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Sweating the big stuff

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Yesterday we celebrated the feast of St. Vincent de Paul, a French priest who left the comfort of his assignment in the court of Queen Margaret of Valois to spend the rest of his life serving the poor and sick, along the way also founding the Fathers of the Mission (often called Vincentians) and the Sisters of Charity. He is known for ransoming thousands of slaves in North Africa and for ministering to the galley-slaves confined to the dark bottoms of boats by the hundreds and chained to their oars.

Vincent de Paul seemed always able to separate the big stuff from the small; to recognize what he really needed to worry about; to refuse to get caught in the petty and minor wranglings of wealthy court life that he might spend his time with the largely ignored, impoverished and ill-educated peasants of France.

Hmm. I don’t know about you, but unless I pay attention, most days I don’t have much to worry about beyond whether my kids have done their chores, how to get them to soccer or swim practice on time, what I’m going to fix for dinner and whether that shirt I want to wear tomorrow is ironed. However, events come along that remind me how blessed I am to have such small concerns. Last Wednesday, Sept. 20, two friends of mine each lost a long-ill parent to death. I just read yesterday the story of a man who got his hand blown off by a grenade while reporting on a story assignment in Iraq. He has now written a book about the young amputees he met, who moved him deeply while he healed from his own injuries. I regularly need to be shaken up, to remember that my day-to-day concerns pale in comparison to suffering that surrounds me right here in South Bend, where we have not one but two missions to serve the homeless, both of which are often filled to capacity; where multiple food pantries serve the poor every day (including our local St. Vincent de Paul Society); where people I probably pass on the street or shop next to at Martin’s are lonely, or worry about illness or job security or debt.

Perhaps we ourselves have overwhelming concerns weighing us down. Maybe we find the consideration of poverty or illness or war too far from our own experience to grasp. Lest the needs of our world or even our community seem too vast to think about, we have to remember that our God loves us so deeply that “even the hairs of your head are all counted” (Luke 12:7). And even though his own land is filled with hatred and bloodshed, with people brutally at war with each other, God still attends with limitless love to our worries and needs and prayers.

In Sharon Creech’s Newberry Award-winning book Walk Two Moons, a character named Mrs. Winterbottom asks her daughter, “Do you think I lead a tiny life?” The size of our lives isn’t measured by how far we travel, the prestige of our professional lives, the wealth we accumulate or how well we’re esteemed by others. Rather, what matters is whether we pay attention, as Vincent de Paul did, to those people who most need us, to those situations which most need our prayers, our talents, our treasure, our loving care.

It’s OK to worry about the little things; sometimes we do need to sweat the small stuff. We just can’t ever forget that the big stuff is out there, needing our fervent prayer, needing whatever we can offer. The fact that you’re reading this means that you are abundantly blessed – with literacy, with adequate food and shelter, perhaps on your way to completing a Notre Dame education. In the midst of so much, we would do well to pray with the words of St. Vincent de Paul: “We should strive to keep our hearts open to the sufferings of others, and pray continually that God may grant us that spirit of compassion which is truly the spirit of God.”

Kate Barrett is the director of resources and special projects for Campus Ministry. She can be reached at Barrett.28@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.