Of Many Things

Snapshots play a part in the lives of many of ussmall pictures of family groups, children, friends, co-workers. You find them not just at home, but in the workplace too, as well as in wallets and purses. On my way to work on the subway, or going home in the evening, I sometimes see passengers sharing them with acquaintances, smiling at faces that seem to smile backimages that lay a claim upon the affections. In contrast to the stiffness of formal photographs, snapshots often possess a spontaneity that reflects life lived at a particular moment in a particular placeindoors, outdoors, on the road.

My own favorites stand at eye level on a bookshelf over my desk at home. For frames, I use empty plastic compact-disc cases found here and there on the streets of lower Manhattan. These makeshift frames are just the right size, five by six inches; and since they are made of clear plastic, two snapshots can be inserted in each one, back to back. Because they are free-standing, not hung on hooks, I can periodically turn them around and move them: if they always remain in the same position, the eye grows accustomed and tends to ignore the images they present. But in new positions, their freshness and immediacy are restored until it is time to shift them again.

Having worked in a Jesuit parish in Washington, D.C., before coming to New York in 1994, I have a number of snapshots of parishioners. With a camera given to me one Christmas, I frequently took pictures before and after weekend Masses or on outings, which were then posted temporarily on a bulletin board in the church social hall. One favorite shows several members of the St. Aloysius gospel choir, dressed in blue robes, preparing to process in at the beginning of the main Sunday liturgy. In the center of the group, a broad smile on her face as she looks at the camera, is Ruth Payne. Originally from North Carolina, she had moved to Washington years before and later assumed the responsibility of raising a little boy named Ronald, the child of a teenage relative who had returned to the South. That she was willing to take on such a responsibility as a widow well past 60 was just one of the ways in which her generosity served as a model for all of us.

It was the same with Ruth’s prayerfulness. On leaving her apartment with Ronald, she would pause to look up at a passage from Psalm 121 tacked over the doorway: The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in, from this time forth and forever more. She called it her going-out-the door prayer, which she and Ronald would recite aloud together before crossing the threshold. During a weekend retreat at a Jesuit retreat house near Annapolis, she was once struck by the message on one of the posters in the bookshop: If I can’t do great things, O Lord, help me to do small things in a great way. Raising Ronald was no small thing, and she did her part in raising him in a great way.

Parish work involves visiting shut-ins, so some of the snapshots show parishioners in their homes. One to whom I took communion was Mary Chittams. In that snapshot, she is seated on the side of her bed with her brother-in-law, who visited daily. He is holding Mary’s cat, named Pretty. For Marywith one leg amputated and obliged to have dialysis three times a weekPretty and her brother-in-law were the centers of what would otherwise have been a lonely existence indeed. Like Ruth, she had little of this world’s goods, yet she bore the difficulties of her life with a faith that helps my own faith whenever I look at those two snapshots as I pray in the early morning. Both Mary and Ruth have now died; but their faces remain before me as daily reminders not only of valued friendships, but also of the reality of a resurrection in which they implicitly believed.

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