By: Rick Hernandez
“Everyday, let us make a visit of charity to Purgatory, and this act of charity will make us more vigilant and faithful in the service of God." - St. Peter Julian Eymard
For many years, I've heard people try to explain charity. The concept of charity, in modern society, has come to mean giving to the less fortunate, as in, giving money to help the needy. It is important to give monetary support to the poor, but we are called to more. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines "charity" as "the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God". To love as God loves is more than just giving money to the needy.
Let me share a little story.
Not too long ago I was working for a big bank in Jersey City, NJ. Jersey City is that kind of place where the old and the new clash on a daily basis. There are the new, big, hip apartments buildings soaring 40 floors high next to simple and humble brownstone houses from the last two centuries. The rich and the poor mixing, but not always in perfect harmony...
Often, my coworkers and I would go out to lunch in the area, to modern and convenient restaurants available to us. It was easy and fun to do that. Every day I would walk by the little park and the ABC store that were right next to the office and see this man, sitting outside in temperatures around 30 degrees Fahrenheit and bundled up in an old trench coat. The brown bag in his hand hinted at why he was always there, and his "thousand yard" stare gave me pause whenever I saw him. I would always say "Good Morning" to this man, same as I did everyone else I met, almost in automatic mode with no real thought behind it, and I would receive no reaction whatsoever from him. Yet this one day, for some reason I really looked into this man eyes when I said my greeting and I saw him react to me for the first time. He answered back with a greeting of his own; I stopped and asked him his name, "George. George is my name". "Nice to meet you George", and I told him my name. I asked him to make sure to say Hi whenever he saw me around and then I left.
Over the next six months, I would daily stop on the way to work to say Hi to George. We would speak for a few moments, and little by little I learned about him and his life. Often, I would buy lunch and we would break bread together in the park. George was a lawyer, graduated from a very well known and respected school of law, and the son of a very well-known and famous lawyer. George married his college sweetheart with opposition from both his and her families and moved to Jersey City to get away from all the bickering in the families. In time, George built a thriving law practice and prepared to finally start a family. After trying for a long time, they finally got pregnant! Their happiness was short-lived as his wife was diagnosed with a very aggressive form of cancer. Within a couple of months, both mom and unborn child passed unto the glory of our Lord. The bickering from the two families got worse. George descended into an incredible depression and turned to alcohol to suppress his pain. Soon after, his law practice failed. George lost his business, his cars, his home, and spent all his time and money on alcohol. Soon he was homeless, sleeping behind the Government Hall, one block from where I met him. He had spent years living like this, isolated from the world that he believed was causing him pain, trying to be invisible yet unable to let it all go.
At the beginning I did not say too much in my interactions with George. What I tried to do was to be there, present for him, and I prayed. Little by little, our meetings were changing both of us. I noticed I was more aware of everyone I met. I learned the importance of looking at everyone in the eye and how dignifying it is for someone when you spend a few seconds addressing them directly, as if they are the only person in the world at that moment. I felt I was getting more patient, and more willing to listen, because I understood that people feel validated when they are heard, which acknowledges their inherent value as sons and daughters of God. On George’s side, he was drinking less frequently and started standing straighter, speaking vividly and with more clarity. He started trying to get to the shelter at night and wash his clothes. His sense of humor was returning. Eventually, as George's heart started healing, he started talking about returning home. The pain was still there, but there was a sense of longing to share his pain with the other ones that could understand it, his family.
One day, George was not at his usual spot. I did not find him that day nor any other day after that. I prayed that as his heart was healing, that he would go back to his family and heal those wounds too. After another two months, my assignment at the bank was over and I returned home to Tampa. I have never seen George again, yet this dear man will forever be in my heart. I think about him often.
Like Father Eymard said, visiting purgatory (sitting down with the ones suffering) changes us for the better. It makes us into a better likeness of Christ and helps us build on our charity, the real charity. I sometimes think that the one with the real charity in my story was George. He was the one in pain, the one that had lost everything, yet he was the one that took the time to also be with me, to emerge from his difficult position in life to engage with me, to teach me to care, to love as Christ did. He took my gift of charity and gave it back, through Christ, tenfold.
Father Eymard took care of the poor and indigent in Paris. Mother Teresa took care of the sick and dying in Calcutta. Both of them rested in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in order to increase their charity, their love. Let us take the opportunity, as we start this Lenten period, to do likewise, to increase in our love (caritas) so that we can go out into the world, share of ourselves and truly love. May you also find your George.
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We are Ivonne Hernandez, Rick Hernandez and Laura Worhacz, Lay Associates of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, and brothers and sisters in Christ.