Last Monday I did a major closet cleanout. It came about in the way all of my big household projects come about: I noticed that there was a problem, muttered something along the lines of I should do something about this at some point, promptly forgot about it, and ignored the situation until it got to the point of ruining my life. On Monday morning I was looking for a t-shirt and my arm got stuck in a jumbled of clothes, and only became more entrenched the more I struggled. I momentarily thought that my closet had become a malevolent organism that was now trying to eat me, like a bad outtake from Poltergeist, and that’s when I decided that it might be time to clean it out.
I ended up stuffing five large trash bags with clothes that no longer fit. It was nice stuff, too: my mom is the master of finding designer clothes at bargain prices, so a lot of the items in the bag were high-quality pieces that I’d only worn once or twice before I lost weight. As I dragged the bulging bags down the stairs, I thought of what a great haul this would be for someone else. I was in the middle of calculating how much time it would take to get to the local Goodwill store and back, when a name came to mind:
Our friend Alicia occasionally makes trips to her home town in Mexico, and in the past she’s asked for any extra clothing or household items we could spare, since she gives them to impoverished people down there. She hadn’t asked me about that in a long time, though, so I went back to my bag dragging.
I heard the name again. I almost considered setting these bags aside for her, but before the thoughts could coalesce in my mind, I was back to fixating how to get this stuff to Goodwill. I had a thousand things going on that day, and was feeling overwhelmed. I hadn’t really had the time to spare to do this cleanout, and now I just wanted this off my plate. Besides, I wasn’t going to see Alicia any time soon — who knows how long those bags would end up sitting there if I reserved them for her? I hadn’t heard about any planned trips to Mexico either; for all I knew she’d stopped going altogether because of the drug violence. So I hoisted the bags into the car, rushed down to Goodwill, and hurried back to all the other things on my to-do list that day.
Two days later, Alicia showed up at my door.
She has a cleaning business that we support, and I had thought she might come by to do some work sometime in late April, but I never expected her so soon. I told her it was a pleasant surprise to see her and welcomed her in. After she’d been there for a while, she took me aside.
“Jenny, can I talk to you about something?” she asked in Spanish. I said of course. “Do you have any extra clothes that I could have to take to Mexico?”
I was shocked. It had been so long since this topic had come up. Alicia hadn’t seen my closet, and I hadn’t mentioned anything about my cleanout. I thought of my half-empty clothing racks, the overstuffed bags of clothes at Goodwill, and resisted the urge to smack myself in the forehead. Before I could answer, she explained the sense of urgency I’d noticed in her tone:
She has an aging uncle who lives in a particularly impoverished area of Mexico, and she’s about to go visit him because he desperately needs her help. Though she didn’t say this, I knew that it would be an enormous sacrifice for her to go without work for that time, and that it would take a lot of effort to arrange care for her ailing husband, who is not able to live on his own. But, she explained, this uncle is getting very feeble and has a hard time taking care of himself, and so Alicia and her sister have agreed to take shifts going down there to stay with him.
In the area where he lives, she explained, there is poverty like we almost never see in the United States. Her eyes grew grave for a moment, then she shook her head, as if trying not to think too much about the things she’d seen down there. Many of the people don’t own beds or blankets. They don’t have towels. The kids have nothing to wear but the tattered clothes on their backs. They don’t usually even have beans to eat: a typical meal for a person around there might be a single tortilla. Though Alicia lives well below the poverty line here in the United States, she said she feels embarrassed by her lavish lifestyle every time she goes down there and sees these people who have nothing.
“And so when I can bring them clothes,” she said, “it is a big blessing.” She told me that a few years ago she took a tattered jacket that was in such poor condition that she was almost embarrassed to give it to anyone. A local mother gladly accepted it; when Alicia returned the next year, she was still wearing it.
The image of those five bags of clothes burned in my mind. I was so exasperated with myself I could hardly speak. In the end I dug out some extra clothes I’d planned to keep and passed them on to her, and also asked about offering financial assistance so that she could buy needed items locally in Mexico.
After our conversation was over, I sat on the edge of my bed, staring blankly at the carpet. What killed me about the situation was not that it happened in and of itself, but that I was certain the Holy Spirit had tried to prompt me to save those clothes for the people in Mexico. Those five bags were meant for Alicia; and because I was too focused on my to-do list to listen for the voice of God, I gave them to someone else. I’m sure Goodwill will put them to good use, but their warehouse is already overflowing with clothes. Also, that store is located in a firmly middle-class area, surrounded for miles by other middle-class areas; the people around here don’t need extra clothes like the people in Mexico do.
