Saturday, October 24, 2009

What Elrond has to Say About Challenge by Choice

Buna Ziua,

Last weekend, our group spent a few days up at a cabana in Straja. We watched movies, played games, and celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving with some delicious chicken that really did taste like turkey - as well as a wonderful assortment of other food. We played poker with various kinds of candy, and I was introduced to The Bourne Identity.

We also watched The Fellowship of the Ring. The extended version. That's important because there was one part that they added for the extended version that hit me again this time.

The Fellowship is getting ready to leave Rivendell. Elrond, in traditional formal Elrond style, announces, "The Ringbearer is setting out on a quest for Mount Doom. On you who go with him, no oath nor bond is laid to go further than you will." A comment was made to the effect that it was ridiculous that everyone would only go as far as they wanted.

Maybe I should have said something then, but explanations for things like that don't always come to me off the top of my head. In fact, it's usually several hours or even days later that I realize, "Oh, yeah, that's what I should have said."

What I should have said is exactly what Elrond says in the book: "For you do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road."

What immediately follows is a back-and-forth dialogue between Elrond and Gimli, and goes something like this:

"Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens." (That's Gimli, by the way.)

"Perhaps. But let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall."

"But sworn word may strengthen quaking heart."

"Or break it. Look not too far ahead. But go now with good hearts, and may the blessings of Elves and Men and all free folk go with you."

Part of me wishes they had put that in the movie. It would have made it maybe a minute longer. But it speaks volumes, and means a lot personally to me - which is probably obvious from the fact that I didn't have to look up those quotes. Gimli charges in with an "I'm-going-to-stick-with-this-no-matter-what" attitude. Elrond sees deeper. It's important, eventually, that the others - particularly Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli - don't hold to Gimli's initial resolve to stay with Frodo no matter what.

Gimli had a plan. And plans are good, to some extent. Without a plan, the Fellowship might have ended up at the Lonely Mountain instead of Mount Doom. More likely, they would have been attacked and killed and the Ring taken. But, on the other hand, if they had stuck with the plan they had originally when setting out from Rivendell, they would have ended up going through the Gap of Rohan, or perhaps kept going over Caradhras and frozen to death.

But the plan changed. Again and again, the plan changed. Gandalf falling of the Bridge of Khazad-Dum wasn't in the plan. Merry and Pippin being captured by Uruk-Hai wasn't in the plan. And certainly Frodo and Sam going off by themselves to Mount Doom was nowhere in the plan. But, because Elrond forced no oath nor bond at the beginning of their journey, Aragorn was free to decide, "Frodo's fate is no longer in our hands" and rush off to rescue Merry and Pippin.

I've been keeping a prayer journal during our semester here in Romania. During our first week or so here, I wrote five quotes on the inside cover. One of them is Elrond's quote: "You do not yet know the strength of your hearts, and you cannot foresee what each may meet upon the road."

That could be seen as depressing advice, but, to me, it is an encouraging thought. I do not yet know the strength of my heart. I had no idea, when I came here, just how strong I was, how much I could do. I could not foresee what I would meet upon the road. But I did know, perhaps with a more Gimli-ish part of my heart, that I was ready for it.

I worked as a musician at a TEC retreat this past January. On the last day, known as "Go Day," one of the songs we sang was "Remember Me." I was particularly struck by the last verse. It goes like this:

Remember Me
When the children leave their Sunday School with smiles.
Remember Me
When they're old enough to teach,
Old enough to preach,
Old enough to leave.

That last line brought tears to my eyes. (Everyone cries on Go Day.) I looked around and saw people who were old enough - ready enough - to leave. And I saw the same thing in myself.

I've thought of that song quite a few times since then. I wouldn't be here, in Romania, if God didn't think I was ready for it. I was old enough, ready enough, to leave my home in Minnesota and my college in Iowa and come to a different country. I mentioned in a blog post the day before we came here that I felt like a Hobbit, completely overwhelmed by the journey in front of me. But, even then, I didn't call it off. Even then, I was ready.

