My neighbors and I met a 14thCentury heroine Tuesday night and hearing the story of all she dared and accomplished in the short 33 years of her 1347-1380 life was in a strange way both inspiring and discouraging.
It was at the second of four sessions of a Summer Parish Study series focusing on the four virtues of Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. They are known as the “Cardinal” or Hinge Virtues and are considered central in the quest to live a life of excellence.
Dominican Brother Deacon John Mark Solitario chose to portray the virtue of Justice in its living embodiment in the person of Saint Catherine of Siena, the mystic, scholar, humanitarian and diplomat whose short life brought to life her own Spiritual mantra: “Be who you are meant to be and you will set the world on fire.” In her case, the blaze was dazzling.
I urge you to meet this astounding young woman in one of the respected biographies that recount some of her signature achievements. You will meet her as a prayerful young woman. You will observe her coming forward to minister to those who suffer the horrifying symptoms of the plague.
You will see her called upon to be of counsel to Popes of the Church she loved at one of its most challenging periods. This woman, wise beyond her years, encouraged the last of the Avignon Popes to return to Rome. Unfortunately, after his successor was elected a year later, the election was so contentious that Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377 and the election of his successor Urban VI in 1378 was so controversial that a group of cardinals elected an anti-pope, which started a new string of Avignon “popes.” As she prayed to recognize the just solution, she supported the Roman line until her death in 1380. In that period, the still-young woman was enlisted by Urban to “rally the troops” and promote loyalty to the Roman Pope through a letter-writing campaign.
Feeling called to counsel, convince and serve all in physical, political, medical, spiritual and social need, she continued to serve the causes of justice and the Church she loved. You who choose to discover more of Catherine’s life will find your own, singular, moving responses. But what I want to share with you today is what happened after we had been astounded by this Saint’s larger-than-life life.
With scrupulous respect for the length of his announced one-hour class period, the Deacon invited us to “fast forward” from the astounding details of the Saint’s life and begin to respond to the challenge they suggested to us. He challenged us to consider the life lessons this verbal portrait of a Just Woman had begun to motivate us as individuals and as a parish family.
Bottom line, the suggestion was clear. To admire a giant is easy. To have the honesty and courage to do what is in your own limited power is the real challenge.
The conversation that night focused on how we more or less secure, more or less affluent individuals respond to our fellow city dwellers, so many of whom are homeless, or otherwise overtaxed in ways that challenge their personal resources of self-respect, financial wherewithal, courage and hope. Listening to the words of my parish family members I was moved and challenged. I thought of all the times I say nothing when I feel that anything I do say will sound “preachy” or insensitive or extraordinarily superficial. And then there are the other consistent temptations. Knowing I can’t “fix” a brother or sister’s deep need I often, too quickly jump to the conclusion that since I can’t do it all I will do nothing.
The issue of reverence for our environment was another one fellow class members’ responses identified as calling for our concern. In words revealing moving self-awareness, several individuals identified waste of food and careless disposability as issues that called out to their personal and communal sense of responsibility.
As the conversation continued, I was able to look around the room and recognize faces of people who had delivered a wake-up call to me. In a Street Seens post of March 20, 2017, I wrote of members of our parish’s Social Concerns committee. In that column, the headline confessed that my neighbors had begun to open my eyes by refusing to close theirs. Addressing the subject of homelessness, they gave me a response for the man who had approached and asked, on the eve of a long-sought job interview, where he might be able to use a shower. The small booklet on which these committee members cooperated with The Neighborhood Coalition for the Homeless simply listed the resources for meals, showers, residential resources. A small step, but so practical and brave. I resolved to put handfuls of them into my bag. And I knew I would have to be humble, courageous and honest enough to engage in the subject with strangers and offer one practical resource for turning silent sympathy into real human engagement. And I was encouraged to be sure when offering the booklet also to supply a Metro Card that could support the travel to or from the location that matches the man’s need. Is this a band-aid for a broken limb? Possibly. But also, quite possibly a better action than silence or hopelessness.
I encourage you to note the sign in the window of the East 72ndStreet dry cleaner that invites unemployed persons with the prospect of a job interview to bring their interview garb to be cleaned for free. Consider going in, subsidizing one or more such cleanings. That one small thing would be do-able. Then, take some cards to pass on to one you recognize might be able to avail of this offer.
One small step at a time. But a step and not paralysis born of failure of imagination.
These admittedly small beginnings of a coherent shaping of mind and heart on issues of social justice are being reported by one who often feels overwhelmed when confronting the deeply human challenges that face her brothers and sisters in this urban village. But somehow I know that as when recovering from an injured limb one must dare to take a first step even when it is clearly far from the version of that step that will come about after serious investment of therapy and practice and just plain long, hard work.
Each of these accompanied by large doses of puzzling uncertainty.
It seems fitting to end this reflection and invitation to engage in conversation by reporting the train of thought that occurred to me last Tuesday night. As I wondered why I had not asked my fellow students to join me in awareness of and admiration for the members of our own Social Concerns Committee who don’t just mouth platitudes about social justice but carry that to another level altogether. The words of a favorite poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins came to mind and insisted upon having the last word about the moving presentation on justice we had just heard.
Deacon Solitario left no doubt that Catherine’s feats of being a champion of justice grew from a central wellspring of prayer. Virtue, after all shares the same root as the word virtuoso. For those who habitually practice justice, it is more than just a performance. An excerpt from Hopkins’ As Kingfisher Catch Fire* insisted upon invading my response to our presentation on Justice and it rang the bell and opened the door.
As we read below, let these words paint a portrait of justice. Let us allow them to penetrate the wall of caution or doubt as we work to gather up the courage to begin the long pilgrimage on the path to justice, one limited step at a time. Think about the ultimate arrival and set off boldly.
*Poem: Gerard Manley Hopkins, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame. Public domain.
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