How fleas brought me closer to God

It’s been a ridiculously bad year. For fleas, that is. Something about the summer being so hot with little rain, blah blah blah, I didn’t really listen because all I could see is the wretched fleas jumping off the carpet, biting my ankles and hitching rides on my dog into my house. Last week, there were about a hundred. Today, there were about 20. Things get better and then worse and then better again. I’m itchy just thinking about it all. Thank God fleas can’t live on humans and aren’t like head lice or chiggers or any of those nasty parasitic burrowing buggers that need to be surgically or chemically removed from your body—but they’re bad enough.

At one point last week, I’d had enough. I blew up at my husband, at God, I cried and raged against the jumping critters and then settled nicely into a clichéd blue funk. “I hate this! Why me?”

When the words of a very wise woman appeared, seemingly, out of nowhere:

Why don’t you face the reality of identifications with the poor … a simple reality of cockroaches, bedbugs, and other unpleasant insects? Many of you might not have them, but some may. You, of course, are privileged in that you may buy things to kill them. This you should do for the sake of health and cleanliness. But perhaps some time you will have to live in such quarters where you will just have to endure these things. The poor have to live in places where the whole house and neighbourhood are infested with rats, mice, and other things which cannot be eliminated. How far does your identification go? – Servant of God Catherine Doherty (Dearly Beloved Volume 1, p. 137)

She got my attention, that’s for sure. I’m one of the privileged ones.

My grandmother once told me the story of when she and her family lived in a work camp during the Second World War. She said the bugs were intolerable, and the tent walls were “moving with insects” every morning when she would get up. Yet every morning she diligently doused the walls of the tent with kerosene in an attempt to kill the vermin and get on with her daily duties. I have nothing like that to contend with. I see one single flea and want to burn down the house. Not only that, but the flea bites don’t actually itch or swell at all for me, and yet I complain. I complain because they’re annoying. I catch a glimpse of one and silently castigate God for creating these beasts of the insect world. I consistently (and maybe consciously) forget about my brothers and sisters around the world who suffer greatly from insects and vermin. But most of all I forget that I have a very small yet distinct opportunity to not only accept this small cross, but to love and thank God for it.

So I continued complaining.

In one of my “poor me” conversations with my sister last week, she happened to share some painful circumstances in her life, a situation that ebbs and flows, something about which she can do little but sit back and drink the bitter cup of affliction, and my heart went out to her. We were commiserating and comparing crosses and in some very small way, my worldview was shifted. Somehow we were able to understand one another in a new and special way and all of a sudden my suffering took on a different meaning. This cross wasn’t a pointless waste of time and energy. The Great Flea Infestation of 2012 had become a way for my sister and I to experience the difficulties of life together. Just knowing that I could suffer with and for her and share in something of her hardship was not only comforting, but also surprisingly encouraging and energizing. This suffering was, in actual fact, a gift to me. Catherine Doherty was right. I am privileged.

I began to look at each flea-bite and say thank you to Jesus. I would vacuum every day with my sister in my heart and the prayer, “Thank you, God, for fleas, but keep them out of my house” on my lips—in addition to thanking God for vacuum cleaners, de-lousing powders and sprays and the resources to buy them. A switch had been flipped in my mind and I was able to see the ‘jumpers’ in a new light—a light that allowed me to appreciate, a little more, a loving God who thwarts and blesses in one and the same motion. Even though I don’t particularly like having them come to stay, I can at least recognize the annoying little buggers for what they are—an opportunity to experience life more fully, and to live in solidarity and communion with others and with God. All I can say is, I’m working on it.

“Consider it pure joy then, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” James 1:2–4

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