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Sharing the Gospel with the Poorest; A Retreat: Beatitudes must Change our Lives

Recently we were invited to give a retreat to the Faith and Sharing group of the L’Arche community in Cleveland, Ohio.

L’Arche was founded in 1964 by Jean Vanier, who invited two men from a mental institution in France to come and live with him as brothers.

In setting up this home, Jean chose to look at handicapped people in a radical way, one inspired by the life of Jesus and the Beatitudes. In a society that values production and competition, those with a mental handicap teach us the value of sharing, acceptance and joy. The foundation stone of L’Arche, which now has many houses around the world, is the idea of “living with,” and not just “doing for” those with mental handicaps. “Love” and “Prayer” are at the heart of L’Arche.

The retreat house in Cleveland was full of wheel chairs, crutches and seeing eye dogs. Some of those disabled since birth couldn’t speak and communicated through making loud sounds and grunts, which gave us encouragement as we made our presentations. They were full of life!

The retreatants whose twisted and tortured bodies would never see the light of day in today’s culture (at least not for very long) were accepted as full participants along with others who share their lives. We began there to understand life issues in a different way.

The retreat confirmed for us what St. Paul says in I Corinthians:

“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world. ”

We began our retreat by focusing on the Beatitudes and the challenge of living according to the Sermon on the Mount in a society based on consumerism, relativism and individualism.

We spoke of the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25:31ff. as a reversal of values, exemplified in movements like L’Arche, the Catholic Worker, and in the spirituality of Charles de Foucauld and Rene Voillaume. These movements share the commitment to living out in a radical way the teachings of the Gospel. They are counter-cultural. The Gospel itself is counter-cultural.

In the Kingdom of God the greatest are not the most powerful, those who have the most things, not the strongest, the smartest. The Lord told us he is present in the poor, the weak.

However, in our society it is difficult to believe this and live as though the Gospel were true, because of the tremendous pressure to be in style–in our clothing, having a beautiful house, the latest style car, etc. The world encourages us to put all our trust in financial security and seek physical and emotional comfort.

As Christians we are called to metanoia, to conversion of heart, to live according to the Beatitudes instead of the upside-down values of our world. Metanoia is a complete reversal of values from the way the world thinks to that of the Sermon on the Mount.

Fr. John Hugo, who was Dorothy Day’s spiritual director, spoke a lot about samples, the good things of God’s creation. The beautiful things around us-creatures-food, flowers, trees, animals, are a “cosmic picture gallery” reflecting the glory of God. Fr. Hugo tells us that the problem is that we confuse these creatures with the Creator, or replace our desire for our creator with the desire for things. The comforts of life, the Garden of Eden, are merely samples. Our destiny is the transformation of ourselves and our world in Christ, not to be caught up in the samples.

Jesus entered history and changed everything. He demanded an act of choice to what he had just said in the Beatitudes. These weren’t meant to be just a few nice sayings, but words to completely change our lives. They weren’t meant for a few very committed people, but for all Chirstians.

Peter Maurin called these the shock maxims of the Gospel: going the extra mile, giving your extra shirt to the one who asks, loving your enemy, forgiving in the face of criticism and persecution, turning the other cheek, seeking first the Kingdom of God and understanding blessedness in a new way.

Popular psychology (which emphasizes self-help and looking out for number one), television and advertisement all distract us from living the Sermon on the Mount. They directly undermine its truth and discourage us from living it. But taking literally these shock maxims is liberating and life is never boring for those who seek to live them. They are enjoyable to practice, although the Cross is also always there, in long hours of work and in the suffering of the people. The Cross will always be there as the prelude to Easter.

The retreatants were most interested in stories of our guests and our work. Telling the story about Mark’s taking his shirt off to give it to a poor man who requested it, only to discover later that the shirt he gave away had a check in the pocket for $500 (donation) delighted them.

Fortunately, we could get another shirt from the clothing room and start the chase for the man to exhange it if we could find him. We found him, thank God, and he was willing to exchange shirts.

Learning from the Poor

Jesus told us that the poor and the poor in spirit are the blessed. Hopefully, we can learn from the poorest, from their faith and hope in God, so that we might also be blessed.

