The homeless seek more than food and warmth, writes Fr Patrick O'Donoghue, SubAdministrator of Westminster Cathedral.
FOR ME to walk past the Army and Navy Store in Victoria Street without stealing a glance at the beautiful things behind the large display windows, is just impossible.
Not that I envy those who can afford the latest Scandinavian duvets and that crazy selection of body deodorants, but my thoughts immediately turn to a spacious basement ;entre round the corner. It is known as The Passage, and it is a Centre for the Homeless, run jointly by Westminster Cathedral and the Sisters of Charity.
It started about three years ago without. any fanfare of trumpets. Every day since as many as two hundred men and women pass through its open door in search of something more vital than food, more essential than clothing. They are seeking compassion and companionship, other names for love.
Homelessness is a terrible thing; having no place you can call your own and nowhere that you can be yourself or where you can sit without being "moved on"; left to tramp the streets and brave the wintry winds, biting through weary and hungry bodies.
But all this is as nothing compared with the frostbite of loneliness and the remorse of dead friendships. In the face of such appalling degradation it must seem at times almost natural, and positively attractive, to drown one's sorrows in alcohol, to live the life of the punter with the eternal hope of a win tomorrow or to seek transfiguration in a drug "fix."
Every alleyway and escape route must be explored, rathei
than face the reality of meeting oneself face to face. All of us, priest and social worker, doctor and policeman, volunteer and neighbour, must seek to meet that person behind the mask and help him to meet himself.
When we try, it is amazing what we find. Yes, a man or a woman, sensitive and vulnerable, hurt in relationships, and frequently the victim of exploitation.
The reasons are legion — rejection and sometimes at an early age, a failed marriage, a mental breakdown or simply destroyed by loneliness in a city or neighbourhood calling itself a community.
But probe a little deeper and the revelation is even more startling. We find an ordinary human being — your brother or sister and mine — with a sense of humour and a spirit that is still alive, and with many gifts.
Sometimes this person has more to give than to receive. What a staggering experience it is to find oneself face to face with the poor and at the receiving end. This surely is the moment of conversion, when our barriers drop, our "dogooder" approach is found wanting and the Beatitude "Blessed are the poor in spirit" explodes into meaning.
Christ did not condone poverty or homelessness. Poverty is not a virtue, it degrades man and destroys him. It must be eliminated. To engage in the ensuing fight requires us to recognise our poverty in the presence of a loving God.
To acknowledge our dependence on Him and His love for us, is to accept, too, that we are lovable. He has a personal, individual, love for each one of
God has no favourites and so we come to recognise that the poor are our brothers and sisters, and that we have a responsibility to each other.
The advent season speaks of a coming and a preparation. The awaited one was homeless at birth but Joseph managed to find him sheltered accommodation in a stable.
Later in life he had a further experience of homelessness -we hear Him say: "Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head".
Will he find a place in our homes at this coming? To make certain of His presence, we must first open our minds and hearts to the poor: "I was a stranger and you made me welcome . . . I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me".
In the poor we meet Christ now. In welcoming the poor we are welcoming Christ now.