Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Isaiah 58: 6-7
On a typically frigid Buffalo evening a young mother brought her three children to my emergency room. The oldest of the children, a boy of about eight or nine, was noticeably ill, with a congested cough and a runny nose. I took little note of them, other than to observe their unkempt appearance. They were dressed in shabby coats and lacked gloves or hats; their hair was tangled and stringy, and their faces were marked with dirty smears. They were led to a treatment room and dropped out of my thoughts...they were but a few in a crush of patients, and each of us working that night struggled to maintain our composure in what appeared to be a losing battle.
Later that evening as I ran from task to task, a small girl, no more than five or six, waved to me meekly, trying to get my attention. "Do you have a microwave?" she asked, while holding a cellophane-wrapped breakfast sandwich in her hand. I brusquely told her I couldn't spare a moment at present; I promised to retrieve the sandwich a few minutes later and prepare it for her. She thanked me politely and returned to her room.
Shortly after I looked for the little girl to help her heat-up the sandwich; when I reached the room I found all three children sitting on the gurney. Mom was sitting opposite them with her back to me, and she was clutching a paper grocery bag tightly. As I looked at the children, I was moved to pity; they knew the pangs of hunger. They knew what it was like to be cold and on the streets. They new want. My heart ached for them; they were no older than my own small children.
I asked for the sandwich, and inquired about the last meal they ate. "French fries!" smiled the littlest, a girl of four or five. "We got fries at McDonalds!" Before that, I asked? None could remember. Mother muttered, "I feed them". She put her grocery bag on the floor, and I saw its contents: some empty soda cans, a towel, and two more wrapped sandwiches. I knew then that these children had not eaten a good meal in a long time. I quickly sped to the pantry and filled two bags with cereal, sandwiches, milk and juices, cookies and crackers. I brought each of the children a bag lunch, and they devoured them! They soon broke into the bags I brought for home and ate much of the contents, but I didn't mind. I just filled them again. All the while, mom sat quietly, refusing any food offered. I saw the weight of the world pressing on her.
I sat near mom and asked quietly, "where are you staying tonight?" She began to cry. A few tear-filled moments later I learned of her abusive relationship, her flight with the children, and the nights on the street the four of them spent looking for warmth and food. As I shared this with the physician and social worker, the team mobilized and we located shelter and assistance for the little family that night. As they entered the cab we provided to take them to their warm shelter they loaded the bags I provided and sped off into the night. I never saw them again, but I pray for them often, and I thank God that He slowed me down enough to see the need.
To our left and to our right, in our neighborhoods and throughout our community exist men, women and children who need comfort, love, and attention. They are hungry. They are thirsty. They lack adequate clothing and shelter. They are sick and lonely; they are broken and in prison. They are living and dying alone and forgotten. As we speed about in our daily routines we often turn a blind eye; we are too busy, too consumed in the needs of our own lives. There is just too much need, and it can seem overwhelming. Yet God calls us to reach out, to comfort those in need. For some, this can mean heroic selflessness, devoting ones life in the service of others; for most, it is simply being present and compassionate to those God sends us. There is no shortage of opportunity to be merciful to others, to provide comfort and relief, to show love and compassion.
Throughout this novena to St. Camillus de Lellis, I will reflect on the Corporal Works of Mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned, and bury the dead. I will share the heroic stories of those who have given all to the service of others, as well as the little gifts of love shared in common ways that each of us can do every day. Most of all, I will reflect on the call each of us has received, by virtue of our love of Christ, to love our neighbor as ourselves, and practical ways to do just that.
Prayer: St. Camillus, you gave yourself in service to others with no concern for the cost. Pray for us that we may be given hearts that see the need all around us, hearts that yearn for the good of our neighbor. It is from God's infinite love for us that we are able to love; pray that we, too, may give freely of ourselves, serving the God who has loved us as we reach out to those in need of hope and compassion. We ask all this in the name of the merciful Jesus. Amen.