“What did you do this summer?” Every time I arrive back on campus for fall semester, I answer that question more times than I care to count. It is really almost as bad as freshman year (“What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you want to major in?”). This past fall, however, the question didn’t get old, because the answer sounded surreal to my own ears every time it came out of my mouth. Last summer, because of the generosity and support of my professors and my family, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Austria. I spent eight weeks in my dream city, Vienna, pursuing my two loves: German and music. It was an overwhelming experience that I will never forget, and one for which I am profoundly grateful.
For two months I explored the heart of Vienna—I meandered through lush palace gardens, gazed upon the gleaming white architecture, and scaled the gentle slopes of the vineyard district. The magnificent view from the surrounding hills stretched beyond the elegant domes and steeples of the city—one could even catch a glimpse of shimmering Alpine peaks, as far as the eye could see. In other words, I reveled in beauty. And yet, when I reflect back on the summer of 2019, I realize that my most significant memories were not made on the brilliant Ringstraβe, or at the Belvedere Palace, or even in the Vienna Opera House. Rather, what strikes me most vividly is the period of two weeks I spent working in my little Wisconsin hometown, earning money for my trip.
Ever since high school, I have been working a part-time retail job at Fleet Farm, a hunting, fishing, and farming supply store. Affectionately dubbed “the Man’s Mall” or, alternatively, “the redneck Walmart,” Fleet Farm can be found in many a small midwestern town. Rather than stunning architecture and beautiful mountains, picture a flat, dusty building, lit with glaring fluorescent lights and smelling faintly of cow. And yet, I have grown to love many aspects of my job—the simplicity, the energy, the friendly conversations with quirky customers—even the blaze orange working uniform has a special place in my heart (that color is really not flattering on anyone). However, this summer was different. Rather than working in my usual position as cashier, my manager scheduled me to cover shifts in the gas station convenience store. This was a very different world—the customers were often rude and irritable, and we had to be far more vigilant about theft. Our main sources of revenue, I soon discovered, were tobacco, alcohol, and lottery tickets.
If I felt out of place among the customers, I was even more intimidated by my coworkers. They were all full-time employees, and I was both the youngest and the only college student. The first few days were so awkward that I felt tempted to blow it off—to do the bare minimum and only interact on a personal level if absolutely necessary. After all, I reasoned, these were people I would only work with for a short two weeks, and we obviously didn’t have much in common. Maybe it would be all right to mumble my way through and send my brain on vacation. But I could not do this in full conscience. At some point during the school year, I had heard the following story about St. Francis of Assisi: One day, while working in his garden, someone asked St. Francis what he would do if he knew he was going to die before sunset that very day. Francis calmly replied that he would simply continue hoeing his garden. With this story in mind, I resolved to stay engaged; if Christians are called to seek God in all circumstances, dedicating all of our work to Him, then this gas station could be no exception.
By nature shy and slow to open up, I was afraid of coming across as arrogant. I decided to set aside my intimidation and make a conscious effort to get to know my colleagues. I strove to do my job well and learn quickly and eagerly. I listened to my coworkers’ stories and asked questions of my own. I thought it would become easier with time, but instead, as my colleagues began opening up to me about their lives, their families, and their personal struggles, I found myself continually at a loss for words. How should I respond to a colleague who tells me her mother is dying of cancer—or the one who is working two full-time jobs back to back and sleeping four to five hours a night so she can pay her bills—or the woman who is on antibiotics for bronchitis, wheezing and cooling her feverish forehead against the grimy counter because she can’t afford to take another sick day? I realized, as I often do when I leave the world of Hillsdale, how little I have to complain about.
One of my coworkers—I’ll call her Ruth—was a soft-spoken middle-aged woman. Some of my colleagues were loud and abrasive, but Ruth had a quiet demeanor and a little smile that hovered perpetually around her lips but never reached her eyes. Her eyes had deep shadows under them, and her shoulder-length hair framed her face in a veil of tight, iron-grey curls. The most striking thing about Ruth was the sort of weariness that hung about her. She carried herself slowly, with a smoothness that may have been called grace or elegance in her youth but had since faded into tired fluidity. She had the habit of tilting up her chin to let the curls fall back, away from her face, as if she were trying to rouse herself—she continued to bear the outer shell of her beauty, although the life that had once sustained it from within was fluttering irretrievably away.
I was in the process of emptying the trash cans in the store when it happened. Ruth walked in the back door after helping a customer outside with a propane tank exchange. As she stepped inside, there was a sudden spring in her step, and the sunlight framed her head from behind so that her iron-grey hair glowed golden. In that instant she seemed to come alive, and I realized that she was beautiful. Not merely because of the way the light fell across her face, or because of the warmth and shine of youth peeking through the heavy curtain of passing years. No, it was an intensely real beauty; rather than masking weakness or age with a glossy sheen, it revealed something of the inner essence of Ruth—the mystery of her being. None but God can apprehend the depth and scope of a human soul in its entirety; nevertheless, in that instant, I was permitted to see something of the weight and dignity of her life. More than anything, I remember being struck by the sadness which enveloped Ruth completely; in that moment of beauty, I suddenly recognized what it was that lay at the heart of her being—a sorrow too deep for words, which I had previously marked off as weariness or boredom. As a surge of compassion welled up within me, I felt compelled to pray for this woman, to lift her up to the Father’s loving arms.
Two days later, another colleague told me that Ruth’s husband had committed suicide three months before.
How does one respond to this kind of suffering, this depth of tragedy? There will always be times when we encounter someone’s pain, and we are powerless to help them—there are no actions to take, no words to speak that could offer any consolation. What is accomplished by simply noticing someone’s brokenness? Nothing, it seems. And yet, the act of paying attention can be transformed into an act of love. In a letter to her poet friend, Joë Bousquet, Simone Weil wrote that “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” When we are moved to pray for a suffering, broken soul whose path briefly intertwines with our own, we participate in the self-emptying work of Christ’s love; struck by the weight of what we have seen, we attend to their hearts by placing them into the care of the one who loves them most.
Another great mind of the twentieth century, Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, writes, “Beauty is the aspect of truth that cannot be fit into any definition but can be apprehended only in direct intercourse with it. . . because of beauty, truth is always intrinsically a matter of grace” (“Truth as Mystery”). My experience with Ruth confirmed something I have long suspected. An encounter with beauty can truly be a gift, a special grace. These moments come unexpectedly, and they are always intensely personal.
At Hillsdale, we spend so much time reflecting on beauty. The chapel we pray in, the books we read, the music we play and the friendships we develop—all of them are manifestations of the beautiful. But our education will have been in vain if we fail to carry that gift, the faculty of discerning and discovering the beautiful, to the rest of the world.
Last summer, I learned that a Hillsdale education does not culminate in a dream job, or that perfect internship, or a glamorous trip to Europe. The shift that occurs is an interior one; rather than achieving new heights and discovering new landscapes, we are given new eyes. As our inner souls are formed, our outward perspective changes. Some try to define beauty in terms of aesthetics, but such a definition does not reach far enough; it does not express all that beauty can be. Beauty is our clue to a higher and deeper reality, to the things beyond. It colors the world around us with echoes and glimpses of the Divine; it transports us out of our ugly, fallen world; it transforms our encounters with others into moments of eternal significance.
Zsanna Bodor is a junior from Stevens Point, WI, majoring in German and Music. She loves long runs, dark chocolate, opera, and spending time with her three brothers.