I imagine that we all know someone who seems larger-than-life. You are aware of this person every time he or she walks into the room. Like ‘em or not, this is the kind of person that makes a good story.
Elizabeth Strout has written a collection of stories about a woman named Olive Kitteridge. Though each chapter deals with the stories of different characters, the setting is in the same town and, like meteors rocketing across space, each character comes into contact with Olive as if she exhibits a gravitational pull, altering their orbits in her direction. What is clever about this literary format is that, through the eyes of these different characters, we see various sides of Olive. If we were limited to one perspective, she might seem rather flat. However, over the course of the book, we see that Olive is both greedy and selfless, both an aggressor and a victim. She is shallow, narcissistic, and mean. She is courageous, magnanimous, and hopeful. In short, Olive Kitteridge is human.
After reading these stories, I am struck by the realization that we, too, are understood by different people in different contexts. Not only that, but our environment and personality influence the ways that we are perceived. The same action may well be viewed positively by one person and negatively by another. In my case, this may have more to do with my chosen profession. Particularly with all the baggage that people have towards the church, pastors can sometimes be damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
But here’s a larger theological point. Paul wrote that we have this treasure in clay vessels (2 Cor 4:7). Since Augustine, the efficacy of church and its sacraments has been understood to be an act of God, not due to human merit. As a result, the church is understood in Luther’s famous terms as being comprised of both saints and sinners. Not that some people are bad, and others are good; rather, we are both saints and sinners simultaneously.
Olive Kitteridge reminds me of certain, extroverted and outrageous people I’ve crossed paths with before; however, she also challenges me to give grace to everyone. Jesus, in the King James, famously reminds us to judge not lest we be judged (Mt 7:1). Life is never as simple as our initial perception might indicate. As Mother Teresa said so well, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” Olive Kitteridge reminds us that we should extend peace to others. Olive, therefore, is an apt name.