Thursday, January 19, 2012


And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.
I got home this evening with enough time before dark to shovel the three inches of snow that had accumulated during the day. Armed with shovel and broom, I made my way outside.

About five minutes into the job, a woman came by with a shovel and started talking my ear off.

“I’m just coming by to say hello, know what I’m sayin’? What a pretty dog you have there! I have a dog too, a little terrier named Pepper. She got a brown patch by her eye and a red one on her back, you may have seen her. There’s quite a lot of snow isn’t there? I came home today and had to do just what you’re doing here now. Now I’m just going around and saying hello, preaching the word ya know, and I got this shovel here, but I don’t mean to shovel no snow. I’m just going around spreading the message. I live over on Portland near the Mayor’s house, but my real home is over at Bethel Baptist, at all the Lord's churches really. You can ask anyone there, they all know Sister Mini. Have you ever seen my dog? Her name is Pepper. That way if you ever see her running around you’ll know who she is...”

As she proceeded and I wished she’d hurry up and ask me for money so I could get back to work, I had time to prepare my response.

“ I’m wondering if I could shovel your sidewalk for a little money,” she finally finished.

“I got this under control,” I told her. “But ya know, the folks next door are two single mothers with a ton of kids, and I’m sure they’d appreciate it if someone would shovel their place for them. I'd pay you for that.”

“Oh, I can do that!” Sister Mini beamed. “I’ll get their driveway and porch and shovel the sidewalk on both sides so the kids can get to the bus.”

“How much do you want for that?” I asked, quickly assessing that it was about a half-hour of work.

“Ten dollars,” she chimed right away. Ten bucks, huh? I decided not to be stingy, and agreed to the price. It was more than I’d expect to earn for a job like that, but I’d consider if a gift to my neighbors and to the Sister Mini at the same time.

Finally able to get back to work, I proceeded to shovel my porch, sidewalk, and driveway in the amount of time it took her to do the neighbors’ driveway. As she worked, she rattled on and on about her ministry and children who were all in higher education (though one was apparently in jail, which is why she needed twenty dollars to send him) and about how she wouldn't normally do this except that she could help a sister in need, allowing me occasional moments to say nothing more than “Yeah” in response to her “Ya know what I’m sayin’?” Her work was delayed every couple minutes when she stopped to talk to anyone who walked by.

When I was finished with my shoveling and she was just getting to the porch, I decided to shovel the empty lot beside me to be social. Finally I went inside as she was just starting the sidewalk.

In a couple minutes the doorbell rang. “I’m done,” she announced. “I’m ready for my twenty dollars.”

“It’s ten dollars,” I said. “You’re done already?”

“Yes ma’am I’m done,” she said. “But look ma’am, that snow on the porch was real deep, and I need twenty dollars. I gotta send it to my son, ya know what I’m sayin’?”

“We agreed to ten dollars,” I maintained. “You really did both sides of the house? You got the other side too?”

“Yes ma’am, I did,” she maintained. “Look, I really need twenty dollars.”

“Let me go see,” I said, walking over to the corner while she rattled on about what a good job she had done and how deep the three inches of snow had been. When I arrived at the corner, I saw that she had not touched the other side. “We agreed to both sides of the house,” I said. “You haven’t done the other side like you said you did.”

“Oh, my bad,” she said as she headed around the corner. “I got it.”

I returned inside, not at all amused (or surprised), and planned my response to her inevitable demand for a double-payment, twenty dollars for a job that took 45-minutes.

When she returned asking for her twenty dollars, I was ready. “We agreed to ten dollars...” I began before she cut me off.

“Yeah, but that snow was real deep,” she insisted. “How ‘bout we split the difference and call it fifteen?”

“We agreed to ten,” I repeated, “but ya know, the house on the other side is abandoned, so no one’s gonna shovel that sidewalk. If you get the sidewalk from the alley to the other side of the house, I’ll give you twenty.”

“I see you’re a sharp businesswoman,” she complemented me. “You got yourself a deal.”

Not too sharp a businesswoman, I grumbled as I went back inside. She gets an extra ten dollars for an extra ten minutes of work? She’s making a killing on this. I don’t even get minimum wage.

I had hardly sat down and picked up my books when she knocked on my door again. “I’m going home,” she proclaimed. “I want my twenty dollars.”

“You already got that sidewalk?” I asked dubiously, knowing it was impossible to have done it in two minutes.

“Yes ma’am,” she said firmly, “and I’m going home now to let my dog out. I didn’t want to shovel no snow at all today, I was just doing it to help a sister and proclaim the word.”

I looked at the sidewalk and saw that she had managed to clear a shovel-width path. It was not at all worth what she was getting for it, but at least it was something. By this point I was too annoyed to argue, and thought it worth paying the full price just to get rid of her.

