Monday, February 11, 2008

Low Art / High Praise

"Hobo" Signs, 1930s, United States of America

Daily Mass Reading, Matthew 25: 31-46
"When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?' And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels;for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'"

My husband and I dragged three sleepy kids to 6:30 AM Mass this morning. Instead of the gentle homily on the 150 Jubilee of Our Lady of Lourdes, Father John’s homily was a bit more fire and brimstone. “Where are you going do be on that day?” he thundered. “Will you be with the sheep or with the goats?”

In years past, I’ve considered myself a community service junkie. My career as a poverty lawyer brought me into daily contact with Christ’s own. For extra measure, I loaded up on the various volunteer tasks and social justice committees. So when I hear the “what have you done to serve for Christ lately,” I’d mentally run down my latest task list and relax in my church pew.

My life changed dramatically in past four years. First, I kicked off the “do good/ feel good” career with baby number two. Now, with baby number three, my life is stretched so thin that every act of charity pinches. To sing in the church choir, I must skimp on sleep one night each week and my husband must mind three small kids alone in a church pew each Sunday. My husband's rare Friday night Knight's meetings, mean that I still feel the burn of going 17 hours of straight "mommy duty" well into the weekend. Meanwhile, our thin budget makes coming up with cash for the Archdiocese appeal a challenge.

For the first time this morning, I didn’t have a long list of tangible acts of charity to fall back upon during Father John’s passionate homily. It felt uncomfortable. I felt exposed. I would have probably fallen even more into despair if I hadn’t recently read the encouraging words from “Story of a Soul.” (I’ve recently figured out that my maturity level in regards to all spiritual matters about matches the physical development of my 9 month-old daughters, Maria.)

As Father John relentless questions grew more heated “Have you given Jesus your cloak? Have you visited our Savior in prison? Where will you be on that terrible Judgment day?” I looked at my little daughter and said a silent “No, I have not met the needs of the poor in any recent memory. Ave Maria! You are just going to have to carrying me on that awful day, because I’m to spiritually weak and pitiful to walk on my own yet!” Asking for help from our Blessed Mother soothed me in the moment.

The question kept coming back to me all day. In my life current life as an exhausted mother, where does charity to Christ poor fit in?

I can’t go back to the dizzy, emotional life as a poverty lawyer. In this season of my life, I can’t sign up for a dozen charity committees. At the same time, caring for three little ones doesn’t exempt me from living out Christ’s teachings. Nor would I even want it to! I find that my heart is split open as a new mother. Things that I intellectually cared about before: the homelessness of Katrina victims, the poverty in the inner-city, the spiritual dryness of many of my generation who where raised without faith; now fill my heart with overflowing compassion.

I do not have an answer yet. There is no "action plan for Lenten charity" in my household. However, the faint stirrings of an idea came to me tonight.

I remembered the words of my grandmother, who died of heart failure two years ago. Grandma Rupp described how her mother, Meade Buehrer, fed a long string of “hobos” during the 1930s. My great-grandmother evidently kept a pie pan next to the stove filled with extra servings of whatever food was currently cooking for dinner. Almost every night, an unknown male stranger would appear at her back door requesting scraps of food. Great-grandmother would say a few words, and hand over a fully prepared meal. My grandmother’s job was to retrieve the pie pan from the back yard after the stranger was done with his supper.

My grandmother said, “I never went more than two nights without having to go to the back yard in the dark to retrieve a dirty pie pan left behind by a hobo. It took me a few years, but I noticed that none of the other neighbor kids had to do this. I don’t know why the hobos always choose our house or how they always knew that my mother was both kind and a good cook.”

After her death, I stumbled on a likely explanation. “Hobos” had special signs that they left behind on the fence posts of kind women, signifying “good for a handout.” I’m sure the steady stream of out-of-work men coming through Archbold, Ohio did not come to my great-grandmother’s home by chance. There must have been some sort of sign left on her backyard gate. Imagine having such a mark outside your door! (Notice that the upper left-hand “hobo” mark also looks like the Eucharist, what a coincidence!)

This Lent, I’m praying to receive my own mark of charity. Like my great-grandmothers mark, it will have to be small and humble. A small deed done with a grateful heart, folded into the middle of my many mothering tasks.

St. Martin of Tours, St. Bernadette, hear our prayer to increase in deeds of charity.


  1. I'm so glad you posted this, because, as a new mother, I'm really struggling with "fitting charity" in to my life right now.

  2. What a great post - thanks so much. It's never WHAT we do, it's always with how much LOVE we do it.

  3. Sounds like you don't need to "fit charity" into your life- you just need to live your life with it. Your day is pretty full with a whole bunch of responsibilities and your vocation. Work at doing that as well, lovingly, and efficiently as possible (or continue to strive...). St. Francis de Sales spoke about this in one of his letters of direction to a housewife; that monks get up (or used to- and some still do) get up at the watches in the night to pray- and that as a mother, she too often had to get up (to answer crying babies) in the middle of the night. The mother need only offer that to God as a prayer as the monk offers his rising. It's the difference between the religious and the lay vocations. For example, my mom and I were talking the other day (this may be a post on my blog later) and she was happy because she had always wanted to do something special for Mary on saturdays- but knew that her schedule wouldn't fit anymore activities or devotions. Then the idea came to her (after several years...patience): she eats really good during the week, but had the poor habit of "having her Sunday on Saturday" foodwise. So, she is making her good eating on saturday a special act of love to Mary. How great is that! It's part of her duties in life already- but takes on an even more meritorious aspect now!

  4. First of all, I loved this post, and the love of your grandmother to all those men.

    I agree with Josh. To everything there is a season.

    Right now you are fufilling the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy with your children. Every time you give a little person a snack when they are hungry, a drink when they are thirsty, when you change their juice stained shirt with a clean one, when you teach them prayers or even how to tie their shoes. To rescue a little one from their crib when they wake up or to let them fall asleep in your arms when they feel sick. To reassure a sleepless child, To correct them in their mistakes, help them make good choices, stroke a head when the tears are flowing - and to do all of this patiently and lovingly. Wow! (by the way, the examples are based on the corporal and spiritual acts of mercy)

    At a later point (and at an earlier time) you will be able to do those things for others. It's better to really nourish these with your kiddos than to be out running around doing service that God isn't asking of you right now. Then you might even end up doing many good things, but not doing any of them well. And that is definitely not what the Lord wants.

    For me God always drops things in my lap if I ask him for some form of service. But I still need to remember that if I'm not showing my children the love they need then I'm failing in what God called me to.

  5. Christine, this is really interesting. Does caring for our children fulfill the obligation to care for our "neighbor."? I don't know why, but I still struggle to make this connection.

    Meanwhile this Lent, I'm changing focus from the corporal acts of mercy, which are hard to do right now as a mother, to the spiritual acts of mercy.

  6. Transformed by the Touch of a Homeless Man A True Story by Kent Holland