It happened on a chilly September day, a simple moment that’s never left me. I was a young adult with my parents, following my eldest French-Canadian cousin in a tour of old Montréal. I remember the colorful splashes of garden amidst stone buildings, the glassed-in eatery where we had hot chocolate and poutine, and, indelibly, the old man begging outside of Notre Dame Basilica.
When I saw him, I was being pushed in my wheelchair by my father, because the sloping, cobblestone roads had tired me too much to power it myself. The imposing structure of the Basilica came into view from the sidewalk, soaring above us, and there, ahead of us, resting against the thick outer wall, was a man with grizzled gray hair, wearing faded clothes, and holding out a little cup in his hand.
Having lived a fairly sheltered life, I had never seen an actual beggar in person. Homeless people I had seen with their shopping carts downtown, but they were not beggars because they didn’t ask for anything. This man, however, this old bearded man with beautiful, wide-open eyes was holding out a little begging bowl, silently requesting someone, anyone, to help him.
What I Did
My cousin, an inhabitant of Montréal, was walking ahead of us and obviously saw the beggar, but didn’t stop walking and passed right in front of him. My parents followed suit, and so, I did too, literally pushed along with them. Perhaps they were thinking that any money given to the man could be used to buy alcohol or drugs and they didn’t want to take part in enabling his habit, but this thought didn’t occur to me.
In my youthful idealism, the sight of the beggar was a call to action. My immediate impulse was to put something into the old man’s cup, to do something for him, to at least give him my coin-sized care. In order to act on this, however, I would’ve had to stand out from my little group of people: asking my father to stop pushing my wheelchair and to take some money out of my bag to put in the little begging bowl. Easy enough, but thinking about the reactions of my group, I intimidated myself.
Of course I knew that my parents and cousin would think warmly of me if I asked to put money in the beggar’s cup. But that’s precisely what I didn’t want. I felt like a little girl, like any little child who gleefully wants to put money in every donation bucket that she sees. I still looked like a child, and often still felt like a child because I had to be cared for by my parents, but I was supposed to be an adult and I wanted to walk, so to speak, in the company of adults, not sticking out as the child among them.
Giving in to my pride and cowardice, I chose to go along with the crowd—a rather childish thing to do.
As I passed directly in front of the beggar and looked into his sky-blue eyes, it was as if we were both suspended in a chasm of time where I felt, where I knew, that I was about to pass by an irretrievable moment, an irreplaceable something. He did not look down at me, his gaze remaining straight and above me, and perhaps this was what made me look up to him so completely, experiencing the lowness of my place, as though I were down on my knees, dejected there on the pavement.
Broken away from that moment, I squirmed and fought myself to ask to turn back. But I didn’t. I let my childlike desire to help go unspoken, and as the beggar receded further and further into the background, I didn’t experience remorse so much as petulance. Like a petulant child, I thought only about my inabilities, placing fault on the others beside me while really angry with myself.
After all of these years, I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve never left the spot where I encountered the beggar. My group’s intent had been to go on with life without his presence in it. But it didn’t work. Somehow…I’m still there.
In the wordless waiting of the old man with his begging bowl outside of a sacred place, I caught a glimpse of myself. I see the poverty of my excuses: “I can’t, I’m disabled” or “I would help you, but it’s just not convenient right now” or “Well, if someone else had gone in to help, I certainly would have pitched in too.” And I see my own need for others—not my specific need as a disabled person dependent on others for daily survival, but my innate and intimate need as a human being for deep and generous loving.
My identification with the beggar, however, has become even more profound than that. Hoping to receive some gift of kindness, he was waiting for the reaction of another human being. The reaction that I gave him was of emptiness. Devoid of courage, devoid of humility, I was pitifully poor, with nothing to give. Nothing. My human foibles, which caused me to choose poorly, put an empty begging bowl into my own hands. So, now, the beggar is still standing outside of the sacred place, but it is not him who begs and waits there—it’s me.
A stranger is never just a stranger. The beggar waiting outside of the church is Christ and Christ is that beggar. There should be no understanding of separateness in this, I don’t mean to remove the beggar on to some kind of a pedestal as a representative of the Holy Other. We are called to recognize Christ within. This is profoundly down to earth, this is gritty, this is intimately real. My deep sense of truly remaining on that street with the beggar—as the beggar—is not a mere flight of fancy or pretty response. It’s true.
It’s profoundly, sublimely, impossibly true.
The next time that you see me on the street, or in the subway, or holed up in a little corner somewhere…please be brave, please be kind.
© 2018 Christina Chase
Although crippled by disease, I'm fully alive in love. I write about the terrible beauty and sacred wonder of life, while living with physical disability and severe dependency. A revert to the Catholic faith through atheism, I'm not afraid to ask life's big questions. I explore what it means to be fully human through my weekly blog and have written a book: It's Good to Be Here, published by Sophia Institute Press.