We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests. We can, then, pass them by, preoccupied with our important daily tasks, just as the priest–perhaps reading the Bible–passed by the man who had fallen among robbers. When we do that, we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised in our lives to show us that God’s way, and not our own, is what counts. — Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I remember this scene so well. Back in 1997, I was the Director of Religious Education at St Thomas More in Tallahassee. It was December 27, 1999 and I was offering an adult education opportunity that evening in honor of the Feast of St. John the Apostle. I was planning to cover 1 John, the letter of charity. I recall being very fired up as I prepared the lecture notes, and I was enthused to present my thoughts to all who might come.
As I welcomed people in the foyer area, a homeless woman dressed in tattered clothes, carrying Walmart bags, came walking in. I’d seen her countless times before outside, and she always asked for money. I was instantly irritated and thought to myself, “I don’t have time for this.” I said to her, “Look, I don’t have money and we have something going on now. And please don’t hang around asking people for money.” She just kept walking past me toward the bathrooms, and I went over to the Library where the presentation would be to get set up.
Yes, I felt a twinge of conscience, but forced myself to focus on my notes. As I was about to begin, this woman came into the Library and sat down in the back row. My God! I was overcome with conflicting emotions, but proceeded with the opening prayer and began. My lecture was on charity, and how belief in the Incarnation — God becoming human — required that we never separate love of God and love of neighbor. It was a powerful talk I had prepared, but as I delivered it I felt terrible shame; like every word I uttered was really, “Liar, liar, liar.” Yes, especially when I got to the crescendo of my talk as I quoted this text from 1 John 3:17; 4:20-21:
But if any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.
There she was, in the back. Listening. Looking at me. Right in front of me was the Truth, alive, with a face that was strangely merciful; which made it even worse. It must be what Purgatory is like.
After the lecture ended and the people drifted out, she remained. I avoided eye contact and tried to act busy, but she stood up and approached me. I looked up and her eyes were red with tears. She said, “Thank you. I needed this. I’d lost hope but tonight helped me feel better. God bless you.” And she walked out.
I was left alone in that Library. Stunned. The silence was deafening. I can’t adequately express how low I felt. But I no longer felt shame. I felt humbled, I felt instructed, I felt changed. A thousand things rushed through my head, so I went to the Chapel before leaving. I threw myself on the ground before the Tabernacle and begged God for pardon. And as I lay there, a thought came into my mind with such strength that it seemed to be a voice. It said:
Were that the Bishop, you would have greeted him with honor and joy. He has the dignity of Orders, yet she is greatest in my Kingdom.
That was all. It was clear to me, like Matthew 25 in living color. I shared this story with my Confessor, and he said: “That seems like God was asking you: Wherever you are, seek out the nobodies and make them your priority.” Then he gave me Romans 12:16 as the content of my prayer-penance: “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.”
I will end with my recitation of the lovely prayer of St. Mother Teresa, “Jesus is.”