Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Story of a Soul

This year I've taken up the challenge of a reading bingo.  It's a 5x5 grid with a different type of book in each square, so that means with the free square in the middle (yippee!) I need to read 24 different books this year.  So far I've finished six books, most recently The Autobiography of Thérèse of Lisieux, which she titled The Story of a Soul (buy it at Stephanchew's if you're in Winnipeg).  I selected this book to fill the category of "a book written by someone under thirty."

St. Thérèse, if you're not familiar with her, was a Carmelite nun who lived from 1873 - 1897, dying at the tender age of 24 from tuberculosis.  She is better known as Thérèse of the Child Jesus, or the Little Flower, or the architect of The Little Way.

She wrote the book under a directive from the Mothers Superior of her convent; it's doubtful that she would have put pen to paper in this manner if she hadn't been so ordered.  She was a quiet soul, longing to be taken into the convent at a young age and finally accepted at age fifteen.  The book was first published two years after her death, and has remained a beloved tome of the Church.

I was surprised to read that St. Thérèse shared a common thought with me: she felt that she was woefully inadequate compared to the giants in Christian history like Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and their illustrious ilk.  While she was still quite young, she voiced this feeling of being too small to her elder sister Marie.  She recounts the tale to Marie thusly:

I told you once that it puzzled me that God did not give everyone the same amount of Glory in Heaven and I feared they could not all be happy.  You sent me off to fetch one of Father's big glasses and made me put my little thimble by the side of it; then you filled both up with water and asked me which I thought was the fuller.  I had to admit that one was just as full as the other because neither of them would hold any more.
That was the way you helped me to grasp how it was that in Heaven the least have no cause to envy the greatest.

Lessons like this convinced her that she could still attain sainthood (and indeed, today she is known as a Doctor of the Church, meaning we hold her teachings right up there with Aquinas and Augustine) through what she called The Little Way.

You know that I have always wanted to be a saint; but compared with real saints I know perfectly well that I am no more like them than a grain of sand trodden beneath the feet of passers-by is like a mountain with its summit lost in the clouds. 
Instead of allowing this to discourage me, I way to myself: "God would never inspire me with desires which cannot be realized, so in spite of my littleness, I can hope to be a saint.  I could never grow up.  I must put up with myself as I am, full of imperfections, but I will find a little way to Heaven, very short and direct, an entirely new way. 
"We live in age of inventions now, and the wealthy no longer have to take the trouble to climb the stairs; they take a lift.  That is what I must find, a lift to take me straight up to Jesus, because I am too little to climb the steep stairway of perfection."

I could get on board with that.

Books can have many different effects on us.  They can entertain, they can challenge, they can frighten, they can educate.  This is one of the most unique books I've read - I don't know how else to describe its effect on me at this point on my journey other than to say that it seems to have strummed the strings of my soul with brilliant, harmonic chords.  She is so very real in how she relates her journey; so very simple, straight, and thin - but her zeal burned so hot, she was like a hot knife which impossibly seems to cuts through the coldest brick of butter with ease.

St. Thérèse, pray for us!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Why Did You Let Me Fall?

When I was a young man I drove a taxi.  That was a fun job - I got to drive nice old style boats - Caprices, Lincolns, and even a Cadillac from time to time.  Once I got to drive the firm's limo for a wedding - that was a neat experience.  I used downtime between fares to read good poetry and to write bad poetry. I developed incredible defensive driving skills which still benefit me to this day.  And I built friendships with many interesting people.

One of these people was a sweet old black lady named Mavis who used to call on us every now and then to take her to the doctor's office or the mall or other such places.  She was exceedingly charming, full of vim, and always had a story to tell.  I had actually known her casually for several years before I started driving the cab, and as I got to know her better in the ensuing years, I witnessed her pass a frailty threshold to the point where she always need an arm to lean on to get in & out of the car.  Being the consummate gentleman, I always obliged her cheerfully.

One icy winter night, I was escorting her across a particularly slick sidewalk to my cab (I had picked a bad place to park, in hindsight).  Her steps were timid and hesitant.  "Hold on tight," she admonished me, and I gripped her around her waist with one arm, holding on to her arm with my other hand.

But it was too slippery, and as we were almost right up to the cab I sensed her losing her footing and starting to fall.

