I don't know where the words came from. I could hardly believe they came from my mouth, yet I heard them as they slid out. "I don't think you are taking this project seriously," I said to the recently assigned project manager of a subcontractor at our Washington DC branch. She cringed and averred differently. I only shook my head unkindly and walked off to begin the presentation I had come to deliver.
I can explain how I got to the point of saying those words. In preparing for an all-day briefing to be conducted in DC together with a specialist from one of our subdivisions, I discovered that the concept papers we were to use were so poorly done that we could not use them. So, I had to re-do the work of several employees, whose supervisor had assumed that the work was fine. To worsen matters, the computers had been down (server outage) for the two days prior to my departure for DC. I had only one day to get everything done once the computers were back on line. That day I had several meetings, and during the time available in and around the meetings, one after another employee came into my office on small issues (well, important issues to them but ones I considered minor at the moment). Although I had closed my door, no one had seemed to notice. My open-door policy had been turned into an open-the-door policy. Too much to re-do, too little time to re-do it, and too many distractions from doing it! I was annoyed.
Add to that annoyance the fact that everyone around me seemed to be falling apart. I had one senior manager undergoing emergency surgery and another in the hospital with internal bleeding, cause undetermined. An employee had gone into the hospital for routine knee surgery and ended up comatose and packed in ice (we were waiting to here whether and when heroic measures would cease), and a junior manager had been diagnosed with a tumor and had to be brought back from his field assignment. This was all in the space of two days. Our senior leadership at the annual BBQ the day before I left for DC was decimated. I was stressed.
I did not escape any drama by leaving. As the plane was taxiing into Dulles International Airport, I quickly checked my Blackberry and learned two disturbing pieces of information. First, a project that I was to have been involved in had been downsized; much of the physical risk had been removed from it (that part was good -- while I was unconcerned for my own safety, my prayer group had been praying that something like this would happen), and the performance date had been moved to September, interfering with my need to be in Korea at that time. Second, my supervisor had overturned my appointment on an assignment I had promised to an employee. (She deserved it, and later in the day he recanted.) However these things work out and worked out, I arrived disappointed.
Following a night of only five hours of sleep after cleaning up from the BBQ, which had been at my house, and having had to go to work earlier than normal to begin that day of meetings and interrupted work, I had to jump onto a redeye from San Franciso to DC. Of all times, the pilot raced across the continental skies, arriving 30 minutes ahead of schedule, leaving me with a mere four hours of sleep. I was tired.
When I arrived at ground transportation, I blackberried the supervisor of our DC branch for an address to give to the taxi driver. She gave me the office address. I showed up there only to find out that the briefing was taking place at the premises of the subcontractor in another part of town. Now I would be late. I learned that the mistaken address was deliberate: the supervisor wanted to discuss the project with me alone. That meant that the specialist, who did not have the briefing powerpoints (I had them) would have to do with the first presentation without them and without me. I was angry.
Annoyance, stress, fatigue, disappointment, and anger combined to evoke my caustic remark when, having finally arrived at the subcontractor's location in time for the second presentation, I was informed by the project manager that two key personnel would come only after lunch. Any one of those conditions would have served as an excuse for my remarks, I initially tried to justify to myself. However, no justification exists for arrogance, and it was certainly arrogance that lay behind my words: whatever I had to say was more important than anything they had to do, and obviously that was not true.
I apologized to the project manager later. However, words don't dissolve; they don't run away; taking them back is nothing more than a vacuous expression.
While I know that I have not lost God's love, I was not thinking of God's presence when I made my unkind remark, and so I did not feel God's presence. The worst part? I lost an entire morning with God. That time will never be regained.
Clearly, I needed some time with God alone. After finishing the day of presentations, I ran to the nearby metro station where I knew there would be a line of cabs to assist me in my cab-plane-car dash to our Georgia branch. I grabbed a cab, driven by a courteous and calm middle-aged man from Pakistan. We chatted casually, and while the conversation was calming, it permitted no opportunity for time alone with God, as there had been none all day. I missed San Ignatio with its quiet spirituality.
Having swiftly picked up my ticket and passed through security without incident except for my typical random search, I took the airport train to the Delta terminal and made my way to Gate 76, keeping my eye out for any place at all for quiet prayer. There was none at all, just masses of people moving in cohorts to and from gates, into and out of restrooms and restaurants, and along the corridors. I missed even more San Ignatio's quiet spirituality where nearly every nook and cranny provides an opportunity for prayer.
