Monday, October 18, 2010

Giving and Receiving

I parked my bike off the lake trail so that I could walk about the segment set aside for “nature preservation.” The city is trying to revive the flora of the prairie. The long brown and bowed stems I gingerly stepped over revived a memory. It was of a trail I frequented almost daily in Berea, KY—specifically of the small patch of lowland prairie carved from forested hills. Tall flowering grasses turned to straw-like sticks in the fall and were intersected by a narrow trampled path. A Midwestern sky with clouds like shoreline sand soared overhead. On one side was a wall of evergreens, ever waving, darkly mysterious and sweetly inviting. On the other side was an assortment of maples and oaks, one monumentally thick and knotted with reaching arms as strong as a mother’s.

Now, I am sitting on a stone wall, beneath the shade of a voluminous “Wooshing Tree” (a.k.a. Weeping Willow), facing the lake; a different kind of beauty. I felt turned inward. This morning I was squeezing a quick online conversation in with my sister, Hannah (in South Korea, too many time changes away for me to keep track of), before heading off to mass. Interrupted by a persistent knock at the door I resignedly went downstairs. It was Dennis.* He wanted money for a 7-Day bus pass to get to his new job. Despite some reservations I gave him what he asked for, admittedly as much out of curiosity—will he really come back to share meals with us and volunteer around the house as promised?—as out of compassion. Questions about what it means to serve the poor, and more to the point, what it means to know and love a person, to identify and meet their needs, surfaced and churned.

The day before I had met Rose at Pax Christi’s Mass for Peace and potluck. She is, I would guess, in her forties, but with a thick, weary body and soft, deep-lined stranger’s face that makes her appear older. Her hair is thin and brown, her eyes, pale blue. The top row of her teeth grow in an ascending slant ending in unfettered pink gums. She is friendly and open though difficult to understand, speaking in garbled tangential phrases. I saw her again at mass and she came up to me, I asked her if she’d be going to the brunch our friend’s community hosts next door. She said yes but didn’t know where it was, so we went together. Lately, I’ve lamented that I don’t have enough personal contact with the poor to legitimize my words and work. God’s gifted me with a glimpse of what a that life looks like, one man, one woman, at a time.

I keep being revisited by a phrase my housemate John brought into prayer once about “building a movement.” I frequently forget it or maybe I just don’t fully believe it. That we could be agents in the creation of another way of living that reaches beyond our little home, beyond our network of friends. After Saturday’s peace mass a sharing circle was initiated and two questions were posed, “what are you working toward” and “what gives you hope?” It was beautiful to hear the variety of projects that the men and women there had undertaken. Probably 98% of those present were over sixty and I was encouraged by their persistent dedication to working for peace, justice and being a voice for the voiceless. George, an older man and friend of our community said that he finds hope in Catholic Worker houses, and others like them, “because they give to the poor, but not from a position of power.” I was deeply touched by his words, and challenged to honor them.

Telling Hannah about Dennis I had the sense that she was wary of his authenticity. I couldn’t blame her, I was as well. I had to by intentional about reminding myself that there are many who don’t have their needs so easily met as I do. They have to either ask, or go without. If I was in a tough spot, there are people who would see and offer assistance. What happens with those whose needs stand before blind eyes and cry before deaf ears? (Later it occurred to me that part of not giving from power is not needing to know or control what happens with what I give, but to give of my excess regardless. Whatever Dennis’ intentions, I have more than I need and he has less.) Hannah posed the critical question, why don’t they have support? The answer remains concealed. The question though reveals a path to response: that we not only give alms, but ultimately offer relationship, become the church.

The time, insight, and commitment required for this can feel like an overwhelming cost. At times it seems unattainable, especially when thinking of the multitude in need not just the one at the door. Thinking about this while hurriedly biking to mass I felt a renewed recognition that this is what the Catholic Worker is for. We are here to fill in the gaps, to be family to those without, whatever the reason for that may be. We are and we are becoming the church. This requires resources that we, because of investing our time and talents in being present to the “least, lost, and lonely,” are often lacking as individuals. Hence, community, and not only that of this house. We, by some twist of fate, do have friends and family and a voice that is more likely to be heard in society. So, we ask for help on behalf of those who lack these gifts: Asking partly because we know we have not because we are more deserving but by some strange grace. We are obliged and grateful and overflowing.

I thought about the parable of the man who had a visitor. He had no bread to offer this visitor, so he went to his friend’s house, woke him from sleeping, and asked persistently until this friend, reluctantly and irritably, complied (Luke 11:5-8). During mass the gospel reading was of a widow who unflaggingly plied an unjust judge for justice against her adversary (Luke 18:4-5). I couldn’t help smiling, filled with both consternation and delight at the reading and at the way the judge says, “Though I neither fear God nor respect people…I will give this widow justice so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.” How often Jesus upholds persistent petitioning! How often he upholds, even, begging, which we as individuals and as a society are so resistant to. We modern Christians often allocate this advocacy of begging to a symbol of spiritual supplication, to prayer. But why not acknowledge it as it is presented; a commendation of begging for help in addressing tangible needs?

At the post-mass brunch I sat at table, across from Rose, and watched as my friend Liz cheerfully, patiently, deciphered her confusing conversation. I though of the parable of the banquet where all are invited and the one of the lowest social position is given a seat of honor. I though of our little open meals at the White Rose where often the guests are strangers, some not even English-speaking, and how strange and how wonderful that no one present acts like anything unusual is happening. We are serenaded by guitar strumming and Spanish songs as we share a meal with brothers and sisters whose stories are a mystery to us.

Before mass had ended, kneeling before the Eucharist, I felt challenged by Christ’s presence. Each week I consume him, but am I in turn offering myself to be consumed as he would? I continue to wade through questions and confusion about appropriate giving, healthy relationships, appropriate work, effective ministry, and movement building. For today though, I choose to be grateful that when Dennis knocked—though I was reluctant to be interrupted, reluctant to part with cash, reluctant to be manipulated—the door was opened.

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