Some of the poorest are the mentally and physically handicapped, those whose lives are shared at L’Arche.

Others among the poorest are the immigrants who are forced to leave their homes in other countries to come to the United States in the hope of earning enough to help their families back home. The people who find their way to Casa Juan Diego have sometimes walked for days, for weeks, to get here. They have often gone several days without eating, their poor feet are all swollen, their legs all bitten up. They have had to sleep and walk where there are wild animals and snakes. Water is hard to find on the journey, food depends on the charity of people met on the road. Thank God, there is water put out for the cows in the country.

When people arrive at Casa Juan Diego and we place a plate of rice, beans, vegetables, fruit and bread in front of them, sometimes they start to cry, remembering their families at home who don’t have enough to eat. When they do eat, often their stomachs rebel, because of days without eating.

The men often ride on the bottom of trains and arrive filthy dirty. The first thing they ask for is a bath and a change of clothes. They look like new human beings when they have bathed and changed, like what they are: persons made in the image and likeness of God.

The guests of Casa Juan Diego often tell their stories before our Wednesday evening Mass. Almost without exception, after telling about horrendous and dangerous experiences on their journey to the United States, they mention how God was with them, how He does not abandon us in the most difficult times.

The immigrant women tell about being raped on their journey to the United States. The majority are violated. They can’t believe we will accept them and their babies to live at Casa Juan Diego. They have heard that in the United States it is a crime to allow a child of rape to see the light of day. Their faith and culture, their convicton that the rape is not the child’s or the mother’s fault, deter them from having abortions. The poor so often believe in life, even in the midst of situations that would bring the middle class to despair.

We do set a limit to the help we give to mothers who don’t want an abortion. We only help them until their child is 18.

The Poor as Christ’s Body

We emphasized Matthew 25 often in the retreat, where Jesus says that when you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and provide hospitality to the homeless, you are doing it for Him. Living out Matthew 25 is at the heart of the Catholic Worker movement.

When we look to see who is the least, there we find Christ.

In one of her most powerful reflections, Dorothy Day reminds us that, “It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.

“But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that He speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that He gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that He walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that He longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.

“If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman or child, I am replaying the part of Lazarus or Martha or Mary, and that my guest is Christ.

“For He said that a glass of water given to a beggar was given to Him. He made heaven hinge on the way we act toward Him in His disguise of common place, frail, ordinary humanity.

“And to those who say, aghast, that they never had a chance to do such a thing, that they lived two thousand years too late, He will say again what they had the chance of knowing all their lives, that if these things were done for the very least of His brethren they were done to Him.”

We shared with the retreatants how Father Raniero Cantalamessa also puts flesh on Matthew 25 when he states, “He who pronounces the words, ‘This is my body’ over the bread, has also spoken the same words about the poor.” ‘

“Christ is not present in the poor person in the same way as He is in the Eucharist and the other sacraments, but He is ‘really,’ truly present in them too. He ‘instituted’ this sign, just as He instituted the Eucharist.”

For many centuries, the Church has taught us that an excellent method of living out Matthew 25 is through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Since they aren’t taught as frequently these days in catechetics, we wrote these out for the retreatants. They were easy to find because Dorothy Day often quotes them in her writings: The Spiritual Works of Mercy are: to admonish the sinner, to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to comfort the sorrowful, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive all injuries, and to pray for the living and the dead. The Corporal Works are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to ransom the captive, to harbor the harborless, to visit the sick, and to bury the dead.

Hospitality can be Exciting

We wanted to convince our retreatants that responding to Christ in the poor, and specifically our work with poor immigrants, is not only sacred, it is interesting and exciting.

At Casa Juan Diego we receive many men with fractured skulls, broken legs and knife wounds, especially from Ben Taub Hospital. If these men can’t prove they are legal, no one will help-absolutely no one, even if the person has been here for 40 years. So they come to Casa Juan Diego.

