Let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty.
—John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle,” stanzas 32, 36
This was in my email this morning from the Center for Action and Contemplation. Fr. Richard Rohr goes on to share his own paraphrase of John of the Cross’ poem…
“You give a piece of yourself to the other.
You see a piece of yourself in the other (usually unconsciously).
This allows the other to do the same in return.
You do not need or demand anything back from them,
Because you know that you are both participating
In a single, Bigger Gazing and Loving—
One that fully satisfies and creates an immense Inner Aliveness.
(Simply to love is its own reward.)
You accept being accepted—for no reason and by no criteria whatsoever!
This is the key that unlocks everything in me, for others,
and toward God.
So much so that we call it “salvation”!”
I grew up in a religious tradition that often failed to share the words of the early Christian mystics. I wish that I had brought their words to life earlier in my journey with God. Yet, everything comes in its’ right time. For that I am so grateful.
When a Pharisee came to Jesus, he asked the question, “what is the most important commandment?”. Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence. This is the most important on any list. But there is a second to set alongside it: Love other as well as you love yourself. These two commandments are the pegs: everything in God’s law and the prophets hang from them.” (Matthew 22. 37-40 (The Message – emphasis mine).
Everything – just do these two and the rest will take care of itself…
She was walking down the road to the farm. I couldn’t make out who it might be. It wasn’t unusual to have new volunteers park at the gate and walk down. The “No Motorized Vehicles” sign doesn’t apply to the farm volunteers, but new folks don’t always know that.
It became clear that she wasn’t a volunteer as she got closer. Her pink top wasn’t a blouse but a cropped tank top. Her pants were a dinghy tan and her feet bare. It was a warm winter day, but winter, nonetheless. Maybe it was all she had. The clothes obviously hadn’t been washed in a long while.
The arms were quickly swaying back and forth, hands pointed outward. It was the addict’s walk – “schizting” and talking to herself. In my old life I would’ve called it the “hoe stro’” and laughed at her. Today, it simply made me sad.
It may have been fifteen years since I found myself in her shoes – or lack of them – but I still have enough street sense to know to keep my eye on any addict. Stuff tends to disappear quickly. Addicts are quite resourceful when it comes to the “getting and using and finding means to get more”. I figured she was going to ask for money, but she walked on by without so much as a word or a sideways glance.
I continued working, making sure to keep her in my peripheral vision. She stopped by the old compost pile at the south end of the farm. She looked carefully as she started walking slowly around the pile. Then it hit me – she was looking for something to eat.
I pick up culled produce from a couple of local grocery stores and add them to the compost area each Monday. It makes for great soil amendments, but I’m always saddened to see the amount of food that gets wasted each weekend. I realize stores aren’t supposed to sell products past their “Sell by” date. I know how people are about “ugly” produce – stuff that isn’t picture perfect. Much of what I pick up is still good to eat.
Many times, I’ve made food boxes to give away instead of throwing it all in the compost. Most Mondays I leave a good box of produce next to the pile. The farm is surrounded by hidden homeless camps and I don’t want it to go to waste. Maybe that’s what the young woman was looking for. Maybe she learned that something to eat could be found by the compost heap.
She had stopped circling the pile and stood there; sad eyes cast toward the ground. I put down my garden hoe and began walking towards her. She didn’t see me at first. She stood silently and never looked my way. As I got closer, her face came into focus. She must have been quite an attractive young lady at one time, but now her face was dirty, tired, and weathered, her eyes sunken and hollow. She probably wasn’t over thirty but looked to be much older. Hard living tends to age one quickly.
She looked up and saw me walking toward her. Her eyes showed fear and she hurried toward the river. One needs to be careful on the streets, especially a woman. I didn’t want to scare her, so I stopped and watched her disappear down the levee, headed for the river.
I wished there had been a box of food there. I wished she’d stopped for a minute and let me offer her some of the snacks I keep in my truck. I wished that she – that no one – had to pick through a compost pile just to have something to eat. I hurt for her.
She soon reappeared, made it up to the Trinity Trail, and walked out of sight. I went on about my work, but I couldn’t shake the image of her despair and shuffling searching. The lines on her face were burned into my memory. I couldn’t help but wonder whether she had a home to go to and people who cared about her. My heart broke for her. Empathy is a bitch sometimes.
When I first started fundraising for Opal’s Farm, I threw out a lot of statistics about food insecurity, food “deserts” (a misnomer but I’m not going to get into that now…), and our city’s low-income neighborhoods and how the farm would make a positive impact on it all. Unfortunately, it’s hard to see past a statistic, to see the face of someone else. I can’t empathize with a statistic.
Statistics are great, collecting data important and necessary, but it’s easy to see large numbers and be blinded to the individual. Quantification and identification aren’t solutions. Statistical data generates a lot of sympathy (usually in the form of pity), meetings and commissions but little action…
The young lady searching for food in the compost is more than a statistic. So is the old man I see regularly outside the neighborhood convenience store asking for change or simply something to eat. So are the kids who rely on a free school lunch to make sure they have something that day.
