Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Learning to recognize the unrecognizable

I recently finished Barking to the Choir, by Greg Boyle SJ. In it he tells a story of reading the paper on a Sunday when the doorbell begins to ring incessantly. At last, the other Jesuit he is with puts down the paper and answers the door.  When he returns, Boyle asks who it was. "Jesus, in his least recognizable form." responded his Jesuit colleague.

Last week, in the last stage of my journey back from Washington to Philadelphia, I was left in a wheelchair, parked just outside the door to 30th Street Station. I was shivering, not quite warmly enough dressed for the bitter wind blowing off the river, bedraggled from the travel, on top of several long work days, and not enough sleep.  My rolling luggage, a bulging tote bag and crutches leaned against the wheelchair. The sock on my left foot was filthy.

When I had arrived at the station on the weekend, this very spot was occupied by an older man in a wheelchair, begging.  People had given him a wide berth as they entered.  People were giving me a wide berth now, unwilling to meet my eyes. Some sidled away as they slipped through the door, others walked briskly past, and many simply chose another entrance.

When I realized what was happening, I wondered if I had put up my hands, or had a cup, would some soul have tried to give me money? I rather thought even more people would abruptly switch course to go in the other door.

I'd like to say that now I understand what it must be like to beg on the street for a meal, to huddle away from the wind, guarding your belongings.  To be ignored, or worse yet, seen but disregarded. But I don't. Ten minutes, or even ten days, are not enough to know.  Like all those sorts of experiences — elder for a day with vaseline smeared glasses and thick gloves, or the challenge to eat for a week on the $30 allotted by SNAP — the knowledge that this is not your permanent reality changes it.  I have a safety net. Victor will pull around the corner and pick me up, chauffeuring me home where I can put on a clean, dry sock and put my foot up on a pillow by a warm fire.

I wonder if this is what the entrance to heaven will look like. No St. Peter in a robe and halo lounging by a wrought iron gate, his keys jangling as he checks a list: Am I in or out? Perhaps the pearly gates are a way station, with many doors.  Which will I chose? The one next to a figure in a wheelchair or huddled on the ground? Will I pause before walking in? Sit down and talk, or will I walk briskly to another door?


  1. A challenge that we all face! I loved "Barking to the Choir" as much as "Tattoos on the Heart."

  2. "Barking.." was funny and poignant and a fast ride through LA!