We received this one young man (Jose) from El Salvador, with head shaven, with deep creases, marks of a head injury and surgery. He didn’t know who he or where he was and we were worried he would venture on to Durham Avenue, one of the most dangerous places in Houston, even for people who know where they are, in trying to avoid being run over.

Usually, if the injured stay on their Dilantin, things sort of grow back together in the brain and after a time the victims of head injuries who come to us remember.

It all happened suddenly at Mass one Wednesday night. Louise was playing songs on the guitar that she learned in El Salvador. Jose jumped up, “I know who I am! I know who I am! I was a seminarian in El Salvador and we sang those songs!”

Not only did Jose know who he was, now he knew where he lived in Montrose. We accompanied him to his old apartment where he hadn’t been seen for several months.

We knocked on the door, sure that his friends had moved. Fortunately, his friends were there. What a reunion! He whom they had given up for dead was alive. His friends figured he was dead. They had checked with the morgue and the police. Everyone wept.

These are real Matthew 25 stories.

In his book, Poverty (Alba House, 1997), Fr. Cantalamessa recounts the first time the truth of Matthew 25 exploded within him with clarity: “I was visiting a third world country, and with each new scene of misery I saw-a child in a tattered dress, her belly swollen and her face covered in flies; a group of people running after a refuse cart, hoping to pick up something dumped in the garbage heap; a body covered in sores-I heard a voice booming inside me: ‘This is my body. This is my body.’ It literally took my breath away.”

We often feel this way in Casa Juan Diego.

Poor may not Act like Christ

Cantalamessa says that the poor person is the vicarius Christi, the vicar of Christ, someone who stands in Christ’s place. “Once again, he or she is a vicar in the passive sense, not active. Not in the sense that whatever a poor person does, it is as if it were done by Christ, but in the sense that whatever is done to the poor, it is as if it were done to Christ: “You did it to me!” In other words,the poor person, the vicarious Christi may not always act like Christ.

This reflection of Fr. Cantala-messa reminded us ofthe story of Luis, which we recounted to the retreatants. The story began with a phone call in Spanish from the men’s house. “You had better get over here, Mark. There is a man in the center of the main large room with a golf club ready to hit anyone who comes near him. Please come to take the club away.”

That was quite an assignment. We know it’s not considered professional to talk about religion in public, but frankly, we began to pray and promised more prayers for a week–and we walked slowly, very slowly the few hundred feet to the men’s house.

As we entered, we saw 50 men clinging to the walls and Luis in the center with his swinging golf club. I knew that we had to act fast, so I walked directly to Luis and put my arms around him in a big hug. Luis broke down. “These guys aren’t being nice to me,” he said. As we hugged him, we also hugged the golf club, which Luis gave to me without a problem.

The Bassett Superman

Service to others is important, but if we lost the vision we lose everything. We become do-gooders and social workers and lovers in dreams.

Sometimes we can get tired of always serving the poor or washing their feet, as our Master asked us to do for one another.

Once we had the privilege of attending a retreat by the famous Jesuit retreat master, Fr. Bernard Basset. We had been overworked, prior to the retreat, having assumed a lot of work of colleagues who in our not so humble judgment were neglecting people and the poor.

We wanted to present this problem to Fr. Bassett. We knew ahead of time that with modern psychology and all, he would say: “Don’t you dare do the work of others. Just take care of your own work. Don’t cause problems.”

As we presented the problem to Fr. Bassett, he listened attentively, but was somewhat fidgety and the moment we finished, he shot out of his chair and shouted, “THE WASHING OF THE FEET! It’s all answered in THE WASHING OF THE FEET! It’s all answered in THE WASHING OF THE FEET!”

That’s about all he said. Never again did we complain.

Putting on the Mind of Christ

It is not easy to keep our minds and hearts focused on the Lord and to always respond as we would like to do as Christians.

We have to be people of prayer and the Eucharist if we are going to put on the mind of Christ. Recently, we asked a seminary spiritual director what was the latest popular book being read by to seminarians. He responded quietly, the book is the New Testament.

Sometimes we Christians live as if the Incarnation never happened. We can be just as angry, as selfish as the next person, if we don’t build a good foundation and keep growing in love, if we don’t put on the mind of Christ.

