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aka Big Mama,
Anywhere from one to seven times a day, we receive a call from someone looking for emergency financial assistance from St. Vincent de Paul.
The callers themselves are an interesting study in the human condition. Some are irate they have the wrong number and hang up on me. Still others call back 3 and 4 times before they listen, re-check the number, and decide to call it instead. Some don’t speak to me at all when I answer, but instead talk to a friend, yell at a crying child, or mumble incoherently. And, every so often, I get a caller who realizes immediately that they have the wrong number, apologizes, or best of all, jokes that we must spend a lot of time answering the phone for St. Vinnie’s. You see, our phone number is only one digit off from theirs, and ours is a much catchier number at that.
Not many of us behave optimally under stress. The higher-level functions, like graciousness or humor, tend to be scarce when you’re late to work, just spilled coffee on yourself before giving a presentation, or can’t find your car in the pouring rain at the grocery store. These are relatively minor stressors as life goes, but they sure transform me into a big ball of craziness. Given that our daily callers are folks who are trying to get their utilities paid, or face eviction, they’re doing pretty darn well on the whole.
It might have occurred to you by now that it is a bit strange we continue to answer the phone for St. Vincent de Paul. Why not change our number? We have only had it for a year-and-a-half now. That’s a long time to be working the social service line from our home, but not exactly long enough to develop an attachment to the number itself. Here’s where I wind around to a Thanksgiving sort of message.
Many years ago, when I was spending the summer house-sitting in a parsonage that belonged to a church in Baltimore, I came across the story of St Vincent de Paul in one of the books that lined the walls of my temporary bedroom. At the time, I was suffering from depression, and so for three months, I pretty much hid inside and read the spiritual classics.
The story of St. Vincent made an impression on me. Gifted with an innate, deep sense of connection with God, St. Vincent was moved by the plight of a theologian who found himself feeling completely cut-off from God and all joy in life. That evening, St. Vincent prayed that he be given this theologian’s pain, and that the theologian be given St. Vincent's sense of spiritual joy and communion with the Divine.
When he awoke in the morning, a crushing sense of inner desolation let St. Vincent know that his prayer had indeed been granted. And so began a years-long process of rebuilding his joy and sense of God’s Presence out of the wreckage of despair. His mental and emotional pain were so great that St. Vincent began writing notes with verses of scripture on them, and carrying them with him in his pockets, so that he might refer to them and remember the Love that encircled him, whenever he was at risk of forgetting. It was also at this time of his life that St. Vincent turned his energies to working with the poor, for which he is best known.
After reading about St. Vincent, I began carrying scraps of paper in my pockets, little "love notes" to myself. Whenever my inner pain grew dark and loud, I took St. Vinnie’s cue and fed myself words of inspiration and hope -- sometimes a verse of poetry, a line from one of the sacred scriptures, or a cartoon that made me laugh. And, like him, over many years, I came to a place of inner joy and consolation.
In my better moments, I answer the phone for St. Vincent as an act of gratitude. I am one of the lucky ones, not only because I have the power on, a house to live in, or even plenty of food to eat, but also because for this and many Thanksgivings now, I have been able to experience the feeling that is gratitude, and have been able to give thanks for the miracle of being alive.
Whenever the phone rings, I am reminded to give thanks by our unlikely bell of mindfulness. Apparently, I enjoy the practice. May you deeply enjoy your Thanksgiving practice as well this year.