St Anthony of the Desert

Orthodox Christian Mission

Las Cruces, New Mexico

Fr Gabriel

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Learning Spiritual Virtues on the Road

Spiritual virtues are best learned on the ground. The Christian approach locates spirituality in ordinary existence. God entered the human mainstream, so we learn about and experience divine matters through material pathways. There is no distant religious universe separated from our more-or-less normal living. We need not escape this world to experience holiness. If God became human, it stands to reason that we can know God’s presence and meaning, and experience spiritual virtues, in everyday life. Here’s my tale.

We were driving home from California after vacation with family, and all of a sudden the car overheated. We pulled off at Eloy, Arizona, a town trying to come back after the 10 bypassed it. The local motel had a business card for “Mike’s Automotive.” It was 5:30, but he was open until 6:30. We drove over.

Imagine this place: corrugated metal building with car parts covering all the walls. Looked like the junk bin in the Death Star from Star Wars. Five guys were working on various cars, listening to pop music from the local Hispanic station. In all, a visually perfect setting: a castle where you’d expect your local expert mechanic to reign.  Mike (instead of Miguel, his given name) looked at the car immediately.

The spiritual virtue is patience. Mike had it. He ordered the fan clutch, we stayed overnight, it arrived by noon and he put it in quickly.

Twenty miles east of Eloy the car overheats again. We call Mike. He says, “Bring it back immediately.” The options for the problem expand, but this is a man who knows his craft. After a number of tries he discerned, ultimately, that we needed a new radiator. He tried every penultimate solution. Patience was needed to go through various possibilities, test them, and move on to a new proposal.

It was a joy to watch him work. Each time we’d take the car out on the road, and each time it failed the test. It would overheat. We’d be disappointed and so would he, but he was undaunted. He had to find this problem. The suspense built, with Mike driving 45 miles to pick up the last available radiator for our make and year, only to have to drive another 18 miles when it was not available. He got to that store 4 minutes before closing and returned. At 11:00 PM we were on the road and the car purred through the night to the Mesilla Valley. Sunrise over the Organs never looked so good.

When he was testing different options up under the hood, I said, “Mike you’re an artist.” “No,” he said, “I’m more like a surgeon.” I suggested that his virtue was patience. He agreed. “You have to be patient or else you might overlook the one thing that will solve the problem,” he said. “You can’t give up.”

Think about patience a moment. When you look at our experience, you see that patience has different components: curiosity about the source of the problem, willingness to test different options, risking failure without giving up, and above all tenacity. Mike was going to find that problem if it consumed all his time, because he wanted to get us back on the road.

You may call this an example of someone trying to help. I see it as the demonstration of a spiritual virtue. I talked with Mike about his patience as a spiritual virtue, and he agreed, though he was humble about acknowledging it. After all, he was “just doing the job.” But this lesson will stick with me. I’m grateful for the virtue of patience he demonstrated on our way home. And I still think he was an artist.

published  20 July 2012