Eight years ago, when I came back from making the 30-day retreat, a friend sent me an article about the Spiritual Exercises which featured an arresting still from the film The Mission, in which a priest tied to a cross is sent careening over a waterfall. What had I gotten myself into, she wondered. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I made the Exercises, I told her, to grasp more deeply what I was willing to get myself into. And I assured her that it was unlikely I would find myself a martyr for the faith being tossed over the falls in suburban Philadelphia—no waterfalls here, I laughed.
Sodden with jet-lag, I’ve had a hard time dragging myself to the gym these last weeks. I’m too tired, too overwhelmed with catching up at work after three weeks overseas. Last weekend, as I wound my way through the crowded vestibule of the Y, dodging wet toddlers while digging for my keys in my bag, I looked up to see a man in a wheelchair sitting in a parking space. I’d seen him head out almost 15 minutes ago as I was hitting my last mile on the elliptical. I wondered—for a nanosecond at most—did he need help? Then I found my keys and went out the door, anxious to get home.
The man was still there as I crossed the parking lot, his eyes closed, hands in his lap. I wondered again, oh-so briefly, if he needed help. I hit the unlock button on my keys, and the cascade began: Is it stereotyping to assume that this man needs help because he’s in a wheelchair? Will he be insulted if I approach him? What if he is just waiting for a ride? And surely the staff would notice and help if he needed it, right? And if I did ask, and he did need help, what would I be getting myself into? Would it be more than I had time, energy, or patience for?
I turned around and went back.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked.
“No, not at all,” he replied cheerily.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I offered.
“Indeed it is,” he said, stretching his arms out and raising his face up to the sun. The image from The Mission suddenly flashed through my mind: a pounding waterfall and arms stretched out, a martyr for the faith plunging into the depths.
There are, it would seem, waterfalls of the metaphorical in suburban Philadelphia. “Faith opens a ‘window’ to the presence and working of the Spirit,” said Pope Francis in his homily in Philadelphia a year ago. “It shows us that…holiness is always tied to little gestures.” A window opened in that Havertown parking lot, through which for a moment I could see the Spirit at work, inviting me to throw myself into the torrents of my anxieties and ask what I might get into.
What have I gotten myself into? No grand cinematic ends, I suspect, but little gestures, small acts of faith, tiny martyrdoms. Give me only your love and your grace, O Lord, that I might have faith enough to take me over these waterfalls, arms outstretched.