Monday, 2 September 2013

The wrapping is not the gift

Most of us make a resolution of some sort during Lent and keep to it more or less faithfully. I revised mine as a result of being reminded, for the third time in one week, that it is not a good idea to judge a book by its cover, especially not if the ‘book’ happens to be another person.

First of all, coming back to my seat after Communion, I noticed one of the four young Indians in the bench behind me as he stood, waiting for his three companions, still lining up to receive the Eucharist, to return to their places. Blue jeans hanging precariously low on his hips and fashionably untidy, he was the sort of youth one sees on the bus or the Tube and does not notice, the ‘one in the crowd’ with nothing in particular to distinguish him from thousands of others. Yet here he was, at the 8 o’clock Mass on a Sunday morning, in the company of two other young men and a girl who appeared to be the sister of at least one of them. On the surface, had our paths crossed outside the church, nothing would have suggested a Mass-goer, willingly rising early in order to pray. Yet inside the church, we were together, strangers united by our presence at Mass and the Sign of Peace we had just shared.  Guiltily, I wondered how often I allow myself to be misled by what I might consider ‘suitable attire’. 

This question repeated itself on the Tube when a seat suddenly became vacant and I gratefully sat down beside a young man, also not the tidiest, but who was engrossed in a book and tapped his fingers as he read. To my surprise, I soon discovered that he held the musical score of The Marriage of Figaro and appeared to be learning a quartet from the opera. His fingers tapped, not as a distraction, but to keep time with the unseen orchestra accompanying the song. A few minutes later, he closed the book, placed it in his man-bag and took out a second volume. Amazingly, this was another operatic score, this time, of Carmen, soon to be staged at the Royal Albert Hall. Again, the man read the music with the ease and fluency with which most of us would scan a favourite magazine. This time, the consistent blue underlining of the music suggested that the stranger on the Tube is a baritone. Nothing about his dress or demeanour suggested a world-class opera singer, but, out of curiosity, I went to the Internet and Google. That was my second lesson of the day. It seems that my companion sings the part of Escamillo the Toreador in the Royal Albert Hall production. How many other times have I judged a book by its cover?

The third wake-up call happened outside Westminster Cathedral as I waited for my colleague, caught in the emerging crowd after the midday Mass. A well-dressed woman with a strong accent and limited English started to tell me a hard luck story. Jumping to conclusions and not waiting to listen, I told her, truthfully, that I had no money with me. Ouch! I cannot forget the pain in her eyes. She showed me a slip of paper with two addresses, one of them, the Passage, an amazing centre for the homeless which Cardinal Hume established at the rear of the Cathedral. “I truly don’t want money. I just want something to eat. I’m hungry and someone said that I would be given some food here.” As I gave directions and the woman hurried away, I really wished that I had not taken for granted that hers was just another variation on a cash-theme. Since our encounter on the Cathedral steps, I’ve prayed non-stop for someone who seemed, outwardly, to be so well-dressed and self-sufficient, but who was in such great need as to search for a free food handout from a place which, however wonderful, deals with the homeless and destitute. Yes, there are the frauds and the shysters, but because of negative experiences with the fake ‘hungry and homeless’ in other places and at other times, how many others have I turned away whose needs were real and urgent?

Some years ago, visiting the Indian High Commission in Lusaka, Zambia, on business, a member of staff, unasked, brought me a glass of deliciously cold water. “Do you know why he did that?” my friend asked. “He is a Hindu. Hindus believe that God can exist in many different forms and that by not welcoming a stranger and treating him or her with respect, someone might be guilty of disrespecting God. Who knows if the stranger might be God in disguise?” Was it not Jesus who told us that anybody who gives even a cup of cold water in his name gives it to him?

One day St Francis met a leper on the road to Assisi. Francis, on horseback and a wealthy young man in search of his vocation, hated and feared leprosy, an incurable disease which permanently separated its sufferers from the rest of society. Instead of going on his way, Francis dismounted and, taking a deep breath, embraced the astonished outcast. As he resumed his journey, Francis looked backwards – and the leper had disappeared. It was then that he realised that, in meeting the leper, he had actually encountered Jesus. This was the turning point in the life of the one who would later become one of the greatest saints in the history of the world. It was a moment Francis never forgot. 
In his new book, Francis and Jesus, Fr Murray Bodo OFM writes, 'God is where we least expect to find God. God is among those we despise or fear or find repulsive. God is a leper.' That is a pretty dramatic challenge to us not to judge the book by its cover. It is all too easy to find God where things are neat and tidy. When Francis met the leper, although he did not realise it at the time, he met Jesus and his life was never again the same. 

Many of us have recently spent Sunday evenings enthralled by the beautiful television series, Call the Midwife. Based in the East End of London during the difficult and often dark days of the 1950s, we have seen, time and again, gold shine from slum dwellings. We have seen the midwives gradually change through their encounters with real people and their goodness in the most surprising circumstances. The Sisters, an Anglican community concerned with midwifery and health care as well as with the spiritual concerns of those around them, continually go above and beyond the call of duty in their kindness and wisdom. The series presents a lovely, authentic and human picture of people working together for God’s glory and the service of others. They are realistic. The situations they address are not glamorous and are often very difficult. They also challenge us not to make judgements about those around us. It is too easy to judge a book by its cover. As someone once said, “The wrapping is not the gift.”

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