Thursday, February 10, 2011

To the Least of These

I saw Shaggy this morning.  He's one of the four homeless men I pass regularly on my walk to the office in Boston whose name I've learned and who I've gotten to know a bit.  There's Michael, Jim, Shaggy, and Brother John.  I rarely carry cash so I don't often have any money for them, but I do stop and talk with them and try to give them what I can -- recognition and respect.  I've learned a lot from them about what it's like to live on the streets.

I've written previously ("Get A Job?  They've Got One Thanks.") about how frustrated I get when I hear people denegrate the poor, the jobless, the homeless by calling them "lazy," or "unmotivated," and telling them derisively to, "get a job."  I wrote,
"[W]hen I look through [the spiritual] lens I see people who remind me -- who remind us all -- that the world is far from fair. That those of us living comfortable lives do not represent the vast majority of people on the planet and that part of our comfort comes at the cost of their discomfort. They remind me that there is want and misery and pain and that, as Jesus himself is remembered as saying, "the poor shall always be with you." These people I pass each day put a human face on that proverb."
 Recently I've been reading about the life of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the great Christian saints.  He choose a life of extreme austerity, and made his living by begging for his daily food.  He made that the way of his Order.  Holy women and men in other traditions, as in the photo of Buddhist monks above, have also included this as part of their spiritual practice.

I understand that the intentional adoption of begging as a spiritual practice has two primary foci -- for the person who begs, it is a practice of humility and of trust.  I remind myself that I am not the be-all and end-all of things, and allow myself to be taken care of by others -- be at their mercy, in fact.  I remind myself that without the care of others I am nothing.  "We need one another" means, put in terms we hardly ever use in our culture, that I need you.

And for the person who gives, there is the benefit of allowing for the experience of generosity and freedom.  I could be afraid that whatever I give away is less that I will have for myself and, so, be tied to my possessions.  But when I give to one who begs I remind myself of my own innate freedom and allow my inherent generosity to blosson.

This seems so clear.  So obvious.  So beautiful, really.  Why, then, the disdain heaped upon those like my friends Shaggy, Michael, Jim, and Brother John?  It's not a new phenomena of our modern society, if that's what you're thinking.  As I said, I've been reading the biography of St. Francis, and he and his brothers were ridiculed and reviled because of their choice to become beggars.  They were considered madmen, and worse.  (In some of the stories the men say that it's because of the scorn that would be heaped upon them that they embraced such a life, but that's another story.)  Tomorrow I'll explore a possible explanation.

In Gassho,

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