Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Least of My Brethren

The year was new and it was one of the coldest nights of the year. Lent was weeks away yet and almsgiving and penance were far from my thoughts. The work week had been long and what better way to celebrate the weekend than to go out to eat.

It was rush hour traffic with everyone on the road driving gingerly in the sleet and ice. The air was bitter cold. We were stopped at a light and up ahead, through the blurry windshield, I saw a dark shape. Our car soon came alongside this huddle which was a man holding a sign, "Homeless". His face was deeply lined, sorrow pooled in his eyes. Part of me suspected that he was in illegal alien. There was at first a sense of disgust and then an ephemeral fragmentary thought crossed my mind...."the least of my brethren."

Within a fraction of time, I knew that we had to give him something. I rolled down my window and placed a folded up twenty-dollar bill into his calloused hand. He looked at me in surprise and said a halting, "Thank you." I rolled up my window, grateful to have done my duty and relieved to put up my barrier. I watched through my side mirror as he opened his palm and saw the bill. He punched the air with his fist and turned toward us in salute.

I pushed away the niggling suspicion that he would spend the money on drugs or alcohol. It was duty done and now I could go on with my life.

Then a week later, as I was leaving the church after Mass, I spied our beggar man in our church yard. He was clutching old milk jugs filled with water. He mounted his bike and rode away. A sense of disquiet came over me.

Over the next several days, I saw him in the church in the back pew kneeling in deep prayer. Another time, he was clutching the icon of the Assumption. One bright afternoon, he was standing in front of the statue of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, his hand clutching the Infant Jesus' hand. He was again praying.

He looked up sensing my presence and smiled at me. I knew I could not escape him and so I struck up a conversation. My beggar man was no longer a faceless stranger, he was right there and I could not push him away. Money was not the answer this time. What was required of me was my time and charity. Did I see him as a human being, my equal in God's eyes?

Not only that, but he was a fellow Catholic with a devotion to Our Lady that I have rarely seen. The flowers and tributes to the saint statues around our churchyard were his doing.

One day, he asked if he could have a rosary that had been abandoned in the narthex. I said yes. He was everywhere in our church with that rosary in deep prayer. Who is this person? For now, he was an angel among us, teaching me that the least of my brethren had a name, had a story, had the desire to give and to love.

Slowly, God changed my heart from repulsion and turned it into a different kind of love that I had never experienced for a stranger.

One day, arriving at work with my arms full of things, he greeted me at the door. He helped me carry my parcels. I asked him if he had eaten, he answered in the negative. This time, I did give him money and he asked me where the nearest restaurant was. He kissed my hand, took his jacket off and turned around. On the back of his t-shirt was an image of Christ with the crown of thorns.

It was Friday. It was Lent. The day of remembrance of Our Lord's Crucifixion. I went to my office and wept. My Crucified Lord in the form of an indigent man. How much do I love the stranger? It is a question that echoes over and over in my brain.

This Lent has transformed my idea of what almsgiving is. Money is only part of it. There is the more personal and more dangerous side, the giving of my time and friendship.

The happy end to this is that my beggarman now helps with the yardwork at church. He whistles happily as he rakes the garden beds and wheels fallen limbs into a pile. He greets me with joy whenever he sees me.

In a way it is a resurrection. The faceless, nameless stranger has a name. And he is an angel among us.

1 comment:

cgichard said...

My first visit to your blog and I discover this wonderful and salutary story. Thank you.

And for the lovely photos of the Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction - so like the Notre-Dame-des-Miracles monastery at Saorge in the Alpes-Maritime that I visited on a walking holiday last year. Also now a writers' and artists' centre. Must have been built at a similar period: for a moment I thought it must be the same place.