Finding God Where??

Sundays are special. Sure, it’s about going to Mass which is special since I see a greater number of people there than I do at a week-day Mass. The church looks and sounds livelier too on a Sunday. The singing has obviously been practiced and goes smoothly, though we’ve lately had the benefit of very beautiful and calming piano music at the weekday services.

So I see a lot of folks I know, and many more I don’t know, all of whom seem nevertheless to be acquainted, drawn together by a single motive – but I’ll get to that later.

The other part of Sunday that makes it special is that I often go to the supermarket after Mass. [I think I’m allowed to say it’s most often Wegman’s.] It’s usually quite crowded during the post-church hours, so again it’s a real community time.

I have yet to meet anyone crabby at the supermarket. You’d think there would be a few – especially the parents who are trying to keep two or three young-uns from fanning out from one end of the aisle to the other. (Oh yes, I remember that time of my life!) Or maybe there could be some exasperated sighs as a shopper discovers that they’ve rearranged some of the products.   No, instead just about everyone is ready to step from the middle to the side of an aisle, or to move their cart to let you pass, or to adjust calmly to the new marketing design.

I’m a special needs shopper, being “vertically challenged” and needing someone to reach the skim milk that’s on the top shelf of the dairy case. It might have bothered me a very little bit the first time I had to ask for help, but now it’s no problem at all. I simply watch for someone who’s taller than I – which includes 99.99% of the people in the store – put on what I hope is a confident smile, and fire away. Invariably, the person I ask responds with a ready and even pleased demeanor, as if I’m doing him or her a favor.

On one occasion (at Weis’s this time) a family of visiting Spaniards was at check-out and asked the rest of us where would be a good place to have a picnic lunch. A flurry of suggestions were offered but eventually there was a consensus to refer them to Eldridge Park. Everyone started giving directions (and I could picture them trying to remember all the turns they’d have to make, and unsuccessfully navigating one-way streets), until one gentleman said, “Wait five minutes till I check out and I’ll lead you there.”

I was once in the position to offer help to a shopper in a wheel chair. There’s not much you can reach from a wheel chair. The woman thanked me but declined my offer. Instead, she somehow got a conversation going about the Lord. “Are you saved?” she asked, point blank.

“Yes, I am!” I responded with total assurance. (This was no place, after all, for a theological discussion.) I suppose I could have guessed that she’d then proceed to the next step. “May I pray with you?” and I consented.

A bit surprising. After all, she was the “disabled” person here. But on the other hand, maybe she saw my height as a condition more disabling than her own. Or perhaps . . . Oh, who knows what prompts a person to share God with another, even a stranger (in a public place, no less!)­.

In the Vatican II era we used to call these kinds of events “encounters.” For me, they extend the Mass experience: People forming a bond of sorts, coming together to be fed; being helpful, kind and giving to one another; serving others, even strangers; teaching the Gospel without quoting from it.

We’ve gotten so that we think being holy (ooh, that word!) consists of going around kissing lepers or being martyred. Thank God he hasn’t made it that difficult for almost all of us, for it’s these small, do-able acts of kindness that express an everyday holiness, that create true joy in our lives and the lives of our fellow humans whom we don’t even know.

And even when we arrive at check-out, we are sent on our way with a cheerful benediction: “Have a nice day!”

Translation: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord in one another.

Holiness and the Kingdom of Heaven

A few years ago I was making a presentation on Thérèse of Lisieux at a nearby spirituality center. It was surprising to hear a participant share her feelings about sainthood. She said she was reluctant – maybe even unwilling – to strive for holiness because she feared the suffering that would inevitably follow. What gave her this idea was her reading the lives of saints who had suffered severely, even to the point of martyrdom.

Taken off-guard as I was at the time, I couldn’t think up a good answer. In fact, I still can’t, but at least would be able to point out that holy people aren’t the only ones who suffer on this earth. Suffering is a staple of the human condition; no one is exempt.

Since that first time, I’ve heard the same fear expressed again. What will God do to me if I tell him I want to grow closer to him, and even want to devote my life to him? Look what happened to the saints. What is more, look what happened to Jesus Christ. And even at the strictly human level, giving myself to another requires great trust. Will my love and trust be returned, or will it be exploited?

It seems to me that when Jesus invites or promises us entry into the “kingdom of heaven,” he is inviting us not to a place, of course, but to a state of being: union with God on God’s terms as he originally planned for us when he put us in the Garden of Eden. Christ is inviting us to nothing less than holiness.

In parables, Jesus describes the kingdom as treasures, such as the one hidden in a field. The person who discovers it considers it of such value that he sells everything he has to purchase the field. Then there’s the pearl merchant who travels far and wide to find just one pearl of extraordinary value. In these two stories, the reward is so desirable that the seekers consider the high price as nothing compared to what they’ll gain. St Paul repeats this more prosaically when he writes in Romans 8:18, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.”

And again, in his passionate devotion to Christ, he writes the same thought in Philippians 3:8:

I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” (Philippians 3:8)

Sometimes the loss of everything is intentional, as when a person enters religious life making vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, willingly giving up natural comforts in exchange for the spiritual. Sometimes the loss is unintentional, as in the patient acceptance of poverty, ill-health or loneliness, as Jesus lists in the Beatitudes where a series of ills transforms us and leads us into the kingdom of heaven.

The Gospels repeatedly tell us how generously God wants to reward our efforts. By the time we muster the courage (and wisdom) to desire holiness, we really don’t have to worry or fear the results. We’ll be given all we need, and much more.