Posted September 27, 2010 in Word Made Flesh:
Grace at 30,000 Feet

by Fr. Pat McNulty.

Oh Lord, please! Not next to me. Please!

The Delta flight that day was a short one—from Cincinnati, Ohio to Buffalo, New York. I had missed my scheduled flight and had to pay $50 extra for the next one. Then that flight had been delayed twice because of severe weather.

When we finally boarded there was no fresh air in the cabin, and it was hot. I was not in a good mood.

The plane, a small jet seating about sixty people, filled up rapidly. After everyone was aboard, there were still two empty seats, one up front and the one next to me in row 13, which meant I was going to have plenty of room.

But just before the plane made the disconnect from the boarding tube, two final passengers came rushing on: a rather small woman and a rather hefty man.

He was all in a sweat, talking on his cell phone, carrying his suit coat, and trying to maneuver a huge carry-on piece of luggage down the aisle.

Oh Lord, please! Not next to me. Please!

Well, Ms. Rather Small took the empty seat up front, and so Mr. Rather Hefty made his way down the aisle to the only other seat available. Thanks a bunch, Lord. I love the way you always answer my prayers!

The two of us together really needed three seats. But in economy class, flights are not about comfort. (I’m still not sure what they mean by the term "economy.")

So, Fr. Rather Heavy and Mr. Rather Hefty stuffed ourselves into the pocket-sized space available.

As he was settling in, trying to stuff his large carry-on under the seat in front of him, he was talking to his wife on his cell phone trying to explain why he had to hang up and make another call.

After they disconnected, he thumbed his way through his I-Pod address book for another number, made the call to tell someone why he was going to be late for the meeting, and then called his wife back.

I was sitting there in my murderous mode. I have grown to detest, loathe, and despise, as well as despise, loathe and detest cell-phones when used in public. (Does that mean you don’t like them, Fr. Pat?)

Even before my flight, I had come upon a "cell-phone-y" in the rest room at the airport! By now, aboard flight 6289, I was ready to kick out a window and de-plane before take-off.

And then the blessed flight attendant announced that all computers, cell-phones, and other mechanical devices must be turned off as we made ready to depart.

(I was hoping for a divine voice to follow with, "and they may not be turned on again until the end of time!")

My seatmate was now talking to one of his children. He was pleasantly excited about something they were doing, and then after a gentle word with his wife, he disconnected from the cell phone, laid back in his sweaty shirt and loosened tie, and breathed a heavy sigh.

I closed my eyes and began my pre-flight procedure: the prayer to St. Michael the Archangel, a blessing for everyone on board, and then the Jesus Prayer until we reach a cruising altitude.

Somewhere between take-off and cruise, an unexpected angel of grace must have arrived, because suddenly I saw the man on my right as a real person who was working hard for a living and trying to be present to his family along the way.

When the pilot turned off the seat-belt sign at about 30,000 feet, I turned to my neighbour and said,

"I don’t think I could do all of that cell-phone and I-Pod business and stay sane. How do you do it?"

Next thing you knew, we were talking about technology, about his BlackBerry or iPod or whatever it’s called—to me they’re a cross between a personal computer and a small space ship.

He showed me all sorts of things you can do with it at the touch of your thumb. Amazing!

From there we went to religion. I happened not to be in full clerics, so I introduced myself as a priest. He was a Catholic convert and was trying to process his pain and anger about the recent scandals among some of the clergy. I told him how hard it was for me to process it all as well.

Then we talked about everything under the sun—the difficulties of being on the go and not losing contact with one’s family, the conditions of the world, and the hope offered by Faith.

Then, lo and behold, I discovered that he lived in the same suburb as one of my nieces. And that he and his family go to the same parish church as she does. Talk about a small world!

I told him that since my niece has special needs for walking, he could easily make her out at a Sunday Mass and introduce himself and his family and surprise her with a hello from her Canadian uncle.

Soon enough, we were in Buffalo where we parted with a firm handshake and a blessing and continued on our way. We had had a delightful trip together.

I didn’t think any more about it until a few days later when I was looking through the Scripture readings given to me for my September article in Restoration. (Yes, we start way back in June for your September reading pleasure.) I came across that poignant parable in Luke’s Gospel for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time.

It’s the one in which the rich man had everything and the poor man, Lazarus, had nothing, and Lazarus wasn’t even allowed to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table.

When they both died, the rich man went to Hades and the poor man went to the bosom of Abraham—or, as the old gospel song says so well, his soul was "rockin’ " in the bosom of Abraham.

I recalled something about this parable in Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical, On Christian Hope. I found the encyclical and, sure enough, there it was. And I realized the grace which had come to me all the way from heaven to 30,000 feet that day on Delta.

The Pope writes, "In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus admonishes us through the image of a soul destroyed by arrogance and opulence, [a man]who had created an impassable chasm [in his life], …the chasm of forgetting the other, [and thus] the incapacity to love …."

I was immediately aware that through my own spiritual "opulence," I had been busy that day creating a chasm between me and Mr. Rather Hefty: I have more important things to think about than explaining why I am going to be late for a meeting.

And I was arrogantly digging the chasm ever-deeper during take-off: He’s just another business man with his little toys, oblivious to everyone around him.

If that chasm had not been bridged there on that plane, with that man, it would have grown ever wider as I drove the final eight hours from Buffalo to Combermere.

All the simple, little, human encounters along the way would have been swallowed up and lost in "the chasm of forgetting the other."

We can dig that chasm so deep that we get locked in our own self-centeredness before we even know it happened.

Thank you so much for rescuing me from that chasm, my friend. And what a joy it was to be "rockin’ our souls in the bosom of Abraham" together at 30,000 feet on a silly ole jet headed for Buffalo, New York. Is our God great or what?

P.S.: In case he forgot, "Hi, Cheryl Ann!"

A reflection on Luke:16: 19-31, the Gospel reading for September 26th, the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time.


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