Back to School by William C. Graham
[published in The National Catholic Reporter]
William C. Graham, a priest of the Diocese of Duluth in Minnesota, is Professor and Chair of the Theology Department at Lewis University in suburban Chicago and an assistant editor of Listening: Journal of Religion and Culture. He wrote NCR’s Bookshelf column for 15 years.
I arranged to go on an expedition with one of my nephews one August day in preparation for his entry into first grade. We went off to the Target store near their home, and chose first a backpack, then a lunch box, pencils (no pens in first grade!), a large eraser, a notebook, folders, crayons, felt tipped markers, and then a shirt and pair of slacks. He arranged everything in the cart just so, and transferred everything carefully to the counter when we made our way to the check out.
He politely waited until it was our turn, and then announced good news of great joy to the young cashier, “These are my things! And I am going to be a first grader!” The cashier appeared to be a high school student, and on a busy summer afternoon might not have cared particularly about her small customer’s September destination. But this young woman was uncommonly filled with both grace and wisdom, and she replied enthusiastically, observing that he had all the supplies he needed, seemed very well prepared and was sure to be successful. He smiled broadly and nodded his agreement and his thanks.
I had just visited a friend before we went to shop, and he had prominently displayed an icon of Peter, having failed to walk on the water, taking the outstretched, helping and saving hand of Jesus. But here before me in the checkout lane of a suburban Target was a new icon, the same scene, but with new faces. Peter was a small boy stepping out on his excellent adventure, and Jesus was a blond behind a cash register in a red Target polo shirt. I had not gone to Target expecting to see the face of God, but such surprises are consistent with our tradition. Elijah the Prophet looked in all the wrong places, failing to find God in the strong and heavy wind, or in the fire, or in the earthquake, but unexpectedly in a tiny, whispering sound.
I remembered Matthew’s account of Jesus about to feed the vast crowd (14:13-21). The disciples wanted to send everyone away to find something for themselves to eat. “You give them something to eat,” said Jesus. Here is an important moment in the development of our eucharistic theology: It is not just what God does for us that brings about God’s reign; it is also what we do one for another.
If my young nephew is always surrounded and supported by family and friends who encourage him, assure him of his possibilities, buoy him up, challenging him and cheering him on, he is sure to be successful in all he attempts, and thus will God’s will be done, and the Kingdom come. All of our children and, indeed, all of us, deserve nothing less.
I could not help but contrast that grace-filled moment with an encounter I had the previous Sunday after one of the Masses in the parish where I assisted in the summer months. A man approached me and asked, “Do you know what you should do?” I understood immediately that by “you” he meant “youse,” not just me, but the pastor, and all American priests with whom we should shortly be in contact to share the mission on which we were about to be sent.
When someone whose name I do not know asks me, “Do you know what you should do?” my first impulse is to say, “Yes, I do know what I should do. I should not listen to what you are about to say.” I did not say that, but did listen, and he told me that we priests should tell the rest of Catholic people that whatever may ail the church, we should stick together, and not lose faith, and keep our eyes and minds on what is most important.
That exact idea had been the constant theme of my preaching all summer long. How had he missed that? No Good Listener Award for him! Further, just thirty minutes earlier, he had heard his pastor develop (and rather brilliantly, I thought) the idea that it is not just what God does for us, but what we do for each other that will bring about the progress and healing of peoples: “You give them something to eat.”
If our attitude is that the priests should hop to and get it done (whatever it is at the moment), or if we think a crisp George in the basket once a visit is the key, we have missed hearing the gospel, we have failed to extend the hand that is not just ours, but is the very hand of the healing, saving Christ.
The fellow who wanted to send me off to do what needed to be done was justifiably concerned in this season of the church’s purification. And he was certainly correct about the fact that in the boat, the church, the wind will die down, and we are where ought to be, and there we will be safe, and there we will meet the Lord.
But to get to the boat, to recognize it as the place where we belong, we often need the extended hand that belongs both to Jesus and to each of us. My model today, in fact shipmate of the week, is the young clerk at Target; may she live long and prosper; may all those she encourages flourish; may God’s kingdom come, and will be done on earth as it is in heaven.