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Stone Soup

alec vanderboom

One Saturday in Ohio, I discovered that I'd completely miscalculated our grocery budget. The pantry was beyond barren. There was a half opened box of spaghetti, a few withered garlic cloves, and a bag of frozen Starbucks coffee beans. (Ah, the days with only one five month old, when we could still afford to be fussy in our taste in coffee beans!)

We desperately needed to grocery shopping, but there was no money in our bank account until the next payday. Jon & I discussed our options over a napping baby. We could use our credit card. We could transfer some money from our savings account.

"Or, instead of spending ANY money ..." I announced, "we can host a huge Stone Soup Party!"

God graced me with an incredible husband. Jon didn't say "What crazy thing are you talking about Abby?" Instead, he mildly responded "I'm not sure I've ever heard of this Stone Soup thing."

"That's because I just made it up!" I said happily.

I reminded him that last Christmas we'd given his nephews a beautiful children's book called "Stone Soup." In the Middle Ages, three monks went to a new village to beg for food. Everyone they asked for help, refused. "What shall we do?" a hungry monk ask. An old, wise monk responded "make stone soup."

So the monks took out their large iron pot, placed three clean stones in the pot, filled it with water, built a fire and started cooking "stone soup." A little boy came by the road and asked the monks "What are you making?"

"We are making stone soup," they replied.

"Can I have some?" the little boy asked.

"Sure!" the old monk said. "The soup will be ready in a little while. But you know what would really go well with stone soup, is some carrots. Mmmm, I'd really like the taste of Stone Soup with carrots."

"We've got carrots growing in our garden!" the little boy replied.

"Go ask your mom for some carrots, and we'll add them to our soup!" the monks said.

Then a little girl walks by. The same thing is repeated, only this time the monks ask for some potatoes.

Again and again, curious villagers stop by and the monks end up adding celery, meat, turnips, and salt into the stew. Finally, the monks work is done. The entire village comes out to eat a delicious "stone" soup. "I brought the carrots!" the little boy said. "I brought the salt!" says another. Everyone agrees it is the best soup ever.

So I reminded my husband of this story. "Instead of being embarrassed that we are broke this weekend, we should celebrate it. All of our friends have been in this same place. Lets do what we do best, we'll host the party. We'll have the music and the fun. We'll let everyone else bring bring the soup supplies."

So Jon located the smooth river rock we'd picked up during our trip to Wyoming. We filled our largest stock pot with water and turned on the gas stove. Then my husband cleaned our apartment. I called everyone we knew in the small town of Athens, Ohio to invite them over to our house.

"We're having a Stone Soup Party," I said. "Pick two things out of your pantry right now that can go into a vegetable soup and bring them to our house at 6:30. The only rule is that you can't go to the store to buy anything. The ingredients have to be something that are in your house right now."

My friends were mostly Legal Aid attorneys and school teachers, so this impromptu party was right up there alley. We had at least six guests, maybe more. People brought all kinds of treats, including many extra cans of beer which made my husband very happy!

I remember this sweet moment of cooking with my former boss, Anne. I'd never made homemade soup in my life, so I had no idea what I was doing. Anne brought vegetable stock cubes. She taught me how to saute the vegetables and also insured we added enough salt.

At around 7:45 PM, we sat down to the yummiest stew. Someone had brought good bread and Olive Oil. Someone else brought wine, beer, and fancy bottled water for a nursing mother. My husband placed his favorite CDs on our stereo. Everyone was so jolly. There was something about providing their own food that made our guests extra relaxed and comfortable. It made everyone laugh that my husband and I'd had thrown a party without providing any food. "Only Abby & Jon could throw a party with an empty pot!" one friend said.

"We brought the rock." Jon kept saying, whenever they teased him. "Don't forget, we had the most important ingredient in Stone Soup. We brought the rock!"

I thought about that funny party yesterday in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Recently, I've started exploring the "gift of my poverty' in prayer. I used to assume, that the virtue of poverty referred only to material things. It seemed obvious that the Franciscan monks single habit was "better" than a socialite's closet filled with designer duds. Now, I know the spiritual dimension of "blessed are the poor" is even more true.

What is "spiritual poverty?"

I used to think that I had to put on my best thoughts and feelings before I talked to Jesus. Sort of like putting on a nice dress to go to church. I didn't dare talk to Jesus when I was angry, bitter, put out or feeling stepped on.

It was a bitter cycle. The times when I most needed help were the times when I felt most ashamed to talk to Jesus.

Now I understand that when I pray to Him most especially when I don't "feel" like it, when I'm in sin because I'm small, and hateful, and harsh-- I'm bringing Jesus the gift of my poverty.

