Writing straight with crooked lines

At the sound, I looked up from the paper I was grading. Detention policies were that students sat in silence. Students who did not comply received another hour’s detention. Apparently the upperclassman in front of me was finished with silence. Though I could have written him up and ended that day’s detention, I quickly scanned the classroom walls for something that might keep him occupied. My eyes lingered on a poster. Sancho Panza and Don Quixote were there in the foreground with the windmills and Dulcinea faded into the background. I told the student to study that poster and reflect upon the meaning of life. He blurted out, “I will if you tell me what that is.”

On some level, don’t we all wish to be handed an immediate and full understanding of the meaning of life? This desire is even stronger when we face setbacks or when we forge ahead only to find things do not go as we assumed they would. Such situations precipitate questioning and doubt as to our place in the big picture or plan.

Do you remember Elijah under that broom tree and hidden in the cave on Mount Horeb? Elijah had crushed the prophets of Baal. Instead of a victory celebration, Elijah had to flee for his life. Dejected and alone, he stands in that cave on the mountain of God. God visits with him and says, “Elijah why are you here?” (1 Kgs 19:13). This is an important question. After all, the Creator of all that is knows exactly why Elijah is standing there. I believe God asks this of Elijah so that Elijah can know that he, even in his fear and doubt, has been heard and is loved. God reveals part of the Divine plan to Elijah. God then sends Elijah forth on a new mission.

Walter Anderson says, “Bad things do happen; how I respond to them defines my character and the quality of my life. I can choose to sit in perpetual sadness, immobilized by the gravity of my loss, or I can choose to rise from the pain and treasure the most precious gift I have — life itself.” God’s answer to Elijah is the suggestion to take his life and gifts and continue forward. Meaning is thus reestablished in prayerful reflection and then in one’s choice to continue forth. 

To an adolescent first finding his way or to us adults after a loss or setback, in our world what remains to be done can seem overwhelming. A commentary verse from the Pirkei Avot can encourage our start. Rabbi Tarfon taught, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it” (2:16).

To that young man in detention, I smiled and said that each of us had the responsibility and privilege to find the meaning of life. Deep within didn’t he sometimes wish people would let him decide and explain things? He nodded. Then I gently said that it was his job to begin that search to find his own way. I suggested for today that he think about Don Quixote and his friend Sancho. What kind of friend should Don Quixote be? How could this young man use that knowledge to be a positive role model for younger students?

Archbishop Oscar Romero encourages such new beginnings with his words, “The great need today is for Christians who are active and critical, who don’t accept situations without analyzing them inwardly and deeply. We want persons like fruitful fig trees, who can say yes to justice and no to injustice and can make use of the precious gift of life, regardless of the circumstances.” Whether one feels called to go work for social justice or to another way of uniquely making use of the precious gift of life, Archbishop Romero is reminding each of us to go live the calling God instills within our heart.

Jesus’ parable of the transformation of the mustard seed (smallest beginning) to a large plant (outcome) where birds rest contentedly in the shade of its branches provides important imagery (Mk 4:30-33). Have you ever looked closely at an adult tree? There are asymmetries and changes due to environmental factors. Even so, deep within is the potential for continued growth and change. However, at any moment in its development, this tree is home to those birds. Analogously, who we are right now is the person God trusts for that mission. 

Our understanding of the meaning of life is expressed in the journey we choose to live with our life. What to us are unexpected twists are just part of what God will use to shape us then through us affect others. God’s gentle reminder to each of us is that setbacks are not permanent, things are not static, and situations are not always what they seem on the surface. God can and does write straight with crooked lines.

Anchor columnist Helen Flavin is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer and a member of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

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