It was Springtime. I had finally celebrated my twenty-first birthday and discarded the cast that housed my broken ankle for the previous six weeks. Perhaps it was the realization that I was only a year from college graduation, the minor incapacitation I’d just experienced, having never been away from home for more than a few days or all of the above. Whichever the cause, I suffered from an extreme case of restlessness. I couldn’t afford to backpack across Europe or travel of any kind because I was responsible for another year’s tuition. So it was that something nudged me toward the phone to seek a less costly remedy for my unrest.
I was almost disappointed when Father O’Connell answered the telephone because I wasn’t at all sure of what I was going to say to him. Happily, my uncertainty vanished as soon as he greeted me with his perpetually warm “hello”. Before I realized what I was saying, I voiced my proposal. I asked Father if there was something I might do to help out at his parish during the coming summer. I explained that I had never been away from home for any length of time and that it was about time to do so. I lived in Chicago and St. Joseph’s Parish was in Waukegan, so the distance would suffice.
Father’s excitement regarding my offer took me by surprise. He had just arranged for two nuns to spend the summer at the parish to offer a kind of “survival English” program for the Spanish-speaking children who would enter school in the fall. Since I’d studied Spanish for five years and was a teacher-in-the-making, Father determined that I’d be a natural in the program. I would stay in the convent with the sisters, so I’d have no living expenses. Without hesitation, I asked Father when I could start.
As it happened, Sister Liz, one of the B.V.M. Sisters with whom I spent the summer, was from my old neighborhood. Though she was a generation ahead of me, I found myself very much at home with her and her counterpart. We spent our first days together planning, gathering materials and setting up house in the old convent. Father provided a car which Sister Liz used to chauffeur us on our errands. Our routine included the 6:30 morning Mass, breakfast together and the walk next door to school. The children happily endured our lessons during the mostly hot summer mornings, probably in anticipation of the mid-morning snacks we provided. The sisters and I spent what remained of each afternoon planning the coming day’s lessons and visiting parish families. Afterward, we returned to the convent to chat, do a bit of housekeeping, plan dinner and relax. Occasionally, I spent the evening hours at the rectory answering the phone and door when a volunteer receptionist couldn’t make it in. It was on one such occasion that I met Mike Penich –but that’s another story…
I didn’t handle a bit of currency that summer. Father provided the funds for groceries and other necessities which Sister Liz managed. I had no need to shop for clothes because my seven outfits plus one spare lasted through each week.
Weeks later, when I left the children, my new sister-friends and that old convent, I knew I would have to work more hours at my job to make up the money I hadn’t earned that summer. I also knew that I wouldn’t have traded this experience for anything. When I returned home, I remarked to my mom that it was truly freeing not to worry about myself and to concentrate on the kids. I treasured the time spent helping the children more than anything else I might have done. Though my mom likely chuckled to herself over my simplistic outlook, she shared that she was very pleased with the way I had invested my time that summer.
In Mark’s gospel (Mark 10:17-30), Jesus encounters a rich young man who has spent his life carefully following The Law. His well-intentioned heart and his desire to do more draw him to Jesus. Mark tells us, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, ‘Go, sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.’” Unfortunately, Jesus’ proposal asks more than the young man is prepared to give. It is with great sadness that he walks away.
Though I cannot boast of giving up wealth equal to that of this young man, I did give of the treasure that was mine that summer. I wish I had been there to share with this young man that letting go of riches is not as painful as he thought. I wish I could have shared that when he opened his hands to let go, the young man would free himself to embrace authentic treasures; that the restlessness that drew him to Jesus would be replaced with absolute peace; that there is nothing more precious than the love we have to offer one another. Though it is a little late to share these things with the rich young man, it is just the right time to remind myself and you of the same.
©2012 Mary Penich – All Rights Reserved