by Fr. Pat McNulty.
The toothless, scruffy old beggar outside the bus station didn’t bat an eye when I declined her sexual pitch. But before I could converse with her along a more favourable line, she said to me, "Got a penny?"
Her question caught me off guard. "A penny?" I asked. "What are you gonna do with a penny?"
She put her hand on her hip, stood sideways, looked me right in the eye as if I had just asked the dumbest question in the classroom and said, "It’s a start, ain’t it?"
We in Madonna House depend on begging for all our needs, and our founder Catherine Doherty used to say that if we ever stopped begging, we would disappear from the mind of God! (Gulp!)
Some of my brothers and sisters in the apostolate have taken this gospel-cue from Catherine to a heroic and life-giving level. Me? I am not a good beggar: pure and simple, I’m still too proud to beg for some things. I do the best I can, but it’s far from the mark. Jesus, mercy!
So it always seemed strange to me that whenever I travelled, I had this uncanny pull toward beggars on the street. Whenever we would encounter each other, look each other in the eye or greet one another, something happened between us. And it happened whether I gave them any money or not.
In some very mysterious fashion, I was always shocked back into the reality of how much alike we were.
Because if I let go of guilt and shame and pity and was just with them eyeball to eyeball, heart to heart, for the few moments we had together, or even if just in passing, I knew again that I, too, was poor and a beggar. That’s why we met at that moment in that place.
Generally I am not comfortable talking about poverty because compared to "the poor," I am not poor, and I don’t particularly want to be. But there is something about Jesus Christ that I must come to know as a Christian and generally I only see it or suspect it when I come face to face with "poor" poverty.
In a magnificent booklet, Poverty of Spirit, the author, Fr. Johannes Metz, reminds me of this when he says that we are all beggars because we are members of a species that is not sufficient unto itself. We are all on a restless pilgrimage in search of a final fulfillment which those who are truly poor know is theirs only in the kingdom of heaven.
And he goes on to say that when I encounter Jesus Christ, God in our flesh, I finally become aware of my inherent poverty as a human being because I finally meet someone who is absolutely poor. For Christ is someone whose very identity is utterly dependent on the will of someone else, the will of his Father.
So, whenever I read the gospel account of that magnificent encounter in the desert between Christ and Satan, as we do this year on February 21st, the First Sunday of Lent, I think Christ makes the essence of the will of his Father very clear.
He says to me that he (Jesus) is not seeking a trouble free, miraculous way out of our human condition, but that his Father’s will is for him to enter into it as it is up until his last breath.
And he tells me that this Will is his food throughout his whole life, that like a poor beggar, he is utterly and totally dependent on the will of someone else for everything.
This "holy dependence" is what we mean when we speak of poverty: learning how to live on the Will of God until it becomes our very food.
The "rich" can run from that. I know. I’m rich and I run from it every day. And I assume that the poor can run from it as well, because both the rich and the poor are beggars in a very mysterious way. And only Christ can reveal to us how to become beggars without despairing of life as it is or judging one another as we are.
All of this "poverty stuff" comes to mind as I face yet another season of Lent. Not counting the one while I was in the womb, this is the 78th time I have come under the "purple power" of this holy season. (P.S. You do remember that the Church uses the color purple during Lent to remind us that we are poor beggars, don’t you? I thought so.)
Since that first Lent, much has changed in my life: there has been growth, healing, and conversion. But in some deep, deep place in my heart, I know that the real change hasn’t taken final hold yet. And it’s down there in those depths that I need to discover how poor I really am and how to beg for God’s mercy and for the ability to embrace this poverty with new hope and joy.
For I am insufficient unto myself. I, along with all of mankind, am on a restless pilgrimage, a pilgrimage in search of a final fulfillment which those who are truly poor know is theirs only in the kingdom of heaven.
We are all beggars! It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The Son of God was the poorest beggar of all, and it didn’t bother him a bit. It was, he said, his food to do the will of his Father!
But so many of us do not recognize our own poverty and thus cannot figure out why we are always so spiritually hungry.
I don’t love my spouse anymore. That’s poverty.
My child just died without warning in an accident. Why? Why? That’s poverty.
He’s a lousy preacher, but we’re stuck with him. That’s poverty.
My kids don’t have anything to do with God anymore. That’s poverty.
I don’t like this senior citizen dwelling I’m in. That’s poverty.
Why do you not heal me of this sickness, Lord? That’s poverty.
I spent a fortune on my education, and I can’t find a job commensurate with it anywhere. That’s poverty.
I’ve lost my job and I can’t find another one of any kind. That’s poverty.
I don’t want to grow old. That’s poverty.
I can’t stand my neighbour. That’s poverty.
I have no friends. That’s poverty.
Nobody understands me. That’s poverty.
Our poverty is all around us. We are all beggars. And The Beggar we follow has been there, done that, and wears the scars of those wounds. He knows exactly how to teach us to embrace our poverty as he embraced his. Even our need to be taught is our poverty!
Our desire to learn is our begging. And his response is the food that gives us new life.
Lent is a perfect desert-time for us to own our poverty, great or small, to put real words on it, to cry it out, to yell it out, to beg it out, and finally to embrace it as it is, whatever it is, and wrap it up in his mercy.
Then by Easter, after we’ve looked again with Jesus deep into our own personal poverty, the Risen Lord can show us how to reach out even more to one another—whether we are rich or poor. And then….
"That’s fine, Father, but what’s that got to do with the bottomless poverty of the real poor in this world? Sounds like a typical Christian cop-out to me!"
"Got a penny?"
"It’s a start, ain’t it?"
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