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Autumn Tapestry of Reflection

By Luke Trinka, Lazarus House, Kansas City 16. Bowdoin College 16. 

A brief note: what follows is a reflection that emerges out of my first, formative months as a Jesuit Volunteer. This piece is a tapestry, interweaving all kinds of wisdom lineages, perspectives, and thinkers. At its heart, though, is autumn – a season that frames my current life position.

Parker Palmer reminds me that falling is full of promise; new life is hidden in dying.[1] Autumn is not only a season of diminishment, but also a cycle of composting and planting. Nature’s workings align with my own life-position, one of sowing new seeds. Three months ago, I became a Jesuit Volunteer and with four other newly minted JVs moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Together, we embraced the four pillars of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps: social justice, spirituality, community, and simple living. However, before these four become sturdy values, they begin as seedlings needing persistent tending.

We stand in the tragic gap, the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible.[2]

We live in a country and world hostile to migrants, immigrants, and refugees. That said, at a primal level, we know that across our differences we belong to each other. We are interrelated, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.[3]

I stand in the tragic gap as a migrant advocate, accompanying migrant, seasonal, and year-round farmworker families while they are in rural, western Missouri. Each Tuesday, I convene an afterschool youth leadership group called TEC – Teen Empowerment Collective. It is an inclusive space for migrant teenagers to manifest their best selves, experience a peer group, and participate in a range of extracurricular opportunities.

A few weeks ago, twenty-three of us piled into vans and went on a field trip to Kansas City. For many, it was their first time visiting a zoo, experiencing a major city, and going to a fancy mall. It was special to encounter these places – which I tend to casually regard as “ordinary”– through the wide-eyes of the teens. Tapping into their sense of appreciation and wonder was a deep blessing. In reflecting on the day, a poet’s lines ring true: Let the eye enlarge / with all it beholds.[4]

There are moments where I face the hard realities. The rural towns spotted with Confederate flags, masquerading as “heritage” but in truth signifiers of the discrimination that Mexican immigrant and migrant families encounter. The overcrowded and confining labor camp cells that I see each Tuesday evening when I drive teens home. The students’ experience of rootlessness and attending three to four schools in a year – “I can’t really have friends” were one young man’s words. What is already a shadowed adolescent period is made even darker by a life on the move. In response to these harsh realities, I move inward, “am I addressing broken structures or immediate needs?” “Does TEC deliver on its mission to empower young men and women?”

Yet as a spade-worker in the tragic gap – straddling reality and possibility – I try to remain steadfastly faithful. I believe in accompaniment, I believe in simple companionship and compassion, I believe in walking alongside teens as they take on the peaks and valleys of adolescence.

Core to the Jesuit Volunteer experience is an open, honest engagement with spirituality and faith.

luketrinkaWhile seeking wisdom from the great spiritual traditions has animated my life over the past years, my search has taken on a distinct sense of urgency. I remain rooted in the Catholic tradition that I was brought up with, yet also find myself striving to plant new seeds, nurture new interests. This has led me to a rich engagement with mindfulness meditation, Parker Palmer, and Jesuit spirituality.

The predawn darkness is my favorite hour to roll out a mat, stretch achy muscles, and sink into meditation. Even on those days when it is hard to shake morning grogginess, I channel the centuries-old words of a fellow practitioner:

Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me…We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn…I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.[5]

Thoreau’s early rising resonates. I see great value in starting the day gently tending to the basics: breath, body, thoughts, and feelings. By allowing simple awareness to touch these first waking moments, I feel primed to take on the day with alert aliveness.

Enriching my foray into mindfulness meditation are the steps I take with a Quaker wise man each day. Recently, I embarked on 40-Day Journey with Parker Palmer, a book that distills the jewels of his teachings in the form of daily meditations. The book encourages journal keeping, which gives me an opportunity to be in “conversation” with Palmer. Among my favorite of his reflections is one in which he echoes Thoreau’s clarion call for conscious living:

All the great spiritual traditions want to awaken us to the fact that we cocreate the reality in which we live. And all of them ask two questions intended to keep us awake: What are we sending from within ourselves out into the world, and what impact is it having ‘out there’? What is the world sending back at us, and what impact is it having ‘in here’?[6]

These two streams of wisdom intersect at the confluence of Jesuit spirituality. It is not only a spirituality, but an encompassing way of seeing and being in the world. Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins captures it best: The world is charged with the grandeur of God.[7] Springing from these revelatory words is that God is at work everywhere – in small-town Waverly, MO on TEC Tuesdays, in the tragic gap, in the dark mornings, and in the shifts into new seasons of living and being.

All of us are apprenticed to the same teacher that the religious institutions originally worked with: reality. Reality-insight says…master the twenty-four hours. It is as hard to get the children herded into the car pool and down the road to the bus as it is to chant sutras in the Buddha-hall on a cold morning. Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes – don’t let yourself think these are distracting you from your more serious pursuits. Such a round of chores is not a set of difficulties we hope to escape from so that we may do our ‘practice’ which will put us on a ‘path’ – it is our path.[8]

Amidst our crazy world’s fissures, amidst those tragic gaps, amidst the search for meaning, amidst the tension of community living, and amidst my shift into new seasons of living and being, is a humble truth: There is in all visible things…a hidden wholeness.[9] And as nature moves us deeper into this season of diminishment and beauty, I conspire with it and praise what little of autumn there is left.

———

[1] Palmer. “Autumn: A Season of Paradox.”

[2] French, Henry. 40-Day Journey With Parker J. Palmer. Augsburg Books, 2008.

[3] King Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Letter_Birmingham_Jail.pdf.

[4] Pastan, Linda. “Autumn.” Heroes in Disguise. W.W. Norton, 1991.

[5] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden, Civil Disobedience, and Other Writings. W.W. Norton, 2008.

[6] French, 40-Day Journey With Parker J. Palmer.

[7] Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems and Prose. Penguin Classics, 1985.

[8] Snyder, Gary. The Practice of the Wild. Counterpoint, 2004.

[9] Palmer, “Autumn: A Season of Paradox.”