This article was first published in the Houston Catholic Worker in February 1986.
It was a beautiful day with the early morning sun streaming through the stained glass windows and glancing off the faces of the packed congregation.
Everything and everybody seemed so bright and shiny. Even I felt that way, used clothing and all.
The priest gave a beautiful sermon that had the people in tears. He spoke about his past experience with the poor and how he had learned the hard way about seeing Jesus in the face of the poor and each other. All of us, he insisted, must learn from his example and see the face of Jesus in those who ask anything of us.
I did not shed tears. I had pangs of guilt because I don’t always automatically see the face of Jesus in those who come for help. I wanted to leave the bright and shiny and crawl under the pew.
Not automatic transmission
The other day we had some dressers and bureaus—a very valuable commodity for poor families—(to give away), an unusual phenomenon. Several mothers saw me coming and literally tackled me to ask about them. I didn’t respond: “Thank you, Jesus,” or “You all have the face of Jesus,” but said, “You all ought to try out for the Houston Oilers, old Lyn Herzog could certainly use you.”
Now is that the reaction of a Matthew 25 Christian?
Like the Eucharist
For me it is like the Eucharist. We see the bread, but know through the eyes of faith that Jesus in present.
The same with the works of mercy.
The face of Jesus is not always visible. The face you see is frequently one of suffering, despair, pain, helplessness, and loneliness or maybe the face of hatred, greed, and selfishness, or it could be the face of friendship, love and respect for what we are doing—or trying to be.
Just as the bread is changed into Jesus, the faces change into the face of Jesus—but not visibly. The change takes place in your heart. You are going to treat this person the way you would treat Jesus because the Bible tells us, “What you did to the least of the brethren you did to me.”
We don’t love and serve the poor because they are better people or more lovable than others. Jesus loved the poor to show the power of God’s love and we try to share that love.
Seeing the face of Jesus in the face of the poor requires faith and a change of heart-a conversion. Seeing the face of Jesus has to do with seeing the poor through the eyes of the Gospels.
The eyes of the heart are imperfect and we have inherited a spiritual myopia and astigmatism.
The goal of our prayer life is to improve this vision so to have 20/20 Gospel vision.
It is very easy to see the face of Christ in the poor as long as Channel 13 or the Catholic Herald or the Chronicle photographers are there.
But what do you do when the face of Christ spits on you, or curses you or quotes Dorothy Day to you or who doesn’t say “Thank you. You all are really great.”
What do you do when the face of Christ gets drunk and wants to fight, or wants to steal all that isn’t nailed?—and not only wants to, but does.
When do you stop seeing the face of Christ—or rather when do you really begin to love with the genuine article?
We can romanticize the work with the poor. It is hard, endless, and frustrating, and unless we pray and meditate and go constantly to our spiritual roots, we will go crazy or go away.
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, struggled with this issue of love of the poor.
Dorothy received much inspiration from the Russian novelist Dostoevsky. From The Brothers Karamazov she has quoted many times a phrase from the statement on love made by the monk, Fr. Zossima.
An attractive society woman keeps pressing Father Zossima for answers in regard to gaining immortality, to which he replies: “By the experience of active love…In so far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul.”
Must be thanked?
And what was meant by “active love?” the woman asked. She loved humanity. Often she dreamed of a life of service to the unfortunate that filled her with warmth. She could nurse the afflicted; she would be ready to kiss their wounds. But sometimes she wondered how she would react if she were not repaid in gratitude for her service. What if the patient “began abusing you and rudely commanding you, and complaining to the superior authorities of you (which often happens when people are in great suffering)—what then?” She could not bear ingratitude. “I expect my payment at once—that is praise, and the repayment of love with love. Otherwise I am incapable of loving anyone.”
Love in Action
The radicalism that seeks to change the time-formed arrangements of values and institutions has time as its ally, but the radicalism of love ignores time, and its course for the bearer of love is the most difficult to follow. When the woman stated that she had to have gratitude as repayment of the love she gave, Father Zossima answered in words that Dorothy Day has many times repeated: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.”
Love in Dreams
“Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, all looking and applauding as though on the stage.
“Active love is labour and fortitude, and for some people, too, perhaps a complete science. But I predict that just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting further from your goal instead of nearer to it—at that very moment you will reach and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.” (from William D. Miller, A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement (Doubleday, 1974).
Recently I was visiting my mother in another state and while visiting I received a phone call from a person I used to work with about 20 years ago. He reminded me of how I insisted that we see Christ in the face of the poor. Some of us have short memories!
Houston Catholic Worker, January-March 2017, Vol. XXXVI, No. 1.