scavenge food for their children in bombed out streets in Syria, that parents in the Sudan are boiling inedible roots for their children to eat. Would I wash their feet? Greet them with joy? Bring them a meal?
We argue about the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday - does the mandatum stretch to more than twelve? to the non-ordained? to women? Then I look at these photographs and know whose feet Jesus would be washing, whose feet he command us to wash...
This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 3April 2014.
Amma Sarah said, “It is good to give alms. If a person does it to please people at first, he will come from pleasing people to living in awe of God.” — from the Apothegmata Patrum, the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers
A flustered-looking student I did not know knocked on my doorframe last week. I looked up from my desk and asked if I could help her, thinking she was lost in the maze-like science building. “Do you have a charger for a phone?” Amazingly I had the charger she needed, and perhaps equally amazingly, I handed it over to her, without thinking to ask her name or when she might be back.
When she returned the cables an hour later, overflowing with thanks, it struck me that my loan was the modern day equivalent of providing a bucket for travelers to pull up water from a cistern in the desert; we depend on being able to fill our phones up with electrons, we feel so lost without them. (Modern oases do offer both water and electrons to desert travelers!) I handed over my bucket without a thought to whether I might later need it to power up my own phone — it was a most immoderate act of hospitality.
The stories of the immoderate hospitality of the men and women who fled to the desert echo the Gospel call to see the stranger as Christ. Lord, when did we give You to drink? Whenever you do this for the least ones, you do it for me. Visitors to these desert solitaries were met with warmth and care for their physical as well as spiritual needs. As a 4th century visitor to a desert father writes, “when he saw us, he was filled with joy, and embraced us and offered a prayer for us. Then, after washing our feet with his own hands…he invited us to a meal.”
The hospitality practiced by the desert fathers and mothers went further than meeting the needs of their visitors as if they were Christ in a different guise, but were obedient to them as if they were Christ himself. The fathers and mothers of the desert tell the story of a monk who was fasting, but when visitors invited him to eat, he did so without comment or complaint. Later, his fellow monks wondered whether he was upset at his failure to keep his fast. “I’m only distressed when I do my own will,” he responded.
The mothers and fathers of the desert practiced a radical generosity, one that depended not on material wealth, but on their poverty of spirit. They were able to set aside not only their physical needs, but their spiritual needs. Priest and theologian Johannes Metz reminds us this self-abandonment is not to be practiced in isolation, fasting for the sake of fasting, but must respond to our encounters with our brothers and sisters.
Is it harder to fast than it is to let others — to let God — offer themselves to us? Can we not only see, but hear and answer, God in our brothers and sisters? As Lent moves toward Holy Week, I am listening for God’s voice in my classroom and on the streets. Speak, Lord, I am listening.
To read from Scripture:
Lord, when did we feed you? Christ reminds us that He can be found in the people around us. Matthew 25:42-45
In the silence of the stars,
In the quiet of the hills,
In the heaving of the sea,
In the stillness of this room,
In the calming of my mind,
In the longing of my heart,
In the voice of a friend,
In the chatter of a child,
In the words of a stranger,
In the opening of a book,
In the looking of a film,
In the listening to music,
For your servant listens.
Speak, Lord by David Adam
Where do we hear God speaking to us? Margaret Rizza’s beautifully still setting of David Adam’s poem reminds me that listening to God is not done in isolation, even by those who live in the wilderness of the desert, but within the relationships we have with our sisters and brothers.