Comboni Lay Missionaries

From Silence

Retreat Centre

Maggie and I took time away recently for a 10 day silent prayer retreat at Galilee Retreat Centre, which is set on the edge of a volcanic crater lake in the highlands of Ethiopia.  We not only remained in silence from other people; Maggie and I were accommodated in separate cabins at opposite ends of the property, in silence even from each other.  This was to be my first ‘directed’ retreat of such length where I would break silence just once each day for a 30 minute meeting with a spiritual director who would help guide the movements percolating within my own prayer.

On day one, my spiritual director, Fr. Wolde Meskel, an Ethiopian priest, asked me what my aspirations were for the retreat time and I shared a few things all related to wanting to be closer to Jesus.  Next he completely caught me off guard – he asked me to pack away for the rest of the retreat all the spiritual books which I had brought. What? Not even glance at them?  He assured me that even if the books I had brought were filled with great insights, busying my mind cerebrally reading about God is not the same as getting to know God, from experiencing him at work within me.  Instead Fr. Wolde would give me a very short biblical text so that I might simply sit in silence with God.

I left our meeting wondering how I could sit for 10 days in silence with only a few words from the bible. For two days I was squirmy and restless and swung some punches into the air of silence.  I guess I had a pre-conceived notion about what my time with God was going to be like – I was dictating the terms.  I came to realize how much I felt the ‘need’ to feel productive even in my prayer time.  By the third day I was able to detach myself from my previous retreat plans and I finally surrendered.  And so my real retreat began.

What did I do those days? Practically, I did nothing. My silent days unfolded by following a routine of one hour meditations throughout the day based on only a few verses at a time, the beatitudes of St. Matthew’s Gospel consuming most of the week.  I found that I am quite uncomfortable with silence.  I am cultured to the craziness and busy pace of our modern society and accustomed to the noise, sensory stimulation and distraction, but in this background it is very difficult to hear the gentle voice of God whispering.  I am afraid to be so alone because it forces me to confront whether I truly love and accept the person I am spending all my time with.  It forces me to confront my weaknesses and past, and sit exposed before God in a way where I cannot hide my greatest faults or the ways I lack faith.

In the first days I really had to fight my need to be more productive and efficient, but then this need somehow melted.   After a few days, I was savoring every moment of solitude.  In reality what I did those days was simply waste time with Jesus – to learn about his life in those few verses; to ponder his personality; to contemplate his interactions with people; to soak up his words; to perceive the way he loved.   In gazing on him and letting my preoccupations with myself go, I was able to enter that place within me where God resides and to where he is inviting me to come, to stay and to be with him.

What happened that retreat week was actually indicative of a change that has been brewing in me during these last years.  Silence is slowly transforming me.  More and more now I crave it, because what I want is Jesus – close and unfiltered.  In silence, I find him, revealing himself to me.  Life here in Ethiopia is busy and most of my days feel just as demanding as life back in Toronto.  But slowly, I am becoming a hermit, right in the middle of the world.   I am still focused on carrying out the hectic work of each day, but I cherish the times when I follow the voice of God and sit with him in all his splendor, even for a moment.

– Mark

Maggie, Mark and Emebet Banga, Comboni Lay Missionaries, Awassa, Ethiopia

Love in Practice is a Harsh and Dreadful Thing

Catholic Worker

Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement once said: “Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.  Reality continues to confront our dreams, our hope and our ideal vision”. Day knew this well because she gave her full life to struggling in solidarity with the poor.  Loving the poor is a difficult thing. Even when we come with a sincere desire to “serve the poor” we cannot help but have a certain romantic vision of who the poor are and what we think they need. But the daily practice of this is far from romantic and I am surprised at how many times I utterly fail to love the poor when I am precisely trying to do so. This has been part of my journey as a lay missionary in Ethiopia.

But there persists a single core source of inspiration -> Matthew 25:40: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Jesus describes in Matt 25:31-46 that the inheritance of his Kingdom is based on something quite simple and attainable. Once again Dorothy Day sheds some clear light when she comments: “If Christ himself had not said it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe this. But he said that a glass of water given to a beggar is given to him. He made heaven hinge on the way we act toward him in His disguise of commonplace, frail, ordinary humanity.”

Matthew 25:40 remains both a big challenge and encouragement to me. By seeing Jesus in those around me, I begin to appreciate and care for their sufferings as well as their joy, hope and the gifts which they contribute to the world.  I begin to realize my own poverty too, accepting that as people we all share a certain brokenness and sense of loss, rejection and unfulfilled needs. I see that the real challenge is having trust in the “Jesus” in others even when I cannot see him.  Believe me, there are moments when I am rubbing my eyes to see Jesus but all I see are mistakes and disappointments.

I am also learning that contained within the act of loving the poorest is the total sphere of human virtue – patience, forgiveness, empathy, hope, perseverance and courage.   The entire demand of God’s message of Love is summed up in the obligation to love the poor because of the implicit call to authenticity and openness of heart that is demanded in practically carrying out this task in daily life (when the romantic filter is gone).

When I ponder all these things, it makes me believe that at the end of time when I am face to face with Jesus, I will only be asked one question: How did you love the poor?

