The Divine in the Daily

Raised Catholic, I was formed in a sacramental spirituality. Christ in the bread and the wine, the very presence of Christ is in ordinary, daily bread, broken and shared. “Give us this day our daily bread.” I expected to experience the presence of the divine, in ordinary, common, essential physical objects—bread, wine, water, oil, candles.

My sacramental spirituality was deepened by seven years at St. John’s Abbey and University, three of those years I was a Benedictine monk. The Rule of St. Benedict emphasizes the sacredness of the ordinary, of the daily. God is present in a schedule of daily prayer, in regular times for silence, in the rhythm of prayer and work (“ora et labora”). Monks are even urged “to regard all the vessels of the monastery and all its substance, as if they were sacred vessels of the altar” (Rule of Benedict chp. 31). And this divine presence in the daily is especially emphasized in the monastic practice of hospitality, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: I was a stranger and you welcomed me (Matt 25:35)” (Rule of St. Benedict, chp. 53)

My formation in sacramental spirituality shapes my work at Manna House. The daily tasks of hospitality are times of divine encounter. The daily tasks draw me out of myself in a discipline of love. Each task requires that I be open to a daily reality that is demanding, insistent, ongoing: folding laundry, making coffee, filling sugar containers, wiping down the picnic tables, the benches, and chairs before opening, taking out trash, sorting donations, cleaning the shower room and the small bathroom. What could be drudgery in an invitation to divine encounter.

This sacramental spirituality is most important in the daily demand to open my eyes to see Christ in the guests who come for showers, clothing, coffee, and a place of sanctuary from the streets. To the Catholic list of seven sacraments, an eighth sacrament is added. I learned early on the definition of a sacrament, “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus clearly institutes the outward sign of “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Mt 25:35-36, 40). And those who participate in this sign instituted by Christ hear these grace-filled words, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Mt 25:34).

Christ in the stranger was invited in on Tuesday morning when we opened Manna House at 8am. Christ prayed with us and then headed to the coffee line or the showers.

I talked with Christ in the backyard. He even has the initials “J.C.” A volunteer had given J.C. coffee. There was also cold water available. The thirsty were given something to drink.

A little later in the morning, I walked to the nearby Southern College of Optometry (SCO) with Christ present in two guests. The walk over was slow. Both guests have leg problems. Only one had a cane. They shared the cane. One used it for half a block, then the other for the next half block, and on. When we finally got there, they picked out frames for new glasses. SCO had given free eye exams. Manna House will buy the frames. The sick were looked after.

Meanwhile, other volunteers offered showers and clothes to Christ. Ten women showered and after them, two transvestites. Christ’s need for some fresh clothing was met.

Christ talked with me about the meal that had been served at Manna House the previous evening. Christ had been hungry and had been given something to eat.

Christ came from 201 Poplar and got on the shower list for Thursday. He reminded me that in a previous stay out at the penal farm, Manna House had put some money “on his book” so he could get items like underwear and toothpaste. The prisoner had been attended to.

Toward the end of the morning, Christ arrived in a car driven by his wife. Christ has cancer which has metastasized from his kidneys into his lungs and other organs. He is tired and in pain. He had a doctor’s appointment to get to later. I promised to pray for him and to make sure we also pray for him every morning when we open.

This is the hard edge of sacramental spirituality. God present in the daily, reaches into every corner of our lives, in the ordinary demands of life, and even into suffering and death. God invites me into the daily tasks of hospitality, and into relationship with people I might otherwise avoid, to go beyond myself. God’s invitation to be open to the needs and suffering in human life (including my own), invites me to face reality. This reality punctures my illusions of self-sufficiency and makes possible my embrace of shared vulnerability. Responding to God’s daily invitation, I can affirm that love, going out from myself to give myself to God and to others, is the path to fullness of life. Bread must be broken to be shared.

“Lord I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

I have been quietly grieving. Death has been demanding my attention.  Two men were recently gunned down in Memphis. One this past weekend, and one last night. One was a prominent and wealthy white Memphian. The other was a young African American in the Frayser area wanted on several warrants. The first was murdered by an as yet unknown assailant in an apparent robbery. The other by Federal Marshals as they sought to arrest the young man. Family and friends of these men are grieving. I am saying prayers and wondering about justice in this city.

Last week, I went to a wake and a funeral for a friend who committed suicide. His long struggle with depression ended the same way as with six other friends, one of them a cousin of mine. I am grieving. I am saying prayers for my friend, his family, and friends.

In the past week, several friends have shared that they have lost a parent to death.  Another has lost a brother. I am remembering my friends and their grieving in my prayers.

