walking sacraments


Anything can be an icon.  The church loves to have all sorts of rules about what is and is not, what qualifies and what does not, what is holy and what is not and what is sinful and what is not.  My favorite is the set of rules about what is a sacrament and what is not.   I was speaking with a friend recently who said that priests were walking sacraments and I agree entirely.

I was once with another friend in a major city when we came upon an eighteen year old boy sitting on the street weeping. Pushing past the inclination not to complicate my day by walking past at a slightly increased speed with eyes averted to some distant place towards which I was going to pretend to stride – I stopped.

It had been raining and the pavement was wet.  The boy smelled very bad with blackened finger nails and a face too old for his age. I sat with my back to the chain link fence trying not to focus on his body odor seeping from dirty clothes.  My first thought was “This boy has a mother and a father. Somewhere, someone cares for him. Somewhere.”

I sat with him for a few minutes as he wept and my heart was wrung like a towel.  My gut hurt near my spine where I usually feel emotional pain.  I decided not to speak first – to just wait until he was ready to say something.  He was testing me. He was wracked with sobs.  Finally he spoke but did not look at me.  He simply said “My father is dead. He was my friend.The funeral is tomorrow in Reno”  I resisted the temptation to be a savior – to fix this.  I just listened.

He told me a long and sad story about drugs, family alienation, financial poverty, broken relationships, relational and physical abuse by family, clergy and by the church. Though I have never taken recreational drugs, I could still identify with much of his story.  I had to resist saying “I know.”  For I did not.  I only knew my story and could not presume to know his.

Of course my immediate impulse was to assume I was being scammed.  His father was in another city and he wanted to go to the funeral.  Was he about to ask me for money to get there? When I asked the question he looked at me with a look which might have been scolding and then he smiled and said “no thank you.” He could not go to the funeral.  His family hated him, said he.  He just wanted to weep for his father and for the lost potential of that relationship. He asked if I would sit with him while he wept and I agreed.  While he wept tears which rocked his body back and forth, I simply stat there on the wet pavement.  People walked by.  A man tossed him some change which just made him look at me and laugh. hHe said simply “People are silly.”

After about half an hour he slowly stopped weeping.  He smeared the tear-soaked dirt around his face and smiled.  He thanked me for companioning his grief.  When I tried to tell him about a local shelter he said he was living with friends.  I kept trying to help him, not realizing that all he wanted was a witness to his pain. An un-judgmental witness.

He got up and walked away, thanking me for treating him with dignity- in his own words. I stayed for a few minutes and wept, thinking of my own father’s death when I was a cloistered monk.  The brothers had said we were too busy for me to go to him – it was Holy Week.  There was too much to do. I obeyed.  I wondered if I would ever forgive myself. All of a sudden I was the one sitting on the pavement weeping over a dead father and missed opportunity. I looked to my right and there my friend was watching me, standing in vigil as I went through what I needed to experience.  I then looked to my left and the kid was waiting there on the other end of the block also standing vigil.

What I love about this moment in scripture when Jesus is being companioned by Mary and John is that they are not trying to intervene, change the systems, lobby for relief, demand retribution.  John and Mary – newly formed as the church – just stand there with Jesus as he suffers. When I carved this bas relief in clay, I was a monk, but I have made many of these clay icons since and the carving always reminds me that anyone can be a walking sacrament.  John and Mary are.  My friend and that kid were.  I am.  We all are.  Clergy are walking sacraments too. But only because they are humans, not because they are priests.

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