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It helps to remember that if God's grace stopped acting in us even for a second, we could easily commit the same crimes we condemn in others, or worse.
The Least of My People
A few months ago I received a letter from a Cistercian monk in Georgia. He wrote about the role that Divine Mercy has played in his spiritual life, and because he knew from my columns that I'm a middle school teacher, he also shared with me that he had taught special education before he became a monk.
I wasn't surprised to learn that someone could start out a special educator and end up a religious brother. It's a short bridge to walk. If you teach special education, you spend all the hours of your working day actively loving the least of God's people, which Jesus tells us is the same as actively loving Him.
When I read the brother's letter, I thought about the special education students I have known over the years. Most of them sit — unknown to the other kids — in inclusion classes, working hard to keep up with the "regular education" students. Many are friendly and respectful, glad to accept help with tasks that their disabilities make difficult for them. In those children — gentle, endearing and meek in their need — it is easy to see a reflection of Jesus, who is tenderly welcoming and eager to reward our service with His friendship.
But there are others who can be a little tougher to love. A few years ago I had a student with a mood disorder. Most of the time he was barely aware of what was happening in class. Every time I gave a direction to the students I had to go over to him and repeat it, reminding him daily that he needed to take out a pen and paper or he would sit and do nothing. But when he got upset about something he sometimes would throw furniture with enough force to terrify everyone in the room.
Another student I taught didn't even have a documented disability, but as the year went by, he grew more and more hostile toward school until he finally reached the point of ripping up every handout the class received as soon as he got it. By late spring his pattern was to come into the room, put a couple of chairs in the corner, and push them together so he could lie down on them as if they were a sofa.
There was no moving him. There was no convincing him to sit up and try to care about what was going on. And pretty soon we teachers learned that telling his mother what he was doing was a bad idea because she would scream and call him the most horrible names. This boy was maddening. He was rude. He said nasty things about his teachers inside and outside the classroom, and he bullied other kids. Once in my class he blew his nose on another student's work. At only 12 years old, he got in trouble with the police for spray painting swastikas on Main Street.
I'll admit I didn't know how to help him; none of us did. Anything we tried just put us in the position of being ignored or pushed away by him even more. Still, we did what we could. Jesus didn't promise St. Peter that all of the lambs he was to feed would be cuddly and grateful. He didn't promise that they wouldn't turn around and bite Peter's outstretched hand. He just told him to feed them. And He assured us, in one of the most unbelievable passages in Scripture, that whatever we do to these hurting, snapping animals — who seem as different from Jesus as they can be — we do to Him, whether we know it or not.
Sometimes, when we are faced with people like that, we might think, How could this cruel person be one of Jesus' "least ones"? I've thought that many times. I've struggled to understand how much compassion I should have for someone who treats others badly. But then I remember that Jesus told the sheep in the parable, "I was in prison and you visited me" (Mt 25:36). He didn't say, "I was innocent and wrongfully accused in prison ..." He challenged us to show the wrongdoer the same love we would show our Savior Himself. He called us to have mercy.
It helps to remember that if God's grace stopped acting in us even for a second, we could easily commit the same crimes we condemn in others, or worse. Saint Francis of Assisi wrote, "Can true humility and compassion exist in our words and eyes unless we know we too are capable of any act?" There are times, after all, when we are the ones who get ourselves thrown into prison, and the only light guiding us out is the charity of those who look at us groveling in the muck, lower than we have ever been, the ones who help us to see Jesus.
Marian Tascio is a writer and English teacher who lives in Yonkers, N.Y.