Learning from the Past

It is often the unplanned, spontaneous adventures that prove to be the most rewarding. Bruges, Belgium proved to be the case.

Covered in chocolate shops, dotted with breweries, surrounded with tourists, and lined with canals, the city which was home to Theodore James Ryken and the foundation of the Xaverian Brothers offered a warm embrace after several days of post-Camino excitement. Chasing another cheap travel arrangement, I landed in Brussels and hopped a train north to Bruges. After speaking with Brother Ed, and the Xaverian Brothers, they were ready to welcome me as a guest.

Home to Catholic Royal Families and host to hidden artifacts during our world’s embattled past, Bruges offered a culture as rich as its chocolate and as refreshing as its beer. The city begged to be traveled by foot longing for people to discover its historic past and towering belfries. As the days progressed, I downed various styles of Belgium beers and consumed more chocolate than I dare say, but what was perhaps more intoxicating was the living history of the Xaverian Brothers that I was graciously embraced into.

With living accommodations in the oldest surviving school and house of the Xaverian Brothers, I was welcomed into their community. Walking into churches, moving past canals, and standing in centuries old squares, it was hard not imagine Theodore James Ryken existing in these same spaces. In fact, there are even some records of him in many of those exact places. But what does any of this matter? What can a man, 200 year my predecessor, offer to me, a young 20-something? Moreover, what could this skeleton of a man offer any one of us? His culture was different? His world was different? Dreams of instant interconnectivity and nightmares of certain world peril were entirely out of Ryken’s imagination yet his convictions and grasps for hope were entirely relatable.

On the precipice of the church where Ryken prayed and received spiritual direction stands a statue of St. Francis Xavier. Garbed in his traditional iconography, Xavier is easily recognized above the entrance to the church. Yet what sets him apart from other SFX statues, and what I can imagine inspired Ryken is that the Xavier on this statue is stepping off of his platform, marking his call for a mission spirit. Surrounding by what was once a Jesuit church and is believed to be the first church named in honor of Xavier, St. Walburgis (renamed during the Vatican suppression of the Society of Jesus) it clear why Ryken might have been inspired and why we too should be inspired.

Theodore James Ryken witnessed a world in need. A world infected by fear. He lived in a society where gaps in equality were growing at a difficult rate. Ryken saw a population of people in serious need of assistance. Ryken acknowledged all of this and realized his calling to respond. He saw a need and worked to change it.

In our own lives, how might we be inspired to step off of our own pedestals and go out to the world in need? How might we witness the pervasive rhetoric of fear consuming the masses and respond with positive examples of hope? How might we recognize those on the margins and those who are persecuted and stand with them as allies? How might we acknowledge the signs of our time and take action to improve the lives of others?

If we are to be anything like Theodore James Ryken, then we will need to do what he did: do something. We should walk around and see the world beyond the alternative reality of PokemonGo. We should encounter people and recognize that we are more similar than different. We should recognize the language of hate and violence that penetrates our society and respond words and actions of peace. We should listen with the ear of our heart, contemplate on the calling that we are all inspired receive, and then we should do something about it.

The stain glass wondows retelling the history of the Xaverian Brothers
At St. James church in Bruges, the traditional starting point for people from this town…should I start again? It’s only 2462 km to Santiago!

The foundation house where it all started. Now this property is occupied by squatters.

The statue of St. Francis Xavier above the portico at St. Walburgis.

The skull of Theodore James Ryken.

Iconography from the original school’s chapel.
A statue of St. Joseph. The only other one like it exists only in the Vatican.
Statue of St. Francis Xavier looking out to the shore of China, where he had hoped to one day step foot before his death.

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It's just called waffles here!

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  1. Bobby this is so neat. Thanks for sharing. You have taken me places that I will never set foot on, but feel like I have been there thru your journeys.


  2. Bobby*,
    It is so very neat that you got to visit Bruges, Belgium. I also love the pictures, except for the one of the skull of Theodore James Ryken. Safe travels home.

    Sent from my iPad


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