We are surrounded by several young children. Some are eager to befriend us, and others are more careful. “How are you?” we ask one young girl. She looks at us. We talk to her. About school. About the beautiful day. About anything. It is not exactly a conversation. It is only an attempt to put her at ease. Her responses are short and guarded.
A woman breathing heavily with her mouth open lies in bed. One of the Carmelite sister staff members tells me the woman’s name and explains that the woman does not respond or receive as many visitors as other residents, but she still deserves love. The sister brushes the woman’s cheek. I introduce myself to the woman. As expected, there is only silence and intermittent moaning. She looks past me. I talk to her. About school. About the beautiful day. About anything. It is not a conversation. It is only an attempt to be present with her.
Along with many other Jesuit institutions, Loyola Marymount University makes service and social justice a priority in its educational mission. Many clubs, organizations, campus ministry programs and academic groups inspire students to follow in the footsteps of St. Ignatius Loyola by becoming men and women with and for others. Our community serves a broad range of human needs, including foster care youth, the elderly, battered women, people with disabilities or those who struggle with homelessness, often through direct individual interaction. Sometimes collegiate dialogue is stirred as to whether charitable time spent tutoring, conversing or simply being present with those who live on the margins of society is as valuable as civic work that can effect lasting change, like policy-making and advocacy. Furthermore, what happens when our service seems to be of no avail or brings about no tangible results?
As a member of Loyola Marymount University’s all-women Gryphon Circle Service Organization, I have often reflected on the words of our beloved late chaplain Peg Dolan, R.S.H.M. During her commencement address in 2008, Sister Peg encouraged students to “make the gift of your life become a masterpiece each day that will help make your life better for you and all you meet in your life journey, no matter where you are or what you do.”
I imagine people who create masterpieces: the scientist who defends her characterization of a hypomorph, the dancer who strains in her pointe shoes and the inspired writer who casts bloodshot eyes over her novel. They are heroes in their moment. They are driven and self-sacrificing. Such is an active form of creation. You choose the medium; you choose the time; you choose the craft—something exquisite, like stained glass. The purposeful artist selects humble shards, fits them together in an unexpected pattern and then reveals her pictorial window, through which the world can gaze. But I think there is also an equal, passive form of creation, one experienced by the stained glass itself.
Stained glass is impractical. It doesn’t help the stone wall stand. In fact, it is the most vulnerable to breaking. It is made from broken pieces. It is a potential weak point in the wall. But it is through stained glass that light can bring color to the darkened nave. Its intricate array bears a secret in the night and a message in the day. It makes the sunbeam striking. By allowing something else to work through its stillness, it creates beauty.
A Complex Beauty
At our service sites, we come into contact with people who embody some of these qualities as well: stained-glass people. They did not choose their medium, their time or their place. They did not ask for their challenges. They are people whom society reckons weak. They are sick, abandoned, deprived, vulnerable, too old, too young, lost, pained, marginalized or just in need of love. But we see a light that shines through them. By serving in friendship and with love, we rejoice in their complex beauty. We harmonize through solidarity and want to care for each other as members of an inclusive human family. In our gentle interactions with them, we discover that these relationships illuminate a hope and a joy that the struggles currently faced will someday be vanquished. Before that time comes, we may have to accept that we cannot change their lives; we can only do what we can to make whatever light is present shine brighter. Even if the change never comes, this doesn’t make their story any less a masterpiece.
It is important to challenge injustice, to charge forth where we feel emboldened to bring change. But this is an abridged experience of service. What if the time for a hero has not yet come? We do not simply wait alongside the road. What may be needed is a simple offer of companionship. We have the chance to better the lives of all individuals we encounter. We can provide accompaniment to others on their journey, even when they are many pages from the happy ending.
Sometimes there are sad, terrifying or painful moments that we do not want to include in the masterpiece of our lives. But isn’t the reason we celebrate a masterpiece because we intuit that its creation involved a triumph over difficulty? In a masterpiece, there are elements of the unexpected. There are low notes in a song. There are chips in a mosaic. There are edges to an artwork. There is pain on the dance floor. Even broken pieces have found their purpose in creation: to come together.
We may have a terrible day. We may lose things on which we depended. The people we seek to help may turn away. The light may miss our stained glass completely. But we can still serve from wherever we stand, no matter how far from the turning point. It is true, we can make a gift of ourselves by being heroic. But at those times when swords cannot cut through shadow and glass cannot shine in darkness, we can make a gift of ourselves to others simply as signs of the light to come. Sometimes, even if it is just for one person, a glance through the window to the view beyond the wall makes the most transformative impact of all.