I had an epiphany one Sunday morning in 2019. I had been praying the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius in Daily Life (the 19th Annotation) and when meditating on the Agony in the Garden was moved to ask Jesus for the grace to remain awake, to comfort him in his suffering. A few days later, as I approached my parish church, a man stopped me and asked for money. At first I said no, but as soon as I entered the church I hurried back outside and gave him all the cash I had. (So much for my contribution to that week’s collection.)
Standing face-to-face with the man, I was moved to tears by his grave dignity. Although I longed to embrace him, I refrained from doing so. I thought and prayed about that resonant encounter for days until, suddenly, I knew: that was Jesus. As when he met the disciples on the road to Emmaus, Jesus had to open my eyes before I could understand why my heart was burning within me during that brief, blessed encounter.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised that he answered my prayer this way. My introduction to Catholicism had been mediated by the Catholic Worker movement, and I had absorbed Dorothy Day’s bedrock teaching that Christ is literally present in the suffering poor. Because of her influence I have always loved stories where Jesus reveals himself in the guise of the least among us. He was the beggar to whom St. Martin of Tours gave half his cloak, the leper St. Elizabeth of Hungary allowed to rest in her royal bed, the weeping Bavarian nun wearing a crown of thorns seen by a young Caryll Houselander.
Jesus chooses to reveal himself in poverty, but it can be exquisitely difficult for us to show him ours. We are easily bothered by the marks of our humanity, especially those things we loathe about ourselves. Like Adam—who hid from God when he realized he was naked—we try to hide
parts of our personality. It might be a sluggishness to forgive or endless ways we nurture our ego. It might be a judgmental heart or an inability to surrender a seemingly picayune resentment. It might be a futile attempt to quash perfectionism. It might be as simple as the endless distractions that bedevil our prayers. We want to approach God with our clothes neatly ironed, hair nicely combed, teeth brushed, and shoes shined. But is that what God wants?
On the contrary, God persists in loving what we loathe. Because, if we ask for and are given the grace, the things we hate can be transformed into stones that, each by each, create a royal road that leads to honest self-knowledge and a hard-won humility. This is the only sure way to enter a life with God. It is the fastest way to God’s heart. Without humility we can only wander in a wilderness of pride and self-satisfaction. Humility stops us in our tracks and turns us toward the fount of God’s mercy.
And there God is, ready to embrace us, the ragged,
hungry, unwashed, foolish, reckless—prodigal children finally come to our senses.