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Starting Point

Call to wake us up, open our doors


Not long ago a woman came to buy some bonsai pots here at the barn and she pulled her van into the old barn where we store our pots. I went back to help her load the pots she had selected into the back of her van and I noticed a small box. I thought it was a CD player and mentioned to her that it might be best to move it out of the way so that the pots would not slip and hit it.

“That’s a Voyager,” she said. “A truly amazing thing.”

I had never heard of a Voyager. She said it was a device that was hooked up to a screen in the front of the van and that she could get directions to anywhere by keying in names, coordinates, search words and the like into a cellular phone-like device. “Wanna see?” she asked.

She climbed into the front seat and I got in next to her. “That box in the back is a satellite hook-up. It picks up signals from five satellites, and so the information that you will see in a minute on that screen right by your knee is live and constantly updated. Watch. Let me try and program something in.”

After pressing a few buttons the screen lit up, and there was a “menu” offering several options. “Watch this,” she said and keyed in the address of the monastery. In seconds an image appeared on the screen. There was a little pointer that she moved over a spot of blue amidst a bunch of wavy lines.

“That’s your lake, the one near the retreat house. And see that red dot? That’s us. The satellite always gives a red dot to indicate just where we are and where we are going.”

Suddenly the image began to flicker a bit and fade. “It is best not to run on just the battery,” she said. “Let me turn the engine on, and that will brighten things up.” She inserted the key in the ignition, and the van hummed to life. I kept my eyes on the screen, and there was a brightening of the image. She then asked me for places I wanted to see. She gleefully keyed in my hometown, and then the place where my mom lives in Louisiana. “Paris,” I said. “Get me to Paris!” And within seconds there was the Rue de Whatever.

And so we sat, and I felt connected to places so far away. Even though I would surely never drive the van, there was some comfort just knowing that such a device is available. How wondrous is science, able to offer such a marvelous way of finding oneself and one’s bearings in this ever-confusing world.

“Father James! Father James!”

I was startled by the voice and at once recognized it as Pee Wee’s. He was standing next to the van. I was so absorbed in the Voyager that I did not notice his approach. His eyes were as wide open as could be. “Father Jaaaaammmeess! You wanna die? Don’t you smell those fumes? You’re on your way to heaven if you don’t get out of there soon!”

I opened the door and told him we were all right. I told him we were looking at a machine that tells people how to get where they are going.

He laughed. “Lotta good that thing’ll do if you die before you get where you need to go. Ain’t that right? Gotta know what’s goin’ on where you’re at first.”

The woman and I both laughed along with him. Pee Wee and I finished putting the pots in her van, and soon she was heading on her way, confident on her destination with her Voyager at her side.

We live in a world that offers more and more ways of knowing. Billions of bits of knowledge fill the air, bounce from satellites and travel along wires and beams of light. From all of this, what is most worth knowing?

That afternoon I was captivated with being able to coordinate myself vis à vis places far and wide. And although we were never in any serious danger, Pee Wee’s call served as a reminder of the immediacy of good knowing. Call it care, love, awareness, goodness -- it is the smelling of something strange and giving a wake-up call.

With the ever-increasing largesse of knowledge that entices us in this day and age, there have come worries, too. Old secure ways of getting around in this world are slipping fast. Social, familial, religious and even global structures that once afforded coordinates, offering a lifetime of tried and true guides are fading into the past. And we do not yet possess anything to replace them.

But we have each other. And there is something in us that instinctively knows when something smells bad, and the people who call us to wake up and open our hearts, doors and eyes are prophets. They call us to life, to the good, to getting where we were made to go and where we really want to go.

It is called grace. Or Isaiah. Or Pee Wee. Truly amazing things, these bearers of news, of light, of hope.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga. His e-mail address is james@trappist.net

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000