"It's like Stone Soup!" I said in front of the Blessed Sacrament. When I pray, even when all I have is a small stone of envy and the boiling water of rage, it's like stone soup. I make a gift to Jesus of my poverty. He responds by showing down graces. He brings the carrots, and the onions, and the meat, and the salt. He even reaches down and removes those stony grudges from while I'm busy swallowing.

This metaphor is completely true.

A few weeks ago, I had the most emotional and uncomfortable interaction with a fellow Catholic at my church. "You don't need to go over that family's house, anymore. It's too hard on you," my husband told me.

"I don't think that's how this Catholic thing works," I said.

"Well, we're supposed to be friendly with everyone, but we don't have to be friends with every single family in our parish."

"I think we're supposed too try," I said. "Well, I'll at least pray about it."

I walked over by the dishwasher and gave Jesus the smallest, meanest prayer ever uttered.

"I know I'm supposed to love this person. I know I'm supposed to pray, even for an enemy. That's an impossible standard. I'm only here out of obedience to you. Here's my tiny prayer, I pray to have a better relationship with this person."

Fifteen seconds, and then I started to peel off the mustard stains from my plates and load them into the dishwasher.

A few weeks later, this same person, who I KNOW did not approve of me as a Mother or as a Catholic in any shape, left the longest, kindest message on my answering machine to invite me to join the Vacation Bible School Planning Committee. "It's mostly a chance to have a Parent's Night Out. Please join us."

"That's my prayer answer," I thought as I listened to the voice on the answering machine. I did not pick up the phone. I did not call this person back that night. I did not call this person back for several nights."

Two weeks later, we ran into this family at a rare Sunday Night Mass. We never usually go at that time. We were all there to support to my husband's first time as a Lector. I saw the family during Mass and prayed for them. Later we joyfully ran into them in the aisle. My husband was floating after his Mass experience. I felt so bouyed up by his Hope.

"It's so good to see you!" I said. There was no smile on this person's lips. Nothing bad was said. But no words or cheerful looks were returned. The conversation was like a bad four square game. My husband and I would toss out jolly remarks and we'd watch as blunt, negative responses would flatten the conversation. Mostly, I felt desperately, desperately uncomfortable.

"Well, that was rough," my husband said. "That all happened in front of Jesus, immediately after Mass. I guess were excused from pursuing a relationship now."

"I don't know," I said. "I don't think this church thing is so simple." I'm pretty sure I neglected to pray to Jesus after that remark.

Last night, after three hours of pouring over the Children's Baltimore Catecism with my husband (YUM! THE best book for converts ever!) I heard the phone ring and then a familiar voice on my answering machine.

"Hello, Abby. I hope you are having the best Feast of Christ the King ever! I hope you are doing lots of prince and princesses crown things with all of your kids. Isn't this a beautiful feast?"

"I'm so happy to hear from you," I said as I rushed to pick up the phone. I couldn't believe how much love was pouring out of my heart. "You know, I planned to do all these tiara things with the kids, but instead Jon and I have spent the whole day reading the Baltimore Catecism. You know, we're new to our faith. This little book is such a gift, it answers so many of our perplexing questions."

"Oh, that must be so beautiful to see the mysteries of our faith with fresh eyes," this person intoned.

We had this wonderful loving talk. In the middle of it, I knew I had to address the non-returned phone call. I prayed quickly to Jesus for help.

"I'm so sorry I didn't return your phone call about the Vacation Bible School."

"Oh no, problem!"

"No really, it is a problem. I actually need to ask for your prayers. I'm drowning in my first year of home-schooling. I love teaching, but I'm not getting my other Mom tasks done. I don't have one free night a month to donate to a church event. I don't have any time. I'm behind in all of my work. I'm not getting basic things done, like returning phone calls. I'm really, really struggling. I really, really need your prayers.

This veteran Catholic said that not only would s/he pray for me, but that every Tuesday, s/he would offer up all of her/his sacrifices so that I'd have an easier time with Motherhood."

"Who was that on the phone?"

My husband's face registered his shock. He's shocked I sounded so sweet and loving on the phone. He's shocked I so nakedly asked for prayer. He's shocked that I eagerly accepted a joint family visit during Advent. "That's a big change," he said.

"Oh, I'm sure we're going to be great friends now!"

"What are you talking about?"

"I gave Jesus my smallest, meanest prayer to have a better relationship with Person X," I said. "The poorer the prayer the more He responds with grace and spiritual gifts!"

I'm blessed to be so broken, so mean spirited, so hard-hearted and so sensitive. Those prayers said in the midst of my spiritual poverty, those are the ones that bring the best, best graces into my life.