This semester, we've heard a lot about the concept of "challenge by choice." When something is challenge by choice, we get to decide for ourselves whether or not a particular activity is going to push us out of our challenge zone and into our panic zone. This may be something like a ropes course, a sharing of personal feelings, a trip to an Orthodox church, or climbing up a big, scary ladder to the top of a mine shaft. From now on, every time I hear that phrase, I have a feeling I'm going to remember Elrond's comforting words: "On you who go with him, no oath nor bond is laid to go further than you will."

It's not an oath that brought me here, and it's not an oath that's keeping me here. And, especially now, so soon before fall break, I'm proud of the fact that I do not yet know the strength of my heart, and that I cannot foresee what I'm going to meet upon the road.

Pace si Doamne ajuta,

Friday, October 16, 2009

Thoughts on Experiential Education

This semester is entirely different from anything I’ve ever been a part of. For one thing, as of about 2 weeks ago, this is the longest I’ve ever been away from home. And I’ve been to places where English is not the primary language, but the immersion has certainly never been this intense, nor without a translator. And if I’m honest, I miss my home. It’s also a different group than I’ve ever been a part of before. I’m used to dorm life, to being surrounded by friends and brothers, dozens of them, all with different points of view and ideas of community. I’m used to “traditional” classes. I’m used to American food. I’m used to comfort.

Experiential Education. The title implies so much, as well as asking so many questions, like what’s the experience? What is education? What can you learn from an experience? Does every experience teach you something? Is there a teacher?

I am living with a Romanian family. Every day, I wake up in a Romanian home. I eat breakfast with Romanians, I go to the bathroom in a Romanian bathroom, I walk down a Romanian street, I am experiencing Romania.

Even in the absence of a teacher, a classroom, textbooks, and a proper desk, I am learning about Romanian culture just from living with a Romanian family. Even better, I’m learning things you couldn’t learn in a classroom. I’m learning what a typical family likes to eat, what time they like to eat, what they like to talk about, what they listen to on the radio, what books they read, how they treat foreigners, how they treat each other. You might say I’m learning about Romania by experiencing Romania.

Another one of our classes is called “Sustainable Development.” In it, we’re learning a lot of the academics behind many of the people and ideas that have changed/will change/are changing the world, for better or worse. We’re learning about what it takes to develop a community of people and encourage them to empower and believe in themselves so they can sustain that development.

And what’s more, we’re seeing it happen. We took part in groups at Viaţa camp, we’re involved with kids in the IMPACT clubs, we’re seeing empowerment spring up from even the darkest of places. I can learn all I want about how this development stuff works, but I wouldn’t really get it until I came here and saw it working for myself. I’m learning about sustainable development in Romania by experiencing it in Romania.

I guess you could say that having a class entitled, “Experiential Education” is a bit redundant. Every day is a new experience, and every day is a full semester’s education in itself.

The best part, I think, is that this education isn’t limited by Romania’s borders. It doesn’t end here. Yes, I miss my comfortable home, and my brothers in West (my dorm), and speaking the primary language, but what I’m learning here, what I’m experiencing, will go with me wherever I go, even to the ends of the earth.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Weekend Getaway

This past weekend, Taylor, Matt V., Emma, Matthew G. and I decided to venture out of Lupeni and take a trip to Constanta, Romania, which is a city right near the Black Sea, and pretty much to sum it up in one phrase: It was an adventure!! We packed our things last Thursday night, and Daniel was wonderful enough to take us all to the train station in Petrosani at about 11:00pm that night. Our first obstacle to overcome was to get the actual train tickets. We had a few "train station" vocabulary words written down, and I was going to be the brave one and try to communicate with the lady. Yep, I bombed that one and ended up getting us tickets for leaving two days later than that night! It was a bit of a mess, so Daniel called Janelle, and thankfully she was able to talk to the lady and clear up the confusion. We finally had our tickets for a train leaving in about 5 minutes, so we rushed out to the tracks, found our "wagon" and finally, our seats. Yes...we thought. We were on the train, it was moving, we had plenty of food, and we were now 11 hours away from Constanta. It was about 12:30am, and we were tired, so we attempted to get comfortable, which was a bit of a challenge. I think I slept about 4 hours that night, but soon enough we arrived at the train station in Constanta.

