Thoughts on the Reception of Grace

Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received. 

Rule of Benedict 23:15

Some years ago, my husband and I were on a bus in Tennessee, gadding around like tourists. We told the bus driver we were on our way to an authentic Mexican restaurant, one where no one speaks English.

“That sounds really good,” the man across the aisle said. He was on his way to Walmart, he told us, to look for work.

His face was sun cragged, his blond hair slightly graying. He looked about 40. His build, his age, the shape of his face, even his clothes—clean blue jeans and a white, well-worn but clean shirt—reminded me of my brother.

My husband looked at me with an unspoken question in his eyes. Yes? I knew his mind and nodded. Yes. He asked if the man across the aisle would like to join us for lunch. Our treat.

The man accepted, then bowed his head and wept. “God is so good,” he said.

Over tortillas, rice and beans, we learned where he slept: In a tent in the woods. And where he bathed: In the Stones River. Sometimes he saw cottonmouths—poisonous snakes—swimming there. Sometimes he had to break a crust of ice before he plunged in. Once on a winter morning, he woke in his tent to find a skunk sleeping on his feet. He waited an hour or longer, still as death. Eventually, the critter, who was only, after all, seeking some warmth, moseyed on.

We learned his name. Larry had been looking for work for years. Every week for an entire day, he took the bus and went around town putting in applications. None of us said what we all knew, that no one gives a job to a guy with pink-rimmed eyes and the trembling hands of an addict.

Dozens of people had tried to help him get sober, he told us. It never took. His brother died when he was 18. Cancer. It was a terrible death. While telling us about what happened more than 20 years ago, he cried like he had on the bus, with his head bowed as if he was praying. And again he said, “God is so good to me.”

We asked if there was anything else we could do for him. No, we’d done plenty, he said, and he thanked us. He packed up half of his six-dollar meal to take with him, so he wouldn’t have to dumpster diver for his supper. He bought a can of beer. We walked him to his bus and he let us pay his fare. As the bus disappeared around the corner, we saw through its rear window that he was waving and waving like a child off to school. I felt profoundly sad and confused, helplessly and eternally connected to him. Even now, years later, especially on cold winter nights, when I think of Larry in his tent in Tennessee and wonder if he is warm enough and whether he is still living, my throat aches as if I’ve swallowed shards of alabaster.

There is a peculiar kind of waking that happens in the painful recognition that we are connected to all of life, that everyone we meet is in need of some warmth, and that we are essentially helpless to fix the wounds of injustice caused by humanity’s intractable problems. It is like waking to find a skunk sleeping on your feet. It subdues and stills us.

But it is in stillness that we sometimes see what Larry taught me to look for always—grace made visible, like dust motes in a shaft of sunlight.

It is through sharing—our food and our stories—that the very air we breathe is lit with mercy.

Tracy Rittmueller, OblSB