That Monday morning that I hastily gave away those bags, I hadn’t spent any time in prayer. If I’m to be honest, it had probably been days since I actually set aside time to intently focus myself on the Lord. This has been a pattern for the past few months, and I keep saying that I need to make more time for prayer. Yes, my life is very busy, but if I spent even one-tenth the time I spend messing around on the internet in silent time with God, I could have a pretty solid prayer life. I know this. I’ve known it for a while. But I thought of it in a “ha-ha, I’m so bad about that!” kind of way. In my selfishness, I thought it was just between me and God.
It took the situation with Alicia to wake me up to the fact that when we’re not closely listening for the voice of God, we don’t just miss out on the peace and joy we experience from a deeper relationship with the Lord; we don’t just miss an opportunity to give honor and glory to the One who most deserves it; we don’t just miss out on answered prayers God may have had in store for us — sometimes we miss the opportunity to answer someone else’s prayer.
This, to me, is one of the most startling words of the Lord’s prayer. Maybe the most startling.
I have a feeling that it wouldn’t be as remarkable to someone who came from a different cultural background, but I am an American and a Texan. I come from one of the most individualistic states in the most individualistic culture in the world. And even though I was an atheist in my youth, this cultural heritage deeply influenced my views about religion.
The Christianity that I grew up around very much had a “Jesus and me” flavor to it: you had your Bible, your personal relationship with Jesus, maybe a church community whose purpose was to help you grow in your personal faith, and that’s pretty much all you needed. Even the college kids who dabbled in Buddhism or Wicca approached their beliefs in a very individualistic way: Buddhist meditations were about retiring to a secluded place and focusing on your inner self; the Wiccans sought earth goddesses and cosmic energy as a kind of mystical self-help technique. I’d never seen another way of approaching faith.
This blindspot would end up being a critical roadblock to my belief in God.
“It makes no sense that God would make us jump through the hoops of finding him through the Bible or some church,” I’d say to my husband when I was first researching religion. “Why wouldn’t he just reveal himself to each of us individually? It would skip so much red tape and misunderstanding!”
In my hardwired Texan (not to mention prideful) mentality, I could not see any advantage to this inefficient system that made us go through the Bible and churches and word-of-mouth to get to God. Until I took a close look at the Our Father.
It’s plural. When Jesus’ disciples asked him how to pray, he put the words of a collective prayer on their tongues. He instructed his followers to address their Father as a family.
Once I understood this, it answered so many of my questions. Yes, it would be more efficient if God simply revealed himself to each one of us and told us whatever we needed to know. But if he did that, what would happen? We would withdraw from one another. Our natural human tendencies toward selfishness and self-centeredness would creep in until we each lived on our own little islands. And so he came up with the perfect plan:
The entirety of God’s revelation to man occurs through other people. In other words: we have to draw near to one another to get to him.
Being an extreme introvert as well as an extreme individualist, it’s easy for me to slip into that “Jesus and me” mindset where I forget that I am part of God’s story (not vice versa), that my prayers should not be all about my own little world. At Mass I sometimes find myself irritable at the crowds and the packed parking lot, wishing I could just go off to some secluded chapel and sit alone. But then I hear that first word of the Our Father, and it serves as an instant reminder of the truth around which God has centered his entire system of revelation: We’re all in this together.
What are your thoughts? What else can we learn from “Our”?
A longtime topic of interest for me has been the concept of “spiritual dry spells,” when you can’t seem to feel God’s presence. I haven’t had a whole lot of emotional religious experiences, and when I was first in the conversion process, I had none. I felt like I was doing something wrong since so many other Christians seemed to have all these great, powerful experiences.
I’ve read a lot on the topic, and probably the best analysis I’ve heard comes from Peter Kreeft, in his excellent book Jesus-Shock. He writes:
What is precious in believing-without-seeing is not the not-seeing but the believing, the strengthening of the faith muscle when the crutches of seeing and feeling are removed. Seeing Him was not enough, for thousands saw Him yet turned away, and even shouted, “Crucify him!” Feeling Him in the heart is not enough either, for that is subjective, that is ours, that is fallible. Furthermore, we are self-centered experience addicts. We are so addicted to our own positive experiences of joy and happiness that if we experienced Christ more joyfully than we do, we would almost inevitably come to love our experience of Christ more than Christ Himself. We would come to worship our experience, that is, ourselves.
I’ve definitely been guilty of this. After I did have a few really powerful experiences where I felt overwhelmed with emotion, filled with happiness and joy, I would often go back to church seeking that — the experience. I can think of more than one occasion when I’d sit in the pew, staring at the crucifix with longing; but, unfortunately, not a longing for Jesus. I’d look right past the image of him on the cross, my desires fixated on those big emotions I felt last Sunday. It was as if I were a junkie, and Jesus was my dealer. I was happy to see him not for who he was, but for the “high” I wanted him to give me.
