Last summer, I spent the first week of August doing something that should have been done about 25 years ago: cleaning out the attic in my family home. One finds all sorts of things stuck under the rafters, including old glass- and dishware. Having been pushed and shoved into corners as other things got added up there, and having suffered the New Jersey heat of some 50 years in that attic, some of that glassware was cracked. Like an old dish from my grandparents’ set.
I’ve always been moved by the utter castoff-edness evoked in Psalm 31—the Responsorial Psalm for Good Friday—whose refrain is Our Lord’s prayer, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” One of the lines of that Psalm speaks of being “like the unremembered dead; I am like a dish that is broken.”
A broken dish. It can hardly fulfill its purpose. If it is to serve up a nourishing meal, how does one put food on it? And how does one keep from hurting one’s self on the jagged end? Porcelain cuts are nasty.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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A broken dish seems useless. It seems to be something ready to be thrown out, cast off, discarded, an object of despair.
But the psalmist does not despair. Though “I am like a dish that is broken,” I put my trust in God. “You are my God. In your hands is my destiny…” prays the psalmist with faith.
Bl. Aniela Salawa (1881-1922) was a Polish mystic who is not very well known in the West. She was a third-order Franciscan who spent most of her young life (she died at age 40) as a servant girl in wealthy houses in Kraków, Poland. Though a servant girl, she gave alms.
During World War I, she assisted with the sick and wounded in Kraków hospitals. By the time the War ended, Aniela had succumbed to multiple sclerosis, followed by stomach cancer and tuberculosis. Never a strong girl, she was no longer able to support herself by cleaning work and so passed her last years living in a Kraków basement, supported by benefactors.
Even during her own life, those who knew her sensed her sanctity: her confessor instructed her to keep a diary, thanks to which we have insights into her mystical life. Many clergy assisted at her funeral, and the Franciscans sought to begin her journey to the altar already in 1948. She was beatified in 1991.
I mention Bl. Aniela Salawa this Good Friday because of one of her reflections. She was the youngest of eleven children, born in Siepraw, a village about 15 miles south of Kraków. Her father was a poor blacksmith, and Aniela was almost certainly malnourished.
This region of Poland—then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—was particularly impoverished. No small part of the Polish-American community that formed in the United States from 1880-1920 (including that grandmother who put those plates up in my attic) emigrated from that region, Galicia, to escape poverty. Indeed, among Polish historians, the mass exodus of Poles from Austrian, Prussian, and Russian-occupied Poland at the turn of the 20th century is called the emigracja za chlebem, the “emigration for bread.”
Aniela wanted to contribute her fair share to her family’s livelihood. But the youngest and littlest child could not give much, nor did her family expect much from her. Describing her place in her childhood home, she wrote: “At home, I was like that piece of broken junk, cast off in the corner.”
Like a dish that is broken.
Little could that young girl know that, nevertheless, the Lord had already decided to do great things with that broken dish. Aniela would subsequently add to her earlier observation:
But one day the Lord Jesus came to me and, looking with pity upon me, thought to Himself: “just maybe something might be made from that broken piece of junk?” And He did with me just what He thought.
Ours is a broken world. The number of people suffering from loneliness, the scourges of depression, even the growth of suicide all point to a world in which people no longer see value in life—that of others or even their own. But God sees that value. Fr. Leo Trese, a popular spiritual writer of the 1940s and 1950s, once remarked that even if you were the only person in the entire universe who needed redemption, Jesus would have died this Good Friday for you.
Because He knows “just maybe something might be made” from you. Or, as an old Glenmary Missionary poster put it, depicting two poor boys holding each other by the neck: “God made me…and God don’t make junk.”
After all, more than half a century after that broken plate wound up in the family attic, it still had one last task to do: to remind a grandson of a grandmother, of her country and its saints, and that God can do great things even with a dish that is broken.