And death on a larger scale dominates the front pages. “100 Killed in Sudan and Dozens of Bodies Are Pulled From Nile, Opposition Says” (New York Times, June 4, 2019). “Afghan War Casualty Report: May 31-June 6,” with this first sentence, “At least 50 pro-government forces and 19 civilians were killed in Afghanistan during the past week” (New York Times, June 6, 2019). “Russian jets carry out deadly bombings in Syria’s Idlib,” with this first sentence, “At least 25 people have been killed in aerial bombardment carried out by Russian jet fighters in Idlib region, with schools and medical centers knocked down during a continued Syrian military offensive” (Aljazeera, June 10, 2019). I am grieving and saying prayers and wondering if war will ever end.

With all this death and grieving on my heart, I saw one of our guests at Manna House looking closely at the crucifix that hangs in the “chapel” at Manna House. The chapel is an open space set apart by a storage shed on one side that creates a wall, with the other three “sides” open but under a roof supported by wooden beams. The crucifix hangs on the shed wall. A small wooden statue of St. Francis stands just to the right of the crucifix.

The chapel is often where our most vulnerable guests gather. Set apart by the shed and the roof the chapel has distinct boundaries, creating a sense of refuge that draws those who find other people’s company difficult, those who are loners and/or those whose mental illness makes them uncomfortable in a crowd of people.

The guest staring at the crucifix is one of those vulnerable guests. He was shot and paralyzed from the waist down several years ago. At the same time he tries to project invulnerability. He is a young African American man known on the streets for his anger, his bitterness, and his quick resort to violence and threats of violence. He makes his way in the world through the dangerous work of selling drugs. He is a seller who also uses. There he sat, gazing intently at the cross. He knows death and was staring at this symbol of death—the cross.

“The God of Jesus’ cross,” James Cone wrote in The Cross and The Lynching Tree, “is found among the least, the crucified people of the world” (Cone, 23).  And yet the particularity of Jesus’ death by execution also includes the broader human experience of death. As a disciple of Jesus I am called to be in solidarity with the crucified—those whose deaths have come from injustice, and those whose deaths come from our human condition. As a disciple of Jesus, I am to embrace the shared vulnerability of death so that I can practice compassion and self-giving in resistance to the power of death. As Jesus himself said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

Here is where I am faltering right now. I am trying to resist death (and its close friend injustice), but feel overwhelmed by its power. I am trying in prayer to listen to and for God’s graciousness. But I am not hearing much. I am trying to say my prayers that those who are grieving will be comforted. But I am wondering if such condolences offer only empty words. I am like the man in the Gospel who said, “I believe, help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).

So I am meditating on this scripture, and on this line I came across recently, “At its best, faith is the overflow of gratitude, the attempt to live as if we are loved, the fragile hope for something better on the other side of pain and death. And this feather of grace weighs more in the balance than any political gain.”—Michael Gerson, “The Last Temptation,” Atlantic Monthly, April 2018

May God help me, may God help the man in the wheelchair at Manna House, may God help the family and friends of Brandon Webber, and of Glenn Cofield, and may God help all of us, to feel loved by God, to live in the hope of the feather of God’s grace. “I believe, help my unbelief.”

Love Incarnate is a Harsh and Dreadful Thing

Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, liked to quote Fyodor Dostoevsky, from his novel, The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Loving humanity in the abstract is easy. Loving a particular person is hard. Serving “the homeless” is easy. Serving the guest who is consistently cranky and demanding is hard. I get reminded of these truths almost every single day we are open at Manna House.

In the Manna House neighborhood there is a man in a wheelchair, paralyzed from the waist down from a gunshot wound he suffered several years ago. He is known as a low level drug dealer. He has a perpetual scowl on his face. The last time he was at Manna House (several months ago) he threatened to kill a volunteer. He was asked to leave, and only the pressure of many other guests sent him on his way. He is not a very pleasant person, to put it mildly.

He showed up last week and wanted to get on the shower list.  Do we let him shower? After a short deliberation we recommitted ourselves to hospitality, not in the abstract, but to this person. He showered and got a fresh set of clothes to put on. As he was leaving he gave a hearty thank you to those who had served him. Even if he had not done so, it was still the right decision to offer him hospitality.

On Tuesday, a woman showed up who wanted to get on the shower list. She struggles mightily with mental illness. Her illness often renders her mean-spirited, foul mouthed, and generally difficult to work with in selecting clothing to change into after her shower. She’s probably been banned from the shower list six or seven times over the past two to three years. Do we let her shower? Again, after a short deliberation we recommitted ourselves to hospitality, not in the abstract, but to this person. She came in and did fine, not great, but better than other times. It was the right decision to offer her hospitality.

Saying “no” is another part of loving in the particular and concrete that is hard. It is never easy to say “no” to a request from a guest.  Sometimes, however, love and hospitality require saying “no.” A guest approached me in the backyard. He asks for “special favors” almost every day he comes to Manna House. This time was no exception. On this Tuesday, his request was for a backpack. I explained that we give out backpacks on Thursdays to those on the shower list. He continued to plead his case. I continued to say, “no.”

