A year ago I read that if you want to meet the next Mother Teresa, you should go see in Tecate, Mexico. I was instantly intrigued. I thought to myself, since Tecate is practically in my backyard—I live in San Francisco—I had no reason not to go.
Then just one month later I encountered Mother Lillie at a Divine Mercy conference, where she was one of the scheduled speakers. I'll always remember how I first saw her, addressing a youth group, a Powerpoint presentation projected behind her on the screen. She was showing pictures of the children on the outskirts of Tecate, and the orphanage that she had built in nearby Mount Tabor. She was exhorting the audience of California kids to love and obey their parents. Three or four Trinitarian Sisters were standing behind her, singing softly and praying. Mother Lillie told the youngsters that they had everything they needed, that they had more than they needed, that they should be thankful for having loving parents, devoted Catholics parents, but that the children around Mount Tabor have no one, that they often suffer from abuse and neglect, that they go to sleep hungry, that the only bed they have is the cardboard they can crawl under. It was a powerful presentation, and it looked to me that everyone was hanging on her very word. Then she stopped talking, and there was some applause and another speaker came on. Mother Lillie came to the back wall, exactly where I was standing. When I told her that she had just delivered a great speech, I noticed that she was crying. She worried whether she had been able to touch them and whether she had not been too hard on them. And I said "No"; they need to hear the truth. I also told her that I would love to visit her and she looked straight at me and smiled and said "Come, we will be there".
Eight months later, on a beautiful Thanksgiving morning, I set out for Tecate. I boarded a flight to Los Angeles, where I would be met by my daughter for the drive to Mexico. On the way to LAX I read Pope John Paul II's encyclical, —On the Eucharist and its Relationship to the Church. In that document he presents the Eucharist as a gift for the world, and connects its historical and sociological development to its cosmic and spiritual dimensions. I find this very exciting; something in me resonates and says: Yes! That's how it is. If we Catholics really understood what goes on at each Eucharistic celebration, we would be floored! "Astonished... bewildered... amazed!" These are words used by the Pope.
I was so impressed by the thought of Mother Lillie and her nuns coming from San Diego, planting their little trailer on top of the hill, and starting Adoration right away…
I landed in Los Angeles. The weather was milder, the freeways busier, and there were skinny palm trees and whacky billboards all over the place. That evening, I had a lovely dinner with family and friends in Santa Monica. Life is good, life is clean and life is very comfortable in beautiful California. At least on the surface. The state's voters had just passed Proposition 71, authorizing $3 Billion in government funding for embryonic stem cell research. The measure promises a cure-all for a wide-range of diseases, from Parkinson's to Diabetes, but was mainly a cover-up for cloning and greed, for a utilitarian view of human life that's neither good nor clean.
The next day, on Friday, my daughter and I drove south to Tecate. Once we passed the Mexican border, everything changed. It's amazing the difference a few miles can make. Tecate is a small town, with a lovely center square surrounded by Taco stands and little shops. It's also the home of a famous Beer Factory. But there is also much poverty. We had the directions to Mount Tabor, just a few miles away. We drove past little canyons filled with shacks and running kids; we drove past a dumpsite with groups of people gathered around burning fires, everything looking precarious and dreary. The surrounding poverty kept us silent. The directions said the entrance to the monastery was right across the new Toyota plant, and we finally went through the white gates of Mount Tabor, up a dirt road, up the hill to Mother Lillie's monastery. The sun was setting behind us and we arrived exactly as the night was falling.
The monastery is on top of a small mountain and consists of a few houses, with plans for many more. A Sister took us to the original building, the first one they had, where she told us to leave our bags in the inner courtyard and wait in the Chapel for a little while. I remembered that one of the first things that attracted me to this place was a black and white picture that I had seen of the Sisters doing Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in a trailer. You could see one Sister kneeling by the door, her two feet sticking out of the doorway. I was so impressed by the thought of them coming from San Diego, planting their little trailer on top of the hill, and starting Adoration right away... It set me dreaming for a while.
JPII says that in the Eucharist and in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, we are "spurred on our journey and that it increases (rather than lessens) our sense of responsibility for the world today." This is what Mother Lillie and her Sisters have done at Mount Tabor. They've given their lives over to praying for the world and serving the poor and the sick, and the monastery has grown out of their love for God and from the unending streams of their devotions. Their witness to the harmonious union of action and contemplation inspires me and fills me with hope.
If we Catholics really understood what goes on at each Eucharistic celebration, we would be floored!
There was a Mass at 6 p.m., with all the Sisters singing and the little girls sitting in the front rows. A visiting British Priest celebrated the Mass, with a Deacon from Los Angeles and a one-eyed Carmelite Priest (one patch covering his left eye, lost to cancer), who smiles constantly. Through the windows behind the altar, you could see the lights of the Toyota plant shining in the dark of the valley below. The Mass was beautiful, full of reverence, and very peaceful. It was a faithful and fruitful celebration. In this "Year of the Eucharist", the encyclical says that "the Eucharist is always celebrated on the altar of the world. It unites heaven and earth. It embraces and permeates all creation. The Son of God became man in order to restore all creation in one supreme act of praise to the One who made it from nothing".
