Just because I prefer, on Sundays, to attend the Mass of the Very Old Men doesn’t mean I often make it. It’s a very early mass and despite my love of the silence, and the prayerful examples of the regular attendees, abandoning my warm bed for it — particularly this winter — has not been a priority.
Having turned the clocks ahead last night, the chances of my making early mass today were even more reduced, but a restless husband — oddly kicking the bedcovers and stealing the pillows — more or less drove me from the bed, and if I wasn’t going to be able to sleep, I groused to myself, at least I could make early mass.
If deep down I was grateful for the shove church-ward, you wouldn’t know it from the running dialogue of resentment that was coming from my mouth and soul as I drove to mass. Stupid time-change had me driving in the dark. Stupid traffic lights shouldn’t be three minutes long in the wee small hours of the morning. Stupid everything.
Walking toward the church, and still mentally muttering to myself, I spied a man, rather peripherally. He was lingering at the doors; a small, slightly stooped, unkempt and jittery sort of fellow, and I had no idea who he was, why he was there or what he had in mind.
My mood being what it was, I wasn’t interested in finding out. I kept my head down, and my eyes lowered, and as I approached the steps I could hear him asking, “which one? This one? This one? Which door?”
Finally looking up, I realized the man was talking to me. “Which door?” he repeated, moving quickly from one to the other. “This one? I’m going to open the door for you! I’m the doorman! I’m waiting to open the door for you, if you’ll let me.”
“If you’ll let me…” those words struck something inside me, and made me feel guilty. I was once again being too ungenerous to allow someone else to be generous. I know this about myself; it is an old flaw, and a deep one.
I let him open the door, and thanked him, but not warmly. I felt intruded upon, in exactly the way that shy, introverted people can feel burdened by simple exchanges of pleasantry that come so naturally for others. Why, oh why did people have to put themselves in my way, and inflict themselves upon my consciousness — forcing me to engage when I am so intent on only doing so on my own terms! Grouse, grouse.
Settling into my pew, still disturbed by the doorman in a way I couldn’t quite understand, I breathed deeply and asked God’s forgiveness for my unpardonable me-ness. I began to catalogue for him the prayer intentions I had brought with me — for a young woman and a young man, both battling breast cancer; for my family members sick in body, or mind and spirit; for a missing jetliner and grieving families; for the priest I could see preparing in the sacristy — a shy fellow, himself, who always inspires me to pray for him. Opening my Magnificat, I happened on a quote from the Servant of God Catherine deHueck Doherty:
The mercy that we must give to others includes that of standing up for the poor, the lonely, those who have no education and cannot stand up for themselves. It means to engage in what we call social justice on behalf of our brother. That involves opening ourselves to being pushed around and crucified. This always happens to those who stand up for others…
Lent is here to remind us that the mercy of God is ours provided we embrace his law of love; provided we realize that it’s going to hurt, and hurt plenty, but that the very hurting will be a healing. That’s the paradox of God, that while you hurt, you heal. That’s true healing.
The sea of his mercy is open before us. Lent definitely and inexorably leads us to it and makes us think about what it takes to swim in it.
Oh, busted! So busted was I, sitting there utterly convicted by three paragraphs that, in an oddly paradoxical way, encapsulated my exchange with the man at the door. He had been practicing his brand of social justice for me — doing something generous for another, with the openness of love — and he got pushed around for it in the coldness of my response.
Crucified, in a small way, he was. And I helped.
This “law of love we must embrace”, that “hurts as it heals!” Why do I fail at it, so spectacularly, every single day — even when I’ve been awake for less than an hour! Even as I am entering church for Holy Mass!
The liturgy began and I was swept along with it, but not wholly. Not holy. I kept remembering the doorman and the feebleness of my response to his act of giving. I kept hearing his words: “I’m waiting to open the door for you, if you’ll let me.”
What exactly had I managed to, if not exactly refuse, accept badly?
I realized that once again I am very bad Benedictine, a pathetic daughter of Saint Benedict, who counsels us to “see Christ in every encounter.”
Christ had been there, right before me, and I had missed him.
Christ, waiting for me to acknowledge him as I resisted, and I missed him!
Christ, gently offering me a choice of entrances — a variety of paths – and I missed him!
Christ, inviting me to let him do something for me, and I missed him!
Christ, opening the door to heaven on earth, and I missed him!
Christ, enduring my cold, perfunctory thanks as I walked past him, wondering why he had to be there, forcing me out of myself.
And I missed him!
I was ashamed, and begged my way through mass asking Jesus, in the moment of Communion, for a chance to thank the doorman — to make a genuine expression of appreciation, full-faced, fully-voiced and heartfelt. I wanted a do-over; a second chance to recognize Christ in the Doorman; a way to say “you were there this morning, and I’m sorry I was so late to see it. I am sorry I missed you.”
As soon as the celebrant passed, I looked around, seeking out the small man in the disheveled clothes. I couldn’t see him, anywhere. I made my way quickly to the doors, hoping perhaps he was manning them again, but he was gone.
The words from the Song of Songs came to me, “I sought, but did not find him. Let me rise then and go about the city, through the streets and squares…”
I sought but did not find him.
It was too late. Christ had been before me, and I had missed him. And now I was alone with my regret, wanting to love and having no taker. Such a desolate feeling. Such a failure.
I offered it up, with apologies, to the Christ who I know is all around us — so easy to engage and talk with when invisible; so easy to dismiss and walk away from, when visible in his distressing disguise as the doorman.
I am a failure at love, again. And again. God help me.
Happy first Sunday of Lent.
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