Betty Duffy

Monday, May 2, 2011

Learning to pray for others

This post, I wrote weeks ago and never posted, because it felt sort of whiny. I put it away to finish later, and then I forgot about it. I remembered it when reading Pentimento's post about her visit to the Chinese Consulate in New York--which is a far better post and should be read by all.


When I went to California several weeks ago with my husband, there were a couple of days when he had to work, so I drove into downtown San Francisco and piddled around. I'd hate to say these days were my favorite part of the trip, but I forget what a luxury it is to have a day with no demands. I don't have to be anywhere, or home by anytime. I don't have to push or pull anyone around with me. I can eat when I'm hungry, sit when I'm tired, pray in silence, browse at will, and call it a day at the perfect time.

Downtown, people ate in restaurants, shopped, strolled, talked on street corners (on their cell-phones mostly). It occurred to me that most people live this way all the time, just taking care of their person--feeding it, putting it to bed, walking it around without all the hangers on. I parked at the Japan center, and walked around the corner to the Cathedral for the noon Mass, and it was almost entirely working people on lunch break standing solitarily and scattered around the enormous sanctuary. There are a couple parishes at home as well, that always draw a large lunch crowd--downtown workers, dropping in.

It's funny to think about what cues envy on any particular day. What minuscule trigger is going to sour the perfect gift of a day? One day I might be in a fit of green about other women being able to get dressed in Anne Taylor suits every day to go to work. Another day, this day, it was that other people's lives seem not as complicated as mine. Other people don't have to notify an army and shunt small bodies off to other caregivers in order to leave the house. They drop in. They take off. They just run out to get something.

Browsing the thrift stores on Fillmore, I saw a small family on their way to work and school. A mother, father, two dogs, and one child walking together to their prospective days. The woman wore a fashionably hand-knit stocking cap, vintage looking military trench coat, and dynamite boots. The dogs were small and groomed, likewise the child and the man. I wondered what it would be like to be a family in San Francisco, as cross-country transfers are always possible (though not probable), within my husband's company. It seems like a good city in which to get dressed, though dressing alone, much less dressing well, is not my family's forte. It looks like a good city in which to drive a small car, or be a pedestrian, which, with five kids is mostly out of the question. Other people's lives are not as complicated as mine.

And so this day of complete freedom and independence brought only awareness that other people seem to have more of it.

There are hidden costs to every fine style of living--this is my first line of reasoning to combat envy. There's a hidden cost in addition to the multi-million dollars invested in the house on Russian Hill, hidden costs for the tidily groomed, petite family. I may have a complicated life--but these people, surely these people are living quiet lives of even more desperate desperation. Ha HA! I chose Indiana! I chose children, lots and lots of children! And grandparents nearby to watch them, so I can go to San Francisco and look down my nose at Californians! Ha HA! I am not like them--with their two dogs and one child!

Ingratitude is the beginning of sin. Give into it and soon you're mired in envy. Soon you've made the object of envy your enemy. Soon you walk around sneering at strangers and twirling your phylacteries, being glad (though not quite thanking God) that you're not like them. There is always a devil outside the door of the sanctuary. Don't thank God for the gift of a perfect day--be glad you're smarter, and more self-sacrificing, and more…whatever else it takes to put you back on top.

After Mass at the Cathedral I walked past the Consulate for the People's Republic of China. A line had formed around the corner: people requesting visas, etc. In front, on the sidewalk, three women stood praying, faces to the sun, eyes closed, legs apart, and hands crossed in front of them, still as could be. I had seen them on my way to the Cathedral, not taking too much notice, since they sat, at the time, in Lotus position facing the street. Nice to see people praying, I thought. Attend the church of your choice. That's what I'm on my way to do. But I saw now, that they were praying in front of a banner, documenting with graphic pictures, the injustices of the Chinese government--restrictions on religious freedom, torture of its own people.

The women had been sitting there for hours in complete silence, begging for freedom to worship God in their homeland, while I performed cost benefit analysis on other people's wealth, and other people's responsibilities. Sometimes I don't want to be edified, and other people's good behavior increases my insolence. But the only acceptable response to these three women was to open up a line of prayer and unite my intention to theirs. Only the rich practice fasting. The poor fast every day. Here is a poverty and deprivation I have never known, sitting silently on the sidewalk, praying, begging for freedom to worship God.

