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Friday, June 27, 2008

“Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.’” (Matthew 11:28)

“SOUL-SURFING” – July 6, 2008
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
(Matthew 11:25-30)
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

With a recent mid-May weekend hosting a number of local college commencement ceremonies, Mary and I engaged in some glazed-eye reverie about our earlier lives as teachers before leaving education for healthcare. Mary proudly boasted 27 years with kindergartners and 1st graders, humbling me with a paltry 10 years as a high school English teacher. And though we carried fond memories of the classroom, we both confessed to some relief at the career change.

“Do you miss it?” Mary finally asked me that May morning. I didn’t have to consider long. “You know, I miss working with teenagers, but I don’t miss the endless class preparations, compositions to grade and tests to correct. And, you know, there’s something else: it’s taken me some years to realize that I needed more immediate satisfaction than teaching provided. So often as a teacher I wondered if I was making any difference at all in these young lives. I have to say that hospital chaplaincy is very different. It’s the rare day that I don’t come home knowing I’ve made some positive difference to someone.”

Mary smiled and nodded. “Yeah, I know what you mean. But every once in a while my heart feels a tug when I see kids lined up at a corner in the morning waiting for the school bus.” Then slapping her knee with a hearty laugh, she continued. “Oh, I have to tell you what I did last week. I was invited to be the ‘Mystery Reader’ at my granddaughter Amanda’s school. It was such fun!”

Mary then went on to explain that once a month Amanda’s kindergarten teacher invited a surprise guest, the “Mystery Reader,” to come read to the class. While Mary had known for weeks that she was to be with Amanda and her classmates that particular morning, she kept it secret, never letting her granddaughter know that Gram would show up. And best of all was the book she’d chosen. “I decided to read ‘The Kissing Hand’ [by Audrey Penn] that day,” continued Mary. “It’s Amanda’s favorite book, one that we’ve often read together when she comes to stay with her Gram for the weekend.”

Confessing unfamiliarity with “The Kissing Hand,” I asked Mary what it’s about. “Oh, it’s a wonderful book, especially for kids who need some comfort and encouragement. It’s about a little raccoon preparing for his first day of school. He tells his mother how scared he is about being away from her, so she takes him onto her lap and places a big kiss right in the middle of his hand. Then she tells him to put that hand right up to his cheek whenever he feels scared, a reminder that his mother is with him even when he isn’t sitting right in her lap.”

Smiling broadly, Mary told me of Amanda’s shock then utter glee when Gram appeared in her classroom as the “Mystery Reader” they’d all excitedly been awaiting. Continuing, Mary said, “I had all the kids put their chairs in a circle, then I sat next to Amanda and read our favorite story. And, you know, while I was reading, Amanda reached over to hold her Gram’s hand. It was just so cute. I’m sure I had more fun than the kids did. But boy, was I exhausted when I left that classroom. I’d forgotten how much energy it takes to entertain kindergartners!”

Both of us laughing now about remembered adventures of teaching days, we parted company to attend to our individual concerns, but the lesson of that book, “The Kissing Hand,” stuck in my mind for some time. Mama raccoon was as close to her terrified youngster as the kiss she’d placed in his palm. The lesson was surely imprinted on Mary and Amanda too, for after spending a weekend together, Mary always kissed Amanda’s palm, telling her to hold Gram up to her cheek often in the week ahead because Gram wanted to be with her in all her adventures.

The gospel passage we hear today begins as a prayer. “Jesus said, ‘I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned, you have revealed them to little ones.” (Matthew 11:25) Then, as if bidding his disciples to be as trusting as that terrified little raccoon on his first day of school, Jesus goes on to offer consolation to all those who are afraid, anxious, pushed to the limit: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) “Come to me,” says Jesus, “when you need the assurance that I’m with you. Come to me when you need more rest than a weary world can provide. I’m close to you as the next breath that begins deep within, right next to your heart.”

I left Mary that May morning with “The Kissing Hand” much on my mind. Now, 30 years later, I wish I’d assigned that small book to my students. They’d have mocked me for sure, their intelligence insulted by such seeming simplicity, but I’m also sure they’d have remembered the life-long lesson of the book. In fact, perhaps it’d even be the only book they’d ever remember reading in my class since now, as adults, they know the intense pressures of life, know what it is to feel too burdened to go on, wanting only rest.

The little raccoon found assurance in the kiss his mother had placed in the palm of his hand. Amanda, too, knew where to go for consolation, reaching out to hold her Gram’s hand in the circle of kindergartners. And we, in truth no more secure in this fearsome world than toddling infants, hear Jesus calling to us, “Come to me, [take my hand] all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)

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