"Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a certain man lame from his mother's womb was carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple which is called Beautiful, to ask alms from those who entered the temple; who, seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, asked for alms. And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.' So he gave them his attention, expecting to receive something from them. Then Peter said, 'Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.' And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them - walking, leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God. Then they knew that it was he who sat begging alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him."
In a very short while, I will return to a place I once knew. I loved this place dearly and most often remember it with nostalgia. But when I am honest with my feelings, I remember primarily that this was the place where I learned about suffering.
I learned about suffering there in many ways. I suffered in relationships. I suffered in pride. Mostly, I suffered physically as the billowing pollution squeezed my lungs and besmirched my face. But in addition to these personal sacrifices, I witnessed the painful, blatant, and twisted suffering of others. This was in itself its own kind of suffering.
The suffering of others was visibly present every day, from the elderly trash collectors who had been pushed off their land to the mangy dogs who scrounged for food until they wound up dead in the streets. These things, however, were commonplace. These were the things that after the first few weeks ceased to cause me inner turmoil or distress. They wove their way into the fabric of society the way many of Dickens' most pathetic characters find their own important places within the narrative. These things were wrong and broken, but they seemed to have their place.
But there was one place where the suffering was so great and so visible that it continues to haunt me. If I used the bus to make my way downtown, I had to get off at a particular stop and cross a bridge to enter into the shiny wealth of the city's finest shopping mall. Upon exiting the bus, I would start to walk quickly, holding my breath, trying to mentally prepare for the sights that awaited me.
The bridge always contained beggars, and it always contained some of the most pitiful the city had to offer. All were maimed, most with their eyes gauged out. Some had been burned so wretchedly that they looked like living mummies. They sat in silence, often perfectly still, simply waiting for benevolence to find them. I was told early on that most of them had a pimp, Slumdog Millionaire style, and that giving them money would be fruitless. One day, I passed a man kowtowing violently against the sidewalk. A mixture of drool, sweat, and blood flowed from his head as he methodically beat, beat, beat his brow against the cement pavement. A crowd had gathered around him to watch, but no one acted to stop him. No one moved, they simply just gazed in silence as he begged for their assistance.
In the power of such ensnaring suffering, I felt completely powerless. I didn't speak the language, and I couldn't cause disturbances of the "peace." For the duration of my walk across the bridge, I shared physical space with these people, but the chasm that spanned my plenty and their need seemed as big as the whole earth. The barriers which separate people are often larger than space; the languages, systems, governments, alienation, gender, and myriad other issues stared me in the face and pointed at my inadequacy to bless, to heal, to comfort, to bring justice.
The more frequently I walked across the bridge, the more my soul screamed at God. I started to pray when I passed them by - internally mournful, screaming prayers. It was the only thing my mind could latch onto as the panic arose within my soul.
One day I remembered the above passage from Acts. There was no way for me to do anything for the beggars - or was there? I started to consider whether I truly thought prayer was "doing something." When I, a child of God, am in the presence of suffering and pray, do I understand that I am actively at work? Is my understanding of prayer, of God, of myself as joined to Christ full enough to believe that when I pray, I am not being passive? According to scripture, is prayer not the most aggressive thing I could do? Like Peter and John, I looked at these humans living in terrible suffering and I understood that my hands were tied. But, my status before the Redeemer is not hindered by the evils of the world and so I prayed.
These are the reflection that regularly got me across the bridge, but now, as I contemplate returning, I've begun having doubts. Yes, prayer is the primary weapon against evil, and yes, it was a good response to what I witnessed. But to my sorrow, I have realized that I never looked these people in the eye. In my rush to get across the bridge and in my desperation to deal with the turmoil in my soul, I really was still primarily focused on myself. I prayed for their deliverance because I felt uncomfortable. I rushed across the bridge because I didn't want to feel the pain. I never made eye contact because the possibility of making a connection was a degree of terrifying my mind couldn't hold.
One of the most striking phrases in the above passage is the sentence, "And fixing his eyes on him, with John, Peter said, 'Look at us.'" This description of the connection between Peter and the beggar is terrifying. Who has this kind of confidence when dealing with the brokenness of the world? Who dares to look suffering in the eyes and request that it look back? I can't image what results would ensue from consistent interactions such as this one. I shrink from asking myself what might have come about if I had truly looked at the suffering on the bridge. I don't know what would have happened. But I know it would have challenged both me and those begging.
Right now, I am afraid of returning. I am really afraid of being confronted once again with the degree of suffering found in the world. But mostly, I think I'm afraid of myself. I'm afraid of how I respond. Will I rush across the bridge or will I look into the eyes of those who live a life I cannot fathom? Am I more afraid of the first, or of the unknown answer to the latter? I do not know.