Every seven years, the Church in Spain celebrates a Teresian Holy Year, and the Avila Institute of Spiritual Formation organized a journey to participate with about forty pilgrims last November. In nine days, over Thanksgiving week, we visited many of the convents that Mother Teresa founded. On one of the days of our pilgrimage we set out for Burgos.
On the way, we stopped for Mass in the monastery in Palencia - and the sisters graciously provided us with cookies and coffee for breakfast afterward. Their joy was so contagious - we in the small parlor and they behind the grill, physically jumping up and down with glee at seeing us. Though most of us spoke little Spanish and they little English, there was a bond that we shared together… we, like them, though only laity managing our way in the world, had been touched by the spiritual doctrine of their Foundress — her teachings on prayer and on faithfulness. With this foretaste of heaven, we climbed back on the bus and road a couple more hours to Burgos, to visit, among other sacred places, its beautiful Cathedral.
After our arrival, we had a few minutes for a bathroom break and I was a little distracted by a hot chocolate shop nearby. I had been at this very spot once with another group of pilgrims - a memory of fun and laughter that I wanted to re-live. But like most beautiful moments of grace… they never come the same way twice. Indeed, as I approach the shop to get my hot cocoa, an upset pilgrim approached me for help.
With a sense of urgency in her voice, she explained that there was a man dead in the public bathroom. No one knew what to do. I am embarrassed to admit that I was annoyed at first — this was not according to plan. All I wanted was to indulge an old memory. This was the opposite of that.
Reluctantly, I let the pilgrim lead me to a steal public restroom with automatic doors and locks. Lying on the floor was a young man. I asked another pilgrim to fetch our doctor and asked the lady at the chocolate shop to call an ambulance. Then while I waited, I heard the voice of my own conscience - it was not enough to ask others, I needed to do something myself. But I did not want to… I was afraid of what I might find. Prodded by an insistent pilgrim, I finally succumbed to that still small voice in my heart. What I experienced was a powerful grace that has stayed with me ever since. As I prayed over the few minutes of my visit, the words of a poem emerged and it is these that I would like to share with you now:
On Him, the Door I Shut
(A Pilgrim on the Streets of Burgos)
A break for toilette, for chocolate, for “Time was tight”
In Cathedral’s shadow, I fell upon that victim’s plight
There, my selfishness recoiled before Mercy’s might.
On the ground, a naked stranger lays fetal
skin white, floor plastic and cold metal
blood bright, feces dark, under heroine lethal
Pilgrims, helpful, call aghast
Shopkeeper annoyed, excited, on phone harassed
Onlookers, indifferent, quickly passed
That sepulcher, there both shame and glory meet -
Heart lost in revulsion, righteous excuse, readied retreat
At that restroom door, prayer and pilgrims but stayed my feet
Like a corpse it lay, a youth, the image of my son
In stench fluid’s filth, needle, darkness, spoon
No pulse, but warm, with opened wound
To our Lord, heartfelt but pathetic prayer
Then he twitched, stirred, and pulsed bare-
Ly, boom, boom, boom, as I exit to siren’s blare
Steal on steal and electric lock
Anxious tolls of ancient clock
In Burgos as in L.A., my thoughts just empty talk
On Him, the door I shut,
whose silent glories cut
short, my cold indifference.
For me, the distress of an unknown stranger became a moment of grace. In a single moment, I saw this young person as my son and at the same time as my Lord. In that encounter, I was put face to face with my mediocrity and the moral standard of the Gospel of Christ. For a moment, I glimpsed the mystery of the Father’s love of His Son in the Holy Sepulcher, and God’s desire to raise each of us up out of the filth of our lives. I tasted, for an instant, a love that is stronger than death and the mercy that circumscribes our misery. Such moments ought to live in the heart of apostolic activity, and they ought to feed our prayer. Otherwise, we remain but prisoners of the projects of our self-indulgent piety — save for the fact that the Lord never fails to come to us, even though in disguise.