COLM MEANEY: On poverty & perseverance: Part 1

In a hilly village on the island of Negros, I visited a house, but it could more fairly be described as a “hovel of unhappiness”. Those scare quotes are not an exaggeration, but any unhappiness in the place is my interpretation, not the family’s testimony. This was misery incarnated, although as I say, any discontent is my own perception; from my brief visit, the family seems to be coping mightily. The parents are in their mid-50s (I’d guess). The father was extremely taciturn, and I was correct in my private prediction that I wouldn’t be seeing him later that evening at our gathering. But the mother was more effusive: she had lost 3 of her children when they were still infants, and (if I understood correctly), a married child of hers had fallen down a step soon after giving birth and both mother and child had died in that tragedy.

The mother also had a son, about 20, who was lying behind a curtain; he was severely handicapped, physically and mentally. Another married daughter who was in the house said that she wouldn’t be able to attend the gathering later as she had an aching foot. A real litany of woes and tribulations and still they persevered.

That evening we gathered at 7pm for our prayer meeting, and, as usual again, outside the house, due to the crowd. Our gospel that night was the Lord’s healing of the paralytic lowered down through the roof, featured in an earlier Gript article of mine. A few shared their thoughts, then I gave my few words. In the course of my sharing, I mentioned that this gospel’s healing was somehow miraculous, although the stretcher bearers’ persistence and determination were very important factors; but what about those who look after the long-term sick or terminally ill? I asked (aloud, because I couldn’t see clearly in the dark) if the mother of my earlier visit was present. She was; I spoke directly to her. I said that the long-term care of the sick is a Christ-like action, citing Matthew 25:36, “I was sick and you visited me”.

In the obscurity, I’m almost sure I saw some kind of recognition in the mother’s face; at least I hope I did. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote “this seeing the sick endears them to us, us too it endears” (“Felix Randal”). I often find the anointing of the sick to be a very moving occasion: it’s a time when those concerned (the sick person, the family, and so on) are truly present, where their hopes and fears are tightly concentrated in this simple, poignant sacrament.

That particular house was dreadfully inadequate (yet they were coping), and something of an exception in the hills of that place; there is not really any serious poverty or widespread indigence – mind you, there is nothing that you would call wealth or magnificence either. They manage, through hard work and good fortune, to make ends meet and enjoy the occasional luxury. Not “luxury” as we understand the term, of course, but nonetheless an extravagance for them, according to their place in society’s range from pauper to prince. If your regular fare is salted fish, then fresh fish is something of a treat! Their lives have a bareness and simplicity, they just don’t seem to have the interest, and certainly not the wherewithal, to accumulate many possessions.

But in the cities, pockets of squalor are not difficult to find. I was exposed to them during the missions in Cebu & Mandaue (neighbouring cities in the central island of Cebu): people living on next-to-nothing, trying to make do with a squalor-space wherein you couldn’t swing a kitten, let alone a cat. I think it’s this experience of such lack, this (even passing) acquaintance with such deprivation and need that gives me a horror of waste. When I see food wasted, when I see money being spent recklessly, when I see animals being treated better than humans, my reaction is almost visceral.

Enclaves of destitution are not far from any of our monasteries in the Philippines, but you can’t see them from the common room, and it’s not sufficient either just to alight from the sweet-scented car at the chapel door to celebrate Mass. One must be willing to muddy one’s patent leather shoes or dirty one’s Nike runners, walk along the pathway and cross the thresholds of the homes, and touch and sense, even fleetingly, the abasement.

“Here is your footstool and there rest your feet where live the poorest, and lowliest, and lost.

When I try to bow to you, my obeisance cannot reach down to the depth where your feet rest among the poorest, lowliest, and lost.

Pride can never approach to where you walk in the clothes of the humble among the poorest, and lowliest, and lost.

My heart can never find its way to where you keep company with the companionless among the poorest, the lowliest, and the lost” (Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali #10).

2013 was the bi-centenary of Blessed Frederic Ozanam, the founder of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, whose members are resolved to giving personal service “to God in the persons of the poor, whom they are to visit at their own dwellings and assist by every means in their power”. He said “ten times a day a sister will visit the poor, ten times a day she will find God there” and “knowledge of the poor is not to be obtained from books or studies, but by visiting him in his upstairs garret in coldness”.


Photo credits: Colm Meaney

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