Now, we had met a friend, Razvan, at Viata camp who is from Constanta, so he met us at the train station and right away showed us how to use the public bus system. I think we were all very thankful that Razvan was there to help us because Constanta is not a small city; it is actually quite large, and not knowing the language can always make the simplest things a bit more of a challenge. So Razvan actually hung out with us the whole weekend, and it was a blast.

On Friday, we visited a historical museum, saw both an Orthodox and Catholic Cathedral, and of course, gazed at the Black Sea. It is not black, but rather a darker blue, and it really reminded me of the North shore of Lake Superior. It was beautiful, and it was so wonderful and refreshing to see a large body of water again. I did not think I would miss that so much! That night for supper we had Shoarmas, which were delicious. I guess they are more of a turkish food? It was chicken with peppers, tomatoes, pickles, cabbage, and a garlic sauce all wrapped up in pita-like bread. After supper we walked around the town and went to a part called Tomas, which had many more stores, shops, and a McDonalds! Now, apparently, McDonalds is considered a nicer place to eat in Romania than it is in the West and is actually more expensive. So we gladly stopped in and drank good coffee and had soft-serve ice cream! (This was the first time we had found soft-serve ice cream in Romania, so we were excited.) It was a beautiful evening and we were just able sit and relax.

Another part of our adventure was finding a place to stay for the night. It was such a blessing because Razvan knew a friend who had a cousin that rented an apartment, and they were willing to rent us the apartment for the night. The only problem; no electricity! However, we were totally ok with this and were thankful to even have a place to stay. So we stopped in a supermarket, bought some little tea light candles, and used them to light up the apartment. It was very cozy and fun.

Saturday was much more rainy and cold. However, we still wanted to go to the beach, so we actually went to a part of Constanta called Mamaia. Apparantly, it is like a resort town where all the locals go to in the summer. It was beautiful to see the beach and the Black Sea, but no one was there, and it was like a ghost town. So we didn't stay there for long and instead headed back into town to the "City Park Mall". Now I think for me, this place was the biggest surprise, or unexpected thing to see in Constanta. This mall was huge, and it had everything you could ever need or want. It was nicer than the mall in Sioux Falls or the one in Sioux City. I guess it just surprised me to see such a structure in any part of Romania, and it made me a bit sad because it reminded me too much of the West. We found out that the mall was just built about six months ago. I just hope that countries do not think development can only occur through big malls and restaurants, like it appears in the West, but rather through other ways of developing a community such as more youth activities, organizations, churches, parks, and other services for the people. Sometimes I think the West has got it all wrong with its massive malls that promote consumerism and materialism.

For supper that night we went to a Turkish restaurant, which was so much fun! We all ordered different things and tried each others as well. It was all so delicious and tasty. Matthew and I had a few bad spells with some fiery hot peppers, but it made for some good laughs! After supper, we needed to head back to the train station to make sure we were ready when our train left at 12:20am, but little did we know, there was no train leaving at 12:20am. When we began talking to the lady, again with our very limited Romanian vocabulary, she explained to us that the soonest train leaving for Bucharest was not until 5:45am the next morning, and then it would have a layover in Bucharest until 5:45pm that night, which would mean arriving in Petrosani at about midnight Sunday night. What?! This was NOT part of our plans. We thought we had our return tickets figured out and would be returning to Lupeni by noon the next day. Turns out we were wrong, and we had made a mistake. So, we spent the night in the Constanta train station.

