Friday, December 18, 2009

Soup and Bread

Ember Friday of Advent

In college I put in some time at community volunteer work. I staffed soup kitchens and homeless shelters, put a roof on a Habitat house in Lynchburg, VA, and helped with the Georgia Special Olympics.

I was a decent student, but I didn't qualify for a scholarship; I got by with money from my parents, student loans, and whatever cash I could scrape together doing jobs at school and on my vacations. Plenty of times I had to pass on outings with friends for lack of funds, and more than once I went hungry. I hardly had a bad time of it, however, as my time working with the homeless and the poor illustrated in a dramatic way.

On one expedition I partnered with a few friends from church to help with the local soup kitchen. My duty that day was to serve soup and sandwiches, and I was having a bad time of it: trying to be helpful and cheerful for the sake of people who were down and out -- quite probably for life -- was more than I could manage. I was barely able to manage an occasional "here you go," and there was no way I could look those folks in the eye; though I had less than most of my friends, I still had more than the homeless folks, and I told myself that the disparity was something I was insufficiently appeciative of.

I was on the verge of asking to be assigned to the kitchen where I could make the sandwiches (and not have to face the truly destitute), when I saw my friend Laurie at a nearby table smiling and having a great time with some of the kids. Laurie was from a wealthy family -- her father owned a Mercedes dealership. One time she'd shown up at school with a second Mercedes so that she could "have something to drive on weekends." And there she was, completely at ease.

A new line of thought began in my head: Laurie wasn't self-conscious about her wealth, and it didn't interfere with her ability to work in the kitchen. Why the difference?

Then it hit me: she was grateful for what she had. With all her family's wealth, she had more humility than I did: she'd accepted her blessings from God as such and not something she was entitled to, whereas I'd been in the habit of taking much for granted. My friend's humility and gratitude -- her poverty of spirit -- enabled her to look the world in the eye without blinking.

The Spanish have a saying: "There are no pockets in a shroud;" rendered colloquially, this is our expression, "You can't take it with you." In the end, everything we have -- even our lives themselves -- actually belong to God and not to us. Our role is to be His stewards, trusted for a time to care for what He provides -- and after a time we'll be called to account for how we've done. It's liberating when this truth finally sinks in; Franciscan style, it can even put a smile on your lips.

Beati pauperes spiritu: quoniam ipsorum est regnum cælorum.

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