Thoughts on the Preferential Option for the Poor.
“Apparently, during his stays in the hospital, he would pray a lot. One of his favorite devotions was the Stations of the Cross. At the end, without the strength to reach the chapel, he would shuffle down the corridor of the hospital, dragging his IV and oxygen, and stop at fourteen different hospital rooms, designating each of them one of the stations, recognizing in each cancer patient the suffering, bleeding Savior on the via crucis.”
—Timothy Cardinal Dolan describing Father Gene Hamilton, Priests for the Third Millennium, page 130
“Faith will tell us Christ is present
When our human senses fail.”
—St. Thomas Aquinas, Tantum Ergo
There’s a famous Kierkegaard quote where the Danish philosopher accuses Bible scholarship of putting the readers of the New Testament at a safe distance from its clear injunctions. Its claims and demands are shocking, but fortunately, he says, we have academics who can explain it all away. Thank God, too; it is a fearful thing to be left alone with the New Testament.
For example, we all know the admonition of the Beatitudes to pluck out your eyes and chop off your hands if they cause you to sin. These warnings are usually exegeted as being hyperbole meant to stress how passionately we should root out the causes of sin in our lives. Perhaps that is so. But the legend tells us that Simon the Tanner took these verses completely literally, and acted them out. We may smirk at his naiveté—if only he’d understood proper hermeneutical practice! On the other hand, we are also told that he literally moved a mountain on command, which the Lord says that only who has even the slightest modicum of faith could easily accomplish. Why can’t we, who claim to have faith, move mountains, too? Fortunately for us, we have footnotes explaining that this, too, was just hyperbole on Christ’s part, so this story need not rebuke us too harshly.
But I think the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our scholastic stars, but in our selves. None of us needs, and only a few of us use, theories about non-Apostolic origins of the Gospels to escape the disturbing implications of the words of Christ. All we need is a calloused familiarity with them, and we can skim over the most startling of utterances without so much as a flutter of the eyelashes, let alone of the heart.
More to the point: Catholics pride ourselves on taking Jesus more literally than most Protestants when we take Him at His word regarding the Eucharist. “This is my Body”; “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood possesses eternal life.” We are humble enough to assume He meant precisely what He took such pains to say, over against those who squeamishly invent more harmless (and contrived) explanations to dull the edge of these perplexing words. But how many of us—and I speak here of, and to, all individual Christians—are just as straightforward in our reading of Matthew 25: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
I should make the disclaimer here that I’m not going to talk about social justice in this note. Not really, anyway. The only thing I’m going to say about that is that Christ is not talking about those who tried to solve this abstract thing called “the problem of poverty”. He speaks of those who have taken care of and have loved poor and suffering persons. Early on in The Brothers Karamazov, a woman from the village confesses to Father Zosima that she has trouble loving people. Not humanity, mind you—she loves mankind in general. She just can’t love individual persons. Father Zosima counsels her that this is exactly her problem: The more you love humanity in the abstract, the less you’ll love the material human in front of you.
Catholicism has always been wary of any vast and all-encompassing plan to solve temporal problems, not only because they attempt to immanentize the eschaton but because they tend to sacrifice humans on the altar of humanity. The future Pope John Paul II wrote a play, My God’s Brother, in which a monk and a Communist for a walk to discuss how to solve this nebulous “problem of poverty”. At one point they pass by a beggar on the side of the road. The Marxist carries on chattering about how to help the poor, apparently oblivious to this concrete opportunity right in front of him. Only then does the monk realize that his companion is a devil in disguise.
The beggar, on the other hand, would have been Jesus in what Mother Theresa often called the “distressing disguise” of the homeless and disenfranchised. This is what I am writing about here: How to be more open to encountering Christ and His grace. I have nothing to say about how to change social and economic structures that inscribe injustice onto our collective DNA. These must be dealt with, but I confess that I have no counsel for that here. This is simply a quick devotional thought that would be more appropriate coming from a country preacher than an urban rights activist.
So let’s consider God’s grace. I wrote a note a while ago about how intellectually oriented Christians can be pretty snobby towards less theologically informed brethren they encounter. God, I pointed out, is inside those believers, too. In that piece I stole a page from Flannery O’Connor’s story, “A Temple of the Holy Ghost.” In it, two frivolous Catholic girls go out with some good-natured but somewhat simple Protestant boys, who earnestly sing low church hymns to the girls. They, in turn, mockingly sing the hymn of Eucharistic Adoration, “Tantum Ergo.” Unfamiliar with the song and unable to distinguish Latin from Hebrew, one of the boys ignorantly asks whether it’s some sort of “Jew song.” (There’s a hidden but clever irony here, since the lyrics explicitly mention how the Mass has transcended the liturgy of Judaism.)
At this point, the teenaged protagonist, a thinly veiled Author Surrogate, loses her composure and snaps at the boy that he’s nothing but a “big dumb Church of God ox.” But that boy, of course, is a vessel of God’s presence, albeit concealed under a humble appearance, just as Jesus is present under the unassuming forms of bread and wine at Mass; and our heroine had perhaps forgotten that the author of “Tantum Ergo”, St. Thomas Aquinas, was also once thought to be rather slow-witted, even to the point of being nicknamed “the dumb ox.”