We fail. And we begin again, with God’s grace, on the continuing path of our conversion. When we recognize our brokenness, Christ pours in His grace.

We have to remember that we are not only human beings. We can’t use that excuse: “I’m only human.” We are not only human. We are graced We share the divine life through baptism. We are incarnational. We are Christified. We are not merely human beings.

St. Paul tells that we must put on the mind of Christ-conform our thinking and our hearts more and more to the mind of Jesus.

We must let Jesus fill our minds. We can look to the three Fiats: the example of Mary, who responded, “Be it done to me according to Thy word,” let me follow your call. We must look to Jesus’ Fiat in the face of suffering: “Not my will, but Yours. I came to do the will of my Father.” Then the Church’s Fiat-that’s ours! Core to our faith are these Fiats.

The L’Arche communities spend time in contemplation and adoration of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and this was very much a part of the retreat.

Our guests at Casa Juan Diego have found that the worries and crises of our lives often can be solved through prayer and the Mass. One interesting example is the story of Juan.

Juan came to us from El Salvador. He insisted that we find his sister. He said that he had the address-Main Street, Houston. Well, Main Street is miles long and we would have a difficult time locating her.

The next Sunday, Juan went to the Spanish Mass at St. Anne’s Church. Lo and behold in this city of several million, he found her at Mass there.

Juan confirmed that it pays to go to Mass.

No Cheap Grace

The group loved the talk about cheap grace and costly grace. We remembered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant minister who wrote a book on being a Christian before he died, called The Cost of Discipleship.

Discipleship is not cheap. There are no bargains.

The question is, what does it cost to be a Christian? Do we have to be a costly Christian or can we be a cheap Christian?

The very first sentence of his book says, “Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church,” and the second sentence continues, “We are fighting today for costly grace.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, Macmillan, 1959: first published, 1937).

Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without repentance, grace without Christ, living and incarnate.

Costly Grace

Costly grace, Bonhoeffer says, is the Gospel, which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a person must knock.

It is costly because it cost a person His life, and it is grace because it gives a person true life.

Costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart. Grace is costly because it compels a person to submit to the yoke of Christ and follow him; it is grace because Jesus says: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

The follower of Jesus who lives the Beatitudes and Matthew 25, who takes discipleship seriously finds grace costly. This way is one of the ways to become a saint.

Saints Needed

Saints are really needed today for the Church to be present in society. They are the first fruits of the Kingdom.

People can meet them. It is precisely this sign that justifies the church’s claim to announce the Kingdom. People can see the splendor of the Redeemer in their faces and in their works.

Needed Witness

We need witnesses to make sure that there is a living reality. Otherwise Christianity is an ideology or utopia not related to reality. The living reality is only created by the saint!

The Church is necessary, but in order to make saints. Without the saints, the Church becomes a power institution.

People criticize the Church and believe that they must first change the Church structures, forgetting that each one of us is important in the Body of Christ and must come to the Church to help us to be saints. That is why we have the Church.

Don Divo Barsotti, confessor to recent popes, emphasizes this in interviews: “Without the saints the Church becomes a despotic power (I say this with a shiver), as in the frightening image of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Only holiness justifies the Church’s teaching; otherwise even all the documents and statements of the Magisterium become empty words. There are men and women who are evident signs of a reality that is not of this world. Their differentness is thrust upon one; it is like finding oneself in front of a miracle. This is not because they are not subject to nature (they are wretches, like all others); but nature cannot explain this.

“Salvation is not an assent to a generic moral code, or to the values of peace, of humanism, but to the person of Christ and to one’s own person. It is a passionate love for Christ that moves the people who meet saints.”

The experience of the retreat enriched the authors at least as much as our reflections might have helped the participants. The final gathering was powerful–with all the participants washing each others’ feet. It reminded us again that the Lord chose what is weak and foolish in the world to teach and inspire us all.

May the same Holy Spirit who shaped Jesus’ ministry on earth, shape us in love, in all our weakness and brokenness as we wash each others’ feet in imitation of our Lord.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVIII, No. 5, September-October 1998.