by Pirrial Clift tssf
St Francis’ famous encounter with a leprous beggar was transformative. My dear friend and onetime parish priest Val Rogers said the only way the rich will get into heaven is if the poor come out and lead us in by the hand. If this is true, I imagine St Francis will be carried jubilantly through the pearly gates on the shoulders of a great crowd of poor people.
Val’s words are sobering, especially when I consider beggars I have not dealt kindly with. That woman on my Moscow hotel steps in ’98 at 1 am, persistent and shrill in her pleas for help for her 3 children. Another woman walking beside me, repeatedly demanding assistance in Derby St. Newcastle…. I gave nothing to either of them, but they are permanently ingrained in my memory. Sometimes I am caught unawares – my coping mechanisms don’t seem to be in place – and I just want to close the beggar out. This happened again in Beijing as I left St Joseph’s Church. A man pushed forwards and thrust his two stumps – where once there had been forearms and hands – right in my face: I recoiled in horror and walked away. Just walked away.
In St Mark’s Square Venice I gave a woman something, and was immediately confronted by another woman, beautifully dressed and groomed. She scolded me for my gift. They’re employed by the Mafia, she said. They’re all rogues and Gypsies. They’re frauds and liars: you are wasting your money, she said. I pondered this afterwards; what motivated a wealthy woman to accost a complete stranger with warnings about wasting money on beggars? In the Square people were enjoying enormous gelatos – they could be said to be wasting money on those gelati, but my ‘friend’ saw no need to reprimand them. In Istanbul a shopkeeper left her shop unattended to cross the street and utter similar warnings after I gave to a ragged Syrian boy whose shoes barely hung together, flapping as he walked away.
Of course there are tricksters and frauds amongst beggars, as there are amongst every social group; one memorable example was the woman with the horribly twisted and deformed leg outside St Peter’s in Rome. I just happened to be around when she folded up her fake leg and popped it in a bag, stretching out the whole limb she’d had tucked under her skirt before rising from the dirt and walking away. C’est la vie I said ruefully to myself, thinking of the money I and others had parted with. Still, she’d certainly worked hard for it, sitting there in the hot sun all day with one leg cramped up beneath her!
The thing is, I can’t tell the genuinely needy person from the others. After being duped and conned a few times at the Rectory door I surrendered to cynicism. The next fellow who knocked received a cool welcome, although I scrounged up some food and brought it out. That poor man stood right where he was and ate and ate – he was so hungry. Since then I find it better to obey the Lord’s command to give to everyone who asks of you; at least when I have my wits about me.
Ten weeks in Canterbury, UK brought me into contact with beggars regularly, on St Peter’s St, which was lined with stalls, buskers and beggars. I loved the buskers: some were accomplished musicians, others scratched out doleful melodies on un-tuned instruments or sang tonelessly with one eye on their hat, upturned in hopes of a few coins. How can I forget the girl who appeared to have got dressed in the dark out of the rag bag, with her hair stuck out in all directions and her baby in a pusher, singing ‘I’m getting married in the morning….’ on one note?
It seemed de rigueur to have a hat of some kind to collect money; a beanie, a sunhat; any piece of headgear. My favourite beggar had an old cap. He made no effort to entertain the passer-by, just sat in the same place night after night huddled against the wall, his head drooping disconsolately, shoulders hunched.
One night when I dropped a few coins they missed his cap. I stood appalled as he scrabbled in the dirt to pick them up, a hot feeling of shame flooding me. What was I doing, throwing money at him like scraps to a dog? I am so sorry, I said. That’s alright, he responded as he tucked his coins away. Thank you, and God bless you. Oh my! Here was I, the priest, being blessed by the beggar. I had not offered him a blessing, but he was blessing me. Like the drunk and Mother Teresa in Noel Rowe’s poem And so he says to her, our roles had reversed, the beggar was ministering to me. He taught me a lasting lesson about our common humanity. I resolved never to drop money like that again; and whenever it is possible to put the money into the person’s hand, and look them in the eye, offering God’s blessing. And maybe there’s time for a few words about the weather or the state of the nation.
Outside the Forbidden City in Beijing a long line of beggars sat in the baking sun without shade all day. It was like running the gauntlet of human suffering. Ancient ones clothed in rags, barely able to stand; someone accompanying an adult suffering Downs Syndrome doing pathetic little tricks for a bit of change; people with all manner of deformities. One young man haunts me; his horrific burn scars, and that missing arm that seems to have been ripped out of its socket – dear God! How can it be that he must beg for his food? What’s to become of him?
Another sight never to be forgotten was a tiny girl of about 5 sitting quite alone against a long stretch of the old city wall in Istanbul, a scrap of cardboard on the pavement asking for donations. Probably a Syrian refugee like many we encountered, the first being another lonely child – a boy of about 13 huddled into a corner of a building, crouched there, head low, a picture of abject misery. How long would it be before these children fell into the hands of predators? We passed them in the comfort of modern transport, in the safety and security that is ours by chance.
As Luther famously said, we are all beggars before God. Everything we have is given to us; the very breath in our lungs, our Sister Mother Earth with her fruits and grains and her tender and sometimes rugged beauty which opens our spirits to the presence of God. Our innate talents, we call ‘gifts’ – teaching perhaps, or painting, or organising – who but God is the Giver? Everything good in us, every rising hope or wave of generosity is God’s work in us; each spark of Life, be it temporal or eternal. If God turned away from us, we would cease to exist. Personally, I am always begging God for something.
St Francis said the only thing that is ours are our sins. Everything else is for sharing. Beggars are often on my mind. So many meetings – was one of them Christ? Did I turn away from him?