On an ordinary day in the Denver photofinishing plant where I worked as a personnel clerk many years ago, one of the department heads came running into the manager’s office across the hall from mine. “Somebody just puked in the restroom!” he exclaimed. “The custodian’s at lunch and there’s nobody to clean it up!”
“Who? Is he ok?” the manager (whom I’ll call Mike) inquired, looking up from his desk.
“Yeah, I think so. I sent him home. But there’s nobody here to clean it! It’s gross in there!”
The problem stymied me as much it as it had the desperate department head. Mike, our tall, tough, tie-wearing boss, was about delegate the disgusting duty to some unlucky underling. Who would it be?
I knew my boss to be a firm leader able make difficult decisions and not look back. Quite possibly he would tell the department head to do his job and find somebody to take care of the situation. But Mike surprised me in an unforgettable way.
“I’ll do it,” he said, rolling up his sleeves while rising from his seat. He headed to the custodian’s closet for a bucket, cleaning supplies and mop. And he won the respect of everyone who worked for him by cleaning an employee’s vomit rather than delegating the task to anybody else.
When I complimented Mike upon his return to the office, he shook his head and said simply, “I decided a long time ago never to ask anyone to do a job I wouldn’t do myself.”
I never forgot that move.
Years later on another ordinary day (this one at an elementary school in a small, impoverished town), Kathy, a curly-headed first grader with dark, luminous eyes arrived at school with two friendship bracelets she’d made the night before, one for each of her besties.
An outpouring of jealousy came from a few of her classmates who wished they had one.
After school Kathy went home, and the next day she returned with a bracelet for every girl in her class. She then invited a group of girls to her house to help her make one for each of the boys as well.
“I could tell they felt left out,” she said. “I didn’t want anybody to feel like that.”
A tall boss and a small girl whose words I’m recreating but whose actions my memory has not erased: each a small reflection of the goodness of God.
And each an embodiment of Christ’s admonition:
When you give, don’t let the right hand know what the left is doing.
They were, in those moments, unselfconscious icons.
Romano Guardini, commenting on this teaching in The Lord, an astounding reflection on the life of Christ, advises:
He who gives in order to be seen and praised already has his reward….Not even before oneself should an act of charity be paraded or reveled in. Send that inner, applauding spectator away and let the act, observed only by God, stand on its own.
What I admired most about the example of these two very different people was their ability to do the right thing immediately and without fanfare. I doubt I’d be recalling their actions today if they’d angled for the praise they deserved.
They left in my heart indelible icons of how it’s done. Each became for me pictures of the selfless generosity of Christ.
With so much bluster and bling overwhelming us these days, so much loud, proud showmanship parading as social activism, I’ve become enamored of the unselfconscious icon: the stranger’s friendly smile, the swift, silent teenager running to hold the door for an older person, the donor who chooses to remain anonymous.
Unselfconscious icons are everywhere; we just need eyes that recognize Christ in action. And we must pray for the grace and freedom to make those moves ourselves (hidden even from our inner, applauding spectator) through Him who desires to be made known through every word and deed.
Collecting and sharing stories of unselfconscious icons is a healing step in the right direction. A few who come to mind:
Pee Wee Reese refusing to sign the petition players were circulating to have Jackie Robinson removed from the Cincinnati Reds. Veronica wiping the face of Jesus. Mother Teresa cleaning toilets in her Calcutta convent. The humble widow placing her only coins in the temple offering box. Little, “unspecial” Thérèse befriending a grumpy Carmelite sister. Dawson Trotman washing mud from the shoes of a Taiwanese pastor he visited on an overseas mission trip. St. Maximilian Kolbe offering his life in Auschwitz so a married man with a family could live.
Even more, as Guardini so clearly has, we must take the time to meditate more deeply on every move of Jesus Christ. His birth in the Bethlehem cave. His unity with the Father. His utter disregard of upper class approval. His invitation to the little tax collector who climbed a tree to see him. His defense of a woman about to be stoned. His compassion for the famished crowd. His heart for cripples and lepers. His preference for children, lilies and sparrows.
Christ didn’t just say “love your enemies,” he forgave those who shredded his back and pounded nails into his flesh.
He suffered for us, “leaving us an example” uncomplicated by bluster or bling.
Our poor, pretentious actions cannot compete with the beauty of the unselfconscious icon. Let’s trust the Master and be satisfied with simply doing whatever He tells us to do.
Silent as yeast in a rising loaf, rising from our seat to meet another’s need will be its own reward, producing results to be revealed at the moment of God’s choosing.
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“In 1996, a black teenager protected a white man from an angry mob who thought he supported the racist Ku Klux Klan. It was an act of extraordinary courage and kindness – and is still inspiring people today.” See the iconic photo and read the story here.
Veronica wiping the face of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ:
Danielle Rose’s powerful song You Did It to Me.