One morning, about a month ago, I heard a tap on our front door of our retreat office and got up to see who it was. Before me stood a young man who was vaguely familiar to me. I had seen him here about this time last year. He looked physically strong, but in his face I could see a man who was carrying a great deal of inner suffering.
He wanted to see a priest for confession, so I directed him to our welcome center, explaining that a priest would be there from 8:45 a.m. until 11:45. He thanked me and left.
As I returned to the office, I remembered more about him from the previous year. He had made some of our retreatants nervous, not because of anything he did or said but because he was the odd man out. He would just sit and stare and not say anything to anyone. He was never threatening, just different and keep to himself.
He came back to the retreat house in the afternoon and asked if he could speak to me for a bit. After we got coffee and went to one of our meeting rooms, he seemed at first at a loss on what to say. He would not look at me but kept his eyes on the floor. He told me about his struggles, his loneliness, and how difficult it was to connect with others. He told me that he suffered from mental illness but since he started his medication he had been doing better, though things were still difficult for him. He had no friends, no one to interact with on a regular basis.
As he continued to talk, I asked him some questions which he was forthright in answering.
There was a support group that met once a week, but he did not go often. I recommended he go to the group even if he had to force himself. He admitted it would be good for him to reconnect.
He was reaching out to me in way that often leaves me feeling helpless. I have learned to embrace this feeling and understand all I can really do is to listen and give encouragement.
So I bent forward and asked him if he could look me in the eyes for a minute. He looked up, and I could see the deep sadness there. So I told him that he should never lose hope, that his seeking after God is not a waste of time, and that no matter his struggles, his pain, or his failures, nothing could separate him from the love of God. He started to cry. I clasped his hands and told him that he could always choose, though it would often be very hard for him.
He asked me to pray for him, and I did. When we finished he asked if he could embrace me, and I said, “yes.”
I knew there was little I could do for him, but have learned that people have deep reservoirs of strength. This man had more than most. It would take courage for him to continue to take his psychotropic medicine, to get up every morning and to try to get through another day
His whole life is a Lent, but he had a strong soul.
People do not deserve pity, and it’s not helpful for me to carry others’ pain, but our empathy and compassion keep us connected to others. As long as I understand that I can do little and must leave it in God’s hands, I can minister without feeling overburdened.
Most of us have people we are called to help and to minister to, perhaps only by listening and actually ‘seeing’ them as human beings on a lonely journey, and because of that and their tenacity are in actuality closer to the mystery that our Christian faith seeks to teach us.
We are all called to love, embrace, and to see those around us. I often fail but will never give up trying. Each human being is precious in God’s eyes. When we deepen our understanding of that reality, over time we will start to become more human — we put on Jesus Christ until the day comes that, with St. Paul, we can say, “It is not I but Christ who lives in me.”