I stopped to watch him pass out of sight. He was tall with a broad form, and wore black from his do-rag to shoes. He looked like a great shadow passing though the land. As I prayed I began to guess how he had come to be the man he was. A broken home. Abuse and neglect by one or both parents. Physical abuse by the older boys, perhaps sexual abuse by a neighbor or relative. Early drug use and petty criminality. Racial discrimination. High school drop-out. Juvenile hall. Abuse of women. Creeping depression. Alienation from the workforce. More intense drug and alcohol abuse. Multiple stints in jail and prison. Anxiety. Increasing isolation. Permanent homelessness.
I have known many men and women who have tread a similar path, but they have held onto their humor and compassion. They have suffered greatly--at first by another's hand, and then later mostly through their own sins. But this man was different. He was burned up, consumed with rage. He seemed keenly aware of his imposing presence; perhaps his power and might had always been his trump card, his refuge in life, but it had only left him increasingly isolated and now his strength had faded with age and substance abuse.
A Similar Life
I once knew another homeless black man who doubtless had a similar upbringing and adulthood, but chose gentleness and patience in his later years. He was a slight man and could never have been tempted to rely on his physical prowess and presence. In fact, he was the most fragile and forgettable creature imaginable. Twenty-three years ago I was chained to him on a prison bus when I was shipped from one county jail to another. It was only a ninety minute bus ride but I couldn't overcome a fierce drowsiness, and fell asleep right onto his shoulder. Although I didn't know it at the time, it was God's grace that put me to sleep that day. I had begun to fancy myself as better than the other inmates, and resented being chained to an old "wino". I thought I was brighter, had committed more sophisticated crimes, and most of all, was more physically impressive and tough. My personal gospel was strength and toughness in body and mind. You see, I wasn't that different from the first man--the raging one. But then I fell asleep like a baby on the little man. When I awoke with a start, a gritty convict on the other side snorted and looked at me with amused contempt. Real tough guy, sleeping on an old wino. I looked at the small man and he politely gazed ahead with a peaceful smile. Apparently a shoulder was a small thing to offer, and he was glad to give it if I needed a nap. Every other man on the chain bus would have given me a rude awakening if I had dozed on them. I watched the little man closely after that, trying to understand what made him tick. I also wondered at the mysterious bout of sleepiness. Maybe he wasn't so pathetic after all, and maybe I wasn't so tough.
Which Kingdom Do We Inhabit?
As we pass through life we are lured by two different kingdoms: the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Hell. The first kingdom is the home for those who ultimately hunger after peace, compassion, faith, wonder, simplicity, and self-giving love; the other kingdom is the permanent dwelling place of malice, lust, self-assertion, self-protection and ultimately, perfect despair. Some of us begin life in healthy families that reflect the kingdom of Heaven, and then we discover the power of wrath and the triumph of lust, and have a conversion (of sorts) to evil. Other people begin life in a mad antechamber of hell, and follow the light of grace into Heaven. There are rare people like the Little Flower, St. Therese of Lisieux, who began in a heavenly family and remain there until a holy death, and there are those who are born into malice and disorder and drink it up until their death.
Most of us don't fully belong to either kingdom. Holy people, those who have conformed their will to Christ, are rare, and so are those who put on the mind of devils. Most of us resist being converted one way or the other: we accept a little faith but with a counter-dose of self-assertion; we move forward to love but with a reserve of self-protection; we enjoy peace and then yearn after the thrill latent in filthy things. We know we don't want the wages of hell--that's obvious enough--but we don't really want Heaven either. What we really want is a third kingdom: the glory of man, the kingdom of Now (so long as we don't have to get old or sick). That kingdom, the Kingdom of Man, was once "nasty, brutish and short" (according to Hobbes, a 17th century philosopher), but with radical advances in medicine, hygiene, infrastructure, food production and distribution, mass production of cheap goods of all kinds, it's become increasingly more attractive. Now progressives in my neighborhood even have cartoonish bumper stickers that proclaim, "Life is good". In past centuries people could only say in thanksgiving, "God is good", and there was nothing cartoonish about it.
Once when I was in wealthy Marin County outside of San Francisco, I was given a supernatural glimpse of the ascendant Kingdom of Man. The sun was shining in early May as noon approached. Everything had a subtle gleam: tank tops and yoga pants, the well-manicured sidewalks and bike paths, the shining faces of the young women, and the youthful confidence of the men. Even the toys of the baby boomers sparkled: motorhomes, convertibles, Harleys and European racing bicycles. But behind the gleam there was nothing; it was a mirage because it lacked the "one thing necessary". There wasn't an ounce of real faith amongst the passers-by, and the life-giving presence of Christ was not wanted there. The scene had appeared so glorious and promising--so different from the streets that our two homeless men had known--but it was actually an occasion of sorrow. In fact, there was more glory in the humble heart of the old "wino", a petty thief who had suffered much, and had finally lost all conceit.