My mind raced as time slowed to a crawl.  Despite her frailty, she wasn't exactly a petite woman, and I was not positioned well enough to support her weight and still keep my own footing.  Somehow, I instinctively knew that the only way to keep her from falling hard and breaking something was to let my hold around her waist slide up to under her shoulders and then to ease her gradually and carefully to the ground.  Somehow I managed to control her fall safely and gently, her legs sliding under my parked taxi in the process.

This must not have looked at all graceful to any onlookers.

Time resumed its normal speed.  She let out a whimper, and looked up at me with those big white eyes glistening in the starlight, crying out in her creaky, weathered voice, "Why did you let me fall?"

My heart broke.  I felt like I had let her down (pun unintended and shamelessly left exactly where it is).  But I knew that if I hadn't controlled her fall, she would have been in a much worse state than merely horizontal and a bit chilled.  I tried to stammer out an explanation but she wouldn't hear it; in her mind I had betrayed her by not protecting her absolutely.

I was able to raise her up again and get her safely into the cab, and I got her home and to her door with no further incident.  But the memory of that moment, and of the utter shock and hurt in her eyes and her voice, has stayed with me.

Today this memory sprung unbeckoned to mind, and it struck me that there's a lesson here.  I'm no stranger to sin, and as much as I do try to walk closely with God each day of my life, sometimes I am on slippery ground and don't realize my danger until it's too late.

But God is good, and his arms are wrapped around me.  If I am to fall, he's still got me, and he can protect me even in the face of mortal sin.  I can think of many times when my slips into sin have been unnaturally cushioned by grace at the end of the plummet.  And on those occasions, if I were to look up at God and ask, "Why did you let me fall?" I now realize the hurt that must cause him - he has done nothing but protect me, even if I made that more difficult for him by choosing to walk on slippery ground.

Mavis, wherever you are, thank you for being God's instrument in my life.  And I'm sorry for not choosing a better spot to park.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Transformations #44 - 49

If you've visited my home within the last year (or read my last post), you'll be aware that I performed an extensive renovation of our basement.  It was a pretty much a complete rebuild - we had an imperfect concrete floor that made use of the space for an entertainment room next to impossible, and we also wanted to add a bathroom.

I could go into great detail with what we did, but these before/after shots tell the tale more simply than words ever could:



Aside from tearing out the old & pouring the new concrete floor (Sturgeon Construction did that and did it very well), roughing in the plumbing (ahem), and taping & mudding the drywall (shout-out to my friend Lionel of St. Joseph's Carpentry for rocking that!), I did all the work myself, with the help of family and friends.

From the little errors I made as I progressed, I learned many renovation tips during this massive project, and they seemed noteworthy enough to count as the little Transformations I am still tracking in my life.

#44: Plan your framing to include corners for drywall mounting.  This might seem obvious to somebody who has done this before, but I hadn't, and I was left scrambling to figure out a way to screw in my drywall properly at the corners of the rooms.  It's all fine now, but do me a favour and don't lean on the inside corners if you visit.

#45: Consult a financial adviser when moving big money around.  We had stockpiled some money into our tax-free savings account, and drew from that to cover some of our costs.  After having a chance discussion with a financial adviser later, she cautioned me that I could get hit with a tax on moneys I withdrew from the account.  Fortunately it would have been a relative pittance, as most of the project was funded through a line of credit.  I dodged a bullet, but it was still a good tip I wish I'd known before.

#46: Practice a new thing first - i.e. putting in drywall screws - you get better at it as you go along, so mess up on a practice area first, instead of leaving your learning curve on display for everybody to see later.

#47: Inspect contractors' work thoroughly & don't be afraid to ask for corrections.  Most tradespeople will stand behind their work (ahem) and want to leave you with a good impression.

#48: Cut your holes in drywall for electrical boxes very tight - start small and work them bigger gradually as needed.  And cut circles (not squares) for circles.  If you know what I'm talking about, you'd be impressed with how I covered up those errors!

#49: Always have a shop vac, broom & dustpan, and large garbage container on hand.  Seriously.  Keep your workspace clean.  I've extended this lesson to my house in general, and have been able to keep my nice new basement clean as a result.

Oh, and Phillips head screws?  You suck.  Come on world, get on board with Robertson!