When we think of responding to God’s call, we often remember the dramatic stories: Moses dumbfounded by Yahweh’s presence, Gabriel announcing Mary’s pregnancy, Paul struck blind. Subsequent Bible verses then record a courageous lifetime of service that follows. But the ordinary Christian wonders: Confronted with a massive, stupefying presence, usually starting with “Don’t be afraid,” who could say no?
It’s a bit intimidating, especially when compounded by the call of Vatican II to consecrate the world, the invitation of its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church to nurture a way of life that’s “more gentle, more beautiful, more human” (#40, Huebsch, Vatican II in Plain English).
In other challenging arenas, it helps to break a huge task into tiny components. Maybe it’s simply self-deception, but we can tackle small steps more easily than a long road. In Scripture and among the saints, we find people who did exactly that — successfully. Furthermore, little actions had enormous and unpredictable effects.
Overlooked Deeds in Scripture
While not denying the inspiring pattern of the stories mentioned earlier, it’s useful to also look at less dramatic actions. The woman who anointed Jesus at the house of Simon the leper (Mk 14:3-9) didn’t wage titanic battles, drink the leper’s pus, build a cathedral or found a religious order — any of the gigantic deeds usually associated with holiness. Instead, she acted in the ordinary context of a meal, without fanfare, choirs or trumpets. In fact, she was criticized.
She must have arrived at her decision to anoint Jesus with some forethought, but no dramatic angelic appearance or request motivated her. Indeed, her action came closer to how ordinary folks operate.
Consider the outrageous details: It’s the home of a leper. In that society, a woman would not be welcome at a table with men, but she invites herself, breaking every taboo in the social and religious codes. Her gesture is extravagant. Other women have approached Jesus with similar chutzpah, but often they want healing for themselves or a child. This woman simply wants to do what one translation describes as “the beautiful deed.” She soars beyond arithmetic into imprudent, spontaneous love.
This outpouring will always scandalize the loveless. Her action is met with grumbling indignation. Do we see ourselves getting indignant, simply because something is unfamiliar or doesn’t fit our neat cultural boxes?
How many of us hoard our perfume — our unique self — in a jar that’s never broken? We save it for the perfect moment or audience — or like Prufrock in T. S. Eliot, we measure out our lives with coffee spoons.
But God doesn’t like stingy measurements. God calls us to more because God has a dream for the absolute best we can become.
The woman probably isn’t sure of her action until she hears Jesus’ compliments. His defense of her is swift, direct, uncompromising. As the Interpreter’s Bible points out, it’s curious to see which people move Jesus to high praise: the Roman centurion, the widow who gave all she had to the temple treasury and this woman (Vol. 7, Page 868). It’s almost as if Jesus recognizes in her what the kingdom of God is all about. “Ah,” he says. “She gets it.”
Jesus especially notes, “She has done what she could.” Sometimes, we’d rather win a Nobel Prize or find a cure for cancer than attend the meeting, cook the meal or answer an email — tasks that seem terribly ordinary. But apparently the people who do what they can, instead of wasting their energy on unrealistic speculation, fulfill God’s dream for them.
It doesn’t mean this woman is boring. Acting with audacity, she brings joy to the heart of Jesus. There are few places in the Gospels where we see him as receiver — but this is one. The woman may not have known she was preparing him for burial, but he knew.
Amid the long Jewish tradition of anointing priests, prophets and kings, Jesus is anointed by this woman. His actual burial had to be done hastily without the usual Jewish ritual, but she performed that anointing. There is more to her action than she ever suspected. We, too, plant seeds and might be astonished by their flourishing.
The words used for her gesture have eucharistic overtones: She takes/breaks/gives in the context of a meal, and “what she has done will be told in memory of her.” God’s reckless gamble is here fulfilled: Human beings’ ordinary actions follow the template that Christ presents.
The Saints Realized This
Beyond Scripture, the lives of the saints abound with tiny, unsure steps. People who took them could never have predicted their outcome. But each did what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin describes: “Accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.”
Saint Teresa of Calcutta stands in the direct lineage of the anointing woman’s “beautiful deed.” Her biographer, Malcolm Muggeridge, reports that “beauty” was her favorite word — even in the squalor of Calcutta.
One of the few possessions her sisters have is a bucket, an unglorious swish to cleanliness. She gloried in a life surviving against all odds and brought joy to the poor. As proof that no seed ever sees the flower, Mother Teresa began alone, with several rupees and a few abandoned children. Now her sisters work around the world.
And what of those who unknowingly assisted the saints? Saint Ignatius Loyola turned from life as a soldier, careless playboy and one of the few saints with an arrest record (for fighting). His conversion is dramatic, but biographies seldom record the contribution of his sister-in-law, Magdalena.
When Ignatius was recovering from a battle injury in the castle of Magdalena’s husband, Martin, she nursed Ignatius back to health. Always physically active before that, he contended with mind-numbing boredom, the equivalent of reading a cereal box today. Previously, he relished fluffy, chivalrous, romance novels. His biographer, Father Nadal, comments, “But in that house none of those books which he normally read could be found.”
So Magdalena gave Ignatius the lives of Christ and the saints. The experience of seeing how much happier he was when he imagined himself imitating them led to the crucial distinction between consolation and desolation, vividly described in the Spiritual Exercises. One woman’s providing books may seem trivial, but she contributed to today’s worldwide network of Jesuit retreat centers, universities and high schools, parishes and publications.
Although Saint Thérèse of Lisieux dreamed of being a missionary to Vietnam, she never left her village in France. She mapped out the “little way” for those in confined circumstances. As she matured, she revised her glorious concepts of martyrdom. She saw that her gentle father, lying in a mental hospital with a handkerchief covering his face, was as much a martyr as the heroes of Rome’s Colosseum. In her own life, she shifted the focus from accomplishment to the grace of tedious tasks.
A seed is a tiny, barely noticeable speck on the dark earth. Yet what life springs from a seed! Ask Blessed Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who spread mustard seed along the California coast as he established missions, about a day’s walk from each other. He sowed mustard seed as he limped from south to north, for a path to follow back.
Today, that golden flower still blooms in California. The cities that have sprung from Serra’s foundations form a great arc including San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Francisco. Serra would have known the comparison Jesus makes to the kingdom of God: “It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade” (Mk 4:31-32).
While not canonized, Dorothy Day is revered for her ministry among the poor and cofounding the Catholic Worker. She cooked meals, broke up fights and advocated for the homeless. Her work was fueled by a recognition of Christ in the ordinary.
As she wrote in her diary on Feb. 27, 1939: “‘[Jesus] was a man so much like other men that it took the kiss of a Judas to single him out,’ [François] Mauriac wrote. He was like that man in the pew beside me. He was as like him as his brother. He was his brother. And I felt Christ in that man beside me and loved him” (The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg, Marquette University Press).
In light of these examples, perhaps we need to rethink our own calls in terms of the less dramatic, what J.B. Metz calls the “slow pace of deliberate tender care.” What small but beautiful deed can we do today for God?