Leah, the unloved wife of the Biblical Jacob, and Ruth, the Moabite widow who followed her mother-in-law to Bethlehem, never had a clue that they would change history. Both numbered among their descendants David, Solomon, and Jesus of Nazareth. Lois and Eunice, the grandmother and mother of Timothy, would probably have been stunned if anyone had suggested that their names would end up in the New Testament.
These examples point up what generations of humans have learned: that we can never quite tell what impact we have on persons and generations to come. Parents and teachers, in rare cases, receive hints that something they’ve said or done has affected a child or youth in a lasting way.
I recently was startled by an emailed response to this column. A retired Navy commander wrote to ask if there might be any possibility that I had taught a sophomore honors English class in his Philadelphia area public high school. My mental age is decades too young for the academic year he cited. But my response was yes, yes, and yes. I remembered his name — and had an idea where he sat in the windowless classroom. It was in my B.C. (before convent) days. Thank God, he made no allusion to the stacked heels and mini-skirt outfits in vogue at the time. Apparently I made some sort of impression, and he doesn’t seem to bear a grudge for the torturous reading and writing assignments I gave.
The experience points up that, for good or ill, it isn’t just God who is watching. Sometimes the Holy Spirit has given us exactly the right words to say at exactly the right time. Sometimes we perform a simple gesture, a small act of kindness, and later hear that it was a turning point in someone’s life. We scratch our heads and wonder if we were comatose at the time — because we have no recollection of the event.
It isn’t just words and deeds. Even our presence affects others when we least expect it. The aisles of Publix have brought me unsolicited nun stories and Catholic jokes. Perhaps as a consequence, I now have a habit (no pun intended) of doing distance driving with my veil off. Aside from the stiff neck effect, I sense that the slightest on-road idiocy will reflect badly on the entire Roman Catholic Church if I’m in uniform.
Of course, that was foiled last year when a policeman in Branchville, who had flashed his blue lights, saw “Sisters of …” on the car registration.
Scripture cautions us that what we say and do can have long-term consequence. Let’s attend to Wisdom’s declaration: “Noble things I speak; … the words of my mouth are sincere, none of them are wily or crooked” (Proverbs 8:6, 8). The Book of Revelation repeatedly remarks on the evidence of our deeds. Let’s hope we follow the advice of Timothy, who urges us to be “an example in speech, in conduct, in love, [and] in faith.” Things have a way of coming back at us.