Column: Life, Truth & Justice
I remember a glorious spring morning at the Mission San Juan Capistrano in southern California. I rose early that Monday morning because the historic Serra Chapel had been closed to morning Mass for more than six months due to renovation work. It reopened for seven o’clock Mass with most of the structural renovation work completed and art work restored.
The long prayer-filled history of the Serra Chapel was calling me.
I knew that after Mass—before the Mission opened to the public—I could walk through the gorgeous Mission gardens resplendent with spring’s first blooms. It was going to be the perfect Monday morning, the perfect start of my week.
I had spent the night before doing administrative work. I normally don’t like to work Sundays, but timesheet descriptions and billing could be deferred no longer – especially if I was going to have my perfect Monday morning.
I rose half an hour earlier than usual to avoid the crowds and enjoy some quiet time in the Serra Chapel. As I walked under the long arches approaching the Chapel, in the shadows of the great stone church – the brilliant blooms of the bougainvillea and soft cool spring air welcomed me back to one of my favorite spots on Earth.
One thing I had noticed as I walked up the chapel steps was a plastic bag holding a sleeping bag and small suitcase, not uncommon at the entrance to the Mission. I wondered if these belongings were “Mike’s,” or one of the two or three other needy folks who often frequent the entrance of the church seeking support from the daily communicants.
I was just about inside. As I approached the archway of the Chapel, Pat—who was one of the “Marthas” tasked with replacing the votive candles in the Chapel—approached me with a middle-aged man.
“Oh no” I thought, “an impediment to my return to the Chapel”. Like the good Christian man that I am (uh-hum) I smiled at Pat and, in response to her request, said I would certainly speak with the man.
The man was unshaven, a little unkempt and smelled of stale beer. He spoke quickly, a habit which I assume he acquired from being summarily dismissed by so many people.
Assuring me that he was not looking for a handout, he explained he’d been hitchhiking to a new job in Northern California as a commercial fisherman. He said the police would not let him hitchhike any longer when he got as far north as San Juan Capistrano. He had spent the night on the shoulder of the freeway until the sprinklers came on and soaked him.
I so badly wanted to give him five bucks and get into Serra Chapel. I so badly wanted to be at peace, be in my gentle surroundings, my bosom of serenity, my refuge. I looked intently into the man’s eyes and at his face, not sure if I really cared about him or if such examination was just the result of my practiced and experienced, professional means of communicating with another person.
The man fumbled through his wallet showing me his driver’s license, several laminated official looking cards and a faded commercial fishing license which had been folded and unfolded so many times it was about to fall apart. At this point I could just sense that the man longed for me to appreciate his credentials, longed for me to know that he was “somebody.” I tried to assure him that I knew where he was coming from, that I knew that circumstances can get us all down, but he continued to fumble, continued to speak very quickly and continued to assure me that he did not come for money.
As I looked at this man, I recalled a conversation with my son a month earlier.
I was visiting my son, Thomas, a junior at Notre Dame and the issue of either a homeless person or some other person of need came up. Thomas’ good Christian dad (uh hum again) stated to him that such person “could be Jesus.” Thomas stopped me in front of his mother and brother and said, quite emphatically, “Dad, that person is Jesus.” I responded, “Son, you’re right.”
It was at this point that I tried to let go of my impatience and truly relate with the visiting fisherman standing before me.
The awareness that I had been avoiding, namely that this person before me was more important than the Mass I was rushing to attend, and in fact that he should be the locus of my worship this morning, surfaced. I asked the man his name, and he responded, “James Schilling.”
We conversed and James Schilling told me his story. I don’t know or really care if the story was true. I wanted to help him out, against his protestations that he was not there for a handout, assurances which perhaps he uses to protect his dignity, otherwise lost through his possible addictions and his circumstance.
I told him that I wanted to help, and that his willingness to accept my help would be his gift to me.
As I handed him a small amount of money, he continued to fumble through his credentials telling me about his work. At that point, I noticed a tear run from his eye down to the end of his nose and drip to a chin with several days growth of whiskers.
This man was fumbling for his dignity.
Nothing I could say about understanding that it is humiliating to be in need, humiliating to accept help, that I loved him and wanted to help him, could assuage his discomfort or embarrassment.
All the while, I longed to return to the Chapel and after a few more minutes of conversation and directions to coffee and a place where he could get a ride, I entered the Chapel.
I read the day’s readings about the Good Shepherd and the daily meditation in the Magnificat booklet. I pondered James Schilling and prayed for him. I pondered the last sentence of the day’s meditation, “I don’t ever have to be afraid again, because I have the Good Shepherd to take care of me.” (from the book The Good Shepherd and the Child, a Joyful Journey).
I pondered James Schilling and my son Thomas and the person of Christ. Is He in the Mission gardens? In the Tabernacle at the Serra Chapel? In James Schilling? Where is this Good Shepherd?
So, on the morning after my Sunday night grumblings about my demanding job where I charge hundreds of dollars per hour to solve people’s “problems,” I saw the tearful longing of a man who just wanted to get to a job as a simple fisherman.
Little did James Schilling know that he gave me a gift far beyond that which I gave him—the opportunity to care, the opportunity to be the face of Christ to him and for him to be the Face of Christ to me.
That Good Shepherd morning it dawned on me that the James Schilling and I, in fact all of us, are sheep in the same flock , with a common gift , a gift which transcends status or accomplishment. In short, we each have the same Good Shepherd.
Imagine this man, a person created in God’s image, tearfully seeking my acknowledgement, my friendship, my support – as though I am his better. Are we a society, a culture, a people, indeed a Church, which elicits the tearful longing for respect and dignity from people like Jim Schilling, all the while indifferently rushing past the James Schillings of the world, to our “churches” to pray platitudes about the least of our brethren?
That Monday morning I was seeking refuge and instead found compassion. James Schilling was for me that morning , a fisher of men.
Gregory N. Weiler, Esq. is a founding board member of the St. Thomas More Society in Orange County, CA, a Fourth Degree member of the Knights... MORE »