How is this love and hospitality? Love for each person who comes to Manna House means ensuring that each is treated with equal respect. If getting something depends upon the quality of a story and ingratiating one’s self to the person who is purportedly “in charge” then some will be left out, some will be disrespected. Guests who are less mentally adept, less skilled at playing to my sympathy, less pleasant in look and or smell, are not treated with equal love and respect by such a system.

Further, such a system is not hospitality. Rather, it is a patronage system that simply reinforces power over and exploitation of those “in need.” It casts me in the role of “savior,” making me the one who decides on my own who gets what. This is ego-inflation, not hospitality. Hospitality gives to each person who comes what is made available for all through the community offering hospitality. There is a discipline to love that includes listening to and being obedient to this particular community of hospitality. That is a reality that is “harsh and dreadful” because it stings my ego.

A particular scripture helps me to see how love has to be made concrete and not left to an abstraction. “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20). Or as Jesus put, “Whatever you do unto the least of these you do unto me” (Matthew 25:31-46). God calls me to make my love particular, just as God did in becoming a particular human being in a particular time and place. My love has to take on flesh, or it is not love.

Come Out of Babylon

Moses stood in the backyard at Manna House reading from the Book of Revelation about the fall of Babylon. Around us were men and women and two children sitting at picnic tables, benches, and a few lawn chairs.  We were all there, seeking sanctuary from the streets of perhaps the most powerful empire in history. Empire lives on the deadly malignancy of despising the vulnerable, of creating a system in which persons are expendable.

Moses read, “After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illuminated with his glory. And the angel cried mightily with a loud voice, saying, “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird!” (Revelation 18:1-2).

I walked toward the back of the yard where we somehow got into a conversation about where people are from.

“Brewton, Alabama.”

“Valdalia, Arkansas.”

“Philadelphia, Mississippi.”

I had never heard of the first two, and the guests from each said they were too small to be of any importance. I had to look them up. The power of cell phones and Google went to work.

Brewton, Alabama got its start as a mill town. Two sources of water run through the town, Murder Creek and Burnt Corn Creek.  Trees were harvested and lumber was produced. The usual celebration of commerce continued in the history for a while, as the town became wealthy, with timber barons building fine houses. Then a turn to something different. I read out loud from the short Wikipedia article, “In October 1934, Claude Neal, a 23-year-old African-American man arrested for the murder of a local young white woman in Greenwood, Florida, was moved to the jail in Brewton for safekeeping. After a lynch mob learned where he was being held, about 100 men came to Brewton in 30 cars and kidnapped him from the jail. He was smuggled back into Jackson County, Florida, where announcements of his planned lynching were broadcast on the radio. Neal was tortured, shot and hanged by a small group near the Chattahoochee River before his body was taken before a crowd of thousands. His body was later hanged from a tree in the Marianna courthouse square. Whites later rioted in Marianna, prompting the Florida governor to order more than 100 troops to town to put down the violence. More than 200 people were injured, mostly black, but including two police officers. Black-owned houses were looted and burned in the riots.”

The backyard got quiet. White guests shifted uncomfortably in their chairs, especially the one from Brewton. African American guests were shaking their heads.

“I never heard that story before,” said the guest from Brewton, “I’m not fond of that history.”

“You scratch a bit here and there and that stuff comes out, all the time,” said an African American guest.

“What about Valdalia? Let’s move on,” said an African American guest, “I know that stuff too well.”

I could not find a Wikipedia article on Vidalia, Arkansas.

“Try Cherry Valley,” the guest from there suggested helpfully. Sure enough an article appeared. Total population these days of about 600. Four famous residents over time. One seemed worth learning more about, Pat Hare, blues musician. He left Cherry Valley and came to Memphis where he recorded at Sun Studio. I noted this, “His guitar solo on James Cotton’s electric blues record ‘Cotton Crop Blues’ (1954) was the first recorded use of heavily distorted power chords, anticipating elements of heavy metal music.” Hare spent the last 16 years of his life in prison, where he formed a band named ‘Sounds Incarcerated.’”

“Never heard of him,” said the white guest from Vidalia.

We listened to one of his recordings.

“That’s definitely a man with the blues,” said an African American guest, “He could have been from my hometown, Philadelphia, Mississippi. I’m Choctaw. They tried to run us all out, but some of us stayed.”

“Were you there when those three Civil Rights Workers were murdered in 1964?” I asked.

“Yes, a bad time, but all the times then were bad for us. You had to stay low.”

I was back in the Book of Revelation. Babylon, “a dwelling place for demons.” And the author of Revelation had this advice, seek a sanctuary, “And I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and let you receive of her plagues. For her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Revelation 18:4-5).

Come out, indeed. Resist empire. Create sanctuary. Practice hospitality. Find another way.