So much suffering and neediness around us can feel overwhelming. How much faith do we have in the works of mercy? And in prayer?
Last week’s trip to New York City wasn’t always so amusing.
On the train there
On the train there, an elderly couple across the aisle and one row behind me kept getting phone calls from their kids, who seemed worried that they weren’t going to make it all the way home all right. It’s kind of sweet. The couple always let their phone ring several times (and with that annoying default ring tone) before they answered it. They used the speaker phone turned up loud, treating everyone in the front half of the car to their conversations.
But at least I know where they hide their house key.
I’m trying to work and beginning to feel annoyed. Then the phone rings again. The elderly man says in his quavering thin voice, sounding pleased, “So how are things goin’?” A quavering, low-pitched woman’s voice says, “Just had a biopsy. They don’t have the results yet.”
She (I didn’t catch her name) says she had horrible pain in her left side Saturday night. “I just thought it was the onion rings and the blue cheese dressing,” she says, and laughs but not happily. She finally went to the emergency room and found out the doctors think she has cancer.
The old man asks the woman if she wants him to tell Tom. She pauses and then says, “Yeah. I just had the biopsy and they don’t have the results yet, but yeah, you might as well tell him. Go ahead. Thanks.”
The old man calls Tom. He gets voice mail. “Tom,” he says, and tells him the woman just had a biopsy. “They don’t have the results yet. That’s all we know. Bye.”
As the train pulled into Pittsburgh
On the trip home, as the train pulled into Pittsburgh, I walked down to the doors and into a conversation of three men. A man about 30, with a shaved head, clean but worn jeans and sweatshirt, and his belongings in a cardboard box, talked about getting clean, presumably from opioids.
“I’m not going back there,” he says. He speaks in single sentences separated by a second or two. He pulled out a cigarette as he was talking. “No future there … I’m doin’ this for my wife and my little girl … Nothing for me back there.” And then, emphatically, “I’m going to get this done for my daughter.”
One man slapped him three times on the back of the shoulder, and said, “Good for you. Keep it up.” The other guy and I said, “Yeah, man.” He smiled, nodded. The train stopped and we all got off.
That should have been heart-warming, I thought, as I got off the train and started down the platform for the stairs. He stood down by the doors but well off to the side, smoking deeply in what I don’t think was a smoking area. I waved and he nodded. I’ve heard so many alcoholics and junkies talk like that, with those same phrases, all serious, all swearing that this time they were going to stay clean, and the ones I knew never made it.
In the midst of strangers we are in death, to adapt the famous phrase from an old liturgy. Everywhere we go, someone hurts, often in a way that can’t be cured in this world.
In the midst of life
But we are not helpless. Indeed, the Church tells us to help them. The seven spiritual works of mercy include comforting and consoling the afflicted. We can always do something to help.
That slap on the back and that “Yeah, man” were small works of mercy. At least the man knew that three strangers hope he succeeds in staying clean. Not much, but all we could do, and something to a man battling addiction. I wish I’d thought to get up and tell that old couple that I’d happened to overhear their call and that I’d pray for their friend, but I thought I could catch them as we were getting off, since almost everyone at that point in the trip gets off in Pittsburgh. When next I looked over, their seat was empty and their suitcases gone.
Still we are not helpless. God gave us a way of intervening in their lives from a distance. We can always pray for the man or woman in pain. Probably we should pray first. In cases like these, I try to say, with concentration and picturing them in my mind if I can, an Our Father and a Hail Mary. Our Father will do something with that.
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