Finding Grace on a Train

“…just as you did it unto one of the least of these…you did it to me.” Matthew 25:40
“Don’t walk over the poor to get to the altar.” Sister Joan Chittister

This morning in the Rule Benedict reminds us to be aware of what is going on around us, to listen to what God wants us to do about it, and to welcome it, and respond to it by putting it into practice.

As I ponder this exhortation over a cup of coffee, my husband comes in muttering something about scrupulosity.  I am shot back 56 years in time.

I remember when I was an inexperienced teen-aged mom traveling alone on a train in the dead of winter from West Texas to Boston with my sick five-month-old baby.  I had been throwing up all night. Little Carolyn had developed a croupy cough and a fever. Our compartment was cold, as our train had been sidelined by a massive snowstorm in Buffalo, NY, for 19 hours.

I was running out of supplies for the baby.  She’d thrown up on most of her clothes and I had only a few diapers left.  I laid her on the berth to throw up for the tenth time in the tiny bathroom when suddenly I heard a thump and she was screaming on the floor, I, scared and at my wits end. I began to cry.

Then I remembered that a Catholic sister had come on board in Buffalo and taken the compartment next door.  Steeped in movies of the 40's and 50's (described by one wag as “made by Jews about Catholics for Protestants”) I thought that maybe the sister would help me.  

I rang the porter and asked him to check with her.  He did, came back and said, “She said to tell you she’s busy with her prayers.”

Romantic notions concerning Catholic sisters fell like scales from my eyes.  

A few hours later I made my way to the dining car hoping to find something that would stay down.  I was sipping some broth with one hand, clutching my baby with the other, and staring mournfully out of the window at the falling snow.

We two were a sad, bedraggled spectacle.  Then a woman dining with her family a few tables away stood up, came over, and said, “Hello.  Are you traveling alone?”

“Yes!” I burst out, choking back sobs.

“Bless your heart,” she said.  “Let us help you.”

She signaled to a daughter to come and get Carolyn, while I choked down what food I could.  Later she and her girls collected Carolyn’s things—yes, even the dirty diapers—and took them off to wash.  Within a few hours, the tracks were clear enough to continue.

It was another 24 hours to Boston, and that lovely woman and her family cared for us the whole time.  Coming from Boston, chances are good they were Catholic. But they could have been Protestant or Jewish, or good-hearted atheists.  Whatever they were, they were doing God’s will.

My memories of the trip are bracketed by despair and relief.  Needless to say, I have never forgotten being “rejected” by the sister, or cared for by that family of strangers.  I am sure I did not adequately express the gratitude I felt to that good woman at the time, but I have never forgotten the extraordinary kindness shown to me and my baby by her and her family.

But I did notice that this morning’s memories were triggered by Jerry’s comment on scrupulosity, which immediately flew to the first incident on the train.  As I’ve remembered the recalcitrant sister over the many years, I’ve reminded myself that there are a million possible reasons—good, valid reasons—for her refusal.  Some may have been imposed by the Church and/or her order for all I know, and maybe she even prayed for someone to help Carolyn and me because she could not.

Yet I realized that she has represented scrupulosity to me for almost six decades.  I need to forgive that poor woman!  The Chittister quote at the beginning of this blog is aimed more at me than as an indictment of her, for even though (as Benedict would say) prayer is work, I find it much easier to busy myself about the altar than to actually “get a move on” (as my mother would say) and serve and love my neighbor.

Without the good sister’s refusal, I may not have gone on to so vividly remember the family who took on my burden, tucked me and my babe under their wings, and became one of the great graces of my life. 

 

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