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Starting Point

Which of God’s favors will I refuse today?


A few months ago, I came across a pin a friend had given to me. It was languishing in a dish of old jewelry, discarded coins and other detritus on a small dresser in my closet. The pin showed a detail of a Renaissance Annunciation, Gabriel kneeling at Mary’s feet. On a whim, I dusted it off and pinned it to my backpack. Giving my cat a goodbye scratch, I went out the door.

The Annunciation image sent a refrain from the Quran running through my head: “Which of the favors of the Lord will you refuse today?” Throughout my day, I reflected on this line. What would have happened if Mary had refused? What seems like a favor to us must have felt like a burden to her. Had it been me sitting there, I would likely have said, “What, are you crazy? Leave me alone! I’m busy. I’m perfectly happy with my life, thank you very much. Besides, who are you to appear out of nowhere, anyway?”

My impulse is to refuse so much. This gives me the illusion that I have some control over what happens around me. That I somehow know -- know what is best, know how to act, know what the probable outcome of my actions and decisions will be.

But how can I know? What am I really refusing? I am first refusing to listen, refusing to see.

This meditation was not a call to let whatever happens, happen. It was not a rallying cry for doormats and dishrags. Buddha was not a doormat. Jesus was not a wet rag. It was a call for breath, a pause before I so quickly try to change the course of things. I need to sit with myself, to begin to know myself, in order to better listen to that which can dwell within me -- that which has been called spirit, grace or soul.

“Which of the favors of the Lord will you refuse today?” This is a big question, especially on my more misanthropic days, when the city where I live feels too greedy and pushy and my part in maintaining its culture seems suspect. So then I have to ask myself: Did I spend time just sitting with myself today? Is there any clarity of mind, heart and body? Can I even have an inkling of what I may be throwing away just to make it through one overstimulated day?

This is where prayer comes in, or meditation, or just being quiet for a while. We refuse so much in sheer defense in the midst of overwhelming bombardment. We need a center. Would any of the reluctant prophets have said yes if they hadn’t had some small space inside for grace to enter? Would Mary have shouldered the burden and gift?

I have many questions and few answers that stay firm at any rate, but I have been returning to this meditation for months now. “Which of the favors of God will I refuse today?” If I allow that question to enter my being often enough, more space does open up. Where space is, grace can enter, and as it is written in the Quran, “Everywhere you turn, there is the face of God.” If I refuse less, perhaps I will see this face more often.

Theresa Thorn Coyle, formerly with the David House and Martin de Porres Catholic Worker communities, now studies philosophy and religion at San Francisco State University. Her e-mail is tcoyle@sfsu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000