I drove by Mission Delores on the way home, one of the old Spanish missions (the one in the movie, Vertigo), and kneeling in front of the old wood-carved statues, I wanted to offer again all the prayers said at that altar over the centuries. We have sinned, Father. Hear again the prayers of the old ones. Unite my prayers to others' since all my needs have been met, and I tend to squander even the call to gratitude. Hear the prayers of needier people than me. Begin with the women in front of the Consulate, and include all of those suffering hidden costs in their lives.

I can add to this now that I am grateful for your prayers over the past couple weeks, and have felt, very concretely, what it is to be supported by others in faith. I also pray for you!


Christy said...

I so enjoyed this post!

My husband and I also took a trip to San Francisco sans children last fall. I got caught up in the chic glamour, the stylish women in boots walking up and down the hills! But there definitely is a trade-off between the catalog lifestyle of two kids and dog and the sacrificial and truly meaningful life of family and love!

Thanks for bringing back the importance of gratitude and prayer!

Julia said...

I was thinking in Mass yesterday that the devil isn't so much the Father of Lies for me as the Father of Distraction. If I ever paid as little attention to someone else as I do at Mass, or was so easily sidetracked from what I was doing as I am when I pray, I'd think... I'd think I was one of my kids being asked to clean his room!

FWIW, when I'm out walking, or in a subway car, or wherever, I find it helps to say to myself, "I will pray for ten people I see before I get where I'm going." For whatever reason, it helps me focus.

JMB said...

What a beautiful post Betty. We are all in this together. I'm praying for you, please pray for me.

Liz said...

Thank you so much for posting this. Thoughtful, insightful and so, so honest.

Blessings to you.

Peter and Nancy said...

Sigh. I find myself distracted, too, by my 'wants,' and always appreciate the reminder to pray sincerely for others' needs.

Erin said...

Distraction -- a daily struggle. You are in my prayers.

Trish Bailey de Arceo said...

Betty, I love reading you... really admire your style, your mind, and your soul. Sometimes you really capture some pieces of my own experience in such a perfect way... little phrases that nail down a fleeting impression in specific words. Thank you.

Meredith said...

Oh man, now I'm homesick. I'm far away from California right now, and I don't know if I'll ever live there again...

word verif. is "fourgyro" Yes, four gyros, please!

Meredith said...

More fuel for envy! (Or, more constructively, fashion inspiration.)

Little stay at home momma said...

Heard about your blog from some of your nearest and dearest in Cincinnati. This post definitely struck home with me quite literally. Having lived off of Fillmore Street in Pacific Heights near where you were, I can definitely attest to the materialism and lack of large families or children at all for that matter. When I first moved there, I felt like I was in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where in that village where children were outlawed. We had our first child there and while I did sickly enjoy wearing cute boots and traipsing around the shops, the lifestyle and cost of living out there makes it almost impossible to have a large family. (Once while pregnant I almost purchased an $18 bunch of grapes from the local Molly Stones. That was a low.) I am thankful we have relocated to the Midwest and have been able to expand our family. Kids are much more fun than cute boots and Fillmore Street. SF is a fun place to visit (and live), but a reeeeally hard place to raise a family.

BettyDuffy said...

Meredith, fun, fun!

Little Stay at home Momma, any friend of my near and dear in Cincinnati is a friend of mine!

Owen said...

Prayers continuing.

Clare said...

As a native San Franciscan and Catholic, thanks for this post. Sometimes when I see SF mentioned on Catholic blogs I instinctively get pre-protective of my hometown...instinct, I guess. Your balanced perspective of the multiple San Franciscos that exist was refreshing. I'm getting married in September at St Dominic's (pray for us!), which is right off Fillmore St., not far from the Cathedral, in the midst of fashionable boot central. But inside the church is a million miles away--people desperately praying at the St Jude shrine. I try to remember that. Praying for you.

Clare said...

Instinctively out of instinct? Wow. LOL.