At first, I was frustrated, but there was nothing we could do about it. We were together, and we were safe, so we made the best of it. We played a lot of Phase 10 and Hearts. I only slept for about 2 hours I think. Then we spent our 8 hour layover in Bucharest hanging out at McDonalds and then at a coffee shop in the train station. We played more cards, walked around, ate food, and talked. By this time we were very tired, needed showers, and just wanted to go home. However, we made it together, and it was an adventure for sure.

I am so thankful to have gone on this weekend getaway. It was very relaxing, full of memories and laughter, and we all learned things along the way. I feel that our group is closer because of the time we spent together, and we also experienced amazing hospitality by everyone we met in Constanta. Razvan was so willing to show us things and make sure we were ok and well taken care of. He was a wonderful tour guide, and we were blessed to have him.

Sometimes you just have to take risks in life. We headed out on this adventure not knowing what we were going to do, not knowing where we were going to stay, and not understanding the language very well at all. Yet, we were fine, and we had an awesome time. I feel we were blessed because we took the risk. I really hope there will be more opportunities such as this one to discover, experience, and learn more about the culture and people of Romania.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

"This is Bet. She's from America. She has a brother and a sister. And she's Catholic."

This Monday, as part of our Eastern Orthodoxy class, we went to visit Father Otti, the Catholic priest in Lupeni, to hear about life under Communism. One of the first things Dana did was mention to Father Otti that I'm Catholic.

I've gotten used to being introduced like this. It was probably one of the first things this group learned about me. During an introduction to Tibi, who was instructing us regarding our involvement in the IMPACT groups, each of us was supposed to spend three minutes introducing another member of our group. Stalling for time, after telling Tibi that I'm Catholic, a certain member of our group proceeded to explain that my mom is Catholic, and my dad is Catholic, and that I have a brother and a sister - and they're Catholic. It's also on the list of things my host family tells people when they're introducing me. "This is Bet. (There's no "th" sound in the Romanian language.) She's from America. She has a brother and a sister. And she's Catholic."

The funny thing is that I don't mind. In fact, I kind of like it. I like the fact that, in their minds, it's right up there with my country and my family structure. It's an essential part of who I am.

After Dana introduced me, Father Otti asked (in Romanian and apparently jokingly) why I hadn't been in church on Sunday. Quite surprised, I replied that I had. In fact, I had gotten there in time for the second half of the Rosary before Mass. The church hadn't been that crowded. How could he have possibly missed the only American face in the building? How could I not have stood out?

Only later did Father Otti explain (through Dana's translating) that, when he saw me in church, he had thought I was Austrian. I was surprised - and, I'll admit, a bit flattered. Normally, walking down the streets, people know immediately that we're Americans. (Matt has to explain that he's actually Canadian.) It's common to hear people greet us with "Hello" instead of "Ciao" because they can tell where we're from. Father Otti could tell I was a foreigner . . . but didn't immediately peg me as an American. And he probably didn't give it a great deal of thought, either. Because it didn't matter whether I was Romanian or Austrian or American. What mattered was that I was Catholic.

For class yesterday, we were supposed to write a journal reflecting on the question: "What about you is Christian, and what about you is American/Canadian?" I ended up turning the question around and asking myself what about me was Catholic. Because a lot of things that are assumed to be uniquely Catholic back in the United States are beliefs that are held by Orthodoxy, as well. We share the same seven Sacraments - they call them "Mysteries". Our belief about the Eucharist is very similar, although they don't define it specifically as transubstantiation. We have similar beliefs about Mary and the Saints. We differ on matters such as Papal authority and the "filioque" clause in the Creed. And, oh, yeah, we use different calendars to determine the date for Easter. But, on the whole, we have a lot more in common than not.

