Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is righteous will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one these little ones to drink because he is a disciple –– amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.
— Matthew 11:40-42
And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.
— Matthew 18:5
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked them, but Jesus said, “Let the children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” After he placed his hands on them, he went away.
— Matthew 19:13-15
I dropped my little squirrel off at the school bus stop this morning and watched as she scampered across the street and up the steps of the bus. How much will she remember from this young age when she gets to be my age?
I was wondering about that on the ride home, drifting into the mists of long ago where a young rascal of the same age used to dart out the back door on his way to school in the morning.
It was 1969, and I had the choice of taking the street route which was nearly double the shortcut through the woods that cradled St. Mary’s Academy and Convent. There was a short wooded path from my back yard that popped out on the lawn of the old Erskine Manor. There I would pass a Marian prayer grotto surrounded by a hedge, which provided the perfect cover to scan the area in all directions.
That little bit of reconnaissance was essential if I wanted to avoid the estate’s caretaker and the nuns who didn’t particularly take to trespassers, even if I was nothing more than a young lad taking a safe route to school in the morning.
If the area was all clear, I’d usually take my time, weaving a path across the main drive, over gentle hills, until I crept behind another prayer grotto for a good scan of the last stretch to my school. From behind those bushes, a bright white statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus towered above me, His arms outstretched and facing the other direction.
Occasionally, I’d hear the fearful roar of the little Kushman’s engine, and I knew the property’s caretaker had spotted me with his eagle eyes and was bearing down on my position with grumpy intent.
The other kids in the neighborhood called him Igor, but I knew that his real name was Boris, which I had discovered simply by asking him one day. He was a frightening bear of a man with a heavy Russian accent, massive bald head, and stern disposition, so to an 8-year-old kid, either name seemed to fit.
My run-ins with Boris were usually very brief, so I never learned much about him other than his name and the fact that he lived alone in a small apartment above the old Erskine stables. That meant that our relationship basically consisted of him running me down with his Kushman, giving me a quick lecture about trespassing with his foreign accent, and escorting me off the property.
At other times, I just might run into some of the high school girls who attended the Academy, although these encounters were never a cause for stress. I didn’t notice much about them, other than the fact that they were girls. When they were in a pack, they were fairly animated and often silly by my reckoning. When alone, they might just be walking peacefully and thoughtfully along some part of the grounds. The kind of stuff one might expect from high school girls, and certainly nothing to attract too much attention and interest from a young boy.
I would also run into some nuns outdoors, and would try to avoid this at all costs. For the most part, they wore very orthodox looking black habits with elaborate headgear. They liked to walk outdoors in groups as well with their serious, unreadable faces, no doubt talking about deep and weighty matters. If I was unlucky enough to be spotted, the whole stately procession would come to a sharp halt, icy stairs all coming to rest on my place of concealment. Sometimes they would even storm my position, either giving me a stern tongue wagging or even calling in the heavy artillery which consisted of Boris. Such were the risks of trespassing at St. Mary’s.
All that changed one spring day while I was scoping the area from behind the statue of Jesus.
I spied a nun out on a stroll by herself, which was odd in my experience. Even more odd, was the blue habit that she was wearing, which was in no way as elaborate as the other habits I was used to. She even wore sneakers, just like me.
Funny, but although the other characters are a blur in my memory, I can recall this woman very clearly, though it’s been over four decades. From her tall and thin frame, to her twinkling blue eyes behind wire framed glasses, to her gentle smile and kind voice… yes, I remember her as if it was yesterday.
I’m fairly convinced she spotted me long before I spotted her, even though I was well concealed in the bushes. Still, I think she feigned ignorance as she made a little fly by of my position during that first encounter. Over the coming days, I would see her periodically, from my usual spot behind the bushes, taking the same stroll until she stopped in front of the Sacred Heart of Jesus prayer grotto. Oh, I can still see her beaming face.
One day I actually hunkered down in the bushes to wait because she was nowhere in site. Would she show? Eventually she did, and I suppose it was no surprise when she finally stopped to pray in the usual spot, looked right at me when she was finished, and struck up the following conversation.
“Hi. What’s your name?” she asked.
What’s my name? I was wondering what her game was when my mouth blurted out, “Michael.”
“Where do you live, Michael?”
“Over that hill and through those woods,” I answered. Great, I had just given away far to much information.
“Oh,” she said, “how wonderful. We share the same woods. Where are you going?”
“Well,” she said, as she glanced at her watch and then towards my school, “you had better get going because you don’t want to be late.”
I’m not sure why, but I don’t remember ever talking to her again after that day, although I do remember seeing her out on a walk from afar, every once in a while.
I recall all this, mostly from the perspective of my youth, but the adult in me recognizes many facets that bear further consideration.
Over the course of my life I’ve encountered a great many people like these, and the memories cause me to not only reflect on how they have received me, but more importantly, how I have received them.
As an adult who has struggled mightily to live an authentic Christian life, often failing, I’m impelled to put aside judgement of other people who have also apparently failed to live up to my expectations.
Sure, Boris might have presented a gruff disposition to a young kid, but only God knows how mightily he struggled to become the authentic Christian as well. He worked hard, and I could see that much from the fact that he took care of that entire 80 acre estate single handedly. And Lord only knows every single detail of what was probably a hard life.
And sure, many of the nuns didn’t seem to be friendly to me when I trespassed in their territory, but I would occasionally get an inkling of how much they too suffered and struggled to live the authentic Christian life. Sometimes, I would find one of these Sisters with a Rosary at the Marian prayer grotto, prayerful upon a rough pine kneeler near my home. At other times I might cross paths with one of them walking alone, and the interest they would show towards me by a look could just as easily convey a sense of kinship like, “Hey there little rascal. I’m a bit of a rascal myself, so let’s just keep praying for each other and hoping in Jesus.”
Well, I do pray for them all as I recall those times, and I have no doubt that I benefited from, and continue to benefit from, their prayers as well.
I’m also freshly motivated to strive for the authentic Christian life as shared with me by my friend in the blue habit and sneakers. How beautiful and simple it all is, and yet how hard it seems to be sometimes.
Jesus, help me to always recognize You in everyone I encounter and receive You with the love You so richly deserve.