Things that Matter

October 30, 2013

Fr. G. Chris Saenz

The “small things,” as St. Therese the Little Flower would say, are an important aspect of spirituality and mission. Yet we don’t get a romantic notion of what that means or how it looks. Often the small things can be a nuisance, an inconvenience and a pain in the side. That is the moment we have to be alert to what God teaches us in the small things. I learned such some years ago when I worked in southern Chile.

I was living in the rural countryside populated by the Mapuche natives of Chile. One day, after visitations and meetings I arrived home late, tired and hungry. With a cup of tea I sat down to watch the local news.

Suddenly, there was a knock on my door. What! Who can that be! My mind raced thus, completely upset by the intrusion. I opened the door to see Kata, one of the Fijian lay missionaries who lived next door. “Sorry to disturb you,” she apologized, probably seeing discontent on my face. “There is a woman here to see you. She is in our house.” I told Kata that I will be there. With a huff and grump I changed my clothes and went over. It was unusual that someone, most of all a woman, be out at this hour. I was surprised to discover that there were two women waiting for me, one being Maria who lived quite far from our location. They greeted me.

Those of us from North America and Europe value being direct and getting to the point in order to not waste time. However, It is considered rude and refl ects a poor education. The women began the conversation with the usual general questions of how was I doing, my family, my health, etc. Being in Chile for several years I was accustomed to it, but tonight it was a torture. I begrudgingly participated.

After about 30 minutes they fi nally got to the point. Maria explained to me that after shopping in the large city (two hours away by bus), they arrived late to town missing the last bus to her area. In fact, no buses were running except the one bus that passed by my house. Maria told her companion, “This bus goes by Father’s house. Father is my friend, he will help us.” Darn! I thought. They want me to take them home! More than an hour of wasted time! Yet, I told them, “no problem.”

After I took the fi rst woman home, I drove to Maria’s house engaging in small talk. We arrived, and it was completely dark except for the lights of the house. When I parked the truck in front of the house Maria looked at me and said in a cautious tone, “Father please stay in the truck while I get down fi rst.” I thought it was a strange request being that I had been to her house many times before. I looked at the doorway and saw a fi gure standing there, her husband. The inside lights highlighted his aggressive stance. It was then that I realized the complexity of Maria’s situation of which I was completely ignorant of due to my being “bothered” with Maria’s small request for a lift home.

The rural culture is very macho. Maria was a married woman who did not arrive home on the last bus of the night. Her husband’s mind would be fi lled with thoughts of what Maria could be doing at such a late hour. This was further complicated by the fact that Maria, a poor woman, could not hire a taxi from the small town because the distance and hour would equal a large fare. Furthermore, even if a good Samaritan were to take her home, all the drivers where men. Who could this strange man be bringing Maria home so late, her husband would think. Maria was caught in a no-win situation until she saw her only way out — possibly the only man who could save her from this misunderstood but tense situation —the priest. Her friendship with me could make a difference.

Maria began conversing with her husband. Things sounded and looked tense. Eventually, I stepped out of the truck and shouted, “Don Jose!” The aggressive man turned towards me with a puzzled look. “Don Jose,” I repeated. “How are you doing? How are crops this year?” ironically using the Chilean non-direct small talk to my advantage. When Jose recognized my voice, his body posture relaxed. “Father, is that you?” he said. “Yes,” I responded, “I was out late and ran into your wife who was waiting for the bus. Since the bus already left I decided to bring her home.” Jose looked at his wife, then at me and said, “Father come in, we will drink some tea and have something to eat.” Food is a good sign that all will be fi ne. The tense mood was gone. Maria was relieved and thankful. I shared a meal with them and arrived home very late.

Mission is not necessarily about sacraments (catechism, formation) or about construction (churches, parish buildings), but more often is about the small things, the daily living with people. I myself cannot boast of any great building or program in my name during my years in Chile. Yet, I believe my contribution to mission has been the friendships formed and transformed with the people I minister to. That is a small thing that matters.