I asked a guest the other day, “Why are you so quiet?” He’s usually quite outgoing and engaged, but this morning he sat on a bench seemingly in a different world.
“I’m holding my tears in” he said. Then he explained, “I fractured this arm a few years ago. On cold days like this one it aches. My old broken bone hurts.”
“Those hurts from the past never really go away, do they?” I said.
“Nope. Not in the body. Not in the heart.”
We reminisced a bit about old wounds that never go away.
“You see this scar on my finger?” I offered, “I nearly cut this off in a mower.”
“It still tingle?” the guest asked and then continued, “I about smashed this finger between two I-beams when I was working construction. That sucker still don’t feel right.”
As I age, I am more aware of the old wounds I carry in my body. Those who come to Manna House as guests seem to carry more than their fair share of old bodily wounds. I think of one guest who each day slowly and methodically walks up our ramp (he avoids the stairs), leaning heavily on a walking stick. Another guest always takes the stairs, but he shouldn’t. He’s fallen there a few times. His legs and hips are stiff from the ravages of time and accidents. And we have several guests who just are not right in the head, and almost always I find out they had some severe head injury in their past.
Beyond these old physical wounds (and sometimes connected with them), I have yet to meet a guest (or a volunteer for that matter) who does not ache from some old spiritual wound, a broken heart, a fractured soul. We all have those memories by the time we get to a certain age—memories of loved ones lost to death, memories of a crucial relationship ended, memories of betrayal. We get cracked open, laid bare in our souls, and we are left wondering if life is worth living.
Most of our guests at Manna House carry old wounds that come from even deeper cuts. Orphaned at an early age and passed from foster home to foster home before ending up on the streets. Tossed out by family for being gay or transgendered. Mental illness left untreated, or treated only sporadically because of poverty. The memories of the wounds of poverty: hunger, constantly being evicted and moving from one place to another, never really having a home or a neighborhood to call one’s own, battles with vermin, violence and violence threatened, poor schooling. And once on the streets the wounds of constant harassment, physical violence, rape, addictions, abuse, imprisonment, always looking for work but never finding steady employment, standing in lines, bad food, hearing the judging yells from passing cars. These are wounds that cut deep in the soul.
Just like old physical wounds flare up from time to time, so, too, do old spiritual wounds. Cold damp weather makes my bones or joints ache. Those old spiritual wounds open up less predictably. Sometimes I catch a whiff of cigarette smoke and the hole left by my Dad’s death opens up. I hear a song and I feel the hurt of a relationship that ended. I reach out to make a phone call and catch myself remembering the ache from the loss of a friend who died.
Feeling old wounds present me with a choice about how to live. Psalm 56 tells me, “O God, You have taken account of my wanderings; Put my tears in Your bottle. Are they not in Your book?” God takes in our tears from our old wounds and draws us to compassion. For what is God but the Promise of love being stronger than death; of life continuing beyond this earthly time?
I can become embittered by those old wounds. I can rage against the past and how it distorts the present. I can seek to avoid any suffering in the future by closing myself off from the risk of love and relationship. Or in this faith in a loving God, I can find in these old wounds the seeds for a continual growth in compassion. This latter choice, to respond to the wounds in our lives by seeing in them my connection with God and my solidarity with the wounds in others, leads me in faith to reach out in compassion. This is how God is most life-giving.
A few days ago Kathleen told me about one morning two weeks ago when a faithful donor came in with some clothes as part of her generous donation. The donor started to explain that the clothes were from her husband. He had died last fall. She explained that she is finally getting around to saying goodbye to his clothes. A volunteer, who had lost her husband two years ago, came out of the clothing room into the living room.
“I heard what you said. I didn’t mean to listen in, but as one widow to another I just wanted to give you a hug.”
They embraced in tears. The old wounds watered compassion.