This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 29 April 2010.
Wash me, I shall be whiter than snow. — Ps. 51: 7b
Last Wednesday morning I was decorously pedaling along, dressed for work in skirt and stockings, a hundred papers to grade weighing down my bike bags and spirit. Cruising slowly up to the stoplight with the rest of the morning rush hour traffic, I was running through the day’s to-do list, and mentally bewailing a day in which I would hardly have space to breathe, let alone eat lunch. My day had barely begun, and I felt as if I’d already given it away.
Mired in my fretful meditations, I was startled by the sound of water hitting my helmet. Was it starting to rain? I looked up to see a cloudless blue sky. Not even an errant tree branch dripping a last bit of the night’s rain broke the dome above me.
I looked down. Dry pavement beneath me. No lawn sprinklers sprinkling, no one hosing out a bin at the pizza place. Mystified, I rode on, wondering if I had imagined it. Suddenly a sparkling shower of droplets danced before my eyes and hit me square in the face — flung my way by the windshield wipers of the car in front of me.
Utterly oblivious to the asperges he was affording the bicyclist behind him, the gentleman in the maroon car continued to swish and spray his windshield. He was gaining a certain clarity on the world. So was I.
“With an anvil-dingWith these words, priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., vividly contrasts St. Paul’s fast and fiery conversion with Augustine’s slow soaking transformation. My morning’s drenching similarly had a bit of both fire and water in it. I had been awash in a gorgeous spring morning, and yet so unaware I required Hopkins’ “anvil-ding” to rouse me to the possibilities of the moment.
And with fire in him forge thy will
Or rather, rather then, stealing as Spring
Through him, melt him but master him still.”
With a gentle touch of humor and a literal dash of water, God had found a way to get me to look up, take a breath and see His face in creation. I did have a moment to breathe, and now the clarity to see that I had been squandering it being anxious about not having time to breathe.
When we smell smoke, or hear flames or feel water on our faces, we feel compelled to look for the source. And like the spray in my face, the source can be hard to find, but we are restless until we know where to turn our attention. So we look up, we look around. We call on God.
In God’s hands, fire and water are signs that are hard to ignore. We know ourselves to be fragile in the face of such elemental forces. Too, fire and water are messy vehicles of grace. They leave little in their wake unchanged, even in small doses. They both reveal what is inside, stripping off the outer layers that can cloud mind and sight.
My morning encounter with God on the road side was not as life-changing as Paul’s on the road to Damascus — though my water covered glasses left me momentarily as blind — but like Augustine, I found God soaking into my life, “stealing as Spring.” I rode into the rest of my day, still carrying the weight of papers to grade and an overfull appointment book, but with the sure knowledge of where my next breath was coming from.
Touch my heart with this grace, O Lord. When I reach out in joy or in sorrow for the things of this world, grant that through them I may know and love You, their Maker and final home. — Karl Rahner, S.J., in Encounters With Silence