The past few days I’ve been thinking of “seeing God in all things”, and my early training in things spiritual. This afternoon, this embarrassing recollection came to me of a “mundane miracle” (the kind folks don’t think much about or speak to others of)… and I had the impulse to write it up. That impulse was instantly smothered by my own pride and sense of dignity, as I thought, “Oh no! I can’t put THAT episode out there. I look so foolish!”
Well, as prayers go, we all know how THAT was going to end up, so please feel free to laugh at the foolishness of my callow youth. I hasten to add that I was deep in the throes of my 19 year old omniscience at the time. I had recently been baptized after a year of catechumenate, thought I had a thorough grip on both religion and spirituality, and… basically… considered myself God’s gift to Christendom. (I shake my head and blush to admit all of that… but there it is… the truth is just the truth.)
Anyway, my Jesuit Dad was out of town on a business trip, I was a college student, and typically I attended noonday Mass at the campus chapel if Dad were not at home to celebrate Mass in the late afternoon. Morning classes finished up, and as I was reaching the brick staircase down to the subterranean Chapel that occupied our subgrade complex of Fountain, Bookstore, Chapel, and Cafeteria, an old tatty hunched over woman asked for my aid. (Insert my instant label “bag lady” right here, as she dragged along a little pull-behind grocery cart thingy, was covered in a disheveled gray wool overcoat, and had a bit of a “mothball” air about her).
She hobbled up to me slowly, said I looked like a nice young student, and did we celebrate the Mass here on campus? “Yes! Yes we do…” I responded, as in my mind I thought, “Poor thing. She just wants to beg a lunch from the Cafeteria, and is using the Mass as an excuse to get downstairs. *I*… I [puff out chest in my mind’s eye here] shall be wondrously charitable and do the ‘Christian thing’, and buy her lunch!”
I helped her down the 20 or so brick steps with her cart and pointed out the Chapel doors.
However… quite sure of myself, and brimming over with smug righteous charity, I said, “Are you sure it is the Chapel you want, ma’am? The Cafeteria is right here, and I’ll be glad to buy you lunch if you’d like!” [I could see the glow of my halo now, as heaven itself would pause to watch the Little Monk executing this act of corporal mercy! I was so proud…]
But she said, No, it wasn’t necessary. She would like to attend Mass if I wouldn’t mind opening the door.
“Of course, ma’am,” I responded, not at all discouraged. This humble beggar woman needed to preserve her pride, of course. Dignity above all. And so she would attend Mass as the appropriate reason for being down here, and THEN ask for lunch afterwards. Ah, I understood. I would be ready… to be kind, humble, and charitable! Yes!
She sat a bit apart, as the dozen or so in attendance were scattered about the comfortable, but quite portable chairs. Weekday Mass was a half hour or so affair, and, while I know I prayed at least PART of the time, and most likely paid SOME attention during the celebration of the Eucharist, my mind was mostly occupied with whether I would offer her a soup and sandwich lunch, or go whole hog with a dinner type entree? After all, “feeding the hungry” was a biggie to Christ, so maybe the dinner menu?
OK, so Mass is ended “go in peace, to love and serve the Lord…” “Thanks be to God”… Right, I’m on my way, Lord. And I rejoin my charge, waiting for the inevitable request for lunch. Which… which… doesn’t come. As we walk out the doors of the Chapel. So, I think I may need to “grease the way” a bit, and I point out the lovely Cafeteria entrance to our right, asking if she’d ever been here before.
No, no she’d never been here. This seemed a very nice place. Nice Mass. Nice people… and I think, “Ah… ‘nice people’… here it comes. She’s going to ask me for lunch. I’m SO ready…” and… her request never comes as we walk past the Cafeteria to the brick stairs up and out.
Now, I’m downright confused. I KNOW I had this sussed. What’s going on?
She simply asks if I will help her get her cart up the steps and walk her to the sidewalk. I say of course I will, but I am so unspeakably confused.
We get to the sidewalk, she thanks me, and begins to toddle away. I keep walking alongside her, and tell her I’m about to go have lunch.
She says, “Oh, how nice, dear. You enjoy that.” and keeps toddling.
Then, nearly with a tone of irritation in my voice, I ask, “Ma’am? Wouldn’t you care to have lunch with me? My treat?”
She stopped, turned to me beaming the world’s most gracious smile, and says, “Oh, no dear. I’m fine. I just wanted to attend Mass, and you are just SO kind to have shown me around and helped me. Thank you. And God bless you.” And off she toddled to the corner, waiting for the light to cross the street.
