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Starting Point

When words get in the way


Mystery writer Elmore Leonard said about writing that if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. “I cannot allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It is my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing.”

I once met a priest who spent some time in Katmandu. I envied him and told him how marvelous it must have been to have lived with people whose way of life is so different from our own. He replied that they never met Christ. He said that they were so taken with their own beliefs that they were beyond hearing the gospel. He had tried for years, he said, to bring Christ to them and then discerned that he best leave them to their ways. “They will never know Christ,” he said. And so he came home.

During his years with the people of Katmandu he must have tasted their food, been offered their friendship, been welcomed to their homes, wore their clothing, been given comfort when hurting, given encouragement when discouraged. There were surely times when he was the beneficiary of the God who was much at home in the snowy heights of the Himalayas and in the warm hearts of the people there. We are welcomed by God, warmed and fed by God, comforted and befriended by God -- a God of many names, many colors, a God well familiar with the heights of the Himalayas and the streets of Newark, N.J.

The priest was so far from home. Yet in significant ways he never really left where he came from. And in that lack of departure he never reached his destination. I wonder if he ever found it when he returned home.

People tend to reach out to strangers. I thought it sad that he never found the Christ who was there among those people in such a faraway place. What got in his way?

Sometimes words may get in the way of what we want to find. “Come to me, all you who labor, and I will refresh you. My yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Light enough that all people carry it in the simplest gestures of human kindness. God writes clearly in invisible ways.

In writing, or in loving, or in seeing and receiving the Lord, words can get in the way of what we want to say, see, love, receive.

Katmandu is a faraway place. I have never been there, but I’m sure Jesus has -- the Lord who travels lightly, kindly, gracious enough to take to himself the ways of a people who gave what little they had to ease the labor of a man whose burden was heavy and of his own making. In a flash of recognition through a smile given him, his load might have disappeared.

It is said that heaven is high above. That may be so. But I believe that the Giver who is Paradise dwells far below the stars, in the warmth of the people of Katmandu and in similar places all over this vast earth where burdens lighten in the easiest and most wordless of ways.

Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives and writes in Covington, La.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 2002