I had more than an hour to wait for a now-delayed plane. I opted for a yogurt cone and seated myself at a table near a large potted plant, surrounded, of course, by other travelers.
My thoughts turned to my increasing unease. From whence these feelings? A change in the equilibrium of my life! I realized that I spend most of my time helping others, sometimes because I have been given a divine task, sometimes just because I stumble across someone in need (which may not always be accidental), and most often because those in need are people who work for me. My last few days, however, had been focused on me: the just-completed presentations in DC and the upcoming one in Georgia. I had moved away from helping others for lack of time (the employees to whom I had shut my door), lack of authority (the overturning of my decision by my supervisor), and lack of ability (the sick folk). I missed helping others, being God's helper. I missed time with God. It would be two more days before I would return to San Ignatio.
Even though I had no sense of God's presence while I waited for the plane, I wailed a silent prayer, spilling out those emotions and desires. I knew God would hear, understand, and forgive.
And then everything changed. Delta cancelled the flight. There were no other flights on Delta that night. I would miss the Georgia presentation, scheduled for early in the morning the next day. I called my admin assistant to inform the folks in Georgia, as Delta set about rescheduling all its passengers.
"Does anyone speak Russian?" one of the gate agents called out loudly, then a few seconds later, appealed "we really need someone who speaks Russian."
"I'll call you back," I told my admin assistant. Then I stood up and raised my hand, "I speak Russian."
The gate agent was visibly relieved. So were the mother and daughter who were trying to get back to Moscow via Atlanta. We very easily settled everything for them, and as their stress level eased, so did mine. (I find that happens a lot -- if you help someone who is stressed out, it eases your own feeling of stress.)
The grateful Delta agent offered to take me out of turn, but I waved off the offer, telling her that my office could handle my situation. It did. I ended up coming back to San Ignatio early! On a United non-stop flight direct to San Francisco. What could be better? How about a surprise complimentary upgrade to first class? Another redeye, but one on which I could sleep very comfortably.
All was right with the world. I was on my way back to San Ignatio. I wondered how much of this occurred because of my plaintive prayer about missing my quiet time with God. Ah, for any part of it -- and every part of it -- I am grateful.
All the way back home I could not sleep in spite of two short-sleep nights. The excitement of nearing San Ignatio overpowered every thought and emotion. God no longer has any need to look for this lost lamb. This lamb knows where to find the rest of her flock and her Shepherd!
What happened next? Unbelievable!
Looking back on that awful day and what I had done and felt, I should have been punished. Instead, a loving God brought me home to San Ignatio, back to Him in every meaning of that phrase, back to where I belong, where nothing of the material world matters. Now, too, I could look forward to being on time two days later for the retreat being led by Fr. Kevin, who also leads a contemplative-prayer-for-busy-people group in San Jose that I have participated in for nearly two years now. I would have had to arrive late because of returning from out of state.
I took the next day off from work -- I was owed comp time -- to be with God now that I was back in a spiritual environment. What a marvelous day that turned out to be!
The first thing after I arose (later than normal, yes!) I checked my email. Astonished, I read one note twice. It was the cancellation of a mandatory meeting on Friday, the second day of the retreat. I had worked it out with Fr. Kevin that it would be okay to miss Friday because of that meeting. Now I would have no distractions during the retreat!
A short while later, I attended noon Mass in the little chapel, celebrated by Fr. Paul on his last day in our community before returning home to Nigeria. Still reeling perhaps from my out-of-control behavior on Monday, I felt so very unworthy to be there and at the same time so loved. As I stood in line for communion, I could not keep the tears from pooling in my eyes, and I did not care if anyone saw them; we are all friends and all God's children.
Following Mass, two friends (one of them the person who assisted the priest in my RCIA class) asked me to join them for the rosary, after which we went out for cookies and milk. (I admit it; milk has always been my favorite drink.)
During our milk-and-cookie fest, I told my friends about my plaintive prayer, in which I bemoaned my separation from San Ignatio and loss of a sense of God's presence in the past few day's tumult, and how everything had suddenly worked out for me to spend the entire rest of the week with Him. One of my friends reiterated what a Sufi friend told me several years ago, word for word: "God spoils you."
Indeed, He does! And I am so very grateful!
(I posted the above story in two parts on my Modern Mysticism blog, but because of the title of this new, replacement-for-Blest-Atheist blog, it seemed apropros to include it here, as well.)