Old Woman

I wasn't sure, for a moment, whether the tall, gaunt figure in the long wool coat was a man or a woman. He or she wore a wool cap with longish grey-white hair hanging down around the ears, and in each hand carried a couple of heavy-looking plastic shopping bags. The person and I were both coming out of the supermarket parking lot on a whippy, nippy Thursday. The person was heading home, presumably, and I was heading in for Thursday Eucharist at the university chapel.

I had a half-panicked thought: I ought to offer this person a ride, dammit. I remember from my own non-driving days how painfully the handles of a loaded plastic bag dig into your palms (someone has named the resulting red marks "bagmata"). And I know how a Mud Season wind can cut through anything, or so it feels. I remember wishing, back in those times, that someone would stop and give me a lift. And I'd been far younger than this person... Yes, I was running a little late, and offering the person a lift would make me later still. But only a little late. And God wouldn't mind. God judges us on the basis of how we treat those with less than ourselves, and an old person struggling with supermarket bags on a windy chill day is clearly one of those "little ones". My husband, who is (in many ways) a better Christian than I am, wouldn't hesitate. He'd know where duty lay. A lovely old-fashioned word, "duty": for him, that sort of duty would be a joy. For me, perhaps not, but since when is that an excuse?

Nonetheless, my two feet and two hands and driver's eyes and mind ignored what my head said and, panicked by the hour, drove past the person (a woman, as it turned out), swinging out onto the highway that runs past our one-and-only mall. I kept glancing into the rear-view mirror all the way to the traffic lights, watching her trudge along, head down, and kicking myself as I headed for the four-lane towards the city. I knew quite clearly what I should have done, and I went against that knowledge, propelled by that angel-devil of mine, Propriety. Propriety said that it would be wrong to disturb the other worshippers by coming in late, and that I needed a time to reflect and prepare before the Eucharist --the community fosters that. The community has only two services before it shuts down for the summer, Propriety said. It's a community that "does" propriety, perhaps a little too well. That didn't help me.

I spent the drive in clobbering myself for cowardice: dammit, I know better; what ailed me? "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." I preach that all that matters is how we serve others, and here I'd turned my back on such a piece of service with the excuse that it was more important to serve God in a tidy, proper liturgy, arriving slightly before service time in order to get my head into seemliness. Horseshit. Or, more Canuckly, moosepoop.

I know this angel-devil Propriety--have known it since childhood. And a part of me really does value propriety, the thoughtful approach that puts a mild guard on spontaneity, which can be such a selfish child sometimes. But in this case, Propriety was fronting mere Selfishness, with overtones of Fear. I had to be honest with myself: I didn't want to give this woman a lift. I didn't know why, but there it was. I wanted to get on with my own stuff instead of giving her a hand with hers. I've been on the receiving end of this particular sidestep--and that means I really ought to know better myself.

As I sailed north, the car arguing with a stiff easterly wind, I thought of all the godlets we set up between ourselves and that difficult, imperative piece of Scripture in Matthew 25: "I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." It's the one place where Jesus says, quite baldly, "This is it: this is what God says matters most. This is how humankind will be judged."

And yet we come up with a gazillion reasons why we shouldn't do our obvious Christian duty, which is to look after people who need to be looked after. Often we don't even do that for those who, being close to us, should be able to expect it of us. And we certainly don't do it for those we don't know. Instead, we set up all sorts of reasons (are they reasons or excuses?) why we should put our own needs and wishes ahead of the Gospel's clarity. We don't want to share others' pain; it's uncomfortable and we value our own comfort. Instead, we blame the poor for their poverty, the sick for their sickness, the criminals for their criminality. We talk about their responsibility, not our own. We distance ourselves, literally stepping over the sleeping man on the sidewalk. We talk about what we deserve, or what we've earned --as though we'd done it all by ourselves. We obey without questioning the values of a greedy, materialistic culture bent on selling us stuff that we really don't need. We're cautious to provide for our own future needs. Or we just drive on by, as I drove past that woman with her shopping bags, struggling against the wind on a cold Mud Season day.

What's worse is that instead of seeing what we're doing, we dumb down our consciences so that we won't feel the pain of self-accusation --the gap between our talk as Christians and our walk as Christians. Seeing that gap clearly would make us feel truly lousy about ourselves, and who wants that? It gets worse still when we take Christianity and use it as an excuse to judge and condemn the poor--and it's possible to do that, if you ignore pretty much all the meat of the Gospel and concentrate on a few selected verses about God rewarding the righteous.

Hey, I do it too. I just feel lousy when I have to face my own failure. It might have been different if I'd still been wandering in the desert, as I had been for some lengthy months, but I left that space at Easter. I really had no excuse at all.

I got to the service with a few minutes to spare, but I found it joyless and a little tedious. I was acutely aware of the strong propriety of this community, and it resonated with my disgust with the godlet Propriety and made my own Easter smile feel more like self-satisfaction than real joy. For it's our refusal to share in suffering that cuts us off from joy.

The next day, a milder and quieter day, I saw the same woman walking down Rideau Street and I got a proper look at her face, which had an expression of mad and bitter rage. She was talking to herself intently. Okay, if I'm going to offer her a lift next time I see her, at least I'll know what to expect.

Copyright © 2002 Molly Wolf. Originally published Sat, 06 Apr 2002
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