For some three decades, the Very Rev. Than Ngoc Vu served numerous Catholic church parishes in south Louisiana, including ones in the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas. His death last month after a long battle with cancer brought a flood of testimonials from those he’d inspired, and I’d like to share my own story about my one and only encounter with Father Vu.
Vu didn’t regularly work in my church parish, but he celebrated Mass there one weekend while our pastor was away. I remember how rainy it was that Sunday, which made going to church seem more a penance than a pleasure.
Vu radiated personal warmth, though, and once he began celebrating Mass, I was glad that we had come. What I remember most is a story that Vu shared about a sick call he made on an ailing parishioner. She was a shut-in, mostly confined to bed, and Vu visited her house to give her Communion. He noticed, on arriving, that there was a large pile of dirty dishes in the sink.
Vu dispensed the Eucharist, prayed with the elderly woman a few moments, and then, as he told her goodbye, assured her that he would continue to pray for her.
“It’s really nice that you’re going to pray for me, Father,” she answered, “but what I really need is someone to do the dishes.”
Chastened, Vu delayed his plans, went to the sink, rolled up his sleeves, and began to scrub and dry the plates, glasses and silverware.
It’s been years since the Sunday when I heard Vu’s story, but it’s stuck with me as a perfect parable about faith as not merely an abstract principle, but a plan of action.
That simple idea — that our beliefs don’t mean very much if we don’t act upon them — should resonate not only among people of faith, but in secular life, too.
A couple of days after Vu’s death, a friend gave me her copy of “Letters to an American Lady,” a collection of correspondence between Englishman C.S. Lewis, the famous Christian philosopher and novelist, and an elderly American widow we now know as Mary Willis Shelburne.
The letters unfold in the decade before his death in 1963, when Lewis, a literary superstar, presumably had better things to do than answer fan mail at length. He even arranged to help Shelburne financially, although he would never meet his correspondent in person.
Lewis did so, apparently, because he thought the lofty ideas about love and charity that he had expressed so well on paper would ring hollow if he didn’t live by them himself. “Nothing gives one a more spuriously good conscience,” wrote Lewis, “than keeping rules, even if there has been a total absence of all real charity and faith.”
Which means that sometimes, you can’t just pray for the lady with dirty dishes. You have to do the dishes yourself.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman