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.
Steve, the is lovely. Grate T-Day to you and yours. Julie
That’s a good story Steve and thanks for sharing. Isn’t it wonderful how we get ‘nudged’.
You remind me of my sister Linda’s story too. She lives in Dublin and told us that saw my Aunt Kay (the good nurse) go into cake shop and bring out a cake for a homeless man on the street; she came out of the store and gave it to him with some words and walked away. Homeless folks don’t often get to eat cake. Kay did not see Linda, nobody would have known. I always loved that part 🙂
Happy Thanksgiving! Even in this freeze, we have a whole lot to be thankful for when we think of the poor people in the Philippines.
That too is a really good story, Evelyn! Blessings for Thanksgiving and always!
Steve, I must tell you that your posts on your blog, help me move closer to God. In my hurried days I look forward to your personal stories that bring me to a place where I can receive the gospel. I suddenly realize every moment is an opportunity for grace and healing. Please know that your gift of writing and sharing is a treasure. Many blessings for you Marianne and the kiddos! Happy Thanksgiving.
Thank you so much, Joanne! I’m not sure I could ever receive a more encouraging response. Blessings, my dear friend!
Happy Thanksgiving to all your family.
A very inspiring message. I often wonder myself when I see such an opportunity do I make the right decision ?
Thank you. An inspiring message. I particularly liked your insight at the end. Perhaps not a missed opportunity, but a God-sent opportunity for personal growth. So much to give thanks for.
Thank you, Margo! Indeed, we are so richly blessed! A marvelous Thanksgiving to you and yours!
Powerfully insightful as always,
enjoy the peace of Christ.
Thank you, Larry! You do the same, my (big) brother!
Homelessness – and the poverty that precedes it – is my “thing”. I wrote 150 pages on female homelessness for my “retirement degree” in Women’s studies (the bibliography was 6 pages!).
Unfortunately, in our country we have turned it into a service industry rather than address the causes, which, I discovered in my research, go far beyond the usually named ones of drug addiction, domestic failures and so forth. Even I was shocked to find that a very large percentage of resident’s at Rosie’s Place in Boston had degrees. So I am glad you gave that man pizza and soda.
I love your reflection. Living in an urban city has afforded me, frankly, more opportunities to grapple with this lived parable than I would choose (because, as you laid out so well, it is difficult). So often the hinge point for me is passing someone, realizing I should go back, and desiring to (kinda… like your coat situation), but being too embarrassed because I feel that I have already made the wrong choice.
Your experience of this parable helps me first, not feel alone in the challenge I face in being virtuous and loving in these situations, and second, not be afraid to go back and make the loving choice on a second try.
Thank you, Steve, for sharing this beautiful story again.
Megan, first, it is really wonderful to hear from you. I hope that you are well and flourishing. Your humble, honest response affirms for me that many people of good will share our struggle. And, you are so right; knowing that we are not alone inspires us with the courage to step outside our personal comfort zones. Thank you for taking the time to write and especially for your transparency. God bless you! – Steve
Thank you, Steve!
I think of you often and continue to miss your guidance at the TML. I love reading your blogs! Thank you for the reflection this provokes, and for the solidarity found in this challenge. Your willingness to share your struggle and witness is inspiring. Know that you remain in my prayers, and when I am back in Boston we will have to get tea and catch up.
That sounds like a wonderful plan, Megan. Be well in the meantime. And, blessings always!