Vienna, January 2002
January 1st, feast-day of Mary, Mother of God
That morning, the streets were deserted; a sort of languor seemed to have descended upon the whole city. On the sidewalks and even right in the middle of the street, lay countless shards of broken bottles.
All night long, there had been nothing but fireworks exploding, peals of laughter and shrieks. And yet in the midst of the deafening din that nearly caused the walls of the chapel to vibrate, we sung, and sung again the praises of God’s Mother. In silence and poverty, barely a few days ago, she had given birth to Jesus, our Savior.
At midnight the Pummerin started swinging. Majestic, low-pitched, the sound of the bell of Stephansdom, like the slow and steady beating of a quiet heart, vibrated over the intoxicated city. In the black night, satiated with clamor, the big bell was rumbling, it was keeping watch. Maternally!
At dawn, the sound of the parties had vanished. The first morning of the year had just appeared over the big city. But why, on the very day after the celebration, did beautiful Vienna seem desolate, like a ghost city? But where were the gladdened faces, the light hearts, bursting with joy and enthusiasm for life? But why wasn’t everyone out, glad to greet one another, to kiss one another, to wish one another a Happy New Year?
They were all sleeping. Everything around us was oddly silent, as if plunged into mourning.
Through the opaque, fleecy sky, a few rays of sunshine started to come though, casting a bright light into the street where we were walking. We were walking next to each other; we too were plunged into an oppressive silence. That morning, the communication between us was in need of improvement. And of course, almost as if it were intentional, both of us had been fittingly sent off to beg for something to eat on that New Year’s Day. Together, as brothers! One always imagines that brothers, because they are brothers, are always kind… yes, but kind to who?! So to start the New Year, we were frugal in our words and smiles to one another.
A car took us to an outlying neighborhood. There also, many still seemed to be plunged into a deep sleep. Nevertheless, a door opened, and a Turkish woman shared with us something from her meal. She placed into our hands a flatbread that she had carefully wrapped in aluminum foil, some cheese, and two little bags with slices of warm cake in them.
On a lower floor, a second Turkish family added to the meal by giving us some more bread, a can of tuna fish and a liter of fruit juice because, as the father said in a loud, warm voice, “It’s a holiday!”
We were surprised by how cold it was outside. It was the sort of cold that chills you to the bone, and soon our limbs were starting to go numb. We had to go and find a place that was sheltered from the cold. Suddenly, across the street, on the opposite sidewalk, a man as soon as he saw us crossed the street and dashed straight at us.
The man was young; he must have been thirty or so. His appearance, though very slovenly, made us think that he did not live in this rough neighborhood. With one hand he offered us money insistently stammering out a few words; there was an expression of great anguish on his face.
When he heard that one of us asked the other to translate what he had said, he immediately repeated in French:
“Take this money and pray for me, pray for me!”
The tone of his voice was imploring. We suggested praying for him at once. In front of the entrance of an apartment building, we begged for God’s help with him, for him.
“God, come to our assistance! Lord, come quickly to help us!”
This cry for help, this cry we were uttering together, we were sure, was soaring straight up to Heaven, penetrating the thick clouds, knocking, banging at God’s door.
Here we are, Lord… our hands are empty, frozen by the cold, we have nothing… Oh! Truly we are beggars, we are poor! Oh how much we need You! “People are cruel, the young man was mumbling between his teeth. There is too much wickedness, too much injustice…”
Had he heard the prayer? He seemed completely lost in dark thoughts. Then one of us suggested, “Why don’t you come along with us? We received some food, and if you like, we can share it together. We just have to find somewhere to eat.”
Hans – that was his name – did not wait to be asked twice. And to our great surprise, he took the initiative. Right under our stunned eyes, he attempted to break open the front door in front of us. Then, seeing that his efforts were unsuccessful, he started ringing the doorbell buzzers asking with frantic authority that the door be open for us. Finally, one of us noticed, a bit farther away, the door of a dilapidated building that was ajar. Whew!
