Friars in formation who struggle to rise daily at 6:30 a.m. to prepare for morning prayer should not stay up late. The night owls must persist against their nature if they want to nest in the early birds' aviary. Nowadays, 10:30 p.m. is a good goal for bedtime. To stray too far into the eleventh hour, or close in to the edge of midnight, is to hazard weariness all the day after.
No matter. It is ridiculous and trivial to complain about sleepless weariness when you are commanded to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and clothe the bare. If the occasion arises for you to perform a corporal work of mercy, you should do it, no matter when or where the occasion draws near. No matter!
An opportunity arose on Thursday afternoon in Coney Island, when J.R., a boardwalk beggar, approached the postulants for charity. We all hesitated, me first of all. For a moment, it seemed like we were going to send him along with a shrug and excuses too miserable to repeat. But, we did not do that. Instead, we forced ourselves to stand still, look at J.R. and keep talking. "What do you need? Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?" And from there we bought J.R. two slices of cheese pizza. I made some little paper flower of conversation and gave it awkwardly to J.R. before I begged off to fritter the rest of my ample leisure money on amusements.
You might say we did what we ought to have done, and it was good enough. But the hesitation hounds me. How disappointing, after all these years in study of Christian theology and ministry, and years of worship at an outdoor church with outdoor people, after a full term of reflection on ministry to the homeless, that the instincts of a fallen nature can still prevail in the split second before grace saves the day!
There is nothing so sharp as Catholic guilt to goad a penitent into action. The Coney Island encounter prompted me to accept an invitation from one of the friars to join him on his monthly delivery of food, drink, and clothing to the homeless in midtown Manhattan. The twist was that the delivery would be on Friday night around midnight. And so I was initiated into Midnight Run.
For a couple of hours six of us slapped ham on cheese, squirted mustard on turkey, and spread grape jelly on peanut butter; sorted socks, shirts, and stretch pants; and brewed the best free coffee you will find anywhere. For the next couple of hours we toured Manhattan from the FDR Drive north to Union Square and on up to Grand Central Terminal in search of the many who go wanting for the littlest share of sweet humanity. Because Midnight Run is not about an exchange of goods but an exchange of persons. The homeless would not suffer from persistent privations if they had been treated like human beings at the hour when they fell out of the good graces of society. They would not be where they are if they had been loved the way we want our neighbors to love us. The way we need our neighbors to love us. The way you need your neighbors to love you becomes obvious every time you give a brown bag lunch to someone who cannot pay for it.
The cool night glittered on, and Friday lurched forward into Saturday by the time we returned to St. Matthias Parish to drop off undelivered clothes and sandwiches. By then I was inebriated by drowsiness, slurry in speech, and stupid in tongue. Where, I wondered, could I drop off all the undelivered words of courage and hope that should have been given to the men and women I mutely met? Back at St. Michael Friary at 2 a.m., I pulled back the cover of my comforter knowing I did nothing to deserve this feast of sleep -- knowing that so many go hungry for a good rest.
Oh, for the courage to hazard weariness for only a day, so as to avoid the dread weariness of an icy eternity!
Today has been a heavy day. Not because I am tired -- I slept very well -- but because I can feel the world leaning on me. It usually does when I realize, with that slow dawning apprehension that comes like thunderclouds low on the horizon, that the world suffers for want of my compassion for it. "The beauty that saves the world is the love that shares the pain." Self-absorption is an ugly thing. God as my witness, I would rather look ugly fulfilling the works of love than to feel ugly wondering why I hesitated when the moment to love drew near. May the Spirit give these words the force and heat of life.