“Here,” I said, handing her the money with obvious frustration.

“You’re welcome,” she chirped with deliberate cheerfulness, adding a bow for dramatic effect. “This isn't Egyptian slavery, ya know? Ya know, I wasn’t even plannin’ on shovelin’—I just came by ‘cause I always admired you. Have a nice day.”

“Thank you,” I said too late as she left.

“Goodbye,” she called to my dog. “You know, I always liked that dog of yours better than you.”

“Bye,” I said with the edge having left my voice now that the damage was fully done. “You really did a nice job at my neighbor’s house. Have a great evening.”

After she was gone I sat on the porch and admired her handiwork next door. I hoped the neighbors would appreciate it, which would salvage at least the other half of my ill-fated ‘good deed.’ Whatever point it was where I went wrong, it was clear to me that as far as Sister Mini was concerned, I had given a gift without any love behind it. It was also clear to me that she had known it. And it profited me nothing.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Off the beaten trail

For those of who have heard of Edmund Spenser, the first association we have with his name is The Faerie Queene. Probably the second is some vague notion of terrible things happening in Ireland. Almost nowhere on the list are his Fowre Hymnes. There is, of course good reason for that, involving the fact that The Faerie Queene is a masterpiece and the Hymnes aren't much to write home about. Nevertheless, I was reading his "Hymne of Heavenly Love" the other day, and found myself delighted with the last two lines of this stanza. For the sake of giving credit where credit is due, I thought I'd pass it on.
Before this worlds great frame, in which al things
Are now containd, found any being place,
Ere flitting Time could wag his eyas wings
About that mightie bound, which doth embrace
The rolling spheres, and parts their houres by space,
That high eternall Powre, which now doth move
In all these things, mov’d in it selfe by love.
For some reason, the image of God before the dawn of creation moving in himself by love sent chills down my spine.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Blessed are the who now?

I poked around some of my blogger stats and learned that some people have found my blog because it is the #1 hit on google for “ireland work ethic,” which gave me a chuckle. Of course, I also learned it is the #2 hit for “mildew conservatory” and the #3 hit for “can screaming at the top of your lungs cause a miscarriage,” so I can’t be too proud.

We don’t always get to choose what we are known for.

This lesson was more apparent to me last week when I received a card from an old friend, one of the seminarians (who is now a priest) who studied Latin with me in Ireland nearly four years ago. Among other nice things he said, he told me that he admired my “constant spirit of prayer,” and I was immediately struck by two ironies.

The first was whom it was from: I’ve mentioned this friend before as one of the people whose frequent promises to pray for me and requests for me to do the same made me realize how little I actually pray for people other than myself. A “spirit of prayer” was an odd thing for him of all people to “admire” in me.

The second was whom it was to. Seriously? Not to invoke a false humility, but his assessment of me was objectively untrue. I had just been reflecting about the way I had entirely neglected prayer for the past couple months, how the few times I did manage to pray seemed entirely vacuous, how I can hardly believed that prayer was even efficacious. My constant spirit of prayer? Of prayer?

But we don’t always get to choose what we are known for.

In a sense, this is the irony of the Gospel all over again. The poor get remembered as the rich. The weak get remembered as the strong. The small get remembered as the great. And somewhere out in Rome there is a young priest who remembers me by strengths I do not possess, by strengths I was humbled to see in him, and I don’t have the energy to argue.

It’d be just like God to rewrite my story while I’m in the middle of it, to redefine my very weakness as my gifts. Go figure. I guess if he sees us through Christ’s righteousness anyway, I may as well get used to it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Holy Innocents - A Lament for Haiti

In commemoration of the anniversary of the the earthquake in Haiti, two years ago today, I thought I'd repost the poem I wrote at the time while my cousin-in-law was among those shaken. We are still a needy, broken people. Come, Lord Jesus!

Holy Innocents
a lament for Haiti

We seek the living here among the dead,
But may we find you.
Where we discover our decay instead
And cannot find you,
Then be at least the cold that slows disease
And slithers through the shelter of debris.

I heard that Herod made a careful search
And could not find you,
But in the blood of Innocents the Church
Still strains to find you.
Be never as elusive as before
And more tenacious than the shattered floor.

We asked you for a king but found his fist—
Now may we find you—
For life, but found a Cross behind the mist—
There may we find you.
And to the slave-girl when the dust is clear
Unveil your presence that was always near.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Mysteriously joyful

Christian devotional practices from the Middle Ages have included meditations of the “mysteries” around the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ. The specific scenes selected for emphasis are called the “Joyful Mysteries,” “Sorrowful Mysteries,” and “Glorious Mysteries,” respectively, with five in each set.

