Do you know who you’re talking to?

As I walked down the hall and into our parish’s Spanish language youth group meeting after a very trying and somewhat disappointing middle school lesson on the Ten Commandments, I was fully immersed in beleaguered-teacher mode. I entered and quickly began an Advent lesson on Mary. We began reviewing the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and I was asking questions and giving answers in a pretty rote fashion: What’s the angel’s name? Who does he visit first? Who is Elizabeth the mother of? Yes, that’s right … no, that’s wrong … and so forth. But before long a more engaging question came up from one of the students: why doesn’t Mary get scolded for questioning the angel?

I paused. It’s a decent question. Gabriel shows up to Zechariah and announces a miraculous birth. When Zechariah asks how this shall come to pass given the age of himself and his wife, the angel takes this as a doubt-filled affront and strikes him mute. Fast forward a little bit, when Gabriel shows up to Mary and announces a miraculous birth. Mary asks how this shall come to pass given the circumstances of her virginity. Gabriel, instead of becoming angry, gives a fuller account and praises Mary even further. What gives?

light-shining-woman-on-bed
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Annunciation” (image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org)

The students give various answers. They seem to me insufficient, and I say so; I’m the teacher after all. No, that’s not right. No, I don’t think so. I give some explanation which seems to me semi-convincing, and the kids nod. I prepare to move on. But another hand goes up, “No Mr. Steven, I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a better explanation.”

“Oh,” I say, skeptical. “And what is that?”

The student continues. “I mean, I just think the angel knows who he is talking to … the mother of the King. In some way his own mother. You cannot talk to your mother that way. Maybe your brothers and sisters, maybe your friends, but not your mother. I would never, and surely the angel is better at these things than I am.”

I had never thought of that before. The student’s response knocked me out of my haze and into a moment of speechless consideration. I’ll admit, I don’t know the real answer to this question (who can pretend to know the minds of the angels? The mind of God?), but I loved his answer and his perception humbled me. I was no longer in teacher modeI was awake now, and pondering this possibility right alongside the rest of the class.

I just think the angel knows who he is talking to.

My student comes from a home where there is a much greater culture of traditional respect than in the home I grew up in. Most of the time, I talked to my parents any which wayif anything, familiarity was a sign of closeness and affection, not respect. And while both have their place, I realized that the discussion with this student meant I had missed somethingI couldn’t see what he could.

It is a lesson I have learned before and which I clearly need to learn again; perhaps one we must learn over and over countless times: we can only see the fullness of truth in a community of faith. Our viewpoints are limited and all those we encounter know something we don’t. We can learn something new from anyone at any time if we are willing to set down the answer book and listen. Just as an adolescent Jewish girl from Nazareth can outrank an angel in holiness, so too can students surpass their teacher’s insight; so too can we all be outmatched in wisdom by those we underestimate. Real wisdom is not ignoring those lessons when they come.

But the student’s answer is also challenging on a different level. As I left class that day I found myself thinking, “Do I know who I am talking to?” My students are kids; kids I am entrusted with teaching and correcting. But do I also recognize them as brothers and sisters and fellow disciples? People with unique experiences of God that frequently surpass my own in holiness? People who had a relationship with God before I stepped in the classroom and who will have one long after they have moved on from our time together?

Do I know who I am talking to in the people I meet every day? Do I know who I am talking to in the person on the street? Do I know who I am talking to when I argue with my enemy? C.S. Lewis once said that there are no ordinary people:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

All too often I don’t know this. For me, familiarity might not breed contempt but it can sure breed blindness and ingratitude. The people I see every day my family, my students, my co-workers and acquaintances —  become normal, and I can no longer see them each for the unique word of God that is spoken in them. The unique aspect of the Divine Person that they are in the world.

My student gave me a great gift on the first day of Advent and so it has become my Advent prayer:

Renew my vision. Let me see people as they really are; let me see them as you see them. Let me take no one for granted, and let me recognize your face in all I meet.

