Pillars of the World

The other day, I was chatting with a priest. He’s a funny man, very smart, mildly pious and has lots of sagacity born of hard and sufficiently long life experience. But what I love about him most is that, though he is a hard-nosed realist, he’s not jaded. Those are hard to find in tandem.

We were discussing “complaining,” and why people complain. He made the point that there are some people he knows who would not know how to feel content if something were not going wrong, or if they weren’t being wronged. Then he quoted Oscar Wilde’s funny quip,

A pessimist is somebody who complains about the noise when opportunity knocks.

He said he thinks complaining makes these melancholic whiners feel their own pain and inadequacy less. “They’re kind of like,” he added, “the endless talkers who carefully mask their deep fear of the intimacy of silence by talking incessantly.”

“But,” he continued, “at the root of complaining is, to me, the unwillingness to embrace the fact that this life is flawed; that everyone out there is flawed, screws up now and again, is full of mixed motives and has imperfect intentions. Is a sinner. And complaining about others’ mistakes reflects an unwillingness embrace God’s perfect love for the imperfect. [an absurdly amazing statement, in my opinion] Without faith, it’s hard to face and embrace human limits honestly and without despair. That’s what I would say is among the greatest gifts that faith in Christ gives us – to be able to see God in that tangled, icky web of human foibles — our foibles! — and to be able to accept the paradox that God works His finest deeds in humanity’s seediest moments. That is, when we give Him those worst moments. So, I’ll say to these whiners, ‘If you complain, you’re telling telling God: I don’t believe you’re merciful, that you love us as we are, and that I’m supposed to imitate you.’ They say now, ‘No use complaining to Father, he won’t listen!’”

Blessed the the Poor

Then he shared with me a few stories of people he has known who led him to this insight, and helped him face his own inner darkness. He said,

There was this one woman, old as the hills. In her late 80s. She lived alone in a rural area, in a trailer, and was poor as dirt. No teeth. I don’t know how she survived for so long out there. Someone once alerted me to her needs, so I came out to minister to her and see what I could bring her. She was from some sort of Pentecostal faith, and clearly knew her faith. I would go out there every week on Tuesday and visit with her for about an hour. She told me many of her long life’s stories – amazing tales of tragedy and profound experiences of mostly unrequited love.

But it was the day she said something to me after I’d shared with her a few problems I was having at the parish that totally knocked the wind out of me. I mentioned that there were in my parish these problem people who always made my work so much harder than it has to be, and that I wished they’d find another parish. She listened with great interest to my lament, and then said to me in a very loving and compassionate tone,

“You know Father, I know what you’re sayin’s true. There’s a lotta nasty folks out there in the world. But here’s God’s honest truth: I really believe that all life’s hard knocks and all the miserable people don’t amount to a hill of beans, don’t mean nothin’ to us but to be another chance to give God back some of the love and good things He’s given us. See, He gave us way much more love than we’d ever need in a thousand lifetimes, and so He gives us all these difficult folks to give it all away to. And the nastier they are, the more we get to give ’em.”

My priest friend remarked, “I was mortified. After those words coming from that woman, who lived that kind of life and lived in that kind of poverty, how could I ever complain again about my difficult parishioners? How could I not see in all those irritating people God waiting for me to spend on Him all my treasures? She’s one of those hidden saints that holds the world up, but nobody knows she’s there. No fanfare. She’ll probably die alone, smiling. That’s how God always works. Blessed are the nobodies!”

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.    — Luke 6:32-36

10 comments on “Pillars of the World

  1. beads2rosaries says:

    “A pessimist is somebody who complains about the noise when opportunity knocks.”

    –This gave me my first laugh in 2 days. I needed that more than you know. Thanks for your service to this blog.

  2. Reminds me of St. Josemaria’s adage: “Don’t say: ‘That person gets on my nerves.’ Think: ‘That person sanctifies me.'”

  3. Hi Tom,

    Oh how I needed this post today!!! I have two students who are giving me grief over exam scores. When I read the wise words of this unknown saint, I thought about those two students.

    Here’s how another (living) saint, Sr. Ruth Burrows, puts it: “Divine love meets us in this real world and nowhere else: in this moment; in this circumstance, painful and humiliating though it may be; in this person; in the daily round of seeming trivialities which afford no measure of self-glorification. Divine love meets us here in our flawed, suffering, human condition, and nowhere else.”

    With love,

  4. Br Patrick says:

    Wonderful post. Used the Matt 5 passage yesterday with a student to talk about the Lord’s perfect love. So true, the Lord has given us love for a thousand lifetimes! Looks like our trailer saint was living the life of heaven here on earth. Who has time to complain when one is with the Lord and knows deeply His love!

  5. The only thing I could think through this post was “I bet I know this priest” haha. Don’t tell me, but that description, for better or worse, could be many priests I know! I’m not as avid a reader as Anthony, but I always enjoy your insights Tom!

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