The statue of St. John took up a full seat on the bus.
But I wasn’t complaining – he was the quietest travel companion I’d encountered yet in my adventures through Bolivia.
I hadn’t fully appreciated just how large the statue was going to be. Sure, Sor Nora had told us she’d bought a seat for the saint. But the woman’s mischievous disposition – that twinkle in her eyes, that deadpan humor, that earnestness with which she did all things – coupled with my own underdeveloped Spanish really meant anything was possible.
And really, the statue probably should’ve gotten two seats. It was a tight squeeze.
We were rescuing St. John, as I recall. The Evangelist was being discarded because a church was closing or out of space or had gotten a new statue. I can’t remember. But all I know is that there was room in our little church, San Francisco Xavier, and Sor Nora wouldn’t abandon the Evangelist in his hour of need.
“I’m going to La Paz,” she declared. We were encouraged to join her; she was a very tiny Bolivian sister and – as previously noted – San Juan was particularly large. And heavy, as it turned out.
Sor Nora, another volunteer and I bought our bus tickets and off we went. Santa Cruz to Cochabamba to La Paz. We were slowed down by a blockade – dozens of hours added to our already-long cross-country journey – but we persisted. Some yuca from a roadside stand to nourish us; a dip in the nearby river to cool us off.
As we passed through town after town, we chugged cups of coffee to awaken ourselves and cups of tea to stay that way and at one point ate armadillo.
It was a long journey, and we just as quickly turned around, the Evangelist safely buckled in his seat. It seemed like a lot of work for something so mundane. But there was not a small amount of satisfaction when that statue was hoisted in place in that little Bolivian church, the watchful eyes of St. John the Evangelist now resting upon an eager congregation.
And Sor Nora was quite pleased.
This week we find ourselves sandwiched between the stories of two holy individuals, men who fought for justice, against oppression and desired “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
This past Monday, those of us in the United States commemorated the legacy of the civil rights icon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This coming Saturday, the global Church in general and the Church in El Salvador in particular will celebrate the beatification of Fr. Rutilio Grande, SJ, the Jesuit martyr who gave his life for the most vulnerable – and inspired the conversion of St. Oscar Romero.
It’s tempting to reduce the lives and legacies of holy women and men to quotable soundbites plastered across our social media accounts. But what these great lives really invite us to is pilgrimage. We are invited to go out and encounter these holy people and to bring them back with us, to bring them into our own lives, our own stories. How might we integrate the lives of the holy women and men who came before us into our present? What spiritual journey are we invited to take?
Sometimes, we have to get up and get on a bus and travel across land and river and through forests and eat a little armadillo as part of that pilgrimage. Sometimes we have to trust in a little religious sister and some very poor Spanish and hope we’ll make it to wherever we’re going.
Rarely – very rarely – do we make the journey back with the saint strapped safely in the seat beside us. And yet, somehow that image makes sense: Saints, holy women and men, on the bus with the rest of us, bumping along on the way to God.
And we, fellow pilgrims, just trying to learn from, to make real in this moment, their legacies.
In God’s peace,
Eric Clayton is the Deputy Director of Communications Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.
Author of “Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith” — Available Now for Preorder