My book signing on Saturday started off slowly. The venue is a wonderful place to browse, though. (If you live in the Thousand Oaks area, please stop by and check out The Open Book in the Oaks Mall.) So, to avoid filling the air up with anxiety, I tried to find the second part of The Tales of Genji (alas – they had sold the collection of vintage books that I had pulled it from), and ended up perusing a collection of 19th century horror stories.
Being clever people, the staff had set my table up in front of the New Age and religious inspiration section. I had a few chances to say “hello” to those that stopped to browse the blog posts I had reprinted or look at the book covers. The reactions weren’t always encouraging: one man simply scowled and went around to the New Age section. Another woman engaged me with a hostile tone of voice, asserting “Love works because people make it work.”
This was beginning to feel like my first book signing, when I spent most of the day dealing with the baggage brought by people who had found reasons to stop believing. Feeling a little food coma along with the disappointment, I stepped out to buy myself a coffee. When I came back up from the lower floor, I found the scowler with a new book, sitting in an armchair across from the store. I smiled and remarked “Well, you found something!”
A little uncertainly, he said that his brother had survived a near-death experience, and while he wasn’t quite sure about the whole business, he wanted to investigate. As we discussed religion and spirituality, I learned that he had been raised Christian, but was an atheist. Without prompting on my part, he explained that he suffered from a form of spinal arthritis. For most of his life, he had prayed to God for relief, and never received an answer. Then he had found a doctor who took interest in his case, and received treatment that made life bearable.
I couldn’t preach in the face of this testimony. There is nothing more difficult to bear than suffering that has been laid in the hands of God. But I did offer that God works through people, and that I was glad that his doctor had shown the compassion to take interest in his case. Then, hoping that somehow he’d find his way back to the source of Divine Love, I encouraged him to continue to study spirituality.
We parted amicably, and I went back into the store. When I reached the table, all of his loss and pain came pouring down on me. All I can do in those situations is try to breath, and let it settle through me into the floor. It passed in two great waves, and then I looked back into the doorway. He was staring at me, and I lowered my gaze to the floor. When I looked back up, he was gone.
For those in similar situations: don’t keep your eyes turned up to heaven. Yes, leave your suffering in God’s hands, but understand that, as Paul experienced in Damascus, his response is often to allow a compassionate person the opportunity to receive your gratitude. That is the great gift that the meek offer to those that bring them respite. Don’t deny it to the world!