to make these works of art? God kept telling me in time of prayer “Man does not live by bread alone.” Humans need food for the body to survive, but we also need food for the soul also. Beautiful art (and other things like music) feed our souls and give us the strength we need to continue during difficult times. I remember going through the town of Jose Galvez and seeing the many different shrines to the saints, throughout this desert town south-east of Lima. The town is dry and arid, with the dust always rising up from the ground to clog the nose and the eyes always needing to be watchful for the many packs of dogs roaming through the town.
Yet, throughout Jose Galvez, there are these little oases of greenness where a shrine to a saint is found all decorated with clothing and jewelry of bright colors. When I stepped into one of these cases I felt like I left the desert and stepped into a place that basks in the light of heaven. Then there were my travels through the mountains of Peru. Every town I visited throughout this region had crosses draped with a tapestry over them, decorated with magnificent colors and jewelry pointing to the grandeur and importance of the Lord for their community. Through this art, the people were able to share their cultural identity and their devotion to the Lord with others. The mixture of colors showed a vision of the people that could see beyond their local strife to the glory of heaven that is always breaking through. I still carry those crosses in my mind’s eye and turn to them in my times of need.
I believe the poor have a way a seeing the world that as a believer, I can only gain through being with them. Through time spent together, the idea of the ‘them’ fades away until there is an us, looking out onto a world the Father has made for us to care for and help to prosper. The poor need our charity, this is true, as Christians we cannot let our neighbors suffer from a radical poverty, just because the issues of poverty appear to be too large for us as believers to handle. However, charity goes both ways. Those we call ‘the poor’ can teach us so much about the world if we are open to receive from them as they receive from us. The people of Peru, specifically those that are poor, helped to shape my eyes to see not only the ugliness of the world but the created beauty of it also. My Peruvian brothers and sisters, also, taught me the great creativeness that resides within all human hearts. They showed me the human heart needs not only food for the body, but also of the soul, and the soul is itself the soil in which its own food is cultivated, through works of beauty, like those that are mentioned above.
As Carmelites, we have the witness of Elijah who visited the widow of Zarapeth. Elijah listened to the Lord, and went to the widow and cared for her, but he was also open to receiving the Lord’s aid through her. During this story, we also see the great love that Elijah had for the Widow and her son, through his prayers to God over the death of her son. Elijah’s witness, in a way, challenges us to be open to caring for but also to be cared for by ‘the poor.’ Prophets are always called to be in a relationship with the poor because prophets are called to share the Lord with them. My time in Peru taught me to be open to the beauty that exists in the world and not let the ugly darkness of sin consume my vision. The poor can teach us so much, if like Elijah, we can remain open to their wisdom, and begin to see the world as they see the world.