The hardest trial for most of us, especially those of us in religious life, is road rage. Especially when we are so knowledgeable about the rules of the road. How could anyone cross a yellow line to turn over the lane of oncoming traffic to get into the gas station! You know, traffic would run so much smother if people would just stop swerving around cars wanting to turn left at an intersection: why are they being so bleepity bleep inpatient!
Clearly, there are moments when as a Franciscan I’m tarnished by my attitude. (Or maybe it’s just an opportunity to learn patience!)
Our society has perceived rules which make it run smoother, or are at least designed in such a way as to create a smother flow. Traffic rules make it easier for traffic to flow provided everyone follows the rules. But when people slip from seeing rules as rules and instead perceive them as guidelines, accidents happen.
In a very similar way, we have conventions and rules in our social interactions. You’re supposed to treat people kindly and with respect.
When I was in Toronto for the first time last June, I noticed after I left Union Station and began my walk to the convent the vast distances between people. Sure, people were walking and driving busily at the end of a business day, but as I walked down Bay Street I couldn’t help but notice that while there were people in very expensive clothes, there were literally people peeking out from the alleys around the garbage bins, people who weren’t being noticed. There were people in front of Union Station trying to sell things, everything from pirated music cd’s to Jesus. And, in the pocket parks between Union and Church, there were people literally asleep on the grass wearing everything they owned.
Here in Regina, because I’m not always downtown I don’t notice if there are homeless. But there is a guy who wheels down the alley every couple of days; he goes through the garbage bins looking for scrap, in what I suppose is his means of income.
When I hear people talking about the homeless, or the underemployed, the most common thing that I hear is: why don’t they clean themselves up and get a job? Their lives would be so much better if only they could get work.
I used to be of this mindset. I used to believe that if people would just pick themselves up and dust themselves off, their lives would be so much better. But I’m beginning to realize that people who say these things are playing by guidelines, not rules.
Because the reality, I suspect, is that if a homeless person did clean themselves up to the best of their ability, they wouldn’t be able to get a job because the rules of the road say: don’t hire someone who will create fear in your work environment. And in a culture of fear, especially a culture of fear no one wishes to acknowledge exists, poverty is one of the key fears we run from.
One of my pet talking points is the moment that St. Francis realized he was playing by guidelines and not rules. Francis’ had a toxic fear of lepers. When he would see a leper approaching from one side of the road, he would cross to the other side, cover his mouth and nose with his hand, and look the other way. This was hit home to me during the Toronto Pride Parade. As I stood on the sidewalk watching, streams of people walking past myself and my bishop, A homeless man looking very much like an Indian sadhu (long hair, long beard, shirtless, but in ecstatic joy and dance from the festival going on) walked one way through the crowd, and in the opposite direction a young man, well dressed, very metrosexual, grimaced, covered his face, and looked the other way.
Francis realized that in order to be truly courteous, in order to exercise courtesy in a sacramental way, he had to play by the rules. Which meant that courtesy had to be extended not only to the individual he felt safe with, but those who terrified him. So, one day, when he was traveling along the road and a leper approached, he embraced his fear, accepted it, but did not allow it to control him. He dismounted the horse, walked to the leper, gave him a coin, and kissed his hands. This is a big thing, even for us! Leprosy is a disease that fills the skin with “corruption” (read a polite way of saying decay, rot, filth, odour, gangrene).
To put this into perspective, consider the most filthy, disgusting, or frightening thing you can imagine. Consider your greatest fear or phobia. Now consider embracing that to the point that you surround yourself with it, engulf yourself with it, because this is an act that brings you closer to the Divine. This is what Francis did.
Many of us are eager to engage with mission, or we want to go out into the world and do great things. This in itself is not a bad thing, or an undesirable thing to do. But in order to practice service in the spirit of Christ, we must be willing to first engage and embrace those among us who are the lepers of our locality. We must be willing to engage and embrace the homeless, the minorities, the oppressed. We must be willing to engage those who are crippled by the poverty of excess, the poverty of wealth, the poverty of prejudice, the poverty of privilege. The poverty of religiosity (or modern day Pharisees and Sadducees of the religious far right and left).
And, we must be willing to engage in the courteous act of prayer with God, engage in the courtesy of sacramental life with Jesus Christ. Without the solid foundation of regular engagement in prayer, we are at risk of being broken by the world. A regular holy hour, if possible in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, that includes reading scripture or scriptural commentary, is a means of building a foundation to work with courtesy in the world. For me, this includes centering prayer as a regular practice. If we are not willing to follow the rules of courtesy before God first and foremost, the rest of our lives will eventually crack and crumble. I’ve experienced this in my own life in the last few months, where a relationship with my boyfriend put my prayer practice second. It was just a little bookmark saying, “I will come back to you, Lord.” But the implication of doing so was so significant that I’ve had to come back to making a regular, dedicated effort to daily prayer and contemplation.
Courtesy begins with God and our relationship with God. It transcends down into our relationships with friends and family, transcends into our attitudes towards our neighbours and colleagues, transcends finally into how we approach our fellow human beings, and the planet we live on.
As a gardener? This makes perfect sense. Treat the soil well, the soil will treat you well in return. Treat the space as Sacred, and the space will in turn respect your sacred part within it.