Home » People and Conversation, Social Justice

Custody of the eyes

4 March 2012 13 Comments

Woman crumpled on a street

I spotted him a block off, a bubble of space surrounding him on the crowded sidewalk as the on-their-way-to-work crowd gave sea room to his awkward, rolling gait. His oversized black sneakers gaping open, nearly engulfed by his coat and clutching his cane like a staff, the young man painfully made his way along Chestnut Street. No one would meet his eyes.

Pedestrians in a city practice an unsympathetic custody of the eyes. Do not acknowledge with even the flick of an eye what — who — stands on corners, crouches over steam vents or sits plastered against the walls of buildings. Do not accord the pleas for food or for money a space in your conversation, not even for a single beat. It’s safer, they say. So we walk with eyes locked straight ahead, doggedly intent on our conversations.

I’m on sabbatical leave from my teaching job this semester, doing research at an archive in the city, traveling several days a week from my sedate 1950s neighborhood in the suburbs into Philadelphia. A leave is a gift of almost unimaginable luxury, time to be spent lavishly on a project of one’s own choosing, to gaze at new horizons and grapple with new and perhaps challenging ideas.

I spend my days in a sumptuous and silent 19th century reading room, soft carpets scattered about the polished hardwood floors, and a magnificent gallery of paintings on the mezzanine above my head, served by a staff of librarians who at my merest whisper, bring me whatever materials I desire. Whatever I hunger for — books, consultation with learned colleagues, a cup of tea — is there. There is almost no need to ask; in stark contrast to the sidewalk outside, people are attending.

Two summers ago, on my way to this same archive, I crossed Market at 7th and slid between the line at the food cart and the walls of the Free Library. The woman was heaped on the walkway to the library. Her green aluminum cane made a sharp contrast to the sun washed red brick of the entryway. She slumped over her belongings, asleep, exhausted already by the heat that had just begun to rise. Her lined face, pink with heat, was turned to passersby. She looked like my mother, shifting restlessly in pain.

I stood there for a fleeting moment. I wanted to reach out and hold her. I wanted to bring her to a cool, safe space to sleep. I wanted to ask what she needed. I wanted to help. And yet…I did none of these things. I walked on down 7th, headed to a cool, dry archive where a librarian would bring me the books I desired, without my lifting more than a finger.

We issue lists of grave sins, delicta graviora. We wrangle over translations, theological nuances and liturgical praxis. We worry whether we are sufficiently reverent with the body of Christ when we receive in the hand, and all the while the body of Christ lies crumpled and abandoned on the sidewalk. And I walk past, averting my eyes.

“And what about His hunger, cold, chains, nakedness and sickness? What about His homelessness? Are these sufferings not sufficient to overcome your alienation?” challenged John Chrysostom sixteen centuries ago. How can you continue to walk through the city, pretending not to see, failing to recognize what is before you? It’s not just new perspectives in science I seek on this sabbatical. What about His homelessness? I chose to work in the city on this leave, not just because the materials I needed were here, but because I wanted to look at this horizon, to struggle with my response to these challenging questions. To face what I had walked away from two summers previously.

Inside the library, I continue to map out the threads of challenging conversations in chemistry. On the sidewalk outside the library, I’m grappling with challenging conversations as well. I hear John Chrysostom’s voice in my ear, “is this not sufficient to overcome your alienation?” and try not to look away, try to attend to the person of Christ in “distressing disguise”.

When I met the eyes of the young man on the sidewalk this week, he stopped in front of me and asked in a gentle voice, “Do you have anything to eat?” “Let me help.” I dug into my purse and pulled out one of the envelopes I now keep handy and handed it to him. It’s a card for a cafe and take-out place down the block with enough on it for breakfast and lunch and a cup of coffee. He thanked me and with not even a hint of rancor remarked, “No one ever looks at me, you know. I didn’t think you’d stop, and I’m so hungry, I haven’t eaten in a day.” I wished him a good morning, and turned to go up the marble steps to the library.