– Mark

Maggie, Mark and Emebet Banga, Comboni Lay Missionaries, Awassa, Ethiopia


The one thing necessary

Open HandsOne of the most difficult parts of this “missionary” life for me has been accepting all that I am missing out on. In my lowest moments, I think about missing my family, my close guy friends (it is so hard to make authentic peer-to-peer friendships here), my god-children, career development, saving for retirement, my familiar culture, and things like this.  It’s taken a few years to come to terms with all that I need to give up in order to be authentic to God’s invitation for me to become more loving, which at this present moment keeps me in Ethiopia.  Now, most days I feel at peace, which is a logical effect of voluntary sacrifice.  But I have learned that the most important effect is an opening of me to others, a widening of my horizons away from myself to the needs of others.  Thomas Merton’s writings, particularly from “No Man is an Island” have been a great inspiration:

“One who is content with what he has, and who accepts the fact that he inevitably misses very much in life, is far better off and more at peace than one who has or experiences much more but who worries about all he may be missing. For we cannot make the best of what we are, if our hearts are always divided between what we are and what we are not.

The relative perfection which we must attain in this life if we are to live as children of God is not the twenty-four-hours-a-day production of perfects acts of virtue, but a life from which practically all the obstacles to God’s love have been removed or overcome.

One of the chief obstacles to this perfection of selfless love is the selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything, to be a brilliant success in our own eyes and in the eyes of other people. We can only rid ourselves of this anxiety by being content to miss something in almost everything we do. We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything, visit everywhere, drain every experience to its last dregs. But if we have the courage to let almost everything go, we will probably be able to retain the one thing necessary for us – whatever it may be. If we are too eager for everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need.

This type of authentic happiness consists in finding out precisely what the “one thing necessary” may be in our lives and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given us together with the one thing we needed.”

– Mark

Maggie, Mark and Emebet Banga, Comboni Lay Missionaries, Awassa, Ethiopia

Advent 2013: “Let your light shine”.

AdvientoAdvent 2013: “Let your light shine”. This Advent time (1-24 December) we pray as communities united all across the world that the Holy Spirit may inspire us to transform our world; empower us to seek the common good for all persons; and give us a spirit of solidarity making us one with all who suffer injustice and live in want. In attachment we publish the Prayer reflection for Advent 2013 in English (text) and Spanish (texto 1, texto 2, texto 3 y texto 4).

Mission from the fragility

Comunidad de Boda

It’s the first time I get to the mission of Boda. We decided to celebrate the feast of Comboni with our brothers in Boda who have had a difficult time with the Seleka conflict, as they have repeatedly been ransacked the house and stolen almost everything. In Boda live these three Comboni brothers tested by the Mission: Adelino with 70 have very poor health, Berti with 74 remains an off road in the parish of Boganangone, and Claude, a centralafrican of 45 years.

Sister Margarithe, from La Martinique, tells me the suffering of her people. She works at the hospital in the city, but in August the doctor and the midwives fled because of the violence of the soldiers and now many women give birth in the jungle and not few mothers and children die. Each day in the hospital you have to face the inhuman conditions in which these people live.

It is in this context of insecurity and suffering that, to celebrate the feast of Comboni, Adelino invited us to meditate this morning on the “Mission from the fragility”. Based on the experience of the Church of Algiers proved twenty years ago with many martyrs as their Bishop Pierre Claverie, the seven monks of Tiberine or the four white fathers and many other missionaries and Christians… we reflected what it means to live the mission in our particular situation of pain and suffering, a Mission from the fragility.

In this moment we are called to live the mission with bare hands. It was not us who have chosen this time of trial, was our Lord, the Suffering Servant, who has brought us this far.

When we do mental cabals asking “What would be the ideal time for the mission?” we mess ourselves with utopian future events away from the heart of God. That ideal time of the mission doesn´t exists; the best time is today, the present… The four white parents murdered in Algeria were aware of their vulnerability and so had chosen “the fragility as the language of love …”. This time invite us to a second election they said, move from “a spirituality of development to a spirituality of presence and dialogue.” Definitely it is not but follow the model of Jesus in the flesh to live the life of men. “Learning our helplessness and be aware of our radical poverty, of our radical being naked in front of God, cannot be more than an urgent call to create no power relationships with the other; having recognized my own weakness I cannot just accept the weakness of the others, but I can even live my invitation to make mine this weakness imitating Christ poor” (Cristel, White Father).

The real dialogue is located in the no power, rooted in the weakness and fragility; there is real dialogue only when everyone is confronted with his own vulnerability and fragility. This requires a change of perspective in the style of St. Paul (1 Cor 2: 1-5) which boasts of its own fragility in order to approach the other with the strength of the weakness…

It is true; the weakness is not a virtue, but the expression of a fundamental reality of our being that has to be constantly shaped by faith, hope and charity to conform to the weakness and poverty of Christ. Jesus did not choose strong media; the Church cannot lean on its power or its strength. In these testing times of crisis and trial we are invited to escape from a self-referential Church, a Church that is an end in itself; when the Church touches the weakness and the frailty of men, then, from his own weakness can become mystery of salvation.

Throughout this pedagogy of fragility, following the steps of Comboni, we have seen how prayer is our only strength, so we have meditated on three temptations of our prayer in this time of crisis:


1st) The fear for the future… think that there is no future. We fear that God would open our eyes and undress, we are afraid because we know that when God ask for a hand he takes the whole arm…

2nd) The evasion… Live in a hypothetical future that does not exist, “if we had lived in another time, in other circumstances, with other people …” Avoidance is the fear and the denial of God´s present in my life.

3rd) The impatience… Want everything now, immediately… The logic of God’s patience goes in the other sense… the logic of the cross, of the wheat grain.

No, we haven´t chosen this time of pain and trial, was the Lord Jesus who lovingly led us here in order that from our own fragility and vulnerability, maybe, we can get into real contact with these people humiliated and outraged.

“Why do you stay?” were asked those in Algeria. This is the place of the Church, the Cross of the Lord.

By Jesus Ruiz (MCCJ in Mongoumba).