The Word Encountered
When There Seems Nothing Left
“Her whole livelihood.” (Mk 12:44)
I met a man named John in 1975. We arrived the same day at the L’Arche community in Bangalore, India. It was a group home for handicapped people, founded in the spirit of Jean Vanier, the inspiration of many thousands around the world.
John was handicapped. I, so I thought, was not. John was a rarity, a forty-year-old man with Down’s syndrome. He was frightened and withdrawn. It was the first time he had been away from his home and his mother, who had taken care of him over the many years. Now, since his mother was about to be hospitalized for a long time, John needed help and L’Arche was there.
As for myself, I was a little depressed, although it probably did not show. My own disability was covert—a lingering ache of disappointment. I had traveled to India, made a thirty-day retreat, and discovered that I was not changed at all. Still insecure, despite the degrees; still dissatisfied, despite the hoops maneuvered; still timid, despite big dreams. No Francis Xavier here.
Although not relating much to anyone for the first few weeks, John gave himself a job. He would sprawl on the floors, put his cheek against the concrete, and start blowing with all his might in wide arches. He was cleaning the dust from the hallways. He seemed pleased and proud of his contribution.
I contributed by cooking once in a while and presiding at the Eucharist, feeling quite valuable. But at night I would lie stiff and sleepless on my cot, hearing strange sounds on the other side of my unlockable door: a troubled teenager who would growl, sniff, and murmur as he peeked in; a gentle old man, talking and humming to himself after a day of simple chores; an urgent voice down the hall.
Neither of us Johns, I suppose, was doing very well, although the staff—“assistants”—worried more about him since he was less adept at covering up his affliction.
After weeks, a breakthrough occurred. John did it. Had he read my anxiety and protective distance? Had he sensed my wish that staying there would come to an end? Did he know I needed help?
One morning, as I made my way across a large room, stepping around obstacles, my leg was grabbed. John was on the floor “sweeping,” face to the ground, yet pulling my ankle.
When I looked down, stopped and startled, I saw his released hand now motioning in the air as if he were shaking hands with a ghost. I was the ghost—but no longer, after I took his hand to shake it and saw his upturned face smile.
Why do I always think of John when I hear of the widow’s mite? “This poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”
I guess it was the power of his gift to me. His reaching out, even though by all accounts he had far less reason to do so than I. He had lost home and mother, familiarity and comfort. And somehow he still gave a gift to me.
I started feeling in happier spirits after that day. John did too, perhaps from sensing his own power to help another person.
Elijah met a poor widow of his own. He just wanted some water. The widow, gathering sticks, went to fetch it for him. Then he just wanted some bread. But there was nothing. She was gathering the sticks to make a fire. Left only with a handful of flour and a few drops of oil, she prepared a final meal to eat with her son before dying. “Do not fear,” the prophet said. “Do as you were planning, but give me some as well. You will not run out.” The three of them were able to eat for a year: the prophet, the woman, the child. The flour did not vanish. The oil did not go dry.
There are times when we are down, and we think we have nothing left to give. Little remains in the barrel of our lives. Then, for some reason, we still manage to give more out of the nothing we have left. And grace is born again.
How often the mere pennies of others replenish us. It happens in those moments when someone seems to have nothing much to give us: no education, no program, no sermon, no sound advice, no solution to our problems. If they do not give up on us, but give us something else, if they give not from their surplus, but all they have to live on, we find that they have offered their very being. Their presence. Their hearts. What they bestow on us, finally, is no merely human asset, but the life of God flourishing in our faith, hope, and love.
I heard about John for at least another five years. Once I even saw his smiling face in a little publication of the L’Arche community. I was told he was a joy of the community.
He helps me see why Christ was so touched by a widow one day, near the temple treasury.
John Kavanaugh, SJ
**From Saint Louis University