On All Souls Day of this month, I went to a funeral for a man named Willie. Willie’s obituary said that he was a cook and maintenance man at our parish, and that’s true. But it didn’t mention the cookies.
On weekday mornings, when we saw him in the kitchen or in the parish hall on our way in to 8 a.m. Mass, Willie would open the door for us, his eyes bright at the sight of our children.
“How are you doing?” he would grin at them, touching the baby’s cheek gently with his crooked index finger or patting the four-year-old’s head. “Make sure to come to the back after Mass to get a cookie!”
Most of the parish children called him “Mr. Willie,” but I imagine my four-year-old wasn’t the only one who also called him the “Cookie Man.” Willie’s love for the children of the parish was written all over his face, and the way he showed it (besides his smiles and happy greetings) was by giving them cookies. It wasn’t unusual to see a trail of small children making their way to the back kitchen after daily Mass.
When my toddler son figured out this pattern a couple of years ago, it suddenly became remarkably easier for me to get him out the door to come to Mass with me in the morning. We’d park the minivan, cross the church parking lot, and his little neck would crane towards the kitchen door, looking for the Cookie Man. At the first sighting, his eyes would meet Mr. Willie’s, and I don’t know who was happier to see whom.
Of course, we know that the biggest gift awaited us in the Mass, and that no earthly food could compare with the Bread of Heaven that Jesus would offer us there. Mr. Willie honored this, too. When he took off his otherwise-permanent baseball hat to enter Mass, and knelt down during the consecration, he showed the children the real reason we come to church.
Yet if earthly food is a symbol of heavenly food, and Jesus told us to welcome the little children, then Mr. Willie showed the children God’s love in his own way. When he gave them cookies, he made them feel welcome and loved at church. And yes, there were times (okay, all the time) when I didn’t want my children having sugar first thing in the morning, but how could I get in the way of the deeper thing that was happening? It wasn’t about cookies. It was about love.
Humility and Holiness
When he wasn’t handing out cookies, he was working. Hard. He pushed and folded tables, put up chairs, took down chairs, cooked for crowds, cleaned floors and bathrooms, lifted, hauled, scrubbed, climbed, fixed, and performed at least twenty more heavy-duty action verbs. As far as I know, there aren’t too many award ceremonies for janitorial work. But there should be. It’s one of the hardest jobs I can think of… and one of the holiest.
In the book Where There is Love, There is God, Mother Teresa says, “One Jesuit father asked me what I will do when I am no longer Mother General. I told him that I am first class at cleaning drains and toilets.” She goes on to tell a story about a time when she was cleaning “toilet rooms” and a man came, wanting to help her. She thought it was a brother and had him pour water for her. He thanked her profusely, and she found out he was not a brother but an important businessman.
“Take the chance to do humble works,” she says, “…to wash and clean, to show your love for Jesus in real loving action.”
What “real loving action” Willie showed Jesus with his work!
At our previous parish, we were blessed with a custodian named Patty. Like Willie, Patty loved the children of the parish, too. I remember once, when my baby was crying and I was exhausted and a little humiliated by the amount of noise she made, Patty approached me and smiled at my daughter. “Was that you, singing so beautifully?” she asked my baby, and my heart lifted immediately at her gentle words.
I once heard Patty talking about the way she cleaned. “When I dust the Stations, I pray the Stations,” I remember her saying. “When I clean the pews, I pray for the people who sit in them.” Patty’s job, in the eyes of the world, may not have looked glamorous. But I can’t imagine a job that would have shone more brightly in the eyes of the Lord.
Cleaning is hard. It’s a task that never seems to end. You make it beautiful, and others make it dirty. No sooner do you make that floor or window shine, than it’s covered with footprints or fingerprints again. How can this monotony glorify God?
Yet it does. It does, in the most extraordinary way. It does, by virtue of its humility. Because we have a God of humility, and He wants us to be like Him.
We have a God who cleaned dirt. On the night before he died, he got down on the floor and cleaned the grime from the feet of his friends. And in the weeks, months, and years before Willie died, he got down on the floor and cleaned the grime that had been tracked by the feet of his friends. In doing so, they both reminded us that what was once dull and dirty can shine again. Not just feet and floors, but souls, too.
I can’t imagine a more fitting way to have spent All Souls Day than to be at church praying for Willie, who died after a short battle with cancer. But the kitchen felt eerily empty, and throughout that day and even still, my four-year-old has repeated sadly, “I really miss Mr. Willie.”
I miss him, too. He served us far more than cookies. He served us joy, kindness, and goodness, too. In his love for children, and in his humble, hard work, Willie helped us to know more of God. Now we commend Him to the God he served.
To those who are reading this, please say a prayer for the peaceful repose of Willie’s soul, and the souls of all humble workers, during this month of remembering our dearly departed. How they need our prayers!
And how we need theirs.