National Catholic Register

Commentary

Misery And Grace

BY Mark Shea

July 15-21, 2007 Issue | Posted 7/10/07 at 4:13 PM

 

I make my living as a writer and speaker. Recently, I was invited to speak in Oklahoma City. The airlines lost my luggage, leaving me with very little to sell at the talk. For a budget as tight as ours, that was a big hit. Then, they returned the books — soaking wet and many of them shredded and damaged. That was an even bigger — as in “perilous” — hit to our meager family budget. I felt, not for the first time, dangerously close to poverty and frustrated with my ineptitude in the bread-winning department.

This wasn’t helped by my struggles with the airline to get some sort of redress for their destruction of my property. No human being will talk to you.

You must thread your way through a labyrinth of phone messages and operators who refer you to one another, only to be told that, in the end, the Customer Relations Bunker at American Airlines doesn’t want to actually have any personal contact with, you know, customers. You are told to document your problem and fax it in. There is no phone you can call. And then you wait until they are good and ready to acknowledge your existence — if ever.

The net result of this is to grind into my face not only how poor I am but how powerless I am.

Now I’m getting angry — and scared.

Those books were going to pay for themselves and for our mortgage. Now they’re a total loss and I cannot get a living human being at American to respond to me. Faith in Providence is all well and good for St. Francis, but get real! I’m starting to panic.

In frustration, I post a big gerblat about my exasperation and worry on my blog. I fret at my wife Jan, who’s got her own pressures to deal with, and she, being the sensible one, suggests we go pray.

And that’s when I start to learn my lesson. As the family gathers for Morning Prayer, Jan and I both somehow find we are able to put things in perspective, remember that God remains God and that, in the grand scheme of things, financial hiccups are pretty small. The elaborate fax kabuki results in nothing as of this writing, but I’m much more at peace and able to be charitable than I was, thanks to our Lord. That was lesson one.

Lesson two unfolded over the next week, as reader after reader of my blog spontaneously started pitching in various gifts to my PayPal button, along with a kind word (“Sorry about your troubles.” “You are appreciated.” “Been through airline hell too! Don’t let it get you down.”). Simple human kindness that I did not expect at all, to my shame. How could I have missed all that grace, just sitting out there in brimming human hearts ready to spill over? And I was afraid the world would be dry as a bone.

That was lesson two. Lesson three came today: My son Peter (who just turned 12) comes in just now and asks if I want to come pick cherries off the tree in the back yard. For some crazy reason, I say no. (Some lunatic excuse like “work” because I have to get cracking and make up the lost income from the destroyed books, as well as figure out a way to quixotically tilt at American Airline Windmills, slay the soulless giant, and raid his treasure horde for my reimbursement). Money, money, money.

I turn back to my computer, pause, and something (I think it was the Holy Spirit) says, “What are you doing? Picking cherries with your boys in the middle of a wild windy warm gray summer day or sitting at a computer — and you choose the computer?!”

I throw on a shirt, rush outside and join the guys. I hold the ladder while they take turns climbing and picking the high branches and I work the low ones.

Have you ever noticed how beautiful a cherry is? The red is like no red on earth. Rich. Liquid. Dark, in the ripest ones, like the cape of great monarch. Our cherries are made of Washington rain, scientifically proven (by me, just now) to be sweeter than all other kinds of rain and Washington sunshine (scientifically shown to be better than all other kinds of sunshine).

The tree did a wild dryad sort of dance around us as we picked. The boys exclaimed with excitement at each fresh jewel. Sean had the bright idea of adding raspberries to the mix from our little berry patch. When we were done, I put the ladder away and the guys rushed in the house to wash their trove and present it with a flourish to Mom. The whole thing took ten minutes out of my time-is-money day and I came away richer than Bill Gates.

Message received.

Mark Shea is senior content editor for catholicexchange.com.