I’m holding a letter Fianna wrote over a century ago. The year was 1915 and she wrote from a mountaintop tuberculosis sanatorium. Fianna was a gentle young mother, dressed plainly and wearing a prayer covering on her head as was the custom for women in her church. She’d never been so far from her rural Pennsylvania home before. She was lonely and homesick, and very sick.
At that time there was no cure for tuberculosis. Large sanatoriums isolated the victims of this frightening disease and provided ineffectual treatment for them. The sanatorium dormitories were filled with patients, many from crowded cities with varied languages, faith traditions, and ways of living.
Fianna had her Bible and her hope for healing and her faith in prayer. In the midst of all the strangeness, she was determined to follow Christ’s teachings in this hard, strange place. But it was not always clear how best to do that. Fianna wrote:
Yesterday morning while taking my milk I said to my roommate “I wish I had a piece of toast to eat with this.” Before I knew it she went out in the kitchen and stole two pieces of toast with butter and brought them to me.
Well I didn’t know what to do. My conscience told me it was wrong to eat it as she had stolen it and I knew I would offend her by not taking it.
After a while I said “I couldn’t do it.” She asked why. I said my conscience won’t let me.
She started to scold me, called me a foolish thing, etc.
I left her talk but resolved in my heart not to take it.
After she had cooled down, I said, “Maybe the Lord will let me get well on my conscience and if I don’t have so much in my stomach.”
After a while she said “Of course it’s stealing.”
It was a little thing but I am sure that toast would have been very hard to digest had I taken it. There are so many chances to let your light shine in a place like this.
Fianna wanted to follow what she knew was right. But she also wanted to be a good roommate. I wonder what I would have done. Would I persuade myself it was so small it didn’t really matter?
It’s one challenge to know what is right to do. It’s another challenge to discern how to do it with both integrity and kindness. Bearing witness in small neighborly situations can sometimes seem harder than boldly bearing witness in the larger world.
May we be quiet enough to attend to the Spirit, the Guide that will show us if we are to eat the toast–or not. May our neighborly witnessing rise from our desire to be both truthful and kind.
Although Fianna was my grandmother, I never met her and I only have her letters. She died a few months after she wrote this. Her witness still lives on.