By Fr. Glenn Jones
I’ve become rather fond of the trails at Petroglyph National Monument on the edge of Albuquerque since leaving the beauty of the forests and canyons of Los Alamos and vicinity. The juxtaposition of temporal images at that monument becomes an object of contemplation as people make a circuit (or two, or three) on the trail.
The now eerily-silent extinct volcanoes to the west erupted about 200,000 years ago, pouring forth the molten lava now frozen into the blackened cliffs which blanket the sandy terrain. Over millennia the hills eroded, the valley deepened. Fast-forward to a few thousand years ago and the cliffs may have taken note of scattered bipeds wandering the valley … some coming up and “tattooing” the cliff’s “appendages” by scraping enduring images still extant on its boulder faces. And returning back to the future, the cliffs look toward the east: houses, highways, shopping centers. Urbania. All dwarfed by the mountains to the east, and contrasted by the wide valley in which this relatively puny human development sits.
Would that our black cliffs could speak of what they’ve seen in their 200 millennia … and think of how much they will see in the millennia ahead. They are a silent spectator watching the “television” of time and its relentless march, with the elements taking their toll. That “program” with long stretches of relative and routine quiet, but punctuated by brief but defining events … like our volcano eruptions.
This is how many of our lives go—the normal, the routine … punctuated by either wanted or unwanted events in our lives: marriage, joyous births, achievements, but also sicknesses, setbacks and loss. And yet, we are not restricted like our lava flows above, limited by physical forces alone. How we respond to the events in our lives is what defines us.
Consider, for instance, our current coronavirus situation. Some have responded quite heroically—giving of themselves to the point of self-sacrifice, to lasting honor and admiration. And then others … not so much. Understandably fearful of future unknowns, these seek their own unreasonable benefit despite the detriment of others, allowing fear—or in worst case, avarice—to win over charity and love of neighbor. Succumbing to the lower rather than seeking the higher.
Heroism is, by definition, involves repressing baser instincts of self-interest for the good of others. Even the evident heroism of beating alcoholism or drug addiction is, in the end, heroism for others: for family, friends and society itself. And yet … heroic actions need not be vaunted in media or acclaimed by the masses; indeed, the vast majority of acts of heroism often go unnoticed or are anonymous—testament to sincerity of intention. Much like the poor widow who gave her last two copper coins for love of God in the widow’s mite in the Gospel (Luke 21:1-4), unheralded acts of charity are real acts of love.
And yet … how many “widow’s mites” have been given out of love to so many—gifts to the poor and the hungry, service to the quarantined at risk to self, unnoticed volunteerism for love of God and neighbor. We priests and ministers know well the poor faithful who nonetheless give to God of what little they have.
We might lament that so many charitable acts go unnoticed, but no such work goes unremembered no matter how slight. Like those enduring petroglyphs at our monument, the memory of such gracious actions are carved indelibly not only in the minds of their recipients, but in the mind of God … good fruits born from good trees and given to the hungering. It is much like the old story of the boy chided for “wasting” his time returning a few of hundreds of beached starfish back to the sea, and with insight replying: “But for those I can help, I make all the difference in the world.”
Our petroglyph carvers are long dead and gone, yet their legacy endures. Thus, in the ever-eroding cliffs of our lives, we need take advantage now of the daily and endless opportunities to carve our own “petroglyphs” of charity into the cliff face of time—to be not so much admired by men, but rather as enduring monuments in the sight of God … ever eliciting remembrance of good done to others in imitation of the love which He has given us. After all, God IS love and the source of love, and thus no greater good exists than to act in love. In that way—and only in that way—do we participate in and through God’s very essence. This is why St. Paul—echoing Jesus—reminds us: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
Not many visit the petroglyphs these days. There are just too many other things to do … too many distractions … too many ways to spend our time other than carving our own legacy of charity. Yes, time is precious … but never more so than when given to others.
Oh, look … a blank cliff face! Hmmm … what shall we carve today?
“So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
(1 Corinthians 13:13)
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.