The Agony of Asking
Recently, I received a request to visit a nursing home on Long Island. I made my way through the Metro turnstile and boarded a subway bound for Penn Station, so I could catch the Long Island Railroad (LIRR) to Montauk. Dolores, a bag lady from the Bronx, slipped into the far end of the car just before the doors closed. She announced her name, birth borough and need for assistance. She apologized for asking, begged for any change we could spare and thanked us ahead of time for our generosity and patience.
I knew the monologue. We all did. And her timing was impeccable. Before the next stop she had traveled the length of the aisle and collected a handful of cash. I wondered if the donors were motivated by charity, pity, a desire to be rid of her or gratitude that begging was her homeless agony in life, not theirs. When the train stopped at 34th Street the “home-full” disembarked beneath Madison Square Garden, Dolores continued toward Gethsemane.
The Scourge of Stinking
Penn Station was its usual bustle. I tried to make my way quickly to the LIRR but couldn't get to the platform before running into another indigent. This knight of the road was wearing too many layers of armor for the temperature. But when your back is your armoire, you wear everything you own all year round. His stench preceded him by 10 feet and lingered 10 feet behind.
I once toured a police station in the city and saw a 10-foot pole with a U-shaped bar at the end. I was told this was NYPD's tool to pin a disturbed person (DP) against a wall as a preventative measure from being slashed by swinging knives. Scourging with a long pipe may work where potential weapons are concerned but it's no defense against putrefying the air.
Initially, I thought this hobo was wearing boots. But on second glance, I realized his whole body was caked in dirt. I had mistaken his bare feet for shoes. His nails were so long they had curled over his toes and splintered. For want of a clipper, his feet resembled animal claws. Maybe destitute people find a sharp pair of scissors to be a more versatile tool than nail clippers. If so, it was better that this poor soul had no scissors or he might have felt the lash of the 10-foot pole.
Eventually, an officer gently ushered him off the premises on the grounds of vagrancy. In truth, his bare feet, bad odor and lack of zip code were a scourge to the community who wanted him out of their public buildings and back on the “street” with the rest of the people of the same name and address.
The Thorn of Tears
St. John's University calls this volunteer opportunity the “midnight run.” Faculty and students begin at 11 p.m. making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and packing fruit juice boxes for the homeless who inhabit seven parks in Manhattan. Although most city parks are technically shut down by 1 a.m., it is next to impossible to enforce some of these closures. As long as the homeless move out during the day when abiding citizens want to enjoy the greenery who cares if they sleep on the concrete slabs or wooden benches at night? After all, the taxpayers are safe and sound beneath clean sheet by then.
But here is the royal thorn in this ironic crown. One-fourth of all the homeless men in New York City are veterans. These were the young soldiers who, once upon a time, kept the country safe from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Now, they are forced to march along the avenues until the stroke of 12 when our campus ministry van shows up with coffee, tea, a bit of food and some donated clothing. Today, these broken warriors brave the elements as strongly as they once braved the foe. From what they told me, their biggest thorn is not lack of shelter or nourishment. What they miss most is human conversation. St. Teresa of Calcutta often remarked that of all the bodily suffering she witnessed, nothing was more painful than loneliness, whether that meant living alone on a street or dying alone in a gutter. It is to weep.
The Cocoon of the Carry
Instead of napping during the long rail trek east, I decided to check my e-mails. Surprise. A note from Jolinda with a prayer request. I had counseled this professional African American woman two years ago when she lost her sight due to the surgery that removed a tumor from her brain. Follow-up radiation therapy killed any lingering cancer cells but also shattered her sense of smell and her taste buds. At 45, she had regressed from being a first-place marketing expert to a second-grader's level of learning Braille. Five years ago, she was fiercely independent. Now, she was totally dependent upon her aging parents.
Her doctors warned that she would eventually suffer significant, if not total, hearing loss. Little by little, her weakening body was losing all contact with the outside world. The way and weight of her cross would devastate the strongest body builder and that was the gist of her supplication: “Can you pray that I don't lose my sense of touch? Otherwise, I would be a walking cocoon,” she jested. On her journey to Golgotha, her progressive illness was destroying all of her senses, except her sense of humor. I couldn't help but wonder how often do we take sight, sound, taste, smell and touch for granted. And that's no joke.
The Caress of the Cross
When I arrived at the nursing home on Long Island, I was expecting only elderly folks. I soon discovered that this was also a chronic care facility. The staff escorted me to the room of a 16-year-old boy who was paralyzed from the neck down. His mother greeted me graciously while continuing to comb his hair. He stared at me but said nothing. “I'm going to the coffee shop for a while,” she announced as she placed the brush on his tray. “Do you want me to bring you back anything?” He signaled no with his eyes and she left. I introduced myself and asked if I could pull up a chair alongside his bed. He mouth-shrugged indifference so I asked, “Did you not ask to see a priest?” He drew a deep sigh and that was the first time I noticed the machine that was breathing for him. His mechanical speech synthesizer replied, “She called you.”
After 45 minutes of phenomenally difficult dialogue, we came to a peaceful resolution and I was invited to return for a second visit, this time by him not by his mother. I agreed and left the room just as she was returning. Subsequently, I learned that she had been charged with the automobile accident, which resulted in his disabled condition. The cross he despises is the cross she embraces every day. The doctors predict their twin crucifixion will continue for years to come.
For Holy Homework:
Let's reflect on how each of the sorrowful mysteries fit into our lives today by completing these five stem statements.
God helped me get through a psychological agony when…
God helped me get through a physically torturous time when…
God helped me endure a real thorn in my life when…
God helped me bear up under a heavy cross in my life when…
The worst crucifixion I had to witness in life and which God gave me the courage to endure was when…
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