(reader’s note: this was written a week ago, but hey, wifi’s gonna do what wifi’s gonna do)
“The world’s thy ship and not thy home.” –St. Therese of Lisieux
The changing of the month always gets me. Turning the calendar page can stir me into a panic, as the familiar thought recurs—how it is that another 30 some days have passed, and I feel as if I’m standing in the same place I was 30 days ago?
Today marks the beginning of my fourth week here in Cochabamba. And at moments, I feel as if so much has happened, so much has changed. I now know the names of 39 girls, and how to make breakfast to feed them all, which way to turn the key in each of the thirty some doors I lock and unlock in the course of a day, whose hair I can manage without making them look like Einstein, and even how to say a few new things in Spanish. But at the end of some days, as I look back and wonder what I actually accomplished, it is easy to succumb to the overwhelming feeling that I’ve not done anything at all.
Which brings me to good ole St. Therese of Lisieux, whose feast day we celebrate on October 1st. Just a few months ago my brother and I spent a couple days in Lisieux, France, where Therese lived as a member of the Carmelite order. As we walked together through the town and climbed to the Basilica, I smiled as her words, her life rushed back to my consciousness as they had not since I was a senior in high school and first read I Believe in Love. I won’t attempt to summarize her life, or convey all she has taught me, but a few small things kept returning to me in this past week and a half since I turned the figurative page of the calendar to greet another October.
For a great deal of my life, I was intensely preoccupied with the notion that I must accomplish some great, grand thing. Not for my own good name, but out of a sense of responsibility, or duty, I suppose. I’ve nothing against great, grand things, but viewed incorrectly, they loomed as a constant burden, the burden of what I must accomplish. The problem, which Therese gave voice to on the pages of a book I read as a college-bound eighteen year old, is that to view our lives as a series of grand things to accomplish is to miss completely the fact that the grandiosity which fills us up and gives peace is not achieved by our human efforts (no matter how good our intentions). All grandiosity precedes us and is presented to us each day. And the most grandiose thing imaginable is simply the affection in the gaze of the one who made us. If we fail to see it and receive it, we will forever be burdened by the weight of our lives, by self-imposed “duty” and “responsibility.” How exhausting to see my life as a series of things I must do! As Therese put it, we are “Little Flowers,” tiny and simple, who have been given everything. And the one who made us doesn’t want us to walk around burdened by the lives we’ve been given. Instead we’re left with just this question: “Do you love me?”
Which leads me to St. Therese’s words: “The world’s thy ship and not thy home.” Not some five years ago, I would have read those words and felt even more intensely the burden of all I had not accomplished, of all I had failed to do. But these are the words of a woman who saw herself as a little flower, who saw that the primary concern of life, (in fact the only thing that could give life,) as the acceptance of how little she was—given everything, loved in the most grandiose of ways before she could “accomplish” anything in the eyes of the world.
This weekend at the Hogar we embarked on a gardening “revolution” as Hermana (Sr.) Reina put it. On Saturday Hermana Leti proudly presented to us a menagerie of roses, and put the girls to work on every square inch of grass and dirt to be found within the compound. What a sight! Celia running the lawn mower, Katerin chopping patiently away with a scythe, Maria Belen and Rebeca and a whole crew hacking at weeds with tools I imagine are used on railroading projects. Hermana let me loose on a thick tree limb with one of these mystery tools—the dismembered limb narrowly missed the angel statue which Pacu and Hermana Leti then fortified with hand mixed concrete and christened with a fresh coat of paint. After a failed but applause worthy effort at rolling a massive clay urn out of the courtyard, Erin spent a solid half hour emptying dirt from the urn’s belly til we could move the darned thing. Cadres of girls barely big enough to haul wheelbarrows filled them with rocks and brick, which they placed in meticulous arrangement around newly planted roses.
And man, do we have roses. As I tamped down the dirt, I recalled my grandfather’s words. Don’t leave any air down there or the roots will dry out. And I stooped down and the scent that brushed against my nose is the fragrance I’ve known a hundred times before. It’s the fragrance of an affection and a grandiosity that precedes everything else, and it asks: “Do you love me?” Will you accept this affection I have for you?
When I remember to receive—to receive the fragrance of a rose, the shared task of a weekend of gardening revolution, my own little-ness—the words of St. Therese give me peace instead of triggering anxiety. “The world’s thy ship and not thy home.” Do not be burdened by this life I’ve given you! And then with freedom, we can look to the people and the work before us, trusting that somehow, all of it has been given to us, for us.
‘Til next time