Appearances are deceiving.
I know; that’s not very original, is it? How many adages are there that communicate that idea? Don’t judge a book by its cover. All that glitters is not gold. Clothes do not make the man. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.
My Mom’s favorite was, “Don’t judge another person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” The first time she said that to me, I had no idea what she meant. I tend to take things literally, so I couldn’t imagine what shoes and walking had to do with anything. When Mom explained that people’s decisions often reflect what’s going on in their lives, I was more confused than ever. What did that have to do with shoes and walking?
Eventually, I learned about metaphors in English class and figured out that walking in someone else’s shoes was a metaphor for living their life with all its joys and challenges. It probably took me another 15 or 20 years — well, maybe not that long, but I was an adult — before I understood how much our decisions are influenced by the circumstances of our lives.
This insight was a blessed gift. Until I understood how I had been influenced by the dysfunctional family in which I was raised and by my mother’s death while I was still in high school, I loathed myself for decisions made out of pain and ignorance. When I came to understand that I had done the best I could under the circumstances, I could begin to forgive myself.
Sometimes, though, I still feel like a failure, because of other decisions I’ve made — giving up an art career I spent 10 years to build because someone who later betrayed me persuaded me it was the right thing to do, and giving up a job I loved because some folks had made a mess out of an organization which served abused and neglected children, and for the sake of the children, I thought I should straighten out the mess. Inevitably, when I’ve made self-sacrificing decisions such as those, someone has come along to show me how worthless my puny effort was.
Which brings me to this juncture in my life. Unemployed. No job on the horizon. Funds running out. I am a failure by all objective measures.
This morning, I discovered I was in good company. I was reading about Charles de Foucauld in “All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time” by Robert Ellsberg. I’ve been praying de Foucauld’s “Prayer of Abandonment” since a priest gave it to me in spiritual direction seven years ago.
“Father, I abandon myself into your hands;
Do with me what you will.
Whatever you may do, I thank you.
I am ready for all. I accept all.
Let only your will be done in me,
And in all your creatures.
I wish no more than this, O Lord.
Into your hands, I commend my soul;
I offer it to you with all the love of my heart,
For I love you Lord,
And so need to give myself,
To surrender myself into your hands,
Without reserve and with boundless confidence,
For you are my Father.”
Uncharacteristically, I didn’t bother learning who this de Foucauld was. I just prayed the prayer. I have to admit that for the longest time I would cringe fearfully when I did so. God seems to be fond of suffering as a tool with which to shape those who surrender to Him, and I was more than a little tired of suffering by that point in my life. Poverty. Abuse. Injustice. Depression. Adversity. Loneliness. I had suffered all of these and more.
While I abandoned myself to God with my words, in my heart I wanted nothing more than peace, security and stability. I didn’t ask God for these things. It seemed wrong to submit to His will on one hand and tell Him what I wanted on the other. Eventually, when I perceived some degree of stability in my life and a little security, the fear eased a little and I could pray de Foucauld’s prayer with some degree of hope.
I imagined him as a Pope John Paul II sort of person — charismatic, visionary in some ways, disciplined in his faith, leading people to love God with greater abandon. Imagine my surprise when I read this morning that de Foucauld “evidently possessed a weak character.” He didn’t do well in school and was dismissed from the Army. He had a powerful conversion while in Morocco when he witnessed Muslim piety, and pretty much spent the rest of his life trying to live out his Catholic faith.
He made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, worked for the Poor Clares for a while, entered the Trappists and then left religious life. He spent the last 15 years of his life in the desert writing. Ellsberg wrote, “Foucauld had spent many years conceiving and preparing the way for followers who never arrived, and he might well have died with little sense of accomplishment had his spirituality not trained him to look beyond outward appearances.” After describing the religious orders founded after de Foucauld died which were based on his teachings, Ellsberg wrote, “Alone, A SEEMING FAILURE BY THE END OF HIS LIFE, Foucauld was to become one of the most influential spiritual figures of the twentieth century” (emphasis added).
I find comfort in that. I doubt if I will become an influential anything, but having surrendered completely to God, I have full confidence he will find a way to make use of the gifts he has given me — even if I do end up looking like a failure.