Um… Gentle Reader… I was “poleaxed”. I turned away, stunned. My grandmother would have told me to close my mouth, as I’d catch flies, my jaw had dropped so far. I’d gotten to the stairs down to the cafeteria again (truly intending to have lunch), and it was only a few seconds later and out of sight of her, when I thought, “I never asked her name, or if she would be coming again.” And I turned back around to rejoin her.
When I got to the corner (no more than 10 seconds later), she was gone. I mean, completely gone. Nowhere in sight in any direction. She shouldn’t have been able even to cross the street in that length of time, and the buildings around that corner were not “pedestrian friendly” (college admin offices and such). There was nowhere a casual visitor could have GONE, not to mention that the main building across the street was the Jesuit Residence, with entrance on the other corner.
This was utterly impossible. That was disturbing. But… I… *I*… had been WRONG! Dead wrong! So incredibly, unbelievably, wrong! I had thought I was being “hustled” in the Name of God. And, to show off my incredible Christian largesse I was perfectly willing to be “hustled in the Name of God by this scheming Bag Lady”. And instead, instead, I had helped an elderly, pious, arthritic… come attend Noonday Mass with no other plan or agenda but to honor God.
Ever been there? Ever find yourself blushing and stammering with embarrassment before the entire heavenly court? I just stood there, on that street corner looking around stupidly, as waves of conviction and remorse crashed over me. Pride… pride and vanity… and I’d blown an entire Mass where I could have worshiped, and judged this woman the whole time, and utterly failed to receive the blessing and grace she otherwise had for me, listening to my own “interior narration” of this imaginary drama. Aw… maaaan!
Now, without getting into anything deep of denominational differences, at that point in my upbringing particularly, I was being trained to “dump guilt” as rapidly as possible. Having a Jesuit Dad makes this very convenient in general, as access to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is ready to hand almost any time. But Dad was out of town, and this had been SO out of order.
I headed to the office of a friend, who happened to be the Director of Campus Ministry, but he knew my family situation well and knew me pretty well. Fr. Kelly, with this terrific cultured Dublin Irish accent. It was lunchtime and I found him alone in the offices, as I asked if he had a minute. He was happy to see me, directed me to a chair, and asked how things were going. I said I was hoping he would hear my confession.
He was a bit surprised, asked if I didn’t prefer to wait for my Dad to get back, I said no, so graciously he reached for his stole (a purple ribbon-thingy you may see priests use now and again), and we began simply with his words, “OK, tell me about it…”
I told him the story about as honestly as I have just told you, and step-by-step I saw him smile and gently shake his head. He knew me well, he knew my pride and faults, and he could see this whole thing unrolling in front of him. He was not ridiculing me, as he knew I was in real spiritual discomfort here, but at the end he could not help but laugh out loud. (Not the last time I’ve had a priest laugh at my confessions.)
Then we got to the “counseling” part of the Rite, and he nearly glowed with joy.
“Little Monk, I don’t need to say anything about what was out of order there. You’ve seen that quite clearly. But you are NOT seeing the great blessing you’ve had. To be frank, I think it’s entirely possible that this visitor may not have been human at all. I think you’ve just been taught a lesson by an angel. Now, I could tell you ‘don’t judge’ or ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ from now til the cows come home, but this… this lesson God has graced you with… you’ll never forget this as long as you live.
“Have you ever seen her before?” I shook my head. “Well, neither have I, and I know almost all the ‘casual visitors’ to our Masses. I have a very strong feeling we will never see her again, either. But if you ever do, please let me know.
“In the meantime, for your penance just return to the Chapel for a few minutes and pray for that lady, and pray thanking God for this incredible lesson and teaching. I know it has changed you and taught you, in ways that you will always carry with you. Thank you so much for sharing this with me.” And we completed the Rite.
Of course, this woman was never seen again. Now, for any Catholic, an “apparition” of any sort (a physical manifestation of a spiritual entity) is sort of a “big deal”. But, especially at that time, God was doing so many “unlikely things”, and I was yet so “new” as a Catholic, that I didn’t know that or make any big deal of it. The story was so humbling I didn’t really share it outside my family. And, honestly, I’ve seldom thought about it between then and now.
There is no possible way that hobbly woman got away from that corner. So… over time I’ve concluded that was either an angel, as Fr. Kelly speculated, or it may have been the Lord Himself, which my Dad later mentioned as a possible. I hoped it wasn’t Him, as I’d feel all the more embarrassed about the whole episode.
But the bottom line is: Whether this elderly lady was altogether human, or angel, or otherwise… the Event… the Lesson… was totally and thorougly “miracle” in my book. Of all the people she could have approached that day, or of all the people who could have approached ME that day… what are the odds of such a “perfect fit”?
Mundane Miracles… who can fathom the height, the width, the depth of God’s love, grace, and willingness to nurture and grow His children?
Grace to thee… *still blushing a bit*…
The Little Monk