Kreeft points out that this is why the Eucharist is such a perfect way to encounter God: we get all of him, his full self, and our feelings about it are a completely optional part of the package. Kreeft writes:
We long for joy, and He tells us that He is our joy, and that He will be in us Himself, not that he gives us joy. (Jn 15:11) He is not a means, and our joy is not the end. That is idolatry. He is the end.
Kreeft then recounts a famous saying about Fact, Faith and Feeling walking along a wall. Fact goes first, then Faith, then Feeling. As long as Faith keeps his eyes on Fact, they all make steady progress. But Faith keeps turning around to see what’s going on with Feeling, and he gets unsteady. Faith and Feeling both end up tumbling off the wall, while Fact walks on alone.
Looking back, I now think that it was to my advantage that I felt nothing during the conversion process. Back when I had no emotional experiences, I had no temptation to make them idols. Since I didn’t have Feeling walking behind me, I just put one foot in front of the other, steadily following Fact.
It’s not as simple now that I do occasionally have those wonderful emotional experiences. I’m very tempted to make idols of them. But now, when I catch myself sitting in a pew, looking right past the Lord in search of a fleeting emotional high, I think of what Kreeft said. I remind myself to keep my eyes on the facts, to behold Jesus for who he is, to receive him in the Eucharist, and let that be enough. Because, as Kreeft so wisely reminds us, “He is not a means, and our joy in not the end.”
A priest friend of a friend once commented, “I could be a saint if it weren’t for the people!” I feel that way all the time. I’m so easily annoyed; it’s probably my worst personality defect. I’m like a grouchy old lady waiting to happen: just give me a cane and a rocker, and I’ll happily sit out on my front porch all day and complain about celebrities and politicians while shaking my fist at merrymaking neighbors.
My irritation is almost never with people I know well; I usually transform into a person with the attitude of an overtired two-year-old and the demeanor of a wet cat based on brushes with people in parking lots or grocery stores (what is with these people who walk right in front of me and then slow down?), things I read online, or stories I hear about politicians or celebrities. (This is probably an introvert thing as well. God designed people like me to be kept far away from society, but by some bizarre twist of fate I ended up in the suburbs instead of in a remote desert cave.)
So what do I do about this? When I was an atheist my answer was, “Avoid stupid people!” But now that God has given me the grace to see that maybe, just maybe, the problem is not with other people as much as it is with me and my attitude — and, indeed, that I am often one of the “stupid people” — I’ve been looking for practical strategies to avoid being so irritable.
I’ve been praying about it for a while, and then, the other day, I got an interesting answer:
I felt drawn to ponder how incredibly unlikely it is that any two people should encounter one another; to consider the truth that God destined each one of us to live at a particular time in a particular place, and that we share that destiny with only a minuscule number of people.
Demographers estimate that the total number of humans that have ever lived is around 105 billion. There are about 6 billion people on earth right now, and each of us will only encounter a small handful of them.
When you consider the staggeringly slim odds that, out of all of human history and all of humanity’s future all over the globe, God would have you and another person both end up in the parking lot of the HEB Grocery on 41st Street in Austin, Texas in the United States on September 7 of the year 2010 A.D., it’s really pretty mindblowing — even if that other person did just steal your parking space.
When I feel annoyed with politicians or celebrities, I consider this idea that God placed me here and now for a reason. He didn’t have me live under Emperor Hongwu of the Ming Dynasty, as I would have if I’d been born in China in 1377. I live in the tiny sliver of history along with Britney Spears and the entire case of The Hills, unlike people who lived in Sumeria in 5,000 B.C. or Easter Island in 350 A.D.
I’ve come to think of it like if you were to be trekking through rural Mongolia, and saw a figure approaching on the horizon. You get a little closer, thinking it must be a local goat herder, only to realize with astonishment that it’s your next door neighbor. Even if the guy did get on your nerves, you’d be awestruck at the unlikeliness of it. There would be something sacred about his presence that would override any petty annoyances.
And so it is with all the people we encounter in our daily lives. Yesterday at the grocery store a woman was parked right in front of the milk section, laughing on her cell phone, oblivious to my gestures that I was trying to get something behind her (and clearly not recognizing the universal “I have four hungry little kids in this cart who are about to riot if I do not get moving” pleading look I gave her). I walked away annoyed. I trudged through the freezer section thinking all sorts of uncharitable things. But then I considered that if I could move freely across time and place, and see all the people who have ever lived, all across the globe, I’d feel a deep kinship with this rare soul who shared this unique moment in history with me. I would be lying if I said that that thought process instantly filled me with saint-like love for her, but it helped. When we passed in another aisle a few moments later, for a moment I forgot about whatever it was that had bugged me, and felt only awe at the sacred unlikeliness that our lives should intersect.