Posted by: mmreflections | November 10, 2009

Both Sides of the Coin: November, 2009

Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.  What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.  (Confer Matthew 25:31-45)

As we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations our attention may be drawn to our many poor and needy brothers and sisters who surround us.  It is easy for us to dismiss these needs of others, either because of our lack of attention or our preoccupation with other seemingly more important matters.  I am reminded of two significant experiences which have greatly impacted my spiritual journey and which still stir up discomfort for me when I encounter the hungry, the poor, the needy, the strangers and others who are reaching out to us.

It was my first year after ordination while serving as assistant pastor and teaching in the parish school.  I had just finished celebrating the morning Divine Liturgy.  After eating a quick breakfast I was in my room praying as I did each morning before heading to the school for my morning classes.  The pastor was away and the housekeeper had not yet arrived when the doorbell rang and interrupted my morning prayers.  I hurried down to open the door and found a poor man standing there who asked me for some food.  I suggested he come back a little later or wait until the housekeeper arrived who would fix him some breakfast.  The poor man noticed my irritability and apologized for disturbing me, telling me he could not wait because he was hitch hiking to get to a neighboring town for a job interview.  With that he hurried away across the parking lot to the main street.  Relieved I hurried back to my room and picked up my prayer book to finish praying.  As I was about to continue my prayers it seemed my eyes were suddenly opened and, realizing I had just missed the mark, making a grave mistake by putting my private prayers ahead of helping a brother in need, I put down my book.  I walked over to the school under a dark cloud which hovered above me through all my classes that day.  All I could visualize was the hungry man walking away across the parking lot.  That morning I realized there was much more for me to learn about being a priest and a Christian. 

One of those lessons came while in graduate school, living and studying in Rome, Italy.  In response to a request made by the archbishop back in the States, I carried  some much needed supplies to a bishop who had been in prison for not cooperating with the Communist officials in power during the Russian occupation.   He had recently been released from prison because of ill health and was now under house arrest in the city of Presov, in Slovakia.  This was during the communist occupation in much of Eastern Europe.  I could not obtain a visa as a priest so I entered the country which was controlled by the Communists under the guise of being a teacher visiting some relatives.  Not having any address for the bishop, I went to the Cathedral on the morning of September 14th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, knowing there would be a Divine Liturgy and hoping I could get some information about the bishop.  Learning the location of the bishop, I was able to find him and deliver the needed supplies and messages from the United States.  He invited me to share lunch with him.  It consisted of some buttered bread and coffee while  he shared with me many of his experiences while in prison.  His imprisonment along with many of our priests because of their refusal to cooperate with the Communist controlled government is a story in itself.

After leaving the city of Presov I drove to Prague for a visit with a Jesuit priest friend who related to me the oppression they were experiencing because of their faith.  From there  I drove to Vienna, Austria where I dropped off the rental car and headed for the train station to take an all night train to Paris where I was to meet a priest friend arriving from the United States.  We were to meet the morning following my arrival in Paris at a designated monastery of priests where my friend had made arrangements for me to stay until his arrival.  With the directions I had been given, I rode the subway to the proper station and walked to the beautiful monastery where I was looking forward to a healthy breakfast, a hot shower, a clean bed and some much needed rest.  Unshaven, wearing a green jacket, soiled khaki trousers, and probably appearing quite forlorn, I rang the doorbell.  The priest porter who was on duty that morning opened the door, took one look at me, and obviously annoyed, let me know there was nothing he could do for me.  When I tried to explain who I was and my predicament, he indicated he could not speak English, could not understand me, and communicated to me there were no rooms available for me.  As I was being turned away and wondering what to do since I had never been in Paris before and had no idea how I was to meet my friend the following morning, my heart sunk as I experienced what it was to feel poor and rejected.  Inspired, I turned back to the now exasperated priest to see if I could leave a message for my friend.  With that I reached into my jacket breast pocket and pulled out a pen and billfold, opening it up to look for a piece of paper upon which to write a little note.  I made sure the priest would see my passport and some of the currency I was carrying.  In that moment I witnessed some miracles; the priest could suddenly speak fluent English, a room was available, and a wonderful smile broke out on his face.  He explained he had no knowledge of my coming. After paying the suggested amount, I was taken to my room.  Needless to say, I didn’t stay one minute longer after my friend arrived the next day.

I had experienced over the years both sides of the coin.  I learned the painful lesson coming from turning a needy person away; I also learned what it is to be the person in need who is turned away.  What fills me with sadness is that I as a priest, not paying attention and more concerned with private personal prayers, was the one who did not feed a hungry brother.  The same sadness is compounded by the experience of almost having been turned away by a brother priest.  I was a stranger in a foreign land and learned what it is like to be alone with no place to turn.

Hopefully, I learned from these experiences over the years but the need to be attentive and awake to the needs of others is a spiritual practice that requires daily discipline and honesty.  There are needy brothers and sisters all around us.  We need not wait for someone to knock at our doors and tell us they are hungry or are in need of something.  We know the poor will always be with us as Jesus told his disciples when they were indignant because of the woman who came up to him in Bethany when he was in the house of Simon and poured costly perfumed oil on his head while he reclined at table.  “Why do you make trouble for the woman?  She has done a good thing for me.  The poor you will always have with you; but you will not always have me.”  (Matthew 26:10-11)  Jesus seemed to be reminding his disciples to be attentive to those who are nearest to them.  We will always have opportunities to give some alms to the poor and needy we see on the streets of our cities; they will always be there.  But what about the ones who are nearest to us:  our parents, our children, our wives/husbands, our friends, our neighbors?  They will not always be with us!  Perhaps we need to pray and ask God to open our eyes to see those nearest to us who are in need, lest we miss an opportunity to be present to them.  Life is so short! We miss much of the joy in life because we are not attentive to the needs of others.  Someone once told me that whoever puts sunshine into the life of another will always have sunshine in his own.

     Jesus asked them, “What do you want me to do for you?”  They answered him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”  Moved with pity, Jesus touched their eyes.  Immediately they received their sight, and followed him.  (Matthew 20:32-34)


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