Now, many people who commented on that note mentioned that they liked its content except that they disagreed with its references to transubstantiation. I respectfully have to reply that I don’t think any insights it may have had can survive apart from the dogma of transubstantiation. O’Connor’s story does not merely rely on Eucharistic imagery but on Eucharistic theology, and when C.S. Lewis says that “next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses,” this tribute is only meaningful if you accepted that the Blessed Sacrament contains the Real Presence of the Lord.
But I have to admit that this goes both ways. I am not convinced that we can fully appreciate and worship the Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament unless we can respond to His Presence in the least of these His brethren. In 1 Corinthians 11, St. Paul chastises his audience for the divisions within their congregation, which even manifest themselves when they gather at the Lord’s Table, supposedly the ultimate symbol of Christian unity. The wealthy, in fact, are hogging the bread and wine for themselves, even to the point of getting drunk, and leaving the poor to go hungry. “You have homes in which to eat and drink, don’t you?” the Apostle angrily demands. “Or do you despise God’s church and humiliate those who have nothing?” (verse 21) He goes on to remind the Corinthians that whoever eats and drinks without “discerning the Lord’s body” eats and drinks damnation to himself. For this reason, the Church withholds communion from non-Catholics, who may not assent to the teaching of transubstantiation, and from small children, who may not understand the teaching of transubstantiation, so as to protect them from condemning themselves. But St. Paul’s main point seems to be that they are failing to perceive Christ’s body in the poor members of the Church, and it’s the failure to see Jesus in them that turns the Lord’s Supper from a means of grace into a blasphemy.
If we should acknowledge Jesus in the poor in a similar way to how we acknowledge Him in the Host, then the obvious question is just how we do acknowledge Him in the Host. The first and most obvious example is that we consume Him at Mass after at least an hour of fasting and often after observing a Grand Silence the night before to prepare our hearts and minds for His arrival. We bow before the altar where He is offered and kneel before the tabernacle or monstrance where He is housed. When we pass a Catholic church we cross ourselves. No one need be mystified by the Sign of the Cross; it’s simply a way of praying with our bodies as well as our hearts. In these various and sundry ways we pay homage to our Redeemer.
What does this translate into if we assume that Christ is also present in the least of these that we encounter on the street? At the very least, it should stop us from merely feeling a twang of patronizing compassion or awkwardly trying to avoid them—or, worse still, looking down on them with disgust and passing judgment on what we assume must have been the poor personal choices (or government policies) that landed them here. Pope Benedict XVI quotes St. Gregory of Nyssa’s words about the poor: “Do not despise them, those who lie idly, as if for this reason they were worth nothing. Consider who they are and you will discover wherein lies their dignity: they represent the Person of the Savior. And this is how it is: for in his goodness the Lord gives them his own Person so that through it, those who are hard of heart and enemies of the poor may be moved to compassion.”
Instead of despising them, we should love them. But what does this tangibly mean? Here is a story you may find horrifying but will hopefully find challenging, in the vein of the legend of Simon the Tanner. St. Catherine of Siena was once caring for a woman named Andrea, who, it seems, embodied all the traits about the poor and suffering we find most difficult to get used to. She was rude and obstinate, even spreading malicious rumours about this patient nun who was tending to her, and had breast cancer which had so decayed her body and caused it to smell so awful that most people couldn’t be around her. One day, St. Catherine experienced a strong revulsion to this woman against her will, and she immediately became angry at herself for reacting this way to a child of God. In that moment she bent her head and drank up the puss from the Andrea’s putrefying wound, which she later proclaimed to possess a sweetness and delight exceeding all other food she had ever tasted. Indeed, St. Catherine got to a point where she refused all food other than the Eucharist, a spoonful of herbs a day, and the puss from the sickly. She is not the only saint this has been reported about; St. Catherine of Genoa and Blessed Angela of Foligno are also known to have abstained from all food other than the Host and the lice and scabs of the ill and the dying, which the latter declared to be as “sweet as the Eucharist.” And it must be said that there is an uncompromising logic to this: Jesus said that He was found in the least of these, and tells us to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to gain eternal life. Why would anyone who truly believed these words have need for any other food besides the Body of the Lord, wherever it is found?
Most of us are probably not called to anything so dramatic, though this probably has more to do with our own lack of faith than anything else. But stories like this should, at the very least, give us serious pause. Perhaps, at the very least, we should discreetly cross ourselves when we pass a panhandler, whether or not we feel compelled to give them anything more concrete than a silent prayer. Maybe we should start bowing our heads to them in reverence rather than in an attempt to avoid meeting their eyes.
There is another old practice, that of making the Sign of the Cross whenever you hear a siren, whether from a police car, a fire truck, or an ambulance. Not only is this to pray for those involved, but I think it also reminds us that God is present wherever there is suffering, and thus we venerate Him in it. Speaking only for myself, I can honestly say that I didn’t realize how effectively I had tuned out the fact that the world around me was filled with suffering until I started this practice. Perhaps we’d all have a similar epiphany if we started doing this whenever we encountered one of these streetside Incarnations.
What you do with that epiphany is for you to work out in the silence of your prayer closet.