Wednesday, February 13, 2008

On not presuming ....

There were several unfamiliar faces at the midday Eucharist today. After we'd started R.B. arrived, and joined us in the choir. At least since I've been here, probably longer he has come into church for a sit down and some peace and quiet. Whenever he comes in, although he is a regular, he signs the visitors' book, 'R.B., homeless', although it's not true any longer, because city centre social service has found him a bed-sit in a Riverside house with several other middle aged to elderly single men who've lost touch with their families as well as losing their home. But really it's not a home, just a place to stay, a place to watch and wait and see what life turns up.

Now that he can, he keeps himself clean, but lives in cast off clothes and always looks dishevelled. Only rarely does he get himself a haircut and shave, either because he has no mirror to remind himself of how he looks, or prefers not to afford the necessaries. To the casual glance he is just another ageing down and out male. He's no longer able to work due to his medical condition. He has shelter, and a pittance to live on, and is grateful for that.

When he talks, it's clear that he's intelligent, thoughtful, polite. He reads books and newspapers, and thinks a great deal, and enjoys conversing with people. He enjoys a flutter on the horses (50p each way), and a pint of beer if he has the money, but his big drinking days, if he ever had them, are over. We always exchange greetings, and if I'm not rushing, I chat with him. Since I've known him, he's been robbed of cash or possessions several times, or lost his allowance for the week. He rarely begs openly, but welcomes donations, and occasionally tells me how people have come up to him in the street spontaneously and given him money when he's been short. Also he tells of having been given money and passing it on to someone else in need. He sits lightly to the things of this world, even though he appreciates it when he has enough.

For a while, a couple of years ago a brought a friend into church to sit quietly, a man with a serious illness who was hastening his own demise with more than enough alcohol. He was in a terrible state, but R.B. had respect for him because he's been a teacher once and was very intelligent, but had had a breakdown and ended up on the streets. R.B. kept a respectful eye on him until he was taken into care for the last time. R.B. himself has had a life of much suffering, rejection and loneliness, to add to a long spell of sickness and destitution. He has acquired the survival strategies and cunning of a man on the streets. But, he still has composure and a kind of dignity in his 'poor estate'. He still has self respect.

One day he was there in church when a woman tripped over and broke her wrist. He made her sit and rest and got her a cup of tea, and made sure she reported her fall in the visitors book, so that I was later able to contact her. She had nothing but praise for his attentiveness and respect, and well as his assistance. Being helpful, when he can be, is how his self respect is shown.

He's a man who knows God exists, because he's survived so much and always found help in times of need. I think he was confirmed when he was young. He only occasionally sits in on services. Usually he doesn't come up to the communion rail. On the occasions when he has, he's asked for a blessing sometimes and held his hand out for communion on others. I let my actions be guided by his. Which brings me to today.

He came up to the communion rail. It seemed to be a bit of an effort, as if he was stiff and tired. He had a rattling cough. I noticed people noticing him and moving uneasily as he approached. As most of them weren't regulars they would not have understood that he was in a place familiar to him. He stood at the communion rail however, his gestures uncertain, so I asked quietly: "What do you want, a blessing, or communion?" He looked at me shyly : "I don't mind" he replied, "Whatever you like", and laughed lightly, self-effacingly in the way he sometimes does. I gave him communion, to which he responded "Thank you, thank you" before gingerly descending the steps and returning to his place. He slipped out of church before I could exhort him to see a doctor over that cough of his. His response made me ponder long after he'd gone.

It made me think of "We do not presume to come to this thy table O merciful Lord..." Here he was, presenting himself to receive whatever there was on offer from beyond, maybe uncertain of what that was, after all these years, maybe just used to not being asked, or used to asking and being refused. I recall an African Bishop saying : "There's one thing the poor know, and that's how to wait for things." The poor always have to wait, reliant on what's handed down, and with little choice about it. There was something of that in R.B.'s response to me. Yet it wasn't grudging or resentful. It was the dignity of humility refined by suffering.

If anyone had time to notice, this is quite a lesson for an age which excels in fostering illusions of self-importance.

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