We rushed into the building. The place was dismal. The walls, oozing with moisture, were falling to pieces; advertising leaflets were lying around on the floor.
“I was engaged,” said Hans abruptly, “I was engaged, and we were going to get married. It was so important for me… But my fiancée’s family was opposed to the marriage.”
The words died on his lips. Then, all of a sudden, his distress poured out: “The world is awful! So much horror, so many tragedies… There are so many atrocities! Everywhere, poverty, war, innocent people murdered… It’s all you see on TV. It’s terrifying! There has to be a solution!
As time went on he only spoke faster and faster, and what he was saying was verging on insanity.
“It must be stopped. Evil people should be… exterminated, they shouldn’t be permitted exist! I would like to use all my energy to make weapons of war to destroy what threatens the world. People would be spared, but the instruments of war would be destroyed so that they be useless! I’m going to build machines to eradicate all weaponry! Machines that destroy all evil! He finished, his voice trembling.
A little brother said gently, “Brother… we can’t let ourselves be tyrannized by evil. Yes, we want to overcome evil, but not by using the weapons of the world – fire can’t be extinguished by fire, nor hatred-by-hatred. Only the good, kindness, and love can be victorious.
“Kindness, love.” The words echoed in the dark, soulless building, and already with those words, peace was returning.
“What about trying to find a more appropriate place for our meal?, suggested the second little brother with enthusiasm. It’s a holiday today! If only we could find a table…”
At the end of what used to be a lobby, there was a patio, a small, paved, circular patio, surrounded by tall buildings, and… Oh! What a pleasant surprise! In a corner of the patio, an old board sitting on two little saw horses! It looked like a… table! Of course, it had always been there, waiting for us. Oh, how thoughtful and caring You are! Let my soul sing, sing to the LORD for all the good that He does for us.
“Look at our table!” the little brother exclaimed.
Hans smiled. His face lit up.
Then, together, all three of us, we set the table, the most beautiful festive table we ever had! The loaf of bread was set right in the middle; on both sides, for place mats, were the two unfolded blue napkins that are always at the bottom of our backpacks, and placed on top of them, the cheese, the can of tuna fish, and the bright golden Turkish cakes the woman had made that very morning, without forgetting the fruit juice the father had generously given us
for the holiday.
And we sang to bless the meal that was given to us.
We had to keep moving a little to warm our feet, but our hearts were burning so much within us. They were bursting with a joy that was both gentle and warm. In the silence of the little patio, we were experiencing, filled with wonder, Divine Goodness which had manifested itself so acutely for us through all the events of that blessed, past hour.
Indeed, around that old board arrayed as any a holiday meal would be, we were like kings, the disciples of an invisible Kingdom on earth.
A little brother, his face radiant with joy, turned toward Hans. “You see,” he explained, with a touch of joyful mischievousness in his eyes, “We aren’t at the Ritz, but rather at ‘the university of poverty.’ And in a way you are too… It isn’t easy, but the Master who teaches us is Jesus. It’s a question of learning how to be in awe before all the things the Lord freely gives us, out of love, even if they might seem small to us. If we don’t pay attention to them, very quickly, our eyes are no longer capable of seeing them. In poverty and destitution, that we sometimes experience so intensely deep down in our hearts, and in the – at times so painful – torment of our souls, is hidden a beautiful treasure, it’s like the very secret of happiness, friendship with Jesus Christ… Look at this table, and understand how much He loves us, what He has just done for all three of us… He calls us His friends.”
Hans walked part of the way back with us. We kept silent, we were happy, keeping in our hearts all we had just experienced. The kindness of those two Turkish families that had taken care of us; how the Lord had brought us meet one another; and how, around a festive table, in the silence and poverty of a patio, He made us friends.
Hans stopped abruptly and, looking each of us straight in the eyes, said slowly:
“I have to tell you something. When I saw you in the street, I was about to do something terrible… You know that frozen lake down there? I was going to walk out on to it. To walk and to…”
He didn’t need to say anything else…
“I’m happy I met you both.” He added before shaking hands with each of us, and walking away.