This is my December "Life Lines" column, which ran in both Catholic New York and The Evangelist. If you saw the Evangelist version, you read an abbreviated column. Here's the original in full. Enjoy.
Lessons from George
When we first moved into our house eight years ago, we couldn’t help but wonder about the little cottage behind us. Somewhat neglected and almost hidden behind overgrown shrubs and towering oaks, it seemed as if it were out of another time. Then we met the owner, George, who was a lot like his house – quiet and unassuming. An older single gentleman, George lived the life of a hermit, or at least that’s how it appeared to the outside world. He often looked disheveled and unkempt, which belied what we knew about him – that he was quite well to do, given that his family had once owned all of the land on which our little neighborhood now sits.
Every once in a while you could get George talking, and, if he was in the mood, he might keep you for an hour, covering everything from the beautiful wildflowers that his mother had so lovingly tended to the local folk festival that was an annual tradition for him. On rare occasions, I’d bring him some muffins or watermelon or a piece of pie. But mostly we left George alone because that’s the way he seemed to like it.
One morning recently another neighbor knocked on our door to tell us that George had died. We weren’t surprised. We had seen him out walking and knew that it looked as if his health was failing. I knew I had to go to the funeral, not only because I expected it to be sparsely attended but also because George was one of the few neighbors who came to both of my local book release parties and purchased copies of my books even when I knew he wasn’t interested in the subjects. I guess that had a lot to do with the soft spot I had for George.
When I walked into the funeral parlor, dozens of family members joyfully greeted me. The room buzzed with laughter and smiles and an endless stream of stories that spoke of a man very different from the one we saw on occasional walks around the block. One after another, nieces and nephews stood up to bear witness to a beloved uncle who they said was better to them than many parents are to their own children, a man who expanded their world by encouraging them to try new things, go new places and always take the time to learn a little something on the way there. At one point, when all of us were singing “May the Circle Be Unbroken,” I couldn’t help but cry for the loss of this man who was so much more than what he seemed and who may have had some things to teach me if I’d been able to see beyond the exterior trappings.
I was out in my yard recently cutting back plants and preparing for the long cold winter, when I stopped to look over at George’s darkened house. I couldn’t help but wonder how often I am too quick to judge by appearances or shy away because I think I know someone better than I really do.
And then I thought about this season, this time of year when we await the arrival of a baby in a stable. We have the good fortune of being able to view the birth of Christ with 20/20 hindsight, but would my vision have been so clear and so certain had I been in the field that night 2,000 years ago? Would I have looked at a poor baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, nestled among some farm animals, and walked away, sure that I didn’t belong there? Or would I have knelt down and let the baby touch my heart with gifts and graces hidden from human sight?
The Rule of St. Benedict says that we should welcome all people as if we are welcoming Christ himself. Would I have welcomed Christ into my life if I had been tending my flock in Bethlehem on that first Christmas? Do I welcome Christ into my life today in the people around me, regardless of how they seem on the outside? Looks like maybe George had something to teach me after all.
Copyright 2008, Mary DeTurris Poust