Yet at the close of the Christmas season, I was suddenly taken aback at the name of the mysteries of this season—the "Joyful Mysteries." Perhaps we who read the story of Christ’s birth retrospectively in the light of his later death and resurrection can call these events “joyful,” but to the people involved, to Mary in particular, joy does not seem the most obvious common thread.
  • The Annunciation: An angel greets a young teenager and announces to her that she will bear a son. The betrothed virgin is troubled, as any mother with an unwanted pregnancy can imagine, but humbly submits to what she knows will be a source of shame. A mystery, yes, but joyful?
  • The Visitation: The pregnant girl travels eighty miles to visit her pregnant cousin. When she arrives, the baby in the elderly woman’s womb tips his mother off, and the secret is out of the bag. I wonder about Mary’s fear in front of her cousin. Her Magnificat may have expressed relief as much as joy.
  • The Nativity: The long journey to Bethlehem climaxes when Mary goes into labor in the streets. There is no place to stay, and so the couple takes refuge in a barn, and Mary suffers the pains of childbirth on dirty straw among animals. Joy could only have come on the heels of fear and pain.
  • The Presentation: The couple presents the poor-man’s sacrifice at the temple, and Mary hears Jesus’ screams as he is circumcised. An old man and woman recognize the child as the awaited Messiah, and Simeon gives a chilling prophesy that “This Child is destined to be the downfall and rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed.” Then he turns to Mary and foretells that a sword will pierce her soul as well.
  • The Finding of Jesus in the Temple: Mary and Joseph only discover they have left the twelve-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem after traveling for a day, and their panicked return must have been plagued by anxiety and grief. When they find him on the third day, the boy chides them for their fear and identifies his higher priorities.
I don’t know if I’m treading dangerous ground to say I don’t imagine these events being times of great joy for the Holy Family as they unfolded. Yet the Church calls them joyful: joyful for humanity, certainly, and thus by extension to the actors involved, however fearful and humiliating and painful they might have been at the time. Perhaps that is part of what is so mysterious about them.

I once wrote a (slightly controversial) post about God rewriting his own story in Hebrews 11, declaring against our available data that various men and women were heroes of a faith that they often did not demonstrate possessing. Perhaps the Church has done that here as well, pointing to this awkward union of God and humanity and declaring it “joyful.” The pain and fear of our human experience is not nullified by the Incarnation; it is heightened, and then redefined.

Only with a God who can enter a human womb can joy enter our human pain. As we close the Christmas season, that is still as much a mystery to me as it ever was.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Tale of Two Grandmothers

My two grandmothers could not be less alike. There is the short, nearly-deaf, one-armed Polish woman who hardly says a word and is characterized by extreme frugality; there is the tall, nearly-blind, stylish, Southern belle who never stops talking and is characterized by finicky taste. Somehow, I am baffled to realize, I am made up of pieces of both these women.

One night last week as both grandmothers were visiting for Christmas, after the Southern Belle had pulled herself feebly up the stairs for bed, the Polish woman sighed and shuffled her way to me, cradling her stub of a left arm.

“That is one woman I feel so sorry for,” she projected into my ear, unaware of how loud her voice was to healthy ears.

“What’s that, Gramma?” I shouted loud enough for her to hear, startled a bit to hear her speaking at all, and startled that it was pity she was communicating.

“Your grandmother,” she explained. “I can’t imagine losing my eyesight. What would you do with yourself if you couldn’t see?”

And while I agreed with the sentiment entirely, I was surprised by it. After all, Gramma has seen her fair share of hardship, between starting school in America without knowing any English at all, growing up during the Great Depression, losing an arm in a factory accident and a baby a couple months afterwards, giving up family members to World War II, raising nine children with one arm, and surviving a husband who flew into a rage when drunk. All the while, I’ve never heard a complaint, and I almost developed an assumption that her stout, silent 4-foot-10 frame didn’t even identify suffering anymore.

Yet as both my grandmothers shuffle their way into their 90s treasuring whatever faculties their weakened bodies have maintained, none of the differences in their background seemed to matter. None of the Southern Belle’s good looks or social graces that earned her four husbands mattered, none of her descriptions of wealth and yachts, none of her stories of befriending Winston Churchill at a horserace in England. She can hardly see, and that is enough to elicit the sympathy of a woman who has never had anything she deemed worthy of bragging about.

And as the days of their visit progressed, the Southern Belle matched the Pole’s pity with extreme admiration. She raved about the little woman’s “accomplishments” (though she never identified what any of them were) as if she were Winston Churchill himself. For the feeble blind woman, I suppose, money and social graces had suddenly become less flashy.

Her blind eyes saw the strength in the little woman’s silence, just as the other woman’s deaf ears heard the pain in the tall woman’s elegies. Sometimes we need to lose our eyes and our ears a little to find them.