By Michelle Francl-Donnay
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” – Mt. 25:35-36
Market East Station at 10 p.m. is eerily empty. It’s always felt like a bustling and chaotic space to me, as I expertly thread my way through a crowd to catch a rush-hour train home after a day in spent in a quiet archive in downtown Philadelphia. Now I feel like I’m awkwardly negotiating a gauntlet of misery, and am glad of the tall young man walking protectively at my side.
A wiry bearded man in his 20s confronts us as we emerge from the stairway onto the platform, “I’ve had a tough day and need some help.” As we sit on a bench to await the train, an older gentleman, his short hair peppered with gray, bends over to whisper, “Ma’am, can you help me? I need to find something to eat.”
Typical urban encounters, I know. And still, I wonder how to respond to these voices – and how I will respond to Christ when He asks me, “Tell me how you cared for me.” At one level, I want to help, to immoderately empty my purse of what it contains: chocolate, water bottle, money, breviary. Food, drink, security. Prayer.
But frankly, I worry about my own responsibility to my children and husband to be safe. So I usually don’t respond at all, staring ahead as if I do not hear, immersing myself in what I am reading, or, as I do this evening, remaining steadfastly focused on the conversation I am having with Mike. But I have heard, I am aware, I am attending.
Practically, I understand what advocates for the distressed and marginalized recommend, to support trusted organizations, which can dependably and effectively deploy resources to help. And I do, but my conscience still bothers me. How does Christ wish me to respond in these difficult circumstances?
C. S. Lewis struggles eloquently with this question in his sermon, “Weight of Glory,” preached in an Oxford church at the height of World War II, at a moment when relationships between neighbors were inarguably fraught. Lewis closes with the observation, “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.”
The Church, too, understands our conflicted nature. In one of the sets of intercessions prescribed for Morning Prayer we pray: “Forgive us for failing to see Christ in the poor, the distressed and the troublesome, and for our failure to reverence your Son in their persons.” If, as Lewis suggests, our neighbor is the holiest object we encounter aside from Christ in the Eucharist, this might be the most difficult thing asked of us as Christians: not to see Christ in the poor, or help him in the distressed, but to reverence Him in the troublesome. Not tolerate. Reverence.
Seriously, try contemplating the reverence due to Christ the next time someone steals your parking spot at the grocery store on a rainy day. I find it stunningly difficult. It is at least consoling to know the Church recognizes that I do fail of having this attitude as a matter of course, and prays for us all: Forgive us this failing.
Sometimes when my sons ask me for something, they also ask me to skip the motherly lecture and give them a simple, “yes” or “no.” It reminds me that “no” is a response that acknowledges the dignity of the supplicant. It may not be prudent to empty out my purse to a pleading stranger in the station, but perhaps I can at least acknowledge the dignity of the person asking and say, “no.” It is but one small step toward reverence, but one the Church herself prays I can make.
“May you find in yourself
A courageous hospitality
Toward what is difficult,
Painful, and unknown.”
– Father John O’Donohue in “To Bless the Space Between Us.”
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.