St. Peter’s in downtown, Chicago was filled with Marathon runners, upscale people, visitors, tourists taking pictures, parish members and us, my husband and four children. As I settled into the pew next to one of my husband’s best friends, also there to run the marathon, I noticed a slender, black man sitting in a pew behind us. He was dressed in a tattered and noticeably old shirt but that was not what caught my eye. It was his smile. It was from a place of pure joy something you only witness on the faces of the mentally ill. That look that makes you realize how happy you could potentially be and how much you should reach for that type of joy.
As we sang the opening hymn I could hear his soft voice and noticed he was looking up and truly praising God. My stereotypical mind wandered and thought maybe he is just trying to stay out of the cool evening air for awhile and I wondered if he was even catholic. He quickly proved my biased thoughts wrong when I heard him recite the Nicene Creed. His eyes looked as though he could see something we others could not.
When the ministers of hospitality came around with the collection baskets I thought for sure that he would let it pass him by without a donation. After all, even if he wasn’t homeless he for sure didn’t look like he had anything to give monetarily. As the basket passed him by I saw him drop a rolled up amount of bills along with some change into that basket and my heart sank. This man who obviously had very little was giving back to God. This man who to the world appeared to be “different” from the rest of us looked more connected to God than anyone I have ever witnessed in my life. He sang and smiled, he listened and prayed, and he donated and was filled with appreciation to God.
At the sign of peace I shook his hand. He barely grasped mine and I peered into his eyes searching for the secret to his joy, his overwhelming happiness. He never stopped smiling, the entire Mass. As he left he genuflected and walked out with a smile on his face. He left me wondering how do we reach that joy. How do we love without limits? How do we smile and feel joy that deep and unconditional?
I have taught recently in my senior class on Catholic Social Teaching that the poor are closer to God because there are fewer distractions between God and the poor. As wealthy people we are distracted by possessions, technology, careers, money, status and standing. It’s not that God loves the poor more it’s that the poor love God more.
What did this man see that we cannot? How can he love God more fully and trust Him so completely that he gave without hesitation? Where did he find that joy and inner peace and ability to not stop smiling?
God gave me a gift that afternoon. A gift of a man of joy that from the world’s opinion had nothing but from my perspective has everything we all desire; pure joy and love of God.