Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Essay Test

A lesson I keep forgetting: Never ask God for something unless you are willing to receive it. He always answers prayer, just sometimes not in the way we might wish.

When I asked God to help me see the ways in which I sin--the ones I neglect or overlook-- I wasn’t prepared for the answer I got. It reminded me of the time my daughter, a bright young fifth-grader at the time, had her first literature test, on her first “grown up” book in school. She came home very disappointed, because she did not do as well as she thought. In particular, she had lost a sizable chunk of points on the last essay question.

With that, she handed her paper to me, and asked me what she’d done wrong. I looked at the paper and answered (without thinking, bad habit of mine) quickly and simply, “Honey, you didn’t answer the question the teacher asked.”

Whereupon she burst into tears. “But I thought I did such a good job!” As you might imagine, it took a lot of Mommy lap time, hugs and soothing words to get past the hurt and be able to explain to her what she needed to do, and for her to start, slowly, to learn the lessons that would ultimately lead her to a degree in English.

God's answer to me began with a passing reference in an article about a woman who worked with Mother Teresa. She was serving in the kitchen, cutting up pears, and she cut out a spoiled part, tossing it in the trash. The sister who was working with her handed it back, pointing out that there was still good fruit there, and that she should cut more carefully. “Even a spoiled pear is a gift from God and we should not waste it,” was her admonition.

Hard words to read for someone who had just cleaned out the fridge and tossed out far too much spoiled food. It made me think with a clarity I’d never had before of the words of our table grace: Bless us O Lord and these they gifts which we have received from Thy bounty....Gifts. I gave lip service to my food as a gift, but had it just become nothing more than that?

Then came the earthquake in Haiti. I didn’t see the images of the destruction--still haven’t--but found myself feeling uncomfortable about my safe house, clean water, warm bed, when even before the earthquake these people had so little. When I prayed for their relief, there was a voice in the back of my mind that kept whispering--who is supposed to help, if not you? I kept recalling that verse about giving away one of my two tunics, and loving my neighbor, and all those inconvenient truths of the faith.

As if I were not yet squirming enough, I read Happy Are You Poor by Thomas Dubay, who sets forth clearly a high standard for Christian charity and frugality--one I miss by a very wide margin. It was then I had my metaphorical meltdown--just like my daughter. I thought I was doing so well, and I wasn’t even close. I like my creature comforts. And here was an author telling me that the mental detachment thought I’d cultivated wasn’t enough, that I needed to live a frugality that bespoke love for those God had made my kinsmen. One that clearly indicates that because I am Christian and Catholic, I am somehow different in how I view the world.

It was interesting to watch myself work through my reactions to this truth, simply put. First--utter despair. My chances of heroic virtue in this regard really aren’t good. I really do like being comfortable, not just adequately provided for. It amazed me how quickly the Adversary was able to use my shock and confusion against me. No sense even trying, I could hear in my mind’s ear. You can’t possibly attain this goal, so don’t bother. You’re lost from the beginning.

There followed acceptance--but more confusion. If I know where I am supposed to be in this matter and I am delaying doing what I should do, isn’t that delay really disobedience? Another drift towards despair, but shorter this time.

And then, once I’d just decided to quit thinking about it all, and quit fighting myself about the idea of reforming my lifestyle to give more to God and His children, I realized something both simple and comforting, and it hearkens back to my daughter, her first essay and her college education.

Obedience isn’t just an event--it’s a process, and so is perfection. As my pastor is fond of pointing out, none of us is not likely to be truly holy this side of the grave. What I have to do is start the journey, and keep going. And recognize that Christ walks with me, encouraging me, and giving me the grace, little by little, to get where I need to go if only I’ll quit fussing and let Him lead me there. I may be surprised to find out that His route for me is different that the one I planned, or even the one Dubay proposes.

No surprise here--I haven’t coerced my groom into selling everything we have and rushing to Haiti to rebuild shanties. I did pass up a bargain on a scarf I didn’t need, and liberated that money to send elsewhere. I find that--having asked God to help me see more clearly--I am evaluating my stewardship in a different light. The perfectionist in me wants to meet the bar Jesus sets and Dubay reiterates right this very minute--but the patient daughter is content to recognize that the first burst of shock and despair just prepared me to grow. And I find I am more than a little grateful--and excited--to realize the size and complexity of the task set before me.

I asked God for an answer, and I got one. Now I know at least a part of what I need to reform in my life. And like everything He sets before me, this answer is a blend of relationship and challenge. After my share of lap time, soothing words, and a lot of hugs from my Father, I’m ready to start.


  1. Thanks for a post thoughtful enough to give an aging (even if not yet old) buddhist pause. It's something I think about often - if I am so blessed, and I am blessed with abundance, then what is my role in relation to those blessings? Must I give them all away in the service of others? My favorite rationalization is that it's disrespectful to turn away from gifts given freely, a rationalization that doesn't work all that well but is sometimes of brief, if hollow, comfort. Like you, lately I find myself giving more in at least small ways, and walking away from buying things that, though I would enjoy them, I don't need. I keep working on it.

  2. Your thoughts about finding the way reminded me of a book about Mother Teresa that I really enjoyed. It was called The Camel Knows The Way, a story about a very successful woman who decided to take a two-week vacation and visit Mother Teresa in Calcutta. She showed up in her business suit expecting to be introduced to Mother and discuss things and ....

    Well, from my reading of your posts, I think you might enjoy the rest of the story.