Jesus Our Shepherd
Irritations Of The Spiritual Life
adapted from Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, The Catholic New World

Someone once suggested that “it’s easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for an irritated person to enter the kingdom of heaven.” True enough. An old German axiom states that you can die of irritation and, I suspect, more than a few have succumbed. The rest of us cope, albeit with high blood pressure. Irritations beset us like mosquitoes at a picnic, unwanted little gnats, not significant in the big picture, but still capable of taking the joy out of the moment. The same is true for marriage, family, friendship, life in general. Irritations can so easily take the joy out of them.

We can love and respect someone deeply, share the same values, be willing to die for him/her, and yet be constantly irritated by some minor quirk or habit: the way he clears his throat, the way she’s always late, his need to tell jokes at parties, how she eats so slowly, the fact that he snores, the time she takes to do her hair, his inability to choose clothes that match, the particular octave notes of her giggle, his fancy for country music, her disdain for hamburgers and fast food, his tendency to leave dirty cups in the sink – the list goes on and on. None of these is all that important or critical; but, like mosquitoes, they can take the joy out of any picnic.

Then of course there’s still Murphy’s Law: those endless irritations arising from mischievous aberrations within the universe itself. These are not about quirks or bad habits. They’re all about bad timing. Why is this slow driver in front of me just now when I’m already late for my appointment? Why did the hairdresser choose this precise time (my high-school reunion!) to mess my hair? Why did my son get the measles just when we’re ready to set off on a well-deserved family vacation? There’s a malicious gene within the DNA of the universe itself whose sole purpose, it would seem, is to try our patience and tolerance.

This Murphy’s Law isn’t responsible for life’s great tragedies; but it is responsible for a lot of language that shouldn’t be used in front of children. Funny thing about irritations: they usually do not reflect upon important things like character, values, love, overall graciousness and meaningfulness; but they make us lose perspective. So you can come to breakfast on a given morning and because someone spilled milk without wiping it up, you can be irritated enough to lose all gratitude for the fact that the sun is shining brightly, you are healthy and in the prime of life and surrounded by people who love you, have meaningful work to do, and are about to sit down to a great bacon-and-egg breakfast! A little spilt milk and instead of thanking God, you’re invoking God’s name in a less gracious manner.

Similarly you can walk into your bathroom and instead of being grateful for the marvels of modern plumbing, you groan and swear to yourself because nobody has taken the few seconds needed to replace the toilet tissue paper. (“Am I the only one in this house who knows how to do this!)…

What do we do with all these irritations? Erma Bombeck, the famous author and lecturer, said that as a mother she was irritated when her young children disturbed her, smeared dirt on the walls, made a mess on her floors or smudged her clean dress with their affectionate but grimy hands. She said that if she could do it all over again, she would cherish those times, ignore the dirt and mess and kiss the child who just dirtied her clothing because all too soon – and long before we’re ready – those loved ones move on and disappear from our lives and then we’re left with just precious memories of all those wonderful things that used to irritate us.

Yes, time and distance all too soon take their toll. The day will come when we’ll look back with longing (and a laugh or two!) to the days of spilt milk in the kitchen and empty toilet-tissue dispensers, and we’’ wonder why we couldn’t then seize and appreciate the moment. The time will come too, all too soon, when our loved ones are gone or preparing to leave, when it will be with fondness that we remember how such a wonderful person snored, ate too slowly, couldn’t match clothes, loved country music and, for too short a graced time, shared life with us.