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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Life in a Box

It's been a strange day. Today, my friend Sr. Mary's Investiture took place, and as she died to the world, I was attending a funeral Mass for someone who had physically left the world. It was a beautiful parallel, and one maybe only another Catholic could understand.

Boxes are such a symbol...caskets are boxes, even if really fancy and expensive ones. The Pope...wasn't he buried in a pine box? A pauper's box? For he had nothing of his own...he belonged entirely to Christ.

Several years ago, when I was on light duty and working "Downtown", I was sent into the file room with some papers. I had names, and knew that I could find that name in one of the many boxes the filled the room.

It didn't take long for me to be saddened. Maybe because one of the things I was filing away had the name of a Firefighter who had died on the job; in fact, it was his last day on the Job. And in fact, he'd extended that day to cover for another Firefighter. And was killed. My hand shook a little as I found his file and put it away, wanting to offer some sort of reverence, realizing what this "name" had done.

None of what I knew was written on the page I filed. In fact, the page was something administrative that really had nothing to do with anything. But I put it away, and looked at some of the other names in the same dusty brown box. I looked around the room at all the boxes, realizing that they were FILLED with names, and stupid information about random career events.

But NONE of those boxes and files would tell us who those people were. I thought of one of the guys on light duty with me; he was a driver, was close to retirement but wanting to hang on for another couple years before he finally accepted his pension. He was sacrificing himself to help his children pay their own bills and get a better start in life. He had just adopted a small dog, whom his dear grandchildren loved, but the greatest reward of his life was really those children. He'd do anything for them. Even if it meant staying on the Job forever to help his adult children provide for them...he'd do it. His was a life of sacrifice, and even then, he knew that it was a life that might be given for even the least among us.

I wished I could go through the files and open them not to see useless insurance or random information, but stories of their lives. Of who they were, who they loved, and who loved them.

The memory of that file room has never left me, and I hope it never does.

Living to Work, or Working to Live?

Before I went to Mexico, we were introduced to the Mexican answer of the question, "What do you do?"

In America, if someone asks us that, we offer our careers. We tend to define ourselves by our work, what we have studied or apprenticed to become. In essence, we hand someone a dusty old box filled with random dry documents that really offers nothing.

In Mexico, and, I suspect, other parts of the world, the answer no matter what the career, would be, "I am a mother". "I am a father, and devoted to my family."

They define themselves not by what they do...but who they are. In a short conversation, you can come away knowing something about them as human beings. Their great gift is that of building relationships. I've never met someone from Latin America who was not like this.

One of the custodians in my last position used to spend time in my "cube" telling me, in Spanish, of his country, his people, his family. My Spanish was very bad, but he was patient and helped me to make connections, find words, and in this, he introduced me to his own struggles. He told me of El Salvador, how Christmas isn't joyous because of the violence that takes place there. He lamented about his family, still in that country.

And we spoke of Catholicism and religion. His family was being evangelized by Jehovah's Witnesses, and he didn't see the difference between our faith and theirs. Even in my forgotten, rusty Spanish, I tried to convey our belief in the Trinity and the reality of Christ as both God and Man...and the JW's denial of these truths. He had to know that our religions are NOT the same and their understanding of Christ was not the same. Even though they were nice and meant well.

In the end, I gave him a few Miraculous Medals blessed by Pope John Paul II, asked him to pray to Our Lady for her intercession, and to remain faithful. He was amazed at the gift, and when I've handed those over many people have been amazed. But he didn't come talk to me because I gave him sacramentals...he spent time talking to me because he wanted SOMEONE here to know his family, to know him through his Vocation, not by his job. His job didn't define him.

I'll never forget Jose. (That was his real name. Please pray for Jose and his family in El Salvador).

The Problem with America

We have all heard the catch-phrase "American Dream". This varies, but it has to do with materialism to some degree which leads to a house with a stereotypical Art-Deco white picket fence and a limited number of children, or none at all. We learn of the sacrifice of our ancestors who came here, but in riding on their coattails, we aren't expected to have to offer any sacrifice for ourselves. We are a country of plenty and with that plenty, we have lots o' criticism for people who don't agree with our ethnocentric ideals.

We've gone from being separatist and racist to "tolerant", which, in current American parlance is actually a more extreme and diversified form of separatism, racism, and discrimination guided by elitist relativistic principles.

Our ancestors were staunchly nationalistic in their hope in America, even while they clung to their ethnic identities. Their sufferings were things we can't imagine, but today, we persecute the mirrors of our own grandparents. Today, they come from different countries arising from different conflicts. And in 30 years, their children will be lamenting our generation for the treatment of their own parents.

In the end, none of that matters, for we don't define ourselves according to our ancestral hopes; we define ourselves by the silver platters that have been handed to us. We are guided by "careers", not the idea of "Vocation", and we look to our own invented yardstick and timeline for definition in our lives, never bothering to ask how God defines us and what He has called us to become.

What happiness He has in store for us, if only we would be willing to divest ourselves of the culture of plenty long enough to see how poverty-stricken we really are.

American culture is like the dusty file room downtown, and we are all choosing to define ourselves only by dry details that belong only on the peripheral.

We place our lives in boxes, and when it contains what we think it ought, we brush our hands together, but can't understand why the dust won't go away, or from whence the musty scent arises.

We need a new perspective. We need to see ourselves not in terms of career, but vocation. We need to first understand to what we have been Called, and only from that point can we ever discern what to do with our gifts.

We are not the boxes we create for ourselves. But if we can't see what God has designed for us, that is the location to which we will be relegated, left only to gather dust and be forgotten unless someone has another document to file away.



Lillian Marie said...

I know what you mean about Firefighters -

My Paternal Grandfather was a Fire Chief for many years (volunteer Fire Dept).

When he died, it is such a somber feeling & honorable memory to see all of the fire fighters, fire trucks, etc. lined up on the side of the road paying homage to a fallen hero.

(and yes, Pope John Paul II was buried in a simple pine box w/ Mary's inscription on the top)

Your post reminds me of an adage that has been going around for years ... what do you want your legacy to be?

In the end, it doesn't matter about your career, money, cars, etc. What really matters is our relationships that we build/destroy.

It really makes me think about how I build/destroy relations with people I meet every day. It becomes quite humbling.

(and I'm sure Jose often thinks about you & prays for you)

Adoro said...

LM ~ I hope he does, and I'd be honored.

uncle jim said...

what comes after the comma after your name?

it can tell what we do ... or who we are

what comes after the comma after your name?

do i have a legacy about which i wouldn't want anyone else to know?

owenswain said...

Husband, father, son, Catholic, artist - we might haggle over the last two but for me they are intrinsically me.

Smiley said...

Holy Roman Apostolic Catholic Husband