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placeholder December 15, 2014   •   VOL. 52, NO. 21   •   Oakland, CA
Loving without reservation

Katie Ring

"Hello, my lovely! How are you?" Maria whispers each morning as she reaches across the church pew and pulls me into a hug. I beam each time she greets me, still awed by her boundless affection.

After three weeks in San Antonio as a Jesuit Volunteer, my best friend in Texas was Maria, a 5-foot-tall, 82-year-old parishioner at the church next door. We met the day I and six other volunteers arrived at our new home — a converted convent adjacent to a Jesuit church. As I walked past the church doors the first day, I saw two women arranging flowers in the empty church. I smiled as I popped my head in, and the two women greeted me. Fifteen minutes and two brief life stories later, I found myself laughing as they held my hands and drew me into sweaty hugs.

I was home.

Maria and I see each other nearly every day at 8 a.m. Mass. I often walk or run before Mass because it's the only time of day the temperature dips below 100. Though I try to slip into the church without drawing any attention to myself, hoping no one will notice my sweaty shirt and sneakers, Maria always catches my eye, waves, and reaches out of her pew to grab my arm and wrap me in a hug.

"Hello, my beautiful girl. How are you?"

She does not see my damp brow, old shirt or dirty shoes. She sees beauty. Maria sees how Jesus sees. She greets me the way Jesus would greet each person, eagerly reaching out to envelop me in a warm embrace and make me aware of a beauty I do not see in myself. It occurred to me recently, however, that Maria does not know me like Jesus knows me; she does not know my heart, spirit, pain or joys, yet her impulse is to love. She needs no reason, test or proof of my worth — she simply loves without reservation.

I often run into Maria as I leave for errands or for work. She spends all her days at the church, arranging flowers, cleaning pews, attending parish breakfasts, and helping frail and ill parishioners get the help they need.

She reminds me of St. Therese of Lisieux with her sweet simplicity and little way, scattering good deeds all around her with a deep and pure humility. Whenever I see her, we chat for several minutes, and each conversation ends with a reminder to call my mother and tell her Maria says hello. I leave each of these interactions feeling nourished, much like I do after prayer. What a gift it is to see Jesus' hands and eyes in Maria. "Please help me love like Maria," has become a frequent prayer. I pray that I can love without reservation — even before the preciousness of each life is fully revealed.

(Katie Ring, a graduate of Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland and Boston College, is serving as a Jesuit Volunteer in San Antonio, Texas, this year.)

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