As I have a slew of final projects to complete in the next weeks ahead, I will pause posting until I am done. May the Lord bless you with the lavish graces of the Easter season. I will leave you with a last thought…
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It is not enough to be a passersby on the digital highways, to be simply ‘connected.’ Connections need to grow into true encounters. We cannot live apart, closed in on ourselves. We need to love and to be loved. We need tenderness. — Pope Francis
When I worked with the Missionaries of Charity in Washington, DC in the early 1990’s, the sister who was the head of the convent loved to quote to us Mother Teresa’s saying, “While it is fashionable these days to speak of the poor, it is not fashionable to speak to them.” This saying complemented these words I found in our formation booklet when I started:
What those here in our home really need from you is not your pity but your love. See them not as objects but as equals. Look at them not from above looking down, or below looking up, but eye to eye. Don’t leave them feeling you did them a favor, but that you met Christ together.
When I first arrived to work at this hospice and homeless shelter, I was afraid my inexperience and their very different life experience would stand in the way of my being able to relate to them and let my guard down. But as I put those words into practice, I found most of this fear quickly eroded. Once I was able to see first of all our common humanity, and stop thinking of them as problems to fix or people to fear, a common ground very naturally opened up. It was humiliating to face all of my deeply ingrained prejudices that surfaced in the first weeks there, but it was liberating to see those judgments deconstructed as I came to know them from the inside.
I remember one day, during my first weeks there, I was playing cards with a man named Reggie. Reggie had HIV/AIDS. In life, he had been a male prostitute and was, he said, a professional pickpocket — which he would often demonstrate by handing me my wallet. As we played whatever game it was that afternoon, he said, “Brother Tom, do you think I’m a bad man?” I was so stunned by his question, which stirred up in me all of the conflicted thoughts and feelings I’d been having for weeks. I had a hard time responding coherently. I don’t remember what I said.
Seeing my discomfort, he said, “It’s okay man, you can say it. I did some bad stuff. But look, here we are playing cards together. And you know what I know about you? You suck at cards! So we both got some bad in us, so we’re even!” We laughed and continued the game, which he let me win that hand.
I felt changed, like the eye to eye thing was beginning to happen. Christ was acting in him, reaching out to me.
Over the years I’ve thought so much about this. How often I weigh in on complicated moral or social issues, offering my confident opinions, formulating judgments and proffering seemingly obvious solutions for faceless people, without ever having taken the real risk of speaking directly to any of them. Ask them what they think. How easy and safe it is to make others into abstractions of our own devising! It’s so much easier to deal with ideas than have to face the face of an unruly, complicated human being capable of responding to my ideas.
As the training booklet said, we meet Christ not in ideas but in faces, in the relationships we have with the person in front of us. In that face-to-face space between me and you is where God abides, because only there can there be love.