It’s easy to be overlooked or lumped into a category that makes them “the other” if one is just a statistic. Numbers can be overwhelming – “there’s nothing I can do so I’ll let someone else take care of it”. Just say “There but for the grace of God go I ” and go on about business…
There is something each one of us can do – a starting point for all our problems. We can stop. We can see the face behind the number. We can listen. Statistics don’t move people to action. People move people to action. Listening moves people to action. Seeing people as children of the same God and the same humanity as we are moves people to action.
In the oft-quoted passage in Matthew 25, Jesus says,
“I was hungry, and you fed me, I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink, I was homeless, and you gave me a room, I was shivering, and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me… Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me – you did it to me”
I need eyes that see – really see – and ears that listen – not just hear – to do something for the “overlooked or ignored”. I begin the process of identification that allows me to serve the God in each and everyone of us. I can’t think of a better way to live…
The sun hasn’t yet begun to rise. The darkness is silent and still – “not a mouse was stirring”. Even the freeway sounds are absent this morning. The temperature dropped below freezing last night in honor of Christmas I’m sure. It was seventy degrees here in North Texas last Monday and the weekend promises more of the same: but that’s tomorrow and this is today. I’ll pull my coat a little tighter, have another sip of steaming coffee, and relish the quiet.
I think back to Christmas 1982. At 4:00 AM my ex (she wasn’t my ex then just so you know…) shook me awake. “I think I’m in labor”.
I turned over and asked, “how far apart are the contractions?”
“I haven’t timed them yet”.
“Oh okay. Let me know when the next one comes”, I said sleepily.
I had awakened enough to know I needed to head upstairs to the bathroom. As I walked past the picture window along the stairs, I saw the snow coming down hard. Only about half of the chain link fence was visible. “This is not good”, I mumbled. When I returned to bed, she told me she thought it was a false labor. I crawled back in bed and fell back asleep.
I awoke a couple of hours later and once again slid out of bed and headed upstairs to make coffee. As I passed the window once again, I noticed that only the pointed tops of the four-foot fence were visible. I opened the back door to check on my car. All I could see was its blue roof poking through the snow. The driveway and the alley were covered in three feet of snow and even larger drifts. This really wasn’t good…
Adrian, our oldest, woke up and he and his Mom came in the kitchen. She put down and he promptly ran to the living room to see what Santa had brought. I poured the coffee and went into the living room. My Christmas morning excitement was tempered by the realization that my ex might really be in labor.
The snow continued to fall – and fall and fall and… You get the idea. Denver was in the middle of a “hundred year” blizzard.
About 9:00 in the evening my ex looked at me and said, “I really am in labor now”. The contractions were now seven minutes apart. I knew there was no way we could get my car out of the drive. I called 911 and explained our situation. Apparently, labor is not an emergency. It would be a four to five hour wait for an ambulance and we were told to go the nearest hospital labor and delivery rooms. I figured I’d been through one birth already. I mentally prepared to deliver a baby at home. I prayed – a lot!
There was a knock at the door about thirty minutes later. A gentleman had responded to the pleas for citizens with four-wheel drive to ferry paramedics around. Three paramedics greeted me as I opened the door.
We gathered go-bags and our son together and filed out through the path the paramedics had made to the door. They assisted my poor wife who, at 5’3”, was trying to make her way through the four feet of snow. Once to the care, the 6 of us (and all the paramedic kits) piled into an old Jeep Waggoneer. The driver informed my very pregnant wife that between contractions she would have to reach outside and keep the snow of the windshield as the wipers didn’t work. Of course, they didn’t…
We found ourselves in a strange hospital with a strange doctor who had obviously been there long past hi original shift (he was a bit cranky). We were just getting settled into the labor room when the nurse said, “it’s time”. My wife was wheeled down to the delivery room and I changed into scrubs. Less than an hour later I was holding a brand-new bundle of joy – Jeremy Alan Joel.
I slept in a nurse’s lounge that night. When I returned to my wife’s room, I was greeted with a Christmas gift that I’ll never forget – Jeremy in a red stocking with a Santa hat on.
When Adrian, my oldest son, was born, parenting didn’t seem as difficult as we thought. Then we had Jeremy. We’ve often joked (kind of…) that Jeremy made his appearance in the world with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other demanding to be fed NOW. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
Sitting here on Christmas morning I’m reminded how blessed I am. For thirty-seven years I was given the gift of a son I miss dearly today. I was also given a Savior – God With Us – to walk me through the grief I have today. I’ve been fortunate to have people in my life who know what losing a child is like. I have a God that knows my grief even more so – “This is how much God loved the world: He gave His Son, His one and Only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in Him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to the trouble of sending His Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help and put the world right again” John 33.16-17 (The Message).
My son was a brilliant artist (our first home had the marker and crayon marks to foretell this), but his greatest achievement was threefold – Baillie, Izabella, and Lucas. Today I will think of the wonderful gifts he left us. The gift I offer him is honoring his gift to me.