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Starting Point

Think of redemption as seeds nurtured in struggle and love


Early one Christmas Eve, I was looking out the front window of the rectory and noticed a man sprawled across the steps of the church.

I recognized him to be Joe, a young man suffering from the disease of alcoholism. His disease was far advanced, and I was quite sure that the fact that he was still young was the only thing that had staved off death. He was only 34 or 35. Homeless, he has gone through detox at a nearby hospital several times.

He would stop by frequently for food, a cigarette, a cup of coffee or a few dollars. He would sleep anywhere he could find shelter, usually beneath the railroad trestle on Bay Street or in the large heated walkway outside a nearby Shop Rite.

That night he was so tragic. His lying there, homeless and without a friend in the world, was such a stark contrast to the full and expectant gatherings that would take place that night in homes and places of worship all over the world. It seemed that everyone, except Joe, was involved in the redemptive process. Joe seemed to be lying somewhere outside it.

I knew there was nothing I could do for him, aside from helping him to his feet. Hank, our deacon, brought him inside and gave him some hot chocolate and a sandwich. We encouraged him to go to a nearby Salvation Army shelter, but Joe shook his head and went back out into the night.

I thought about how God lives in Joe, how God suffers in him, how God felt the cold concrete on his face and the sting of cold urine on his legs. The shame of incontinence, the loss of everything familiar, the helplessness that can be a human life, and that indeed is human life, could not be estranged from the experience of God, the God who loves Joe.

In the raw and unadorned yet ever-so-human condition of Joe, something of God lived and waited as well, curled beneath a railroad trestle on a side street, within hearing distance of carols and alleluias.

Redemption, the blessed recovery of all things, we believe to be an ongoing, mysterious and hidden process. All shall be redeemed in God’s time and through his love. It is something we all await. Joe will know that, as will all that has been broken and is seemingly out of reach.

I remember once trying to understand redemption as a singular, somehow approachable event, something that could be described between the covers of a fine text. I have come to try to accept its effect as being like that of so many seeds of living potential, strewn throughout the universe, born and nurtured by the winds of mystery and providence. They grow toward maturation through the love of God and the struggles of existence, by which the cross stands at once as suffering and the promise of eternal life.

This is our hope. It is a hope that has been given and a hope that prompts a recognition of the Joe that is within us all, a helplessness in need of a cup of coffee, a place of warmth and understanding, and the far greater healing of God. We are all at different stages of growth and do not know, really, how far we have come and how far we have yet to go. Some of our falls along the way are more visible than others. Those who can stand soberly and those who need a drink to make it through the night have in common the God who lives within.

All created matter is weak and moves toward a promised and healthier tomorrow. Watching Hank feed Joe, I thought of the God who feeds and yet still needs to be fed. Human kindness and human need reveal both sides of God’s goodness and wanting. We cannot reconcile these two faces of life. But, to the best of our ability, we can miraculously give to one another and trust in the God who grows both in those who stir hot chocolate and those who sleep beneath trestles.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, April 9, 1999