Last week I was in Barcelona with my daughter, my sister and her daughter. Oh, my gosh, we had so much fun. But on our second night, however, a gypsy stole my cellphone in a fashion so clever that I am still in awe. There’s a spiritual aspect to the story, but first, let me tell what happened.
It was late at night. We had gone, all four of us, to market to buy food to cook for dinner in our rented quarters. We were jet lagged and tired, having walked five or six miles that day. Outside the market a Rom or gypsy man approached, begging. He was ragged, dirty, and a little aggressive, and, startled, we hurried on. We walked two blocks back to the hotel, where we had rented the apartment, rang ourselves inside and climbed a flight of marble steps. My daughter was putting the key in the lock to our rooms when suddenly we found the man behind us —frightening, standing too close. No one had heard him climbing the stairs behind us. At the same time a second man ran up the stairs, bumped me so hard that I fell against the wall, and raced up the stairwell as if pursued. The Rom, meanwhile, with pleading, haggard looks was begging, pressing in up too close, assertive, aggressive. Shaken, we shut the door. It was only then that I realized my cellphone was gone.
For the next two days I scolded myself for my stupidity. Stupid! Stupid! But the more I thought about it and the more we talked, the clearer it became that nothing could have prevented the theft. How clever they were! The man running up had slipped it out of my bag when he pushed me, the other man diverting our attention. No one was hurt. The cellphone was blocked, my information safe. We were lucky he had not snatched the purse itself (passport, money, credit cards, cellphone) and dashed down the stairs to the street. We would never have been able to catch him. Moreover, he’d asked for money. We refused to give him any. Was the theft deserved for our frugality?
For two days I was consumed with anger and sense of violation, before remembering the story of St. Athanasiasius, the third century desert father, whose holy book was stolen from his cell. The thief took the valuable object to a dealer, who immediately approached the saint. “Isn’t this your book?” he asked. The answer came, “No, I gave it to a man who needed it more than I.”
I think in the story the thief became a holy hermit, but that’s not important. As a spiritual discipline I had a choice. I could ruin my vacation with anger and self-reproach, or I could forgive myself, bless the thief, freely offer him the phone (since he had it anyway) and be free. I chose the latter, and then discovered another grace arising from the theft.
Without my phone, I could not check email, FB or daily political indignation, and neither could I take photographs. All around me people stared in slavery to their cellphones while eating, walking, talking. I, instead, had mine removed and with that loss received the gift of being utterly present, free to look, listen, feel, be.
I think of how often I abuse myself with scornful reproaches. I am in a position to buy a new phone, while he, perhaps, needed it to eat. What do I know? The work of angels is always to love, to give, to give away, give more. Turn everything to God, we’re told. Forgive. I can only add it’s the only way to happiness.