To the joy of some – and the annoyance of others – we’ve been experiencing greater activity in our winter this year. We experienced some snowfall in New York the last two years I have been here, but not a great amount by any means. Now in my last year at Fordham University, I finally experienced my first “snow day.” Don’t be too shocked…I’m from southern California! It’s exhilarating experiencing something new, and this snowfall provided me one such opportunity: driving through a snowstorm. While driving carefully on the dark road, the headlights beaming on the falling snow resembled something that excited my inner dork: the snowflakes streaming past my windshield looked like stars! I felt like I was on the bridge USS Enterprise traveling at warp 8, or sitting next to Chewy on the Millennium Falcon careening through hyperspace!
There are many challenges and benefits to living in the Bronx. One of the benefits is being able to walk almost everywhere, and especially to these two beautiful places. As I walked through the forest of the gardens as the snow gently fell, and through the zoo covered in a pristine blanket of fresh snow, I had the chance to see and experience the beauty of the world in a new way. As a good friend of mine put it, the whole experience can “make you feel alive!” At first I thought she was crazy and didn’t believe her (southern California, remember?). But she was right.
I experienced a feeling of liberation and awe at something simple and old, yet so beautiful and new, something I hadn’t been able to fully appreciate before. I was delighted and surprised by the complex beauty of a simple snowflake when I marveled closely at it. It stretches my mind to think that something so small – and seemingly insignificant- gets me to reflect on some big and significant questions of life: Why do I exist? Where is my life headed? How can there be so much beauty amidst so much suffering? How could something as simple as a snowflake be so joyful and life-giving?
The added free time the snow day gave me also gave me time to sit and listen to music, and helped me catch up on my YouTube watching. I stumbled upon two other things that resonated with this new appreciation: (1) This video of a cute little girl’s reaction to her first experience of a rainfall and (2) a song that played on my iPod that I hadn’t heard in a long time, “Never Saw Blue Like That” by Shawn Colvin. First, watch the video of the little girl, smile, and then come back. Totally worth it. Okay, now the song. The lyrics to this song are beautiful and worth reading, but it is the refrain that definitely stands out to me the most:
“And I never saw blue like that before
Across the sky, around the world
You’ve given me all you have and more
And no one else has ever shown me how
To see the world, the way I see it now
Oh, I, I never saw blue like that before.”
Often enough I can find myself going through my day or even life more broadly and becoming very comfortable or complacent with routine, potentially closing myself off to anything new that could seize my imagination: eating the same thing for breakfast everyday, taking the same route to class, ordering the same thing at restaurants, etc. And then, if I’m aware enough to notice it, something like the snowflakes I mentioned or someone, be it a good friend or a person I just met on the subway, can help me to see the world in a new way, and be transformed. It can be something as dramatic as a lightning bolt, but is often more subtle – and right in front of us.
While there, we took academically rigorous classes and additionally participated in the key to this program: spending two days a week directly immersing ourselves among the poor at our “praxis site.” This time spent with these marginal communities is what allowed all of us to form friendships among the people we were accompanying and to learn from them. This experience of being welcomed into the homes and lives of these people – sharing in their joys and sufferings, struggles and faith, as well as their generosity – can bring up a lot of questions and transform participants in many ways.
One example that stands out for me is a story that was wonderfully shared several times by Fr. Mark Ravizza, S.J., who was teaching philosophy in El Salvador for several years, about a student who had a powerful experience of love at her praxis site. I remember very well Fr. Mark recounting the very moving story of Susan.
Susan was cooking lunch one day with Oti, one of the leaders of the community. It was a really hot day -and mosquito season! -and Oti noticed that Susan was doing a little dance as she stood in the kitchen cooking. Curious about the dance, Oti looked down at Susan’s legs and saw that they were covered in red welts. Susan was trying to try to rub her legs to bring some relief to all the mosquito bites she got a few days before. Moved with compassion, Oti told Susan that she had just the perfect thing to help: this special ointment that someone gave her years ago that she’s been saving to use for this kind of occasion. So Oti went to her little room and brought back this little tube of ointment. Susan held out her hand expecting that Oti would only give her a drop. Instead, Oti took the whole tube and squeezed all of it into her own hands and got down on her hands and knees, and gently rubbed it onto Susan’s swollen, red legs.
When Susan shared this story in Fr. Mark’s philosophy class later that week, she began to well up with tears. When she began to reflect on what those tears were about she said, “The thing that keeps running through my mind is: why was I only expecting a drop of ointment, and why for Oti was the only thing that made sense was to give everything she had and lavish it on me?” 2
There‘s something profoundly mysterious about what happens when reality–whether through a person or nature–transforms how we see others, the world, and ourselves, just like the encounter Susan had with Oti. What these kinds of experiences can elicit and bring out of us is unpredictable and surprising, but often blessed. Susan “never saw blue like that before.” Her own perspective and assumptions were transformed. Before, her North American outlook was dominated by the presumption that in order to receive anything, we need to deserve it and earn it, getting just what we’re due, or what we’re entitled to. That loving encounter with Oti began to open her eyes to seeing others in a new context: one in which you don’t just give people the minimum that they’re due. Learning to see others through the eyes of love involves learning to lavish what we have upon them, giving them even more than what they think they need.
Susan realized that life can look differently from the perspective of love. Through her subtle yet lavish love, Oti helped Susan to see the world in a new way, and this new vision not only helped her to think in a new way, but to feel in a new way. I’m asking myself these days if I have the freedom to see the world differently, to allow myself to encounter reality like experiencing rainfall for the first time, or to encounter love from someone that doesn’t give what I expect is due to me, but rather what I genuinely need to flourish – what a lavish love demands. And I don’t have to go far. It’s right in front of me…even in the Bronx. Not too bad for a snow day after all.
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- There are two other Casa programs. One, Casa Bayanihan, is in the Philippines, and the other, Casa de la Mateada, is in Argentina. ↩
- Adapted from Mark Ravizza, S.J., “Praxis-Based Education,” in Educating for Faith and Justice: Catholic Higher Education Today, ed. Thomas P. Rausch, S.J. (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2010) 113-14. ↩