Sunday, August 10, 2014

Gratitude: A Story from Our Recent Trip

Gratitude is the highest form of acceptance. Like patience, it is one of the catalytic agents, one of the alchemist's secrets, for turning dross to gold, hell to heaven, death to life (Stephen Levine, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year As If It Were Your Last [NY: Bell Tower, 1997).

The quotation from Stephen Levine's book is from Claire Bangasser's A Seat at the Table blog. Claire glosses Levine's text by adding, 

It seems that I need to experience my own inner poverty to be really able to recognize all that life gives to me. Not only life's gifts, but also life's wisdom: I am slowly coming to see how important the challenging times I went through have been; I'm nearly tempted to say that my bad times were a good thing in a way.

A Sunday-morning story for you: as I mentioned two days ago, on one leg of our trip last week, Steve and I visited some distant cousins of his whom he had never met, who live near Dyersville, Iowa. Steve has roots there on the maternal side of his family. Ancestors of his from the Bavarian Oberpfalz and the Oldenburg region near Hanover settled around Dyersville after they emigrated from Germany in the 1840s and 1850s.

On a trip to visit a descendant of some of these folks who live in Sioux City, Iowa, several years ago, Steve had discovered that a cousin near Dyersville had published a book about one of these families. The book had copies of photos of some of his great-grandparents that he'd never seen. These included a tintype picture of one of his great-grandmothers as a young girl, a teen. Since that trip, he had been in touch with the elderly cousin who published the book, and had made plans to visit her this summer.

Unfortunately, two weeks before we'd scheduled our trip, this cousin died. But when her daughter-in-law called Steve to share that unfortunate news with him, she told him that Madonna (this was the cousin's name) had told her about the impending visit before she died, and had insisted that her son and daughter-in-law welcome Steve in her stead. She gave the daughter-in-law careful instructions about where to find the ring-binder in which she had stored the meticulously labeled photos Steve wanted to see (and copy), and where she kept other boxes of photos and documents he might want to see, too.

And so we carried through on our plans to make the journey to Dyersville on this trip that was, in part, a work trip for Steve, with an added jaunt to meet the cousins he hadn't yet met. We spent an afternoon with the newly met relatives, who live in the country north of Dyersville near land they previously farmed. 

We talked, sorted through family photos, enjoyed delicious apple pie made from apples they'd harvested from trees on a ridge near their house. And Steve scanned photos and documents.

In the middle of the conversation, the cousin mentioned that he hunts deer annually and makes sausage from the venison he brings home from his hunts. This prompted Steve to mention how much he misses his father, and the venison and pork sausage his father made each year after his deer hunts.

The afternoon ended with the scanning project incomplete, and with a shoebox containing years of correspondence about family history that he hadn't yet been able to read carefully. The cousin and his wife insisted that Steve take these to our hotel and continue working at the project for the additional day and a half that we were to be in Dyersville. We made arrangements to meet the cousin's wife for breakfast on the day we left, as she drove to a doctor's appointment, so that Steve could hand the photos back to her.

That morning arrives. We gather in the parking lot of the restaurant, and the cousin's wife beckons us over to her car. She opens the trunk and lifts out a styrofoam ice chest. It's full of homemade sausage. Along with the cooler full of sausage, she hands us two hand-crafted baskets, telling us that Madonna made them and the family want us to have them.

Except for Steve's correspondence with Madonna in the last few years and an occasional phone call he made to her to make arrangements for our visit, we are perfect strangers to these folks, albeit strangers one of whom has (tenuous) ties of blood to them. And yet we leave them laden down with gifts.

Gratitude? Yes. I spend a lot of time here carping about what I consider the moral grotesqueries and betrayal of fundamental Catholic values of too many leaders of my Catholic church these days. What I don't spend enough time doing, perhaps, is noting how those values I find the pastoral leaders of my church egregiously betraying are still alive and well among many ordinary, humble, salt-of-the-earth Catholic laypeople.

Steve's cousins aren't folks who have overflowing resources. They're working people who have had more than their share of hardship. We arrived on their doorstep just after they had suffered a major family loss.

But they welcomed us. They shared apple pie with us. And they heaped unexpected gifts on us as we left them.

It's impossible to read their behavior as anything other than an expression of the deeply embedded values they've been taught as Catholics — and taught more than anything else within the circle of their Catholic family. Yes: I'm grateful for the lived witness of such Catholic people to virtues that are often, to the shame of my church's pastoral leaders, not exhibited by its communities of worship.

And I feel obliged to share my gratitude.

I find the graphic used at many different blog sites, with no indication of its original source.

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