Thursday, August 23, 2012

In All Humility

Bless and praise my Lord,
thank Him, and serve Him in all humility.

It was a year and nine months into my year of exile, and I sat with Chyna on his corner in Victoria, BC.  He was hunkered down with his cap out.  His skin was dark and red, his hair pulled back in a ponytail.  His native ancestry didn’t allow for much of a beard, but he wore a sparse but effective goatee.  This was his spot, on the edge of Victoria’s Chinatown, and every day he sits beneath the red dragon.  I first met him a year ago, when I’d volunteered with a group of friends, handing out sandwiches, socks and conversation to the street community of the island city.

“Hello how are you today?” he said to people passing by.  Most people ignored him, but some would smile and say, “Fine, how are you?” as they walked on.  Chyna doesn’t ask for change.  He just says Hello and holds out his hat.

“Sometimes I like to give poets to people,” he said.  “People like it if you give them poets.”

I was not sure I’d understood correctly.  Did he mean “compliments”?  I nodded anyway.

“Watch me.  I’ll give somebody a poet.” 

Two young women approached.

“Hey how are you ladies doing?  Can I tell you something?”

“No.”  They kept walking.

A man and his wife approached from the other direction.

“Good afternoon, how are you today?”

“Fine,” said the man.

“Can I tell you something?”

“No thank-you.”  They kept walking.

A woman approached from the left.  She was pretty.

“Can I tell you something, Ma’am?”

She said nothing and kept walking.

Chyna turned to me, nodded toward her and said, “Why didn’t you introduce me to your wife?”

“She doesn’t talk to me anymore,” I told him.

“Ha-HAAA!  ‘She doesn’t talk to me anymore’.”  He laughed and gave me a fist bump. “That’s a good back-up!  That’s good!  Ha-haa!”

Finally, two more young women approached from the right.

“Hello, ladies,” he said.

“Hello,” they said.

“Do you have a second?  Can I tell you something?”

“Sure,” the dark-haired one said.

Chyna began his “poet”.  It went something like this:

When you walk down the street, people feel something when you go by.
They wonder what it is.  
They don’t know.
“What is that?” they say.
But that doesn’t matter!
It’s your eyes.  They shine.
But that doesn’t matter!
People are drawn to you.  
They wonder what’s happening.  They can feel it.
It’s your smile.
But that doesn’t matter!
It’s your eyes.
It’s your smile.
It’s your spirit.

I realized that a “poet” is something between a compliment and a poem.  “Poet” is actually the perfect word for what he gives people.

“My name’s Chyna, by the way.  With a ‘Y’”

The dark-haired girl extended her hand.  “Hi, Chyna.  I remember you.”

“Have I given you that one before?” he asked.

“Not in a while,” she said.

They politely introduced themselves and shook our hands.  When they finally moved on, he told me it was my turn.

“My turn?” I asked.

“Yeah, give somebody a poet!  Come on!”

I laughed, and my heart began to pound.  He wasn’t kidding.  

“Oh, man!” I said.  “I’m too shy!  I’m just a bashful little kid inside, Chyna.”

“Oh come on.  You can give somebody a poet.  Come on.”

I pride myself on being able to blend in with the homeless.  Homeless people don’t necessarily think I’m homeless, but when I’m sitting on a street corner with somebody who lives on the street, I can look like one of the fellas to the untrained eye.  Once, in Rome, as I sat with Franco and Antonio, a kindly gentleman gave a coin to Antonio, a coin to Franco, and a coin to me.  That made Franco smile.  I suppose the beard helps a lot.  I like that I don’t feel self-conscious about sitting down in the middle of the street with a homeless man.  What Chyna was asking of me, however, was something else, and the tragically bashful kid inside me was freaking out.

“Hi,” I squeaked out to a passerby.  I don’t think they even noticed.

“What was that?” Chyna asked incredulously.

“I’m sorry!  I’m tellin’ you, I’m shy!  I’ll try again.”

But as the street corner conversation between us went on, and we even progressed to deeper things like God and the Gospel of John, I secretly hoped that his suggestion, his dare, that I give a “poet” to someone would be quietly forgotten.

