So I need to start by telling you about what I learned from the fly.
The Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi, Italy, was built in the 12th century, but the interior is a mishmash of styles, all beautiful and extravagant. Except, just to the left of the main altar, there is a tiny little box of a room that serves as the Blessed Sacrament chapel. It’s a little square with just enough room for two small rows of very noisy small wooden pews, a plain stone altar, a wooden sculpture of the Pietá that is strikingly modern, and some plaques that honor two 20th century bishops and the local victims of past wars. It is also perhaps the only prayer space in Assisi with an air conditioning unit, which served us well at the start of a week that saw temperatures approach 100 degrees.
Thanks to our friend Bret Thoman’s book Following Francis and Clare, we were among the very few who knew about the chapel (though the AC was a surprise), and it had been a great place to start our retreat in silent prayer. So at the end of our time in Assisi, it seemed like a great place to close our time and wait for our train.
One fly, in a small space, can make a distractingly significant amount of noise. As we tried to focus, we were both distracted by the constant buzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz from this fly that would not land, would not stop. He was impossible to ignore.
St. Francis of Assisi is famous for his love of his fellow creatures; there are stories of him moving earthworms out of the road so they wouldn’t get trampled. I don’t share that love, at least not as regards to bugs. I may have, at another point in this retreat, shouted “You’re going down, Brother Mosquito!” So I was listening to the buzzzzzz and thinking about how flies have often been associated with the devil, how this was surely a demonic distraction, how smacking this thing with a prayer journal, while not being Franciscan in spirit, would be justifiable.
But a thought not my own prayed through me: “God, you created this fly for a purpose, and he’s buzzing around here, angry and frustrated, because he can’t accomplish that purpose cooped up in this little box of a room. Let him out of here so he can go do what You made him for.” And as I prayed that, the fly buzzed really loud and close to me, then left. He came back once, with another (human) visitor to the chapel, but as soon as I renewed that prayer (“God, your fly is back, and you and I both know that this is not where he was meant to be…”) he left again, not to return.
It’s not natural for me to treat a pesty insect with that perspective and grace. It was a huge insight. But it was immediately followed by “Now, see people that way.” And that is so much harder.
I have this superpower that maybe you do, too. I can see with perfect clarity what I should have said and done, a couple of days after the fact. It’s not the most helpful.
In Matthew 10:5-14, Jesus sends out his disciples with the direction to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.” When St. Francis heard the part of the passage where Jesus says “Take no gold, nor silver, nor copper in your belts, no bag for your journeys, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff…” it inspired him to a more radical commitment to poverty than anyone thought practical, so this is kind of a famous passage for Franciscans – they even know what date he heard it and was convinced that this was the way to go (February 24, 1208).
But Jesus says something right after that part that I never really paid much attention to: “As you enter a house, wish it peace. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; if not, let your peace return to you.” This passage came up in daily mass about a week into a retreat in which peacemaking had already emerged as a major theme for me, so it made me wonder: What is Jesus talking about? What sort of peace do the disciples, do I, have to offer someone?
After working on that for a couple of days, I thought I had the answer. The peace that I have to offer is one that comes from actually seeing someone, for recognizing them as a protagonist of their own story rather than just an extra in mine, and for showing real interest in learning who they are and what their story is about. When I treat people that way, I’m surprised at how often I hear back what a rarity it is. That, I thought, is the peace we’re meant to offer each other; giving each other the gift of being really seen, really known.
I was wrong.
I am the sort of person who generally does not like talking to strangers on planes. (Or anywhere else, honestly.) I have long text chains with my daughter on strategies to cut off conversation with strangers on planes; my favorite (I think from Kyle Idelman’s Not a Fan), is wearing a t-shirt that says I JUST WANT TO TALK ABOUT JESUS. Apparently, you usually get the whole row to yourself on Southwest if you wear one of those shirts, though I suspect that if it backfires, it backfires spectacularly.
So on the 9 ½ hour flight from Rome back to the US, I was hoping that the imposing figure sitting next to me didn’t speak English. He was almost a decade older than me, but in much better shape, with jet black hair and beard, tight black t-shirt, tight black pants, and fashionable black leather shoes that matched his bag. He looked like an older Italian fashion model.
I was partly right.
Over the next 9 ½ hours, I learned that he was a wealthy heir from a large extended family, one of the only men in the family who was not addicted to drugs or alcohol. He had been the primary caregiver for a very difficult mother for five years, and after her passing, he discovered by accident that he had the talent to be a successful fashion model and, eventually fashion producer. He had a home in Charlotte (we saw the spectacular views from his penthouse deck), in Ft. Lauderdale, in Manhattan, and was planning to find homes in Rome, Paris, and Dubai, which is apparently an emerging fashion scene. He also sponsors talented young designers and wants to set up an endowment to support their development. I am still not clear why he was flying Economy Plus, but he obviously was very successful.
He only asked us two questions during the flight, but I was impressed with the way he treated the flight attendant, addressing her by name and making small talk with her as well (not in a creepy way). He was kind and gracious, and in fact he talked about how many of his neighbors were superstar athletes who he counseled on good social skills.
April, one seat removed, wrote in her journal for six hours straight. And I wrote a fair bit in mine, too (I should clarify that he did not talk the entire way; this all came out in bits and pieces). The question he asked (besides the obvious “Where are you from?”) came during a pause in my journaling, when he asked whether we were writers. I told him no, we aren’t, but we both journal to pray and to think. “Interesting,” he said, before quickly changing the subject.
I offered what I thought was the peace I had. I affirmed the sacrifices he had made in caregiving for his mother, a difficult, taxing, often thankless role. I praised him for finding a purpose that motivated him and asked him questions about the fashion world, though it was abundantly clear from my clothing choices on the flight that I was not in any way fashion-conscious. I told him it was laudable for him to pay forward his success by supporting future designers. While he seemed to appreciate all of that, I didn’t get the sense that it gave him any peace.
What I realized, a couple days later, was that that was not the peace Jesus talked about, and it definitely wasn’t the peace he needed. Because in all that I heard – the accomplishments and the acquisitions and the experiences – what came through loudest was someone trying to find peace in places that can’t offer it. I wish I’d asked him if his go-go lifestyle gave him peace. I wish I’d told him that, at least for me, peace only came after I gave up trying to prove myself worthy of it, after I accepted that I was, am, and always will be broken, but that I am wholly and completely loved and accepted just as I am. Only after accepting both parts of that – the brokenness and the belovedness – could I find peace.
Whether or not he was interested in that peace, I’ll never know. I tried to find him on the internet without success. So I’m telling YOU, in case you might have needed to hear it.
It’s not natural for me to see people and actually care about what they really need. That is another insight for me from this trip. But it first required me to see and accept myself as broken and yet beloved. And that was so much harder. Because I have buzzed with the best of them, for a very long time.
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