I remember, during our first week at Straja, Matt VanderMolen and I went up to the Orthodox church and walked through the tunnel leading up to it. It was filled with pictures of Saints. A calendar covered one whole side of the tunnel - with a different Saint for each day. On the other end of the tunnel was one of the Stations of the Cross that lead up to the huge, glowing cross in Straja that can be seen from Lupeni. (The Stations lead from Lupeni, up the mountain to Straja - very nice, symbolically speaking.) I remember being surprised that, despite not having learned much Romanian by that point, I could tell, more or less, what the first part of the station said: "We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you, because by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world." So familiar to me after years of going to Stations of the Cross with my family, my school, and at retreats. Something so familiar - here, in Romania, at an Orthodox church.

So what about me is Catholic? Does it really come down to the Pope, a different day for Easter, and three words in the creed? Is that it? Is that really all that's separating the Catholic Church from the Orthodox Church?

Well, no. That's not all. I'm learning, being here, that a large part of it is cultural. There's a vagueness, a mystery to Orthodoxy that is at the same time appealing and frustrating. We Catholics tend to define things more. The Orthodox pride themselves on the unchangingness of their beliefs, their worship, their way of life. Personally, I'm glad the Catholic Church has changed a bit - I barely know five words in Latin.

So what, specifically, about me is Catholic? I don't know exactly how to put it into words. But there's something special about being able to walk into the Catholic church here in Lupeni, and, aside from the homily, understand a good 90% of what is said - not because of my impressive Romanian language skills, but because I'm Catholic. It's good to know that, on the other side of the world, eight hours or so after me, my family will be doing the same thing. Sharing a common experience. On any Sunday I like - and some weekdays - I can walk into a fancy cathedral in New Ulm, Minnesota, or a small chapel at my grandma's nursing home, and Mass will be Mass. The Eucharist will still be the Eucharist. And a priest will still be a priest.

Which brings me back to Father Otti. What may stick with me most about the visit was when Dana told us that Father Otti and Father Ciocan (the Orthodox priest here) will sometimes officiate at each other's services. And my reaction wasn't, "What??? That's got to be against some rule!" My reaction was quite likely the goofiest grin ever, because, mentally, all I could think was, "Yes! Amazing! Awesome!"

It's people like Father Otti who make me really proud to be a Catholic. He knows what he believes and where he stands. Other people know what he believes and where he stands. But, at the same time, he's willing to reach out a hand of friendship to people who believe differently. He's willing to take part in an Orthodox service. He was willing to open his doors to a bunch of students from a Protestant school. And I couldn't help but smile when I saw a copy of the Koran on his bookshelf - not hidden away somewhere, but sitting right up front.

Maybe that's part of what's in me that's Catholic. It's not uniquely Catholic, but I'd like to think that, as a whole, it's becoming part of our mentality. A firmness in our own beliefs while accepting the beliefs of others with respect.

As for what in me is American, the question brought to mind a visit Pax Christi had from Professor Jundt last year. (Pax Christi - Latin for "Peace of Christ," accounting for nearly half of my Latin vocabulary - is a group on campus where Catholics and non-Catholics come to discuss various issues.) Professor Jundt was talking to us about the history of Catholicism in America. One of the things that came up was something John F. Kennedy once said: "I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic."

Well, I'm not. I'm not an American who happens to be Catholic. I'm not a student at Northwestern College who happens to be Catholic. And I'm not a student here on the Romania Semester who happens to be Catholic.

My Catholicism isn't a coincidence; it's a part of who I am. A part that transcends language and even culture. And, at the same time, a part that allowed and even encouraged me to, after going to Mass last Sunday, go down the road to the Orthodox church, then later to an impromptu sing-along-style worship service on a hill near our house with my host sister and brothers and a few of their friends, and, finally, to the Pentecostal church in the evening with my family. A part that reminds me to be firm in my own beliefs while, at the same time, respecting the beliefs of others.

That's what's in me that's Catholic. And I that, I think, is something to be proud of.

Pace si Doamne ajuta,