“It took me many years of struggle and failure to realize that my real distraction was in my life, not in my prayer.” – Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, former Superior General of the Jesuits
Fr. Peter Klink, who I live with at Holy Rosary Mission on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, loves to tell stories. He has lived and ministered here for 37 years. He knows a lot of people. He celebrates a lot of funerals.
There is one story that I have returned to over and over again. A while back, Peter was celebrating the funeral for a long time parishioner named Anna Bad Milk. At the graveside committal following the funeral and the feed, folks gathered around where Anna would be buried.
In the dirt was a cross that carried Anna’s name on it. As they waited to begin, one of Anna’s young grandchildren went to the cross and began tracing the letters he could see with his fingers. Peter asked him if he knew what it spelled; Peter told him, “That’s your grandma’s name.”
So, the little boy traced every letter and as he did, Peter spelled out the name: A-N-N-A B-A-D-M-I-L-K.
When Peter recounted this story later that week, he concluded by saying: this is what God does for us. He spells and traces our names out every morning.
Months ago during my annual silent retreat, I found myself restless. As can be all too routine for many of us, I found myself rattling through faults, weaknesses, and dwelling in the past. As I sat in the midst of prayer, this continued, and it was exhausting.
Eventually, I was slowly brought back to this story from Fr. Peter as I recalled the gentle image of this boy tracing the letters on his grandmother’s grave marker. After a while, the preoccupation with my own self, worries, doubts, etc. began to dissipate. I was led to believe that God was trying to show me that he does this every morning for me with the same attentive love and devotion as Anna’s grandchild.
What if, I was led to ponder, God loves us the way a grandchild loves their grandmother?
I thought of my friend Ann-Marie, a grandmother and guardian to two young boys. Often I sit in her office and her grandkids come tearing in, yelling and grabbing for her attention. I chat with her in the parking lot telling her about this very prayer period and the boys are yelling for her, “watch me do this jump on my scooter!”
They are completely unconcerned (maybe not even aware?) that we are in the midst of conversation. It does not matter to them; they want their grandma’s attention.
Perhaps God is yelling for our attention the way Ann-Marie’s grandkids yell for hers. In my own prayer that day, there wasn’t a doubt. I was allowing myself to spiral through distracting thoughts of my own weakness, mistakes, fears about the future.
God, I began to realize, was trying to grab me and speak to me in gibberish like a baby does to his grandmother, like Ann-Marie’s youngest. She holds him in her arms and he bats at her face, strokes her chin, mumbles or grunts nebulous syllables. God is calling for us like baby Marvin.
There are no words, only attention.
G.K. Chesterton wrote that God may have, “the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we are.”
We tend to think of God as old, loving us with the tenderness and care of a grandparent. And there is nothing wrong with this. We can also mistakenly think of God judging us with sternness, concentrated or concerned only with our faults, waiting for us to shape up.
God, it seems, is concerned with one thing: our attention. And in time, God provides us the loving grace to recognize that God’s attention is rarely fixed on the things we think it is, things like our worthiness, weakness, or the future. How often these distractions befuddle us, causing us to miss the gentle, playful and youthful love of a Grandchild.
As St. Therese wrote, “A God who became so small, could only be mercy and love.”