Living Faith: When world narrows, faith can continue to expand
By Roxane B. Salonen
Not long ago, I took a road trip with my youngest daughter to see an old spiritual mentor.
At our arrival, he and his humble room and its sprinklings of mementos from his dear life warmly welcomed us; a tabletop, wooden statue of Saint Francis; a walking stick and small replicas of black bears from his spirit-filled years at Lake of the Woods; a colorful, handmade cross.
Never one to beat around the bush, Father Bill got the hard stuff out of the way right off.
“Three things are killing me,” he said, naming bladder cancer and a heart condition as two. “And the third? Well now,” he added, pausing. “I can’t remember.”
It seemed so inconsequential, that third thing, and I smiled at his lapse in memory, which said as much about his priorities as forgetfulness.
I asked him questions about his life, like when he first knew he’d be a priest – he was a teenager, he said, not much older than my daughter. He asked some of us, too, and then surprised me with the revelation that my most vibrant years are coming up. “Your 50s, if you have good health, can be the best decade.”
Nice to know, I thought happily, making a mental note.
But at some point, his face grew serious; not out of sorts, but it had a longing in it.
“Sometimes, I miss being out with the people, saying Mass, blessing them,” he said. “But you know, even here, I can do that. All I have to do is turn on the television, and there are all sorts of hurting people out there, and so I bless them. If I don’t, who will?”
And at that moment, my heart leapt out of my chest to hear this man, whose world has grown so small, claiming every corner of his narrowing life just the same, counting every inch as gift and wanting nothing more than to bestow that onto others.
Undoubtedly, at some point my world will grow small, too. It already has to some extent. The body isn’t what it used to be. I have felt those limitations holding me captive. And yet, how to live vibrantly in that, and with strong faith and less loss?
For me, it comes mostly through staying as close to God as I can, writing and keeping connected to life-giving relationships. For him, life stays vibrant through the many visitors that pass through his small home, daily interactions with staff, and reaching through the TV to touch the hurting people needing a prayer.
Who would guess the television could be a vehicle of blessing? Years ago, I quit watching it except on rare occasion. But for him, that small box has become a channel to love the world.
Incredible how after all these years he still has the ability to bring fresh inspiration to my heart.
This idea of keeping the world wide and hopeful even with limits has confronted me again in the reading of “An Interrupted Life,” the diaries of Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum.
“I find life beautiful, and I feel free,” she wrote, even while anticipating her future life in a concentration camp. “The sky within me is as wide as the one stretching above my head.”
Later, as the fateful day of her departure drew near, she momentarily lamented the loss of her books.
“Here, I need only stretch out my hand to put my finger on so many words and passages. Out there, I shall simply have to carry everything inside me,” she said.
“One ought to be able to live without books, without anything,” she continued. “There will always be a small patch of sky above, and there will always be enough space to fold two hands in prayer.”
I nearly wept upon reading those lines, and it seemed right to share her thoughts alongside Father Bill’s.
After all, we’re all going to face limits someday, if we haven’t already. The question isn’t whether it will happen, but whether our interior lives will be rich enough when it does to allow our spirits to continue expanding beyond earthly constraints.