Lord, let me see who I am talking to. Amen.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Lessons learned from my students

A few weeks ago I saw my first “Back to School” flier of the season. In the past several years, such fliers stirred up emotions of stress and panic for me, along with excitement. As a teacher, back to school sales served as glaring reminders that I had a lot to do.

This time, the sighting of a back to school flier surfaced a whole new set of emotions: gratitude and relief. I felt grateful for my time as a teacher, and relieved by the reminder that this year there is no “back to school” for me.

To my surprise, in the past year I have felt called to move on to a new ministry and not…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

"Stones in Trout Lake" near Marywood Spirituality Center Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA
“Stones in Trout Lake” near Marywood Spirituality Center Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

Lent is my restart button

Some days, I feel like I just want a restart button.

From: http://randalldsmith.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/restart-windows.png

At times, I even feel this way about my life.

And then, when I look at all the problems in the world, aware of how complicated and messy the issues of injustice really are, I frequently feel the same way.

I just want to press a button and let everything reboot, wake up all refreshed and renewed and ready to do things much better, to be more like we’re supposed to be.

That’s why I love this sacred season of Lent. I want to grow, I desire holiness, I pray for justice. I really do believe that things can be better and through God’s grace, we have something to do with it.

Back on Ash Wednesday there was a lot of chatter about what people were “giving up” for Lent. I didn’t chime in then, but now I’ll tell you some of what I’m up to.  A full Lenten experience is not just about “giving things up” but committing to any activities of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in order to, in a sense, restart our relationships with God and others.

In fact, I am finding that the actions I have been taking work much more gradually than it does when I push a restart button. People and social problems aren’t machines, after all. Forty days is probably a good amount of time for a proper restart.

  • In my classroom, my students and I have been praying with the CRS Lenten calendar and putting money in our rice bowl.
  • In my living community, the sisters and I are eating vegetarian then donating the money we would have spent on meat to the area warming center. We are holding Friday nights as a silent hermitage time for contemplation. Plus, a couple of us started volunteering at a free community dinner, which I think we’ll continue doing after Lent.
  • Personally, I am praying with the daily readings all through Lent.  And, I’m using a web-browser add-on called Waste No Time to stop me from using Facebook or Twitter for more than 10 minutes a day.
  • Lastly, today I’m leading a small group of youth in a CRS Food Fast retreat. Please say a prayer for the high school students who are fasting and will engage in service-learning and prayer activities after school.  All of our actions should help us be in solidarity with those who are really hungry in other parts of the world.

The restart process is not pain-free, of course, but it’s so worth it.  Basically, the activities of Lent are chipping away at the hardness in my heart and helping me learn some big lessons:

  • The acts of service and fasting have taught me that I am way too comfortable, not just materially, but also with my plans. I’ve realized that I have fallen into a bit of a rut of liking my routine to be a certain way.  Even though I have good intentions, I practically walk around every day with my focus on my to-do list with a giant “do not disturb” sign hanging from my face. How can I help build up the kingdom of God if I am not open, flexible and available? Am I awake to the work of God?
  • Speaking to being awake to the work of God, the activities of prayer have helped me gain a deeper desire for more intimacy with God.  I entered Lent looking forward to my Triduum because then I could have a little vacation. Now, I am hoping for a silent retreat over those days, almost isolated from civilization.
  • Lastly, I believe again that every little action has an impact. I realized that sometimes when I pray or do acts of charity I am tempted to become cynical about whether I am really making a difference. Now, because of some feedback received from others, I’m remembering that the littlest things do indeed matter; we just don’t always know how.  This interdependence among us reaches across the globe to our brothers and sisters who are desperate for the pennies that we throw away, too. Our choices to be in solidarity with them this Lent really improve their livelihood, thanks be to God. This video helps me understand that:

Ultimately, the Lenten restart button that I was hoping for has had an impact on me. I have gotten disturbed. I am changed. I am getting to be a bit better, we all are.

And, for this I am very thankful.