Today's blog is written by my friend Ed Holm from Newport, North Carolina. For 33 years Ed taught school, first in the Baltimore County Schools in Maryland and then at Gramercy Christian School in Newport, North Carolina. He left teaching to become a parish administrator at his local church. Recently he returned to teaching by working at a home for troubled youth sponsored by the Methodist Home for Children. Ed is a graduate of St. Mary's Seminary & University (Baltimore) and holds a Masters in Theology degree. Ed is also a Third Order Franciscan monk in a group called The Company of Jesus. This article "Alice" is about a woman Ed worked with over 10 years ago. I found it so appropriate, following my own posts over the last four days, that I couldn't pass on letting others read it.
I have stumbled upon a rather wonderful little book called Lessons From the Monastery That Touch Your Life, by Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O. He is a Cistercian monk. Pennington suggests ways in which monastic practices might be incorporated into the secular lives that most of us live; ways in which the ordinary might be sanctified and become pathways to worship. Pennington has written this little book in response to an introduction he once received while attending a conference. The conference director, while meaning no harm, relegated Pennington and his fellow monks to being nothing much more than “old books on a shelf in a library.” At best, they were handy resources though which a modern person might view quaint antiquity but bore no relevance to life today. I suppose that the director held such old tomes to be of great intellectual value but of little practical use. Sadly, I think the director's perception is quite common, not only concerning monastic life, but concerning the value of scripture, contemplation and prayer in general as it is perceived by our culture. Faith is most always set on life's margins. But the very nature of faith itself flies in the face of such thinking. For the community of faith Christ is a fact, not a proposition. He is central and not marginal. Therein lies the rub between the culture and the Church.
I work with a wonderful saint named Alice who understands this dichotomy fully well. She is a custodian at my school. Alice follows the scriptural admonition to “pray unceasingly”. I don't think I have ever in fifteen years had a conversation with Alice that did not in some way allude to prayer. She prays for the teachers and the students, she prays for her church, she prays for my church, she prays for the neighborhood, she prays for her friends as well as her enemies. She prays particularly hard for her husband who does not share her piety and she prays for everyone and everything imaginable as far as I can determine. She comes into my office and smiles and tells me that she prays for me. I have walked by rooms where Alice is working alone and I have heard her praying aloud or singing a song of praise. It has gotten to the point that every time I see Alice, or even her cleaning cart, for that matter, I think about the subject of prayer. Alice is a sign of the Kingdom.
Those of us without the strength or courage of Alice are smaller, weaker signs, I suspect. We have too much to lose by confronting the culture which supports us. We are beholden and compromised. We are satisfied and perhaps even proud to be “books on a shelf.” Alice is undaunted. Never one to flinch in the face of withering fire, she refuses to believe that everyone cannot have faith just like hers. She comes into my room and says things like, “I see you have been in the Word this morning Mr. Holm. I saw the book on prayer in your briefcase.” Or she will say, “Have you got a Word for me today Mr. Holm” never thinking that one might live in a world where “a word” is something privately received and hidden under the bushel of ones self conscious fears. Sadly to say, most often I do not have “a word” for Alice because, unlike Alice, I neglected to start my day being fed by the Word. Not to worry, Alice always has a Word for me.
Sometimes my words and actions bespeak of a very poor spiritual witness. I will say things or do things that I wish I had not. Sometimes my comments have been cruel, unforgiving or diminishing of others. I have had the blessing on several occasions when I have been caught being the “other me” by Alice and I have seen the disappointment on her face and have felt shame. Indeed, her very presence is a work of righteousness that confronts my sin. Upon her lips I have seen the silent words of prayer, interceding for me or someone else in need of healing or forgiveness at that time. Alice, a valiant prayer warrior holds me accountable for my puny faith. Alice reminds me at those times that Christ is not a relic, an old book upon a shelf. I know His presence when Alice is around. That is why Alice is a saint.
Alice is a modern day monk praying for all others in all circumstances. The world needs people like Alice much more than it knows. The world needs monks and nuns and priests and saints and all of the faithful company of Heaven because, without them, our lives would suffer terrible spiritual poverty much greater than it suffers already. Without people like Alice faith would appear to be nothing more than a pleasant notion or a moment of wistfulness. Alice is an embodiment of faith. Her faith is incarnational in its blood, flesh and bone and she witnesses to a God she knows and one, she is sure, who knows and loves her.
The world holds tightly onto its disbelief but it cannot deny the substance of those who do believe and shine forth. Strangely, it is upon the human heart that God has chosen to make His strongest case for Truth. How fragile are the bearers of God's Word, and yet, how enduring; far greater than the loftiest tomes on library shelves is the power of one whose heart knows Christ. Thank you Alice for being that emissary from God's Kingdom. Thank you Jesus for Alice.