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Putting a Face to Mercy

The Miracle of the Bread and the Fish

by Giovanni Lanfranco (1620-23)

It's fall time.  I start going to daily Mass at the cathedral. One of the first times I show up for Mass, a beggar in the back of the church asks me for money. I lie, say I have no cash and make my escape. As I am entering the nave, I hear him make the same request of the gentleman who came in after me. I am halfway up the aisle as I realize that the gentleman didn’t even acknowledge him or speak to him in any way. In a fit of I don’t know what, but probably larded with guilt, I go back and hand him ten bucks. Golly, do I feel smug.  Am I not better than that gentleman? Oh yes, indeed I am.

As the days go on, I am sometimes approached by others wanting money from me. Usually I decline; sometimes politely, sometimes not. It annoys me, too, that I cant' attend Mass without being accosted for a handout, with folks playing on the fact that I’m a Christian. I wonder, with a fair amount of indignation, why the cathedral doesn't do something about all this annoyance. Then I change where I park and meet again the beggar from the back of the church. He’asks for money and I say I haven’t any cash; which now, usually, has the virtue of being true.

I think a lot about parking somewhere else to avoid him. You see, he makes me uncomfortable. He demands notice, thought and attention. He wants something from me that I don't want to give. This does not make me happy. But the thought of parking someplace else makes me even more uncomfortable, so I try a compromise. I start bringing an orange with me to give to him. Only he stops showing up. After a while I stop bringing the orange. Then he starts showing up again (and I think about asking him for a schedule). The next time he asks for money, I tell him I never carry cash. He says, "That's OK," and asks for a cigarette. What a relief! I give him one and escape with his "God bless you" ringing in my ears. Now he’s just said hello and blessed me.

This goes on for months, and I start to want to have something to give him. Then right before Holy Week, I am actually carrying cash so I decide to give it to him if he is there. Then I realize ,"I’ve no idea what his name is." Well, he is there and I give it to him. I don't see him again until Easter Monday. I haven't eaten my lunch that day and I offer it to him. He is absolutely delighted to get my cheese, crackers and salami. Go figure. I ask him his name and give him mine. And as I enter the cathedral, it occurs to me that we’ve come a long way from uncomfortable. We’ve come to the point where he’s real, he’s a person not an annoying fixture of the landscape.

I could quote a lot of scripture here, but I won’t. Ya’ll probably know it as well as I do. I know I was tripping over it every time I turned around while this was going on and still it took months to get it right. When I say no to Jerry, the beggar, I’m saying no to God. When Jerry makes me uncomfortable, it’s Christ making uncomfortable. When Jerry asks me for something,  it’s Christ asking me for something. When Jerry wants my attention, it’s Christ Who’s saying ‘listen’. When I treat Jerry as less than a person I’m treating Jesus that way.

S.L.P.  (Note:  S.L.P. is a friend of the Confraternity of Penitents)

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