It’s a start in overcoming my alienation. Next time, I’ll remember to ask his name.


Photo is from dgphilli.  Used under a Creative Commons license.

13 Comments »


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  • Cindy said:

    Beautiful. So sad. And so beautiful.


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  • Ellen Marie said:

    This is so beautiful…I used to worry about my husband who went to night school 4 evenings a week after work and would pass the homeless in Baltimore. He would always stop to give them money or food…why should I worry about someone who is offering help to Christ? I learned that lesson well and in shame of my own fear for his safety, selfish in nature. That was 20 years ago and he is well and healthy so he can continue this kind of giving. I have learned to do the same. Thank you for bringing this to our attention and may we all open our spiritual eyes without fear.


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  • Tim SJ said:

    Thankyou for the reflection. Beautifully written. The dissonance of urban life!

    For me I think about how dehumanizing huge cities become, just because of the quantity of people you pass by every day. And how lonely it must be to be destitute in one of our cities. And in age marked by a global movement of the poor from the countryside to the urban slums – you have to question where is the better quality of life? Subsistence living in the country side or struggling to survive in the hard grime of the city.


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  • Paul Brian Campbell, S.J. said:

    Michelle,

    This touched and disturbed me in equal measures. I need to be disturbed from my complacency and alienation from my sisters and brothers in distress. Thank you for this lovely essay.

    Paul


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  • Michelle Francl-Donnay (author) said:

    Thank you, Cindy, Tim and Paul….

    Tim, I’m struck by the number of people that I see day after day, even in the midst of a city as large as Philly. There are some people on this street corner that I recognize from three years ago. The dehumanization runs both ways I suspect. We erase from our awareness the human beings we don’t wish to see, and that erases a bit of our own humanity.

    Paul, I’m hoping that I don’t fail to continue not only to be disturbed, but to continue to plan for a response in deed as well as with word.


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  • wordinthehand said:

    We are challenged every day – how easy to allow judgement instead of mercy to rule our response.


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  • wordinthehand said:

    Always a challenge – to allow mercy rather than judgement to guide our response.


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  • Grace R said:

    Thank you for such enlightenment. Interestingly enough, I have been discerning about this for some time. As baptized Catholics we forget our commitment to follow the works of Mercy given to us by Jesus. When asked “what did you do for me?” I hope I can have a good response. We never know when our time will come to face Jesus. Should we be ready all the time? Food for thought…


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  • Monica said:

    I really enjoyed this article; it just proves how often we take things we pass by for granted.


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  • Cathy said:

    Beautiful story – thank you for sharing.


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  • Helen C said:

    This reflection has brought to mind my niece (53 yrs. old) who has a spinal cord injury due to an error during a spinal tap. She has told me that when she is out in public and uses a wheelchair or riding scooter in the mall, etc. she is self conscious of her state in life because most people look past her and do not give her recognition as a human being.I personally strive to “look others in the eye” to give them recognition as part of the human race and as a child of God.


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  • sgl said:

    ——————–
    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2011/06/from-jerusalem-to-jericho-on-hurry.html

    “The Jerusalem to Jericho study was effectively a modern-day reenactment of the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

    “The study involved seminarians preparing for the ministry.”

    ——————–
    follow the link to see the conclusions (its a short blog post, but a bit too long to provide the setup context and the conclusions as an excerpt). interesting, and cause for reflection.

    –sgl


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  • Janet said:

    Very moving it happens to all of us on a daily basis all the world over. God puts each one us to scratch in one patch and we cannot solve all the problems of the homeless and hungry, but as long as we do not “pass by on the other side” and reach out as best as we can that is what putting our faith into action is all about.
    I too remember giving an overnight supper and bed voucher to a vagrant women and when I called her by her name ” Dorothy” she smiled and said ” Thank you no one has called me by my name for many months” J.

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