Fully Immersed

Like most people alive today, I am called to live out my vocation as a layperson in the secular world. I am a wife and a mother, a woman chosen to interact daily with the wonderful array of people God puts in my path. I can count on seeing some particular people every day: my husband, our five children, the neighbors who share the duplex we live in, my coworkers, the receptionist in my office building, the maintenance workers. There's familiarity, perhaps even some predictability, in these interactions. (On the other hand, four of my five children are teenagers, so I expect the unexpected. . . .)

A great number of people I see every day, however, are total strangers to me; we know nothing about each other. And all of these people have their own stories. On good days, I pray for the gift of openness, so I can want to know their stories. On bad days, I size 'em up pretty fast.

Several years ago I wrote a story in Commonweal about a time when I felt what it was like to be judged in one long, head-to-toe look. I think about this story often, maybe even every day--especially when I realize I have not taken the time to learn someone's story, not taken a moment to ask God to help me see the person in front of me as he sees him or her. Recalling this story helps me pray. What stories from your life draw you to reflect and pray?

"Fully immersed"
(Originally printed in Commonweal, 14 September 2001, p. 17)

The checker in Aisle 4 at the supermarket stared at me. Unashamed, slack-jawed, she stared at me. Accustomed to stares as I was, I smiled with all the politeness I could muster and continued to load my institutional-sized groceries on the conveyor belt. She stared as I explained to my four-year-old why there are surveillance cameras at the checkout. She stared as I restrained my two-year-old in something like a half nelson to keep him out of the candy bin. She stared as I comforted my one-year-old, who was crying steadily and wanting a nap. She stared as I wrestled my way around my eight-month-pregnant belly and down to the bottom of the cart to retrieve the economy-sized box of diapers. As her shocked stupor subsided and she began to ring up my order, the checker in Aisle 4 asked blankly: "You're having another one?"


I had hoped that my reticent response would discourage her and make her return to her work, but I underestimated her horror.

"Are you going to stop, then?"

"Stop sleeping with my husband?" I thought to myself, but, of course, did not say. That is not what she was thinking, and I knew it, and she knew it, and the fourteen other people within hearing distance of Aisle 4 knew it. God knows why, but she needed to know how many children I had decided to have. And, apparently, not one more jar of peanut butter was going to pass through the scanner until she had her answer.

"I don't know," came my lame response.

"Don't you use anything?" All fourteen bystanders listened intently along with the checker to discover what kind of birth control I had been using (with such obvious ineffectiveness).

"Uh, we, um, use Natural Family Planning," I stammered as my face turned a brilliant shade of red.

"What's that?"

"It's, um, not using anything artificial, but paying attention to the woman's body to identify times of fertility." Clearly having classified me as a freak, the checker lost interest about a dozen words into my response and went about her business.

As I gathered my brood around me, my heart grew heavy with the realization that my life is, indeed, a counter-cultural oddity. It is difficult to enjoy being in the grocery store, let alone the world at large, if I feel like an outcast. It is a constant challenge for me, a young Catholic mother, to feel integrated, whole. I am no otherworldly saint who leads a beautiful life of self-sacrifice and prayer in a secluded hermitage. I am fully immersed in this world. And still I treasure my faith in the Catholic church, the people of God—the wonderful, fallible, varied, human people—living both in this world and for the next. The faith that declares that the world is good is the same faith that challenges me to distance myself from many worldly ideas and practices. I am called to love this world, sinful as it is, and love God well enough to merit seeing him face to face. Being Catholic in contemporary America requires integrating my loves in this world with my love for God.