Three weeks ago twenty-one volunteers set out on a 'St. Francis Build' under the sponsorship of 'Seeds Of Learning'; I was among them. We were to add our labor to the construction of a library addition to the learning center in Casas Viejar, Nicaragua. I knew only two others, the Franciscan priest and my daughter, and had been unable to attend the pre-travel meetings. In the weeks leading up to the trip I had fallen into a very dark space, disappointment and grief filled my thoughts and I could not get myself to focus on preparation; rather then think and plan I just randomly gathered clothes and essentials. Despite the pall which hung over me, I had anticipated that the novel experience would overpower the negativity I was caught in --but as we assembled in the airport in Managua I felt an almost physical closing off; an overpowering alienation unlike anything I'd ever experienced before--apart and unconnected. I was grateful for the long ride to our site giving me time to 'get a grip'. The intensity lessened but there remained a feeling of remoteness that continued to make it difficult for me to relate to others.
Whatever was happening to me it was not culture shock for I've often traveled abroad--this was a spiritual rather than cultural 'something'.
The work--physical labor--was good; demanding, hot and hard but within my abilities and it was good to have a way to direct my energy beyond the pain of my emotional state. I could not make it out of the dark space to engage with people and I recinded my before-arriving-offer to do any of the journal writing, prayers or reflections. I felt embarassed by my withdrawel but helpless to break free of the depression/alienation that held me captive.
So went the week, then it was time to create a celebration for our host group. I was not 'up' for half-day-long social interaction but knew it was unavoidable. I listened to the planning group, they decided to sing a couple songs (We Are Marching in 3 languages) . . . I can't sing and I surely can't sing in Spanish! They then decided to do a demonstration square dance as an example of American culture, followed by the Hokey-Pokey with which to pull everyone in. In silence I judged it all a bad plan--stupid and not 'right' without real square dance music and a caller--and of course the Hokey-Pokey is beyond ridiculous!
The following afternoon as we gathered for our cultural demonstration I so wanted to escape but couldn't without being unacceptably obvious. With everything inside me pulling further away, the group began singing; I mouthed the words (or a near approximation), but as I did, I listened . . . and realized it sounded good; even more, it sounded beautiful! I found myself tearing up and put on my sun glasses to hide behind them when I couldn't stop the tears. Nothing 'outside' had changed, but within, I was being transformed. As they did the square dance (one person called) to my eyes and ears it seemed like a group that did it every Saturday night, it was great--it went smoothly, was lively, fun for everyone and somehow sounded 'right' in spite of the 'wrong music'. As they ended with the bridge part and began to pull in the children I was flooded with emotion, tears fell, a thought flashed, "This is pure joy!" and I realized I wasn't just watching it, I was IN it; I was experiencing profound joy! --an emotion so foreign to this 'too serious' me. I was glad for the noise and commotion and just kept swallowing to try to regain composure. Then the Hokey-Pokey was next and I got pulled in--everyone was laughing and having fun; happiness filled the room, lifting me with it.
At the beginning of the trip we were told to stay alert for moments of a 'God encounter' during the week --I recognized that the feeling of pure joy was mine; from that moment the darkness lifted, something inside shifted and my whole demeanor changed, I laughed and danced the Hoey-Pokey and after it I was able to relax and engage when we visited the other out-lieing center.
Abraham Maslow coined the phrase 'peak experiences'.
In life there are occasional transcendent moments, this was one.