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The Sorrow and Beauty of Goodbye at Casa Juan Diego, the Houston Catholic Worker

More often than we’d like, we have to say goodbye. The work of housing people on their journey has taught me that. But the pain of parting has taught me about the importance of it too. Our houses of hospitality are temporary; they are not meant to be a permanent home. Therefore, inherent to the work is a constant cycle of welcoming guests and saying goodbye. Those who come to us leave for a large variety of reasons and each one is different from the one before, yet it is almost always bittersweet.

We follow the law of love here. A cherished quote by St. John of the Cross is taped on the wall in our entrada and should rule our lives, “Where there is no love, put love – and you will find love.” People arrive to us broken and in need of love; so loving them to life again is a great part of the work of hospitality to the poor and the immigrant. As Lord Tennyson famously said, “Tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” The guests share their sorrows with us and it touches the center of our hearts. Love is born and grows in these moments of uniting our sorrows. Anyone who has been so vulnerable to let her heart be moved by the misery of another knows the pain. Whether it is a friend moving away, a breakup in a relationship, or a parent dying, we who have let our hearts love know the heartbreak of goodbye.

We strive to love our guests because of their inherent dignity and because Jesus shows us in the Gospels how much in need of love the suffering are. We love them because Jesus asks us to love the poor particularly well, but we also love them because they are kind and funny and they loved us first, just like our good God. As guests stay a bit longer, we become invested in their lives. We become their advocates and hopeful cheerleaders for their victory.

And yet, we are not here to be the savior. We are not the answer, we are not the end. “All the way to Heaven is Heaven because he said I am the Way.” We see glimpses of glory here. We walk with the body of Christ, with the poor of Casa Juan Diego. And then we watch them go. One day they come to us and say, “Ya me voy.” Sometimes we know they have been making plans, but often it is unexpected and feels abrupt. We want to hold on to them because we love them but their time has come, the victory we hoped for might await. Dorothy Day told us, “The best things to do with the best things in life is to give them away.”

The work belongs to God. He loved us first. He gives us Himself. The Eucharist sustains us and we are sustained by the love of His body in the poor. We receive Him and then we offer back what we are given.

Shortly into my time as a Catholic Worker I remember hearing that one of the men from the men’s house had gone to the hospital and died. I was struck with grief. I didn’t know this man so I wasn’t sad that I wouldn’t see him again. I was sad that he had died alone. His name was Juan Peñalosa. There was nothing I did or could have done to make this man’s life or death better, but in that sadness I was brought to my knees. Knowing that one of the spiritual works of mercy is to pray for the living and the dead, I knew that I was called to pray for this man and honor his life. I said goodbye to a man I had never said hello to and offered him back to the Father that he might rest in peace. Occasionally, Louise will inform us that one of the sick or injured people whom we help has died. This work is full of grief of all kinds.

The suffering our guests experience and the pain of letting go illumines the beauty of the cross. Is there only beauty in the cross because we know it leads to the Resurrection? Or can we have such great faith to say there is beauty in the cross before the Resurrection? In mere words it stings to say there is beauty in a mother holding her dead son, but is there not infinite beauty in Michelangelo’s sculpture La Pieta? The tragedies that our guests experience are embodied in the intensity of the image of Mary holding Jesus. They are separated from their children, their husbands are deported, they have been raped and abused, they are persecuted and neglected. Yet, in the midst of their suffering is where I come to see that they are some of the most beautiful people I have ever met.

The beauty is one that aches for salvation and the glory of eternal life. We savor the beauties of this earth in the meantime. The classic Dostoevsky quote comes to mind, “Beauty will save the world.” We receive a weekly produce order from The Houston Food Bank and recently we found a box of fresh flowers among the pounds of potatoes, carrots, and canned goods. They were too old to still be sold in the grocery store but had enough life to be trimmed and placed in a vase at a Catholic Worker house. So we scattered them through the house, finding it worth it to spread the colorful beauty even though we knew they would die soon. The temporal beauties in this life point us to the beauty of eternity. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “As we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.” What are the beauties that make us ache?

I think of the story of the raising of Lazarus. We see the suffering of a dying Lazarus and grieving sisters, Martha and Mary. Yet in the midst of her sorrow Martha proclaims her belief in the Lord. Our hearts throb at the beauty of Lazarus emerging from the tomb with bandages loosening off his body. “The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.” (John 11:44)

One of our guests took every job that came her way, trying to pay the bail for her husband in detention. One day she quietly told us that he had been deported back to their country in Africa. We echoed the plea of Martha and Mary, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” We settled into the reality that she would struggle in this country alone, but soon enough the Lord showed us this was not the end of the story. The receiving country deemed it was too dangerous for him to return and he was promptly sent back to the detention center in the US! Nothing will be impossible for God. All hope seems lost but there are moments when the Lord allows the suffering to manifest His glory.

When Jesus was preparing for his departure He said to his disciples, “I did not tell you this from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to the one who sent me, and not one of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I told you this, grief has filled your hearts. But I tell you the truth, it is better for you that I go.” (John 16:4b-7) Grief fills my heart in this work, but I trust in the promise that it is better for me that they go. In the letting go, we honor the truth that whatever or whoever we let go was never ours in the first place. “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)


Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Jan.-Feb. 2018.