By Fr. Ben Berinti, C.PP.S.
It’s not as if it were the first time I had every done this, but on this night, it was different.
Even though it was shaping up to be the most bitter cold night of this particular winter season, it’s not like this is the first time I have ever had to pass by a person who is homeless perched on my doorstep!
As I left the parish office after another 14-hour day, I headed toward the church to finish my locking-up duties. I stepped onto the sidewalk and my heart sank as I glanced over toward the parish hall and discovered one of the regular homeless men from our neighborhood parked on a bench near the doorway—the doorway I needed to pass through to secure the buildings for the night.
I caught myself mumbling an expletive or two when he first came into sight, and my brain executed an impressive leap as I tried to think about an alternative route that would allow me to completely bypass the man.
My limit for gospel-good-deed-doing had already been exceeded hours ago, so I’m not sure what threshold was still left to be crossed. Unfortunately, I realized, I was cornered. So, I offered my perfunctory greeting as quickly as possible and maneuvered in and out of the parish hall and church with the deftness of a gymnast.
Completing my final task for the day, I prepared to make my swift getaway. Despite my attitude, however, my heart was not so chilled by the icy winds whipping the parking lot that I didn’t think to find out whether the man had enough blankets or a coat to pass the frigid night outdoors.
As I inquired about his supplies, bundled up in his tattered Save a Lot grocery bags, he responded: “Thank you, sir; I’ll be okay.”
Relieved that I had not completely ignored or turned my back on someone in need, I began stepping up my pace. Before I could walk another five feet, I heard the man say, “Sir, there is one thing I wanted to ask you . . .”
I could have feigned being hard of hearing and simply continued on my way. But I stopped, spun around and stepped back toward the shivering man on the bench.
His question was simple. Could he move himself and his things down into the far end of our outdoor hallway, so that he might sleep out of the way of the worst of the swirling, freezing winds, perhaps keeping him just a bit warmer as the temperatures continued to plummet?
I paused a moment before responding in the affirmative, and I told him that he needed to be up and on his way early in the morning since families start arriving for school before the sun comes up. He assured me that he was an early riser and would be gone before anyone came along to start their day.
As I locked the office door behind me and stood in front of my car, I felt like the rich man who wept from the “other side” of the great chasm fixed between him and the beggar Lazarus, unfathomably far from the arms of Father Abraham.
With this realization clearly in front of me, I turned again—not toward the man, but rather my car, and I drove home. And like Peter after the cock crowed, I too wept bitterly.
Over the many years since this encounter, I have had a chance to replay the scene and to examine the meaning or meanings of this experience for me, as I do so in sharing this tale.
Amongst many things, I have come to realize the nature of my failure that particular frozen January night—and it is two-fold. On the one hand, I failed to recognize who this man is—a beggar, someone completely dependent upon the generosity of others; a “least one” in the Kingdom of God; a Lazarus-at-my-door, waiting for scraps to fall his way.
On the other hand, I also failed to recognize who I am—a beggar, someone completely dependent upon the generosity of God; a “least one” because of the infidelities and inconsistencies of my own life; a Lazarus, too, but one less forward about holding out my emptiness for others to see.
Yes, I failed to respond to the “beggar” at my doorstep because I failed to see the “beggar” in me—in all of us. For in the end, we are all beggars of the heart.
If there is a “beggar” in your own spirit, hiding somewhere in the recesses of your own heart, or if you are willing to seek out this beggar without turning your face in disgust and neglect, then perhaps this Lenten sojourn will stir something in you, will be a fire starter for your own ongoing conversion into the depth of God’s “enough.”
An author, pastor and preacher, Fr. Ben Berinti, C.PP.S., serves on the provincial council of the United States Province. He is the pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Melbourne Beach, Fla.