I’ve been there in line at Catholic Social Services, asking for help, getting in line at 8:30 to see all the people who’d been waiting in line for long before that, and finding that everyone in line after me was sent home right after the doors opened because they can only help so many people.
One of the holiest priests I’ve ever known, who was parochial vicar at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Erie, PA, in the mid-80s, said he would get frustrated by answering the door to all the homeless people, knowing they’re just going to go get drunk, but he knew the day he didn’t answer the door, it would be Jesus in disguise.
C. S. Lewis was once walking with J.R.R. Tolkein, and they passed a beggar. Lewis pulled out all the money from his pocket and gave it to the man. Tolkein said, “Did you have to give him *all* your money? You know he’s just going to spend it on drink, right?” Lewis replied, “Well, that’s all I was going to spend it on.”
One Sunday in Sumter, a man came to our door with a long story about his car breaking down and everything–a story that is supposedly the sign of a con man but a story I’ve lived out for real on many occasions since then–and my dad gave him some money. We had guests over, and everyone said, “That man was probably a con man.” My dad said, “So what? He’s my brother in Christ and I have to help him.” A few hours later, the man *returned*, asking for *more* money. Dad said, “Listen. I’m a school teacher. I have a wife and son who are severely ill. This is all the cash I have on hand. I’m helping you out of Christian charity, but I can’t give you anything else, so please don’t come back again.”
A few days later, the man was arrested, and his picture was on the front page of the paper. The police asked his victims to come in and offered their money back. People asked Dad if he was going to go testify and get his money back. Dad said, “No. Why would I negate my act of charity?”
One year, on the Solemnity of All Saints, we had to travel to Greenville for a doctor’s appointment for Allie, and Mary scheduled a field trip to coincide with it. We lost our card along the trip from North Augusta to Greenville, and used up the little bit of cash we had on dinner and gasoline. We knew we could go to the bank in the morning, but we had no money for a hotel. So we went to Mass in Greenville, and after Mass, I went up to an usher explained our situation, telling a story that reminded me of that man so many years ago. I noted how it seems like even when things are going relatively well for us, things like this happen, and God is constantly challenging me to take seriously my commitment as a Secular Carmelite to live in the spirit of the beatitudes. It turned out he was the parish business manager, and he went to get Fr. Jay Scott Newman, who came out and talked to me, and authorized him to give me $60 from the parish safe to pay for a hotel and some food. The next day, we went to the bank, and while Mary was at her field trip, I went back to St. Mary’s, tracked down the business manager, and offered him the $60 back. He said, “Keep it for your kids, and thanks for restoring my faith in humanity.”
Similarly, my father in law never locks his doors. He always says, “if anyone is going to rob me, they’re going to find a way to do it, and they obviously need it more than I do, and I don’t want to have to pay for the broken glass.”
We don’t have a lot, but we always help those in need. One time, a fellow came up to us after Mass at MHT, and Mary gave him a bottle of Powerade and some snacks we had in the van. A few weeks later, the same guy made a B-line for us in the parking lot, and we winced. He came up and said, “Wow! It’s the nice lady who gave me the Powerade! I just wanted to come up and say thank you.” Once, I was in downtown Atlanta by myself, and I couldn’t remember where I parked. The only person who helped me was a homeless lady, who asked for a ride to a soup kitchen. I apologized, pointing out that I obviously didn’t know my way around town, and instead gave her the snacks we had in the car for our own lunch. She was deeply grateful.
On the other end, my father tells the story of his uncle Peter, a very well-to-do man, who was standing on Sunday after Mass on the steps of St. Peter’s Cathedral, and wearing his favorite old overcoat, a bit tattered. A man came up and handed him some money. “Go buy yourself a cup of coffee.” At first, Uncle Peter’s pride was offended, and he wanted to tell the guy off, but he stopped himself and said, “Why should I take away from his act of charity? His intentions were good.” So he went and bought himself a cup of coffee.
Ultimately, our call as Christians is to serve and be served, to trample our personal pride and learn the path of humility. Like both my great uncle Peter and the Apostle Peter at the Washing of the Feet, we must learn to let others help us if we are to participate in the Kingdom, and we must be willing to always help others, even if that means giving the last of our available resources. If we do not treat the least of our brothers and sisters with love–and surely the least are those who have sinful intentions in their hearts–how can we expect to share the reward of Christ who died for us while we were still enemies? If we hold grudges, act out of pride, lord it over others, etc., how can we expect the forgiveness of Our Lord, Who comes to us with humility and constant forgiveness?