The Man with One Arm

This morning after mass I stopped at our local Quiktrip convenience store. I didn’t need anything, but I thought I’d grab a coke and a bag of chips, and put a dollar down on the Mega Millions Game, which has a $96 million jackpot right now. So basically I wanted to blow three bucks on junk food and a fantasy. Nothing wrong with that, right?

So I get out of the car and standing right in front of me is a fellow that looked to be about my age, skinny and grizzled, in jeans and a white t-shirt. The left sleeve of his shirt hung empty. I made fleeting eye contact with him and we nodded at one another, and then I went into the store.

Immediately my mind began to spin a tale. He’ll probably ask me for money when I go outside. Smart of him, to wait until I’m walking back to the car, with merchandise in hand — kinda makes it obvious that I have money to spend. Of course, I could be using a credit card, he doesn’t know that. And so forth. Basically, my mind dipped into a rush of feelings: the primal, self-preservational impulse not to share my wealth, colliding with a sense of guilt that I’d rather spend three dollars on trifles for myself than sacrifice it for a handicapped stranger; anger that I live in a low-income neighborhood where it’s all too easy to encounter persons of need; and even the quick staccato mind-logic in which I argued with myself that I don’t give handouts to people on the street because I don’t know if they’ll spend the money on something like cigarettes or booze (as if my purchasing a lottery ticket, a soft drink and potato chips keeps me solidly on the moral high ground).

While all this mental chatter is going on, I’ve done nothing more than make brief eye contact with the man. When I pay for my goodies, I walk back out to the car. He’s still standing there, and this time I don’t even look at him. As I walk by, he calls to me. “Sir?” I ignore him. Again: “Sir?” I put the key in the car door lock. A bit more urgently: “Sir!?” Three times he spoke to me. Three times I ignored him. I got in the car and drove away. All that was lacking was the sound of a cock crowing.

But instead of a rooster to call me back to myself, I had a song by Rebecca St. James called “Beautiful Stranger” which, I kid you not, blared from my CD player as I pulled out of that parking lot:

Won’t You tell me now when did I see
You in need of water?
Oh, and tell me now, when did I see You
Hungry on the street?
God, I hear You calling out to me
In the voices of the least of these
Calling me to reach beyond my world
To the beautiful stranger

The twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew echoed sonorously in my mind as I drove that last mile home…

When the Son of man comes in his glory, escorted by all the angels, then he will take his seat on his throne of glory. All nations will be assembled before him and he will separate people one from another as the shepherd separates sheep from goats. He will place the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left… Then he will say to those on his left hand, “Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you never gave me food, I was thirsty and you never gave me anything to drink, I was a stranger and you never made me welcome, lacking clothes and you never clothed me, sick and in prison and you never visited me.” Then it will be their turn to ask, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty, a stranger or lacking clothes, sick or in prison, and did not come to your help?” Then he will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you neglected do this to one of the least of these, you neglected to do it to me.” And they will go away to eternal punishment, and the upright to eternal life. (Matthew 25:31-46, New Jerusalem Bible)

Boy, do I take refuge in the word “never” that is repeated in that parable. I think to myself, “Well, at least I serve Christ in Rhiannon.” But even that I do grudgingly at times, and pretty much imperfectly at all times.

So did I fail here? And if so, how? By not giving the man some money? By not stopping to acknowledge him when he called out to me? After all, since I didn’t bother to find out what he wanted, there’s always the chance that he didn’t want money, he just wanted to speak to me for a minute. But in my craven logic, it seemed less of a sin to ignore him than to reject a request of his outright. But I think I had it backwards. If I had listened and responded, at least I would have offered him a shred of dignity. At least I could have been man enough to say, “I’m sorry, I know I have over $250 in my wallet along with my checkbook that gives me access to all the money I have in the bank, not to mention my credit cards that put tens of thousands of dollars at my fingertips, whenever I want the convenience or have an emergency to deal with. I know I’m driving a car that’s probably worth more than your annual disability benefits, assuming you get them. I’m wearing better clothes, I have a nice house, an emotionally supportive family and network of friends, a wonderful job, and the cognitive and social skills necessary to keep and expand on this amazing wealth. And yet, I’d rather spend a few odd dollars on junk food than on you. So have a nice day.”

Maybe if I were doing a better job at being present with my handicapped daughter, I could be more present with panhandlers (even though I didn’t give this particular man a chance to show me whether or not he wanted a handout, it’s a fact of life: panhandling happens. I’ll encounter it again and again and again). Maybe if I managed my money better, I’d have more resources to share with the needy, and even though I’d still rather share through an effective agency than by the randomness of anonymous encounters on the street, at least knowing that I’m doing so would empower me to be present with a needy person when I do meet him or her. After all, I had just come from mass, and my church has a strong and effective St. Vincent de Paul ministry to those in need. Perhaps if I had bothered to speak to the man and had discovered that he really was in need, I could have directed him to the St. Vincent de Paul office. Hooking him up with that group would go a lot further toward feeding him and clothing him than five or ten bucks out of my pocket ever could.

So the sin I am confessing here is not so much my stinginess and inability to share, although I do suffer from those problems. The deepest sin is a fear of encounter — a fear that prevents me from truly being present with another person. Perhaps when I truly, deeply, repent of that sin, I’ll be able to encounter Christ in others, and (more to the point) begin to learn how to be Christ to others, as well.

And I’ll still be able to squander three dollars on a snack and the lottery — at least, once in a while.

Sanctity and Struggle, or, Why Saints Have Chaotic Inner Lives (Hint: It's Because We All Do)
Pentecost and Ecstasy
What Has Not Yet Been Revealed
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • phil foter

    Carl -
    Sin is the seperation, not a particular act or moral. Ours is a theology of relatedness. Perhaps the man with one arm gave you a gift – a journey inward to your own relatedness. When I fail the edicts of my Lord I try to remember that ours is a Way (as the NT church called it) of redemption, reconciliation and ressurrection, not a new set of rules (which inevitably leads to more seperation). So, in the scenario you describe so eloquently (and that we all struggle with on an almost daily basis), the real ressurected life was/is about what’s happening within you. God may have designed this encounter so you would struggle with the Eternal/Internal Christ in a deeper way – and forced the rest of us to do the same. There’s a one arm man seeking my attention within, as well. Perhaps when I can embrace those parts of myself (eg: I wish I treated Ash better/was more present for her, too, my friend) I will be better able to see Christ in the “one arm people” I encounter daily.