When I turned 18, I started working in a very popular local restaurant as a waiter. I was already an employee there as a busboy, so this was a bit of a promotion. But I had no clue what I was in for. Especially when it got busy, which it always did on Friday and Saturday nights, the pace of the place was frantic. Greeting new diners within seconds of their being seated, retrieving entrees pronto when the chef dinged that bell, remembering drink orders and dessert orders and who was asking for their check and “but I ordered soup as an appetizer,” restocking the serving station with drinking glasses and coffee cups, clearing tables when the busboy couldn’t make it to my section — it was all a mad scramble.
Who we are serving
But the hardest thing was that the patrons could be very demanding … and who could blame them because they were out for the evening, spending a lot of money, fully expecting that, in this nice establishment, they would be able to relax and enjoy themselves and have a wonderful meal. However, in the frenzy of it all, I found my capacity to be courteous and attentive and upbeat stretched to its limit. And that really got to me — it worried me a lot and made me sad. Because I loved my job, but I knew I couldn’t continue in it unless I could do it with joy and a positive attitude — enthusiasm even. Yet how in the world was I ever going to finagle that in such a crazy snake pit?
And then … it came to me. I realized what I needed to do. What I needed to do was to look upon every perfect stranger dinner guest that I was serving as a waiter in that madhouse restaurant as if they were my mother. And I’m going to tell you something: it worked. No matter how exacting or cranky or impossible a particular patron might become, it didn’t matter. They were my mother. And when I really regarded them that way, it was easy to overlook any annoyance or complaint or rudeness they tossed my way. I actually started looking forward to the challenge!
I would anticipate the needs of the people at my tables. I not only cared for them, I catered to them. I would not stop smiling. And it was easy. Because I imagined I was serving the one I owed my whole life to … one who, no matter what, would receive from me nothing but love.
Love and power
I bring it up because, as the result of witnessing just how repulsive the scribes and Pharisees could be in their superior, hypocritical behavior, Jesus instructs the crowds: The greatest among you must be your servant (this Sunday’s Gospel—Matthew 23:1-12). The Lord was countering people who considered themselves privileged and elite owing to their exalted, lofty stature. But Christ’s declaration brought his hearers back to a fundamental fact. In God, who is love, there is no divorce between love and power. The only way to be truly powerful is by loving; the only sufficient way of loving others is by serving.
For what makes a truly great person great is that that person respects and reveres the dignity of the other.
The mystic St. Catherine of Siena once famously said to her spiritual director:
“Oh Father, if you were to see the beauty of the human soul, I am convinced that you would willingly suffer death a hundred times, were it possible, in order to bring a single soul to salvation. Nothing in this world of sense around us can possibly compare in loveliness with a human soul.”
The great are those who have come to see and be awestruck by the beauty of the souls God places in their life. Serving them is not an imposition; it is a graced favor — a chance to respond to a Beauty, a Love we do not deserve but which we all crave, and in which true greatness grows.
And follow his series of brief reflections on prayer here.