Today was the Feast of St. Veronica. As a place of hospitality in the Catholic Worker tradition, this was duly noted as we gathered in the backyard for job assignments and prayer before greeting our guests and praying with them.
Poor St. Veronica got booted off of the list of Feast Days in the Catholic Church because her historicity was questioned. Some of you might still know the story. Jesus on his way to his execution, falls, and a woman comes forward and wipes the blood and sweat off of his face. A courageous act of hospitality along the way of crucifixion. Miraculously, on the cloth, there remained an image of Jesus.
The four canonical Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John have no such story. Still, the story was told over and over again among Christians, and by the 6th century, it was firmly established as the Sixth Station within the devotional “Stations of the Cross.” She may be off the “official list” of saints, but she remains in popular devotion. “Whose Veronica? Our Veronica.”
So before opened we talked a little bit about Veronica and her act of hospitality toward Jesus. The people who come to Manna House, come to us as Christ (Matthew 25:31-46) and they are on a way of crucifixion. As homeless and poor their lives don’t matter. Our guests who are Black are judged to matter even less. Veronica stepped into the way of the cross, and offered what she could, affirming Jesus’ dignity by her welcome.
As the morning proceeded, I kept thinking about St. Veronica. How important is it to do what she did? How important is it to offer a cloth to wipe away the sweat and blood of Jesus on his way to the cross, knowing full well it will not stop the execution? How important is it to do this hospitality which does not stop the crucifixion of the poor?
Meanwhile, laundry needed to be done. I did come across blood and sweat in the clothes discarded by those who showered. I did not come across an image of a guest left on one of their towels. Instead, the ordinary nature of the day confirmed that we are a hospitality house like all the rest.
Some of you might catch the paraphrase of a line from George Bernanos’ novel, “Diary of a Country Priest.” His main character, a priest in an obscure country parish, writes in his diary, “Mine is a parish like all the rest.”
Nothing extraordinary happens in this neglected and marginalized parish. But as the novel proceeds, the priest moves to a deep love for the people. They convert him to a living faith in God. He comes to see in their lives the way in which “God’s grace is everywhere,” and particularly in the lives of the people in this village who are judged not to matter.
Perhaps this is what we learn in hospitality, and what Veronica learned when she offered a cloth to Jesus on the way to the cross, that answers my questions above. How important is it to do this hospitality which does not stop the crucifixion? Veronica’s offer of a cloth to the fallen Jesus rejected business as usual. She recognized and affirmed Jesus’ human dignity. She said with her hospitality, “Jesus, your life matters.”
But even more, in this act Veronica learned firsthand the pain and suffering of Jesus. It was seared onto the very cloth she offered. Likewise, at Manna House, we welcome those being crucified, and we offer small cloths of comfort. Showers. Coffee. Conversation. Sanctuary. We enact in our hospitality that their lives matter. At the same time, hospitality sears us with their suffering, and so we are converted and come to stand with them in the struggle for justice.
Today was an ordinary day of hospitality at Manna House. But all around us are extraordinary events in Memphis and in the U.S. The crucifixion of African Americans is being resisted by a growing social movement, “Black Lives Matter.”
Manna House, because of what we have learned from our guests, is committed to that struggle. In the house, over the doorway heading from the living room into the dining room, there is a sign that went up last year, “Black Lives Matter.” We have and will continue to join in Black Lives Matter vigils and protests here in Memphis.
We will also stick with hospitality, both because it is needed in this “filthy rotten system” (Dorothy Day), and because the people we meet teach us their dignity, even as they call us to resist the current reality that black lives and poor lives do not matter.
St. Veronica, pray for us.