Once recognized, few things weigh more heavily on the human heart than a missed opportunity. Likewise, the related and unanswerable “what if?” is counted among our most perplexing questions.
In the winter of 1995, I committed to speak at Chapel Talks, an adult faith-formation program being offered at the time in my parish. My topic was to be the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31), a well-known and tragic example of habitually missed opportunities.
Shortly after agreeing to speak, I was scheduled to travel to Philadelphia for a professional conference. Being a homebody at heart, such trips were often an occasion of loneliness for me. This time, however, I was actually looking forward to the time away. While my days in Philly promised to be quite busy with meetings of one kind or another, my evenings would largely be my own; thus, I anticipated having ample time to immerse myself in the story of Lazarus and the rich man as I prepared for my upcoming talk.
When the time came to travel, I brought two books with me – my Bible (of course) and Be Not Afraid, a short but intensely challenging book written by Jean Vanier, the now disgraced founder of L’Arche, who, until the recent revelations, had always been one of my spiritual heroes.
In the book, Vanier specifically speaks of Lazarus and the rich man; but, he also elaborates, more generally, about the “two worlds” they symbolize – the worlds of misery and comfort, respectively. Further, he describes a “huge wall” that keeps the two worlds safely separated and explains that the comfortable often “throw money or things over the wall” but carefully avoid any direct contact. “The last thing they want,” Vanier explains, “is to see and touch.”
Holding winter meetings in northern locations is always a risky proposition. On Saturday, my second full day in Philly, a 9-inch snowstorm blanketed the city. After the storm passed, temperatures plummeted such that Sunday’s high never made it out of the teens, and the evening and overnight hours saw temperatures drop into the single digits. It was brutally cold!
Early on Sunday morning, I asked the concierge about Catholic churches within walking distance of the hotel. My intention was to attend Mass prior to the day’s slate of meetings. He told me that there was indeed a Catholic church within a few blocks and advised me to leave by the hotel’s side door as that would be the exit closest to my route.
Clinging awkwardly to a street map with my gloved hands, I left by the hotel’s side door and turned right toward the church. I quickly noticed two things – the biting wind that brought tears to my eyes and made viewing the map a challenge and the Uno’s restaurant situated right next door to the hotel. Since I’ve always been an Uno’s fan, I made an on-the-spot decision about dinner. When the day’s business was done, I’d have pizza in my room with Lazarus and the rich man.
That evening, I returned to the hotel, readied a work space on the desk in my room, and called Uno’s to order a large pizza and two soft drinks. (If inspiration came, I wanted sufficient fuel for a long and productive night.) A few minutes later, bundled against the cold, I headed once more for the side door of my fine hotel, totally unaware that I was about to enter a living parable.
Walking out the door, I glanced briefly to my left and noticed a man huddled on the sidewalk grates adjacent to the hotel. The heat rising from the grates must have offered him some relief from the cold… but I’m sure it was nowhere near enough. I quickly turned away and marched in the opposite direction to pick up my dinner.
On the way back, the man on the grates was directly in my view. A knapsack, likely containing all of his possessions, was by his side. And, I noticed him periodically stepping in place, left-right-left-right, no doubt attempting to bring feeling back to his frozen feet. As I turned to enter the hotel with my food, our eyes briefly met, and I gave a slight nod in his direction.
Back inside – safely behind the “huge walls” of my luxurious hotel – there was blessed heat, but it offered little relief from what now seemed an interior chill. As I ate my pizza and tried to read and think about Lazarus and the rich man, I felt an unmistakable conviction in my heart. Lazarus was right outside.
Have you ever debated with God? I did that night. God’s intention that I share my food with the man on the grates could not have been clearer, but I resisted in a variety of selfish, petulant ways.
“I’ve worked hard all day and deserve some uninterrupted time. Further, I have work to do – Your work, in fact – so I need to stay focused on the task at hand. And, by the way, how can I even be certain that the man on the grates is homeless? Maybe he was on his way home and decided to warm himself for just a few minutes. I might actually insult him by offering him food. Are You trying to embarrass me… and him?”
At that moment, the man on the grates was inconvenient… but, I knew the call of love.
Finally yielding, I closed the pizza box, put the unopened can of Pepsi back in its bag, grabbed my room key, and headed outside.
The man knowingly watched my approach. As I drew near, he returned my earlier nod and then waited for me to initiate conversation.
“Have you had dinner?” I asked.
“No sir, I haven’t.” he replied respectfully.
Shivering, for I’d not worn my coat, I handed him the pizza box and the bag. “It’s not much,” I said, “just half a pizza and a drink, but you’re welcome to it.”
“Thank you, sir!” he said, immediately reaching for a slice.
“You’re welcome! And, God bless you!” I offered, and then went inside.
If I felt any self-congratulatory impulse, it quickly receded. In fact, by the time I arrived back at my room, I knew without question that my response had fallen well short of God’s intention. God wanted human contact, communion. In Vanier’s words, God wanted me “to see and touch.” Instead, I had “thrown a pizza over the wall.”
I prayed with urgency. To my shame, I had to admit to myself and to God that leaving the hotel without a jacket had been intentional. How could I stay to talk when I wasn’t dressed for the savage cold?
I definitely experienced God urging me to return to the man on the grates, this time, wearing my coat, hat, and gloves. I neither hesitated nor debated. Rather, I dressed quickly and headed for the elevator.
Before venturing outside, I stopped at the coffee shop in the hotel lobby to buy two cups of coffee. One I left black and, to the other, I added just a bit of cream; he could have his choice. I stuffed a couple of sugar packets and a stirrer in my coat pocket, took a deep cleansing breath, and exited by the side door, the door near the grates, for the fourth and final time that day.
And he was gone…
I stood there in silence for quite some time, suddenly oblivious to the cold. Then, chastened, I returned to my room… and to my task. Later that same month, I introduced my Chapel Talks audience to the man on the grates, my personal Lazarus, and to the “rich man” standing at their podium.
I have no idea what might have happened if we’d had a chance to talk that night. My sense is that I would have gained far more than he, but I’ll never know for sure. I am, however, keenly aware of the lesson I learned from his absence, which is also the lesson, I believe, of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. As long as we live, there is no chasm too wide or too deep to be bridged, no “huge wall” too steep to be scaled, if only we can love without prejudice or fear.
As you read this, in your kindness, you may be tempted to console me. If so, please know that I no longer bear a burden of guilt over this matter. In a strange way, the missed opportunity has proven to be its very own opportunity, which (hopefully) I have seized, by the grace of God.
Be not afraid.