The Word Among Us

May 2018 Issue

A Footbridge to Surrender

St. Joseph helped me walk past the uncertainty of retirement.

By: Margaret Ann Stimatz

A Footbridge to Surrender: St. Joseph helped me walk past the uncertainty of retirement. by Margaret Ann Stimatz

I had worked in the special education program only a couple of months. Why did it feel like forever? From the outset I knew that the six little boys in the program could be unpredictable and violent, but two elements of the job were unexpectedly difficult: the physical rigors and the unrelenting pace. The combination of both of these elements left me exhausted and stressed-out. I had taken this part-time job as a “step down” from full-time work. But instead of feeling more rested, I was at my wit’s end.

A single woman at retirement age, I should have been slowing down—but I wasn’t. Ever since I was a child, family circumstances had forced me to fend for myself. Now, I still felt the urge to be financially self-sufficient. So I slogged on, fearful of what might happen if I stopped working.

Trapped in the Grind. My waking hours were consumed with preparing for work, pushing through the demands of the day, or recouping strength for the next onslaught. As work spilled into my off hours and invaded my sleep, only scraps of energy remained for family and friends. Was this what God really wanted of me? I began to think that maybe I should consider retiring. But every time I did, I would end up filled with anxiety.

Retire? No way. How could life have meaning? My financial guy says I don’t have enough saved yet. What is “enough” anyway? Who am I kidding? I need this job. If I retire, my health will fail, and my friends and family will quit coming around altogether. Thoughts like these seemed to tell me that even God couldn’t be trusted. Somehow, deep inside, I suspected that he would cast me aside as so many people had done in the past.

A Builder’s Appearance. Before work each day I armed myself with prayer and Scripture. I appealed to Mary, a few saints, and, of course, Joseph. He had helped me with numerous prayer requests in the past, and I had grown to cherish his silent, unassuming friendship.

Still, despite my reliance on St. Joseph, I was surprised when a reminder of his help arrived unexpectedly at my house. My niece, knowing nothing about my devotion to Joseph, presented me with a refrigerator magnet as a souvenir gift from a recent trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The magnet depicted Loretto Chapel, which was built in 1878. According to the story, the builders had forgotten to install a staircase in the back of the church. That left people with no access to the choir loft. The sisters in residence appealed to numerous craftsmen, but none of them could figure out how to put a staircase in such a small space. So the sisters dedicated a novena to St. Joseph, the patron of builders. On the ninth day of that novena, a man with a donkey and toolbox appeared, looking for work. The sisters described their dilemma, and he constructed a remarkable stairway, then vanished without a trace. Everyone was convinced Joseph himself had appeared and solved their problem.

I was touched by the timeliness of this magnet’s appearance. It helped me feel confident in Joseph’s presence and his care. Maybe he was up to something. Maybe the one who fashioned that incredible staircase could help me bridge the seeming impossibilities of my dilemma. Inspired, I placed the magnet on my nightstand and asked Joseph daily for any Loretto-like wonders God might want to grant me.

A Footbridge to Surrender. Instead of seeing wonders, I threw out my back a few weeks later. Even the smallest movements were excruciating. This was the last straw. I called in sick, and poured my woes into my journal. Then, I read this verse in the day’s Scripture readings: “Accept whatever befalls you” (Sirach 2:4, NRSVCE).

My heart was pierced. I collapsed into a tearful prayer of surrender. I gave Jesus my ailing back, my health, my age, and my difficult job—the whole and entire mess of me.

Then it happened. A picture flashed in and out of my mind. It was a brown wooden footbridge. I sat on my bed fingering that magnet from my niece while a succession of thoughts unfolded. It’s time to face some hard truths. My body isn’t working as it once did and I can’t keep up. It’s too much. I need to quit.

This was the first time I had ever seriously considered stopping work. But it made sense—so much sense, in fact, that it seemed like someone had opened a new pathway right before my eyes.

“Joseph, is this you?” I tried to listen for an answer, but I heard nothing. Still, my heart seemed to nudge me forward. The next morning, I resigned from the special education program.

A New Line of Work. Retirement is bringing budget changes and other adjustments, but none of my worst fears are materializing. I don’t have a terminal disease, my friends haven’t abandoned me, and my finances are working out. But best of all, Jesus is showing me a new line of work: loving whomever he puts in front of me.

This is filling my days with surprise and variety. I’ve offered a ride to someone on foot, created a beautiful cake for my sister, introduced myself to a woman begging on the corner, and mingled at my class reunion with baby boomers who have left the Church. My learning curve is steep, but this new “little way” has become a full-time occupation. My previous work was driven by the external demands of the situation; now my activities are driven by the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit. There are new challenges and rigors, but I’m walking under Jesus’ gentle yoke.

As I reflect on these matters, my amazement grows. I see how shackles of fear fell away in that brief “footbridge” moment. With the help of Joseph and the Holy Spirit, I was able to step out in faith. With new trust, I took hold of Jesus’ hand and accepted his lead. That’s what I want for the rest of my life: his hand, his lead.

And Joseph? I am thankful, and confident, that he stands ever ready to tackle the next odd job in my life so that I can move into closer step with Jesus.

Margaret Ann Stimatz lives in Montana.