After the Mass, we all gathered in the Girls'school for a Thanksgiving dinner. We must have been about 50 people, sitting around one long table. The dinner was truly a Thanksgiving dinner since it had been prepared by a generous and kind Filipino couple, regular visitors of the monastery, who decided to offer this feast to the Sisters, in gratitude. They drove down from Northern California, bringing all the food needed and they had spent all day preparing the feast. The Sisters thanked everyone because they are completely dependant on volunteers and donations, and they, more than anyone else, know how much love bubbles and flows from both the grace of giving and the grace of receiving.
We had visited the school earlier in the evening and met all the girls. They looked very happy in their brand new building and the interaction between the girls and the Sisters was a delight to watch. Mother Lillie opened up the school because, she said, they need more than just food and shelter, they need an education. While looking at a science chart on the wall of the classroom, I was thinking that the issues of stem cell research and cloning seemed very distant from Mount Tabor. But there is a link between them, and it has to do with the truth.
The truth is that California voters were hood-winked into approving Proposition 71 based on false premises. Their opulence and comfort confused them about the truth—that the research they voted to fund would be built upon the manipulation and destruction of human life. And the interests who stood to profit the most from the proposition (follow the money!) knew how to use that confusion.
Proposition 71 promises a cure-all for a wide-range of diseases but was mainly a cover-up for cloning and greed.
But one good thing had also happened during the electoral campaign, although it occurred too late to affect the result. It was the moment where you could hear the truth about Prop 71 coming out from both the progressive side and from the conservative side. They arrived at the truth from different angles, but nonetheless, they both saw the truth and spoke it: Prop 71 was bad for the state's finances, bad for women's rights, bad for ethics, and bad for Life. I like to remember that moment because it holds great hope. True peace and real progress will come out of combined efforts for the common good.
That night we slept in the very cells where the Sisters first slept when they arrived at Mount Tabor over 10 years ago. Each cell is tiny, with just enough room for a mattress on the floor. Once you lie down, if you extend your arms, you can touch the walls on either side. We curled up under two sets of thick blankets because the nights are pretty chilly in Northern Mexico in late November. Everything surrounding us was completely still and quiet.
I attended Mass the following morning in the Sisters' Chapel. Their singing was very moving. The celebration of the Eucharist requires that there is a "communion of the community celebrating it, because it is an expression of the bonds of that community." JPII says that no individual church can forget the universal Church, that there is an invisible dimension along with the visible dimension of the sacrament. And it did occur to me, while kneeling next to the Sisters and next to the few visitors that November morning, that the love and respect between the participants is the visible dimension of our love and respect for the sacrament. Our Pope is completely right when he says that our love for the Church can be most eloquently demonstrated when we celebrate the Mass faithfully, respecting the liturgical norms with fidelity. In that little Chapel, I was filled with gratitude for being part of this sacramental celebration which is "the Church's treasure, the heart of the Church, the pledge of fulfillment". JPII has asked us to "keep alive the hunger for the Eucharist" and my visit to Mount Tabor left me filled with such hope and zeal that I wanted to share that hunger and write about it....
I have complete trust that Mother Lillie's vision of Mount Tabor as a retreat center and a place of worship, a free clinic and a free school for girls, a welcoming house for priests and a spiritual center for all, that all of this will be realized—because of the holiness of the people involved, who believe more than anything else in the grace of God.
My daughter commented on the "youthful" look of all the Sisters, even the ones that she knew to be older. They all managed to radiate joy and peace and even a sense of playfulness. And I said that's because there is an innocence about them—which is not be confused with ignorance. They are very much aware of suffering, either because they face it daily in their effort to serve or because they experience it in their own bodies (like Fr. Richard). But their true connection with the "wellspring of grace"—as JPII calls the Eucharist and Adoration—allows them to be a comforting and supportive presence. The Pope also said that he wrote his encyclical because "to contemplate the face of Christ is the program that I have set before the Church. From this living bread she draws her nourishment".
I was back in my own parish, Notre Dame des Victoires, on Sunday morning. It is such a blessing to me to have a Mass in my native French, with a French Choir, here in downtown San Francisco. We also have Adoration on Sunday afternoons. I felt so grateful to be Catholic, to be a member of the Body of Christ and to be able to worship in Mexico on Saturday morning and in San Francisco the following day. This chain of prayers and worship which encircles the globe is truly amazing. It is a chain of love and truth, made of so many different links. This is where faith helps me: it inspires me to connect the dots in the big picture. And I can see the connection between the good work of the Sisters at Mount Tabor and every Catholic social justice program; between the political activities of my friends and the emergence of serious Catholic websites on the internet, enabling us to articulate our voice in the popular culture; and lastly between the teaching efforts of our Pope in his wonderful encyclical on the Eucharist and our individual responsibilities to live up daily to the challenges of "loving God and loving our neighbor" and working for the common good.
The Sisters’ witness to the harmonious union of action and contemplation inspires me and fills me with hope.
And finally, I offer a prayer: "And I, through the grace of your love, have access to your Son, and I bow, in front of the Eucharist, filled with awe..."