Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where others see nothing. --Pissarro
The priest walked past the prostitutes every day. He had no choice. They were stationed along the narrow road across from his seminary in Italy. But it was the older woman who caused him the most agitation. "These young guys went to 'see' her and it really troubled me," he said. "She could have been their mother."
The priest confessed he never spoke with the women, studiously avoided eye contact and did his best to never acknowledge their existence. But as is often the case, willed blindness only works for so long when proximity is coupled with repetition. And one day, while following his usual protocol of denial, the older prostitute dropped something as he was walking past. It bounced to a stop at his foot.
Without thinking, the priest's instinct toward kindness compelled him to pick up the thin wooden object, forcing the encounter he had so dutifully avoided for the past several months. "It was a knitting needle," he said, still sounding surprised. "And out of curiosity, I asked her what she was making." The woman responded, "I'm knitting a tapestry for the alter at my church. It is a gift for God."
Tears welled up in the priest's eyes as he recalled her response. "In my desire to avoid her, I had never noticed the cloth in her hands. I never bothered to look. Never thought to ask her story. And here this woman was knitting a gift for God." From that chance encounter he said, he began to learn her history. Her background. Her story. And yet the priest was reluctant to share his experience with his community despite its almost biblical power and impact.
Many of the holiest moments in life are not found in churches or synagogues or in the cloistered study of sacred literature. No, the sacred moments that sustain and bind us together are the sharing of our common humanity through simple encounter -- the telling and hearing of our stories, the passing along of our experiences, both epic and passing. I imagine our souls being woven out of our memories and stories -- the threads of our lives.
Everyone has a story to tell and deserves to tell it. And the simple acts of inquiry and listening are among the greatest gifts we can offer during this holiday season or any other season. Telling and hearing our stories is a rare instance of a gift given and received in two directions -- at once an act of solidarity and reciprocity. It knits together the fabric of our separate lives into a common tapestry. We are taught at an early age not to talk to strangers, but often we keep people as strangers when we could be building relationships. We build bunkers instead of communities.
By stopping on the sidewalk and asking what the woman was knitting, the priest stepped off the path of indifference and onto the path of encounter. He stopped seeing a prostitute to be ignored and saw the face of person to engage. He awoke from a life of service to rituals and the comfort in his known world to the truth that all life is sacred. And life is made holy when service to God means service to others. And then choosing to live that truth in everyday actions -- small acts of kindness and humanity -- like engaging in a conversation.
Listening to someone's story is a way of showing respect, a way of conveying dignity. At a time of year when many of us will be rushing around doing last minute shopping and some of us will volunteering in shelters, food banks and serving meals, we should step further along the path -- strive toward a deeper connection and ask to hear a bit, or a bit more, of someone's story.
In truth, it doesn't matter if we are hearing a story for the first time shared by a complete stranger or for the thousandth time told by a close relative. Just as some people expect to be heard, listened to -- even obeyed, others are just as accustomed to being ignored, stepped over, forgotten -- even used. And it is not always easy to distinguish one from the other. But the humble shrub and the trembling mountain both hold the voice of God.
This time every year we retell stories of our people. We call them miracles: a baby being born in a manger, or a small group of believers overcoming the odds to survive. The miracle of light in the darkness. When we tell and listen to our stories we knit together the fabrics of our separate journeys onto the tapestry of humanity. And in that way, we not only offer a gift to each other, we offer a gift to God who the tradition says created people because of a love of stories.