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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

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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.

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joy - Jul 19, 2007

Terry,you enlightened me with what you had undergone, i do have my own crosses in life,but God made it all bearable for me with Him beside me. We all have our own share of sufferings in life, and its only with prayers and hanging on to God that life's burden is made easier.Hold on God is right beside you.

audrey l. - Jul 13, 2007

Terry, my heart goes out to you and your son. Thank you for sharing your story....it gives hope. May the most precious Blood of Jesus continue to heal and give you both strength.
God bless.

donna .e. - Jul 9, 2007

ooops, i meant terry--not donna. =)

donna e. - Jul 8, 2007

wow donna, thanks you have know idea how much i did need to hear that. you should write on this board more often so others can see that you got through so much hell on earth. God bless you donna and your family.

Terry - Jul 7, 2007

I can really understand how you feel. My oldest son was diagnosed with Bipolar disorder almost two years ago and Crohns disease when he was 17 years old. He is now almost 27. It has been a very long road. He's on what I hope are the proper meds now and seeing his doctor every two weeks. Inbetween all of this we almost lost him because he developed Legionairs disease. He spent 34 days in the ICU and 3 more weeks in the hospital. Thank God we carried his health insurance, which costs a lot of money. All while this was happening I prayed several times a day. I felt like quiting many times. I felt like leaving may times. When he had his manic episode and started to become violent and we didn't know what was happening to him. My husband and I had to call the police. After handcuffing him, they took him to the local hospital Psych ward where he was diagnosed. But before this happened he got into a lot of trouble with the police and was arrested. He didn't know what he was doing since he wasn't in his right mind. To see this happen to your first born son who is so intelligent and has so much potential is heartbreaking to say the least. He ended up in drug court because when he was arrested they found drugs on him. Although this helped him a great deal, going through it was very hard and very long. It lasted a year and a half. He was sent to jail a couple of time during this time for coming up with dirty urine. But, I am happy to say he has graduated from drug court with the grace of God. He now has to remain out of trouble until March 22, 2008 to have his records sealed. I pray every day. He is a miracle from God that he is alive. Now I pray that he finds a good full time job with health insurance. My point is, when you get tired, walk away for a while. Take a breather if you can. It's not easy. For me,when I sit quietly and pray to the Lord, I feel rejuvienated. He got me through some rough times and I know they're not over. There's so much more I can tell you but this letter would go on forever. I pray every day also to St. Dymphnia for my son Joe and all the people who have emotional and mental disorders. Good Luck to you. I'll be praying for you too. We need to pray for each other.

donna .e. - Jul 6, 2007

Sometimes you try and try and try until you are having a veritable nervous breakdown inside and you just cant take anymore though, if you, yourself are breaking into pieces how can you possibly carry on with a person who just doesnt care about anything you do or say and they just continue abusing your love add nauseum. You cant lose your own mind trying. Who then can you help? You must know when you've done all "you" can do and allow someone else to take over your position. I do think you will be rewarded for the part you did do. No one of us can cure the world, we are not islands. We are not Mother Theresa. We are not God, there is only so much we as one human being can do alone. I am not a psychologist or even a counsellor, as one I can only do so much. I need to keep refueling my tank to help.