It’s the small things that matter

By Fr G. Chris Saenz

The author is from the USA and was ordained in 2000. Part of his preparation for the priesthood was in the Philippines. He is currently Rector of the Latin America Formation Program of the Columbans in Chile and Peru and lives in Santiago, Chile.

The ‘small things”, as St Thérèse, the Little Flower would say, are an important aspect of spirituality and mission. But don’t get a romantic notion of what that means or how it looks. Often the small things can be a nuisance, an inconvenience and a pain in the neck. That is the moment we have to be alert to what God is teaching us through these small things. I learned such some years ago when I worked in southern Chile.

Fr Chris and friends on a pilgrimage in honor of St Teresa of the Andes

I was living in the rural countryside populated by the Mapuche, who are indigenous to parts of Chile and Argentina. One day, after visitations and meetings, I arrived home late, tired and hungry. With a cup of tea I sat down to watch the local news. Suddenly there was a knock on my door. What! Who can that be! My mind raced thus, completely upset by the intrusion. I opened the door to see Kata, a Columban lay missionary from Fiji who lived next door. ‘Sorry to disturb you’, she apologized, probably seeing discontent on my face. ‘There is a woman here to see you. She’s in our house.’ I told the Kata that I’d be there. With a huff and a puff I changed my clothes and went over. It was unusual for someone, especially a woman, to be out at this hour. I was surprised to discover that there were two women waiting for me, one being Maria who lived quite far away. They greeted me.

We from North America and Europe value being direct,‘getting to the point’,-so as notto ‘waste time’. However, in Chilebeing direct is not a value. It is considered rude. The women began with the usual general questions of how was I doing, my family, my health, etc. Having been in Chile for several years I was accustomed to this, but that night it was torture. I begrudgingly participated. After about 30 minutes the women finally got to the point. Maria explained that after shopping in the large city, two hours away by bus, they had arrived back here late and she had missed the last bus to her area.

Maria had told her companion, ‘The bus goes by Father’s house. He is my friend and will help us’. ‘Darn!’ I thought. ‘They want me to take them home! More than an hour of wasted time!’ Yet, I said, ‘No problem’.

St Teresa of the Andes

After I took the first woman home, I drove to Maria’s house, engaging in small talk. When we arrived it was completely dark except for the lights of the house. When I parked the truck in front of the house Maria looked at me and said in a cautious tone, ‘Father, please stay in the truck while I get down first’. I thought this a strange request seeing that I had been to her house many times before.

I looked at the doorway and saw a figure standing there, her husband. The inside lights highlighted his aggressive stance. It was then that I realized the complexity of Maria’s situation of which I was completely ignorant due to my being bothered by her small request for a lift home.

The rural culture is very macho. Maria was a married woman who hadn’t arrived home on the last bus. Her husband’s mind would be filled with thoughts of what she might have been doing at such a late hour. This was further complicated by the fact that Maria, a poor woman, could not hire a taxi from the small town because the distance and hour would mean a large fare. Furthermore, even if a good Samaritan were to take her home, all the drivers were men. ‘Who could this strange man be bringing Maria home so late?’, her husband would think. Maria was caught in a no-win situation until she saw her only way out. -Possibly the only man who could save her in this tense situation open to misunderstanding wasthe priest. Her friendship with me could make a difference.

Maria began conversing with her husband. Things sounded and looked tense. Eventually, I stepped out of the truck and shouted, ‘Don José!’ The aggressive man turned towards mewith apuzzled look. ‘Don José, I repeated, ‘How are you doing? How are crops this year?’ Ironically, I was using the Chilean non-direct small talk to my advantage. When José recognized my voicehis posture relaxed. ‘Father, is that you?’ he said. ‘Yes’, I responded. ‘I was out late and ran into your wife who was waiting for the bus. Since the bus already left I decided to bring her home.’ José looked at his wife, than at me and said, ‘Father come in, we’ll drink some tea and have something to eat’. Food is a good sign that all will be fine.The tense mood was gone. Maria was relieved and thankful. I shared a meal with them and arrived home very late.

Mission is not necessarily about sacraments, the catechism, formation, or about the construction of churches and parish buildings, but more often is about the small things, the daily living with people. I can’t boast of any great building or program in my name during my years in Chile. Yet, I believe my contribution to mission has been the friendships formed and transformed with the people I minister to. That is a small thing that matters.

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