Together

I still wonder what really happened.

Shortly after moving to Pierre a little more than a decade ago, I agreed to sit on a committee formed to pilot what would in time become a diocesan-wide stewardship campaign. A consultant — ironically, a Baptist rather than Catholic — was brought in to guide us through the process and troubleshoot the project. Unfortunately, after establishing the timeline, the bishop’s office altered the plan without altering the timeline to accommodate these changes.

For reasons I will never know, rather than explaining delays by providing this information, the consultant decided to lay them at my feet. His version went something to the effect of “if Mary was doing what she agreed to do, your project would be on schedule.” I was too stunned initially to respond, and when it was clear I would be given no opportunity to defend myself, deeply hurt.

After the meeting, I went into the church sanctuary to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Before long, I was in tears. My forearms lay across the back of the pew in front of me and my forehead was resting on them when I felt a hand on my shoulder. A voice said quietly, but clearly, “Together, we’re the Body of Christ.”

I recognized the reference. St. Paul wrote to both the Roman and the Corinthians about the body of Christ with its many parts. “Though we are many, we are one body in union with Christ, and we are all joined to each other as different parts of one body” (Romans 12:5) “All of you are Christ’s body and each one is a part of it” (I Corinthians 12:27).

I looked up to see who had come to comfort me and found myself alone.

I’ve told the story — and written about it — on previous occasions. It was for me one of life’s turning points, one that has shaped me from the inside out. Only with time and prayer have I come to understand what it means to me and how I am to live it. I suspect, though, that even now, I know only in part. That seems to be the way God works in my life.

So, when I write this, I don’t write as though what I say is the immutable truth. I write only what I understand in this moment. And what I understand in this moment is that in our relationships with others, we must appreciate what they offer the human family even if their values and opinions are different from our own.

Yesterday, I read a newspaper article that I thought was worth posting on Facebook. It reported that the nation is recovering from the recession, but the average household has recovered only about 63 percent of the wealth it lost, while affluent households have benefited more because of higher stock prices. The next thing I knew, I was being accused — among other things — of “wallowing in self-pity and jealousy.”

Really? Granted, the comments were from a person who has met me only once, doesn’t know me and was in all likelihood projecting how she would feel if she were forced to live as I choose to live. But, I still found the comments disconcerting.

I am a deeply spiritual person. I try to live close to the gospels. I take Jesus at his word when he says, “Do not store up riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal. Instead, store up riches for yourselves in heaven where moths and rust cannot destory and robbers cannot break in and steal. For your heart will always be where your riches are” (Matt. 6:19-21).

Because I take Jesus at his word, I choose to live simply. I choose to invest my time in prayer, my life in a ministry of presence among those who struggle to find a sense of dignity with increasingly limited resources. I don’t feel sorry for myself because God has called me to care for his people. I don’t envy those who are driven to pursue other paths.

And, I understand something not understood by the individual who believes my life does not “reflect God’s word,” that making a joke she didn’t find amusing was not something of which God would approve, and that I have no right to “show prejudice against a group of people because they earned money in the stock market.” (She was surprised that as a Christian I could joke about something as serious as making money.) I understand — as she doesn’t — that the body DOES have many parts — all of them necessary.

ALL of them necessary. Yes, I am concerned that those who need it least are benefiting most as we recover from the Bush-era recession. I would be happier to see a more equitable recovery. I would be happier to see those I serve daily experience a little breathing room in their lives. I am most concerned about the impact on children when families struggle with difficult financial circumstances.

I usually take a pocketful of change to work with me. When kids come in and don’t quite have enough money for the items they want to purchase, I add a dime or a quarter — whatever it takes. Not too long ago, a young man said to me, “Why are you nice to us? We’ve never done anything for you?” I told him, “Because any time any one of us does something for another person, we build up the society in which we live and that’s important to me.”

Although I had an answer, I was haunted by his question. What kind of homelife did he have for such small acts of kindness to seem so remarkable to him? I suspect one that is struggling. Before the school year ended, he came in and we talked about his plans for the summer, which included getting a job. We identified businesses that might hire him and I encouraged him to submit applications, suggesting ways a 15-year-old might answer some of the tough questions such as those regarding previous job experience. Today, he came in and reported that he has two part-time jobs. He also gave me a small piece of sculpture that he’d made to thank me for helping him.

That is how my gift contributes to the human family. I care. I listen. I encourage. I make suggestions. But that gift is only one piece of the puzzle which will improve that young man’s quality of life. He needed job opportunities — and those with heads for business (and a desire to run businesses, which I personally think should have been one of Dante’s circles of hell) were able to provide them.

If we reflected deeply on his life — or on any life — we would see the way individuals using their gifts are part of a vast network that we call the society in which we live. For it to be healthy and for us to be healthy as individuals, we must come to to understand that we are all needed, all of us, with all of our gifts. Granted, in my utopia, all of us would consciously use our gifts for the common good, and there would be less concern about collecting wealth. But I know my utopia is just a dream.

Still, it would be nice if a time would come when others could share the small piece of my dream which involves recognizing and appreciating the gifts that others bring to the human family, appreciating and respecting them as part of a pattern of grace which touches all of our lives.

Even when differences exist.

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