The last of the women had just gone upstairs after coming down for a nighttime glass of water, and it was finally quiet. I shut off the kitchen lights, checked the lock on the back door, and was about to head upstairs for the night when I noticed the chapel door slightly ajar and the light within it still on. Before heading to turn it off, I peeked inside to make sure no one was in there. It was empty. I had not meant to stay, but I found myself going inside. The silence was alluring, and all of a sudden I realized that I hadn’t spent a single moment alone that day.
I took a seat in the back, facing the altar of our small chapel where a flickering candle sat next to the tabernacle. Closing my eyes, I felt how the heavy stillness of the chapel contrasted with my racing mind, full of all the images and events of the day. As I sometimes do in prayer, I breathed in the quiet and tried to empty my mind of thoughts, but after a few minutes of trying I realized that this time that wouldn’t work. These needed to be sorted through.
I sifted through the memories, asking God to help me see them the way he wanted me to. First, I took the time to remember each of the faces of the people for whom I’d answered the door that day. Each one was a precious, hurting person – the tired mother of many, seeking medicine for her child; the wizened old man from the streets with a colorful history, seeking a box of food; the new family from Honduras that we’d welcomed who hadn’t slept in a bed in weeks. Then I remembered the little, joyful moments – the look of a grateful, disabled woman who we helped find a new wheelchair, the feeling of success after communicating something in Spanish correctly, the playful teasing with one of our women guests about her boyfriend. The moment while driving a family to the doctor’s office when their four year old and five year old were singing at the top of their lungs some Spanish children’s song and I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time with the sheer beauty of their joy.
Then I slowed down to take in the moments that were harder to swallow. There were a few in particular that stood out in the chaos of the day. One, a brief moment in our clothing room with one of our guests when she picked up a small child’s shoe and tearfully told me about the three-year-old daughter that she’d had to leave behind in Cuba. I exchanged a look with her that just about pierced my heart – her pain was so palpable and yet I could do nothing to help. Another was with the same woman and some others who I know have also been separated from their children. They gathered around me at dinnertime when I was holding the newborn baby of a guest and cooed at him, exchanging stories of their children. It was hopeful and beautiful and yet excruciating – their pain was made more bearable by the solidarity, the loving community, but it was still raw pain that I could only witness but not understand.
And the last memory was the one that stood out most in my mind. That fleeting moment when I glimpsed a wife helping her physically disabled husband, who cannot speak, into the new wheelchair we’d given to them. She had lifted him in a distinctive manner, and it had caught my eye as I was rushing out the door to drive a family to the doctor. I had turned back just for a few seconds to watch. She lifted him from under the arm, with her shoulder supporting his whole weight, using both hands to support him. In a flash of understanding I realized that I noticed it because it was the same position with which Christ is depicted in paintings as having lifted his cross. How beautiful and terrible – the way of the cross being lived out before me.
I was filled with gratitude for having been given the grace to see these events the way I did. I felt just then how necessary prayer is for this job – for how can we be truly changed by this work if we do not lift up all the events to God for Him to transform and reveal as moments of grace? I could have so easily just gone to bed and let them slip by. Thank God for that light on in the chapel that had beckoned me and for that flickering candle that signified Christ’s presence in the very heart of this place.
Houston Catholic Worker, September-October, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4.