Graffiti lines the walls of San Damiano.  Some of it is as recent as 1899 or 1948.  One piece scratched into the wall reads, as well as I can translate it, “Brother Kilroy wuz here.  1309.”  

I was walking through the hallowed halls of the ancient monastery, exploring the places of communion where the Poor Claires would meet for meals and prayer.  The graffiti caught my eye as I ascended the stairs into one small chapel room in particular.  I peered closely at the small scratches of writing, fascinated and bemused at how ancient a practice it really is to mark a place with one’s presence.  From bathrooms to tourist sites to holy places, it seems people have always wanted to leave their mark and say, “I was here.  Remember me.”

Along with a few signatures and dates from pilgrims of the last 800 years (“Vincenzo wuz here, 1760”), there were also a few drawings scratched into the old frescoes.  A cross.  A cartoonish-looking figure that must have been a friar.  Two little drawings that grabbed my attention were of two little birds.  They might have been little sparrows.  I ran my fingers lightly over their scratched-in feathers and smiled.  Now this, I thought, is some truly Franciscan graffiti.  

There is a reason Saint Francis is the statue of choice for bird baths.  In most paintings of him, ancient and modern, he is pictured in the presence of birds.  He is famous for having preached to the birds when people wouldn’t listen, exhorting them to sing and praise their Father in Heaven.  Most often, a particular little bird is seen at Francis’s feet or on his shoulder: a sparrow.

Sparrows are, perhaps, the most humble of the birds.  They don’t soar like eagles, nor do their little wings fascinate like the thrumming wings of a hummingbird.  They are plain and brown, dressed in their own kind of religious habit.  Their song is more pleasant than some, but neither is it as beautiful as others.  It’s simple and sweet, and they live, quite literally, off the crumbs from our table.  They do not reap or sow, but their Father in Heaven knows their needs, and sends them our leftover donuts and Big Mac buns.  That is why they have come to represent the poor, and whenever you see an image of Francis with a sparrow on his finger, it is saying less about his communion with animals than it is about his communion with the lowly.  It speaks of his humility.

Like the sparrow, the humble have a song.  It often goes unheard and unnoticed in the noise of the city and the rumours of wars, but it is beautiful and small, and sings of simplicity and providence, of trust and freedom.  To embrace humility, to let it rest on your finger and look it in the eye, is to be given a song to sing.  

Or in my case, a “poet” to recite to a passerby.

“You haven’t given a poet to anybody yet!” said Chyna.  He was still hunkered up next to me, his cap outstretched between his thumbs.  He hadn’t forgotten.

“Alright,” I sighed, “I will.”

I tried to think of something to say to someone in the style of a “poet”.  My heart raced.

A lady came walking by.  Chyna gave me the look that said, This is the one!  My heart pounded.

“Hello!” I said.

She turned and smiled and said, “Hi,” as she walked on.  It was now or never.

“Can I tell you something, Ma’am?” I asked.

“Sure,” she said, stopping to listen, her hand above her eyes against the afternoon sun.

I felt like a little bird, small and low upon the ground, staring up at a world that seldom chooses to notice.  I was reminded that sometimes humility is simply voluntary humiliation.  Someone had stopped to hear my little song.  It was time to sing.

“You don’t know it, but you’re walking around shining with the Glory of God.”

It was nothing on the scale of Chyna’s poet-ry, but it was something.  I waited.

She put her hands together, smiled, and bowed a little as she said, “Thank-you.”  She turned and crossed the street, walking onward into the rest of her life.  Chyna chided me.

“No,” he said, “people don’t like to be preached at.”

But I think she liked it, at least a little, and in Chyna’s exhortation to me to give people “poets” (even with the admonition not to “preach”), I can almost hear the words of Francis himself, when he preached to his friends:

“My little sisters the birds, you owe much to God, your Creator, and you ought to sing his praise at all times and in all places, because he has given you the liberty to fly about into all places…. He has given you fountains and rivers to quench your thirst, mountains and valleys in which to take refuge, and trees in which to build your nests.  Your Creator loves you much, having thus favoured you with such bounties.… Study always to give praise to God.”

Bless and praise my Lord, thank Him, and serve Him in all humility.

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