I helped a priest pick out glasses once. It was well into our conversation when I discovered his profession. He wasn’t wearing the collar. He brought it up – the priest thing.
After my initial shock, I was relieved that I told the truth about the 1980s aviator frames he was about to buy. Chock that up to good judgment. Not only did I save him from his own worst instincts on glasses, but I was able to leave “lying to a priest” off of my list of mistakes.
We didn’t talk about anything profound. I said “I bet you get a lot of casseroles.” He laughed and said that he did. Over an hour span I learned that he had five brothers and sisters, he had always wanted to be a priest, and that he enjoyed traveling by bus – you see more of God’s country that way. I also learned that being married to the Divine has many spiritual perks, but can get sort of lonely.
Although this encounter seems irrelevant, it reinforces my belief that you can learn a lot talking to strangers. Despite the nagging mother’s voice in the back of your childhood subconscious saying “strangers are bad,” you never know what you might learn about people, the world, or yourself until you get out there and ask.
Whether the situation is spontaneous or contrived, speaking with strangers can be cathartic for them and enlightening for you. I had tea with an old man who taught me everything I needed to know about stoves. He loved stoves so much that he keeps his wife’s ashes in his stove.
I realized that the burial site was an odd choice for an outsider looking in. But when he explained how much she loved to bake, and how beautiful she was with a little bit of flower in her hair, it all made sense. It was love that drove him to rest her ashes below the broiler on the second baking rack. I told him that I wanted to be buried in my art kit someday- nestled between the water colors and the pastels. He said that he was happy someone finally understood. He tried not to cry; I smiled and choked back the lump in my throat.
It seems so insignificant, meeting people and hearing their stories. But isn’t that what everyone wants? Deep down- to be heard. In the midst of their sound bites of personal history, I am in my element – learning about the world from strangers.
I just hope that these chance encounters impact them in the profound way that they affect me. I feel confident though, that the priest will remember. There will be a buzz in the pews of St. Thomas on Sunday, regarding the new glasses. He sure did look snazzy in them. For a priest.
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