I have four true stories to tell which I hope illustrate some aspect of Ignatian spirituality as I’ve been in relationship with poor.
1) There is one event I distinctly remember. A guy about 35 showed up at a Jesuit Retreat Center decades ago to make a workshop for which he had not registered. He had no money, he was two days early for the workshop, he had come from Canada, his body odor kept me several feet away from him, he demanded free housing, a free workshop, and a special diet. I went ballistic in front of him and some of the staff. After some give and take, I allowed him to get some retreat house food and stay for the afternoon.
One of my colleagues witnessed all of this and noted my strong reaction to this guy. She then said brazenly: “I’m struck that there is no hospitality inside you for this man who is poor not only materially but psychologically and socially. My guess is that you are not only angry with him but also fearful. And I wonder whether you are in touch with your own poverty.”
This stung and it stayed. I could not forget what she said. In time I learned that she was correct. I was big and strong and would tackle any issue or problem and overcome it. It was that event which began to lead me to listen inwardly, to my own vulnerability, to what was below my anger. I wanted to avoid this poor man. He evoked my anger and indignation. If truth be told, he did scare me. It was that event which began to lead me to listen inwardly, to my own brokenness, my vulnerability, to what was below my anger and fear. I am poor and that is a gift. The Principle and Foundation, the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises emphasizes our radical dependence on God. And the Two Standards of the Second Week of the Exercises challenge us to notice the difference between the struggle between riches and poverty in each of our lives. We are invited to follow Christ’s poor, either in spiritual poverty or actual poverty.
2) Fast forward to a Saturday evening 14 years ago, it occurred during my first retreat with men who were homeless. We had been moving through several spiritual exercises: some telling of their story of homelessness, some prayer of the imagination, some healing of memories. At the end of the day, I went into chapel because I was so taken by the honesty and the vulnerability of the men on this particular retreat. Even though I’d given hundreds of retreats with wonderful fruitfulness there was something new here. The honesty and vulnerability of these homeless men moved me like no other retreat. Alone in that chapel, I felt that a deep part of me had been opened up. I was moved to make an oblation, an offering of myself to God, kind of like a new layer of an onion, a deeper part of me was opened. I renewed my vows and my trust in God, filled with gratitude. I walked out of chapel, and ran into a formerly homeless man who was now a teammate on the retreat. He had become a drug counselor in recovery. I expressed my amazement at this retreat – different, deeper than any other retreat.
He replied, “Bill, these guys have lost everything and everyone, their lives are in the gutter. They have burned all bridges. They lost their jobs, their wives and kids, even their parents have locked their doors to them. Their only hope is in God. And you are witnessing this hope. This hope not only is empowering these homeless guys, it is evidently touching you, Bill.”
Yes, that was it. Their only hope is in God and I am seeing and feeling this from them. God is palpably present. The faith and trust of these men humbled me, evangelized me. As the leader of that retreat, my point of view, my perspective, was being shifted. The retreatants were giving me the retreat which I was leading. What a role reversal! I was experiencing a deep change. They were pointing to a surrender to God that I had never quite made – at least not consciously when I took vows, when I was ordained, when I took final vows. There was a new letting go, a new level of trusting which they had led me to.
3) A third story -- It was Sunday morning and the retreat with homeless men was beginning to come to an end. We had asked the men what they needed to put into their spiritual knapsack as they prepared to leave retreat, whatever they thought they needed to help them on the journey. Responses varied: trust, honesty, courage, hope, closeness to God. One guy said, “As I leave retreat, I’m afraid of success. I’ve had a life of failure. I know how to be on drugs and alcohol. I know how to lose one job after another. I know how to lie to family and friends to try to get them to give me what I want. I’m familiar with the ‘me’ who fails. Who would I be if I succeed? Who would I become? How might I really change? Now that scares me.”
The next morning, Monday, at prayer I remembered his comments and was moved by them. I realized that I too was accustomed to failure; God is always there, ready to forgive, so I’d pick up the cycle again. But what if I really let go, really surrendered as never before? Who might I become? Holy? Now that scared me. I want to be normal, fit in. What if I were to believe and trust as never before? Here again a retreatant was challenging me on the spiritual journey, challenging me to the “more.”
4) A final story -- Recently I volunteered to be on a committee which was interviewing five homeless high school students who were applying for a $2,000 scholarship to help them when they get to college. We had reviewed 47 homeless teenage applicants and these were the five finalists. Each applicant had to write three essays: one about their educational and career goals, another short essay about their current experience of homelessness, and a third brief essay about a particular person who has accompanied them in a helpful way since they have been homeless. As I read the 47 essays, one young man’s story in particular touched me. He came from Mexico when he was 10 along with his mom, baby brother and sister. He now lives apart from his family at a shelter for teens. His mother, younger brother and sister bounce around every four months from one shelter to another without him since those shelters do not permit anyone over 16 to live there.
Here was this young man, filled with the hope of getting into college. Let me note that in Illinois while you are living in a shelter or in your family’s car, you can still continue your education. Schools must accept you even while you are homeless. The education institution becomes the one constant, the container as it were. But what touched me especially was how significant the third essay about “a significant person while I’ve been homeless” was for almost everyone of these homeless teens.
The young Mexican wrote about the staff at the Shelter who had treated him with special care. “They listened to me, accepted me, trusted and respected me; they believed in me.” Most of these essays used words like “being listened to, being accepted, being believed in.” This reminded me of the book, “Resilient Adults –Overcomng a Cruel Past” by Gina O’Connell Higgins from Harvard. She studied 40 successful adults who did more than survive their cruel past but also flourished while their siblings were broken by the losses and hurts they endured. Higgins asked, how is it that these succeeded while their siblings were overwhelmed by the hurts of the past and failed to thrive? Her study revealed that 36 of the 40 adults had the experience of someone – a neighbor, a teacher, a grandparent, etc. – who accompanied them, who believed in them, someone who felt safe and empowering, someone who listened to them. This listening presence was transformative for this young man. It was as if he knew who he really was because he was believed in, respected, trusted. We are all called to do this wherever we are.