This is a picture that you may recognize from a blog post I did on St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto. This statue is located in the basement. Rounding a corner to meet it face to face is startling and remembering it is haunting. It is, of course, based on a passage of scripture in Matthew:
40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:
42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:
43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.
44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?
45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.
Personally, despite the fact that I am a Catholic convert, I do not believe in a literal Hell: I take the above passage as metaphor, and I know that Jesus, from all the scriptural evidence, loved a good metaphor. Mother Teresa picked up on the above passage, it seems to me, when she said of the poor, the sick and the dying whom she ministered to, “Every day I see Jesus Christ in all his distressing disguises.”
Over the last few months, I found that the picture of this statue returned to me again and again, as if I was supposed to do something, and then I got the idea for this poem:
I smelled him ere I saw him sitting,
piss and vomit stained;
unfed for days, unwashed for weeks,
his face was drawn with pain.
I purposely avoided him;
the movement caught his eye.
He laughed asthmatically. “You need
not kiss me; you won’t die.”
Just see me, please, so spoke the eyes
beneath his filthy hair,
worn like an execution hood –
they caught me unaware.
His cracked lips caterpillared
from one cheek o’er to its twin.
Against my every prejudice,
his presence drew me in.
And something scuttled in his lap,
crab-like, as on the strand,
a withered hand that might have shook,
but ne’er another’s hand,
a thumb in rictus, fingers gnarled,
all quivering and splayed,
and then across some inner screen
this misty vision played:
A ragged hole all purpled round
was centered in his palm,
a bruise that oozed, unhealing wound,
a hand fit to embalm.
His other hand (another wound,
too, oozing) joined its brother
to form a fetid begging bowl
that stirred the hearts of others.
I blinked, the piercings both were gone.
“Well? Watcha starin’ for?”
His puzzled stare reflected mine –
the vision was no more.
And as I struggled with myself
Some sense in it to find,
these words played in my mind:
“I thirsted and ye gave me drink;
I hungered, ye gave bread;
ye rescued me when robbers
left me on the road for dead.
“When I was sick, ye soothed my brow;
my naked body clothed;
was homeless, and ye took me in;
ye loved the one they loathed.”
And I stretched out my hand to you . . . ?
These words came not with those,
but from that beggar’s rheumy eyes,
as through rank weeds, a rose.
For as I wondered what they meant,
I heard my Christian name
being spoken in a whisper as
another vision came:
a crucifix stood in one pan,
my deeds sat its twin,
as if to set the wages paid
for virtue and for sin.
The pans hung from a balance beam,
and it began to sway,
my eyes glued to the pivot point
so I could see which way.
But though it swayed, it somehow stayed,
both pans in place restrained
from movement either up or down:
in balance they remained.
And coming to my senses, then,
it seemed to me I might,
in my next act, be choosing:
walk in darkness or in light?
These whispered words of Jesus Christ
Made clear for me to see:
“The deed which you do now for him,
you do also for Me.”
And so, I gave him all I had,
for pride is overpriced.
It was no beggar stared at me;
indeed, I’d witnessed Christ.
And on that day, my life was changed:
As yeast to bread is leaven,
a beggar’s words and eyes and hands,
showed me the way to heaven.