A few weeks ago, I joined several fellow parishioners in cleaning our church after the Saturday morning Mass. As soon as the celebrant had given the final blessing, the sacristan appeared with a half dozen soapy buckets, a pile of rags and a drill sergeant’s countenance. We were each assigned a section and hastened to begin scrubbing.
The task produced a quiet camaraderie; aware of whose house we were tending, we worked mostly in silence, exchanging only a few muted chuckles when we discovered the occasional toy car or baseball cap in a pew. The laughs were a bit louder around the utility sink, where — thinking to practice my limited Spanish with some of the volunteers — I declared that I needed more sopa de madera, or “soup” (rather than “soap”) of wood, to finish my area. (My comrades gently corrected me that the preferred term for woodwork cleaner was actually jabón para madera.)
Refilled bucket in hand, I resumed my work, but about 10 or 15 pews later my enthusiasm started to wane, and I found myself getting a bit cranky. After a long week at the office, I wanted to relax with a good book or a walk in the park. I started to muse that had a few more volunteers shown up, we might have finished in an hour. And as I labored to remove a stubborn smudge, I wondered if anyone would notice if I slipped out for coffee.
Just as I was about to toss aside my rag for a rest, a perky “hello” rang out from a side entrance. Looking up, I saw Kay, one of our parish family’s endearing but somewhat eccentric members.
“I’m here to help,” she loudly told the sacristan. “But I can only stay ten minutes because I need to go to the store and buy broccoli.”
Hoping that Kay hadn’t noticed me, I pulled my bucket closer, bent down and redoubled my scrubbing. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded chatting with her as she discussed at length her digestive issues, favorite television shows and dislike of squirrels, but that day I simply wasn’t up for it. In that moment, Kay was a bother, and I didn’t feel like being bothered.
The sacristan handed Kay a feather duster, which she swiped over the statue of St. Joseph while pretending to tickle his nose. Laughing, she did the same to the Blessed Mother statue, and then began humming “Immaculate Mary.”
Contrasting as it did with my mood, Kay’s childlike exuberance (and her off-key hymnody) made me feel even more cross. But when she fell silent a few minutes later, I glanced up, and my mood changed completely.
Laying aside her duster, Kay had seated herself in the presider’s chair, her back straight, her head erect, her hands clasping the knobs of the chair arms. She gazed out levelly over the pews, watching the volunteers as they scoured and polished the house of the Lord.
And in that moment, Kay wasn’t a quirky, middle-aged lady with flyaway hair, cheap eyeglasses and a slightly hunched posture. She was noble; the image and likeness of God, a daughter of the king, and one whom I had — in my silent but no less ungracious rejection — failed to recognize and honor.
Before I could greet her, Kay bounced out of the church as suddenly as she had entered it. Rag in hand, I knelt in the pew and prayed that grace would remove the cobwebs from my eyes and the stains from my heart, that I might see the Lord and love him in all I meet, no matter how unlikely his appearance.
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