Upon hearing the news that she was going to bear the Son of God, Mary immediately —
according to the Jerusalem translation, “as quickly as she could” (Luke 1:39) — went on a journey into the hill country to see her cousin Elizabeth. A treasure beyond all other treasures had been bequeathed to her: the consolation of humankind and the solution to all of man’s loneliness.
She did not clutch this gift to herself, gloating over it like Golum over the One Ring, but went, without delay, to carry her happiness to others.
It has been opined that Mary did Elizabeth’s dishes, swept the floors, made the beds, and provided for the material needs of an old woman who, in the latter months of pregnancy, could no doubt use the energy of a younger girl. Yet, this is not what the Gospel recounts: The primary good that Mary brings to her cousin is not material help, but spiritual joy.
Christ, too, in the moment when Mary and Elizabeth meet, affirms that the character of charity is founded in the meeting of human hearts. His first act after the incarnation is not to reach out to the visible and physical needs of humanity, but to enter into communion with the invisible, secret life of the unborn John the Baptist.
Unfortunately, much of what is called charity today is precisely the opposite. Giving money to organizations or dropping clothes off at the Goodwill is not to be despised — the poor certainly do need money; the naked certainly do need clothing — but it is not enough. The greatest suffering of the poor and the wretched is not material want, but loneliness.
It is for this reason that I have always disagreed with those who insist that you shouldn’t give alms to beggars because they’ll just “waste it on drugs and drink.”
Forgetting the scriptural arguments — that Christ and the apostles both practiced and extolled almsgiving — there is the simple fact that a coin pressed by one human hand into another conveys something more than a mere financial transaction.
The beggar sits on the church step or on the curb or in the doorway in a state of abject humiliation. People look at him with condescending pity, with snide disgust, or, more often, don’t look at him at all. He is alone, rejected and forsaken in a sea of humanity.
The money is not important: The person who stops, hands him a fiver, and smiles has given him a nod of respect. The person who sits down beside him and offers to share a cigarette has restored him to the level of human dignity.
The need for this is everywhere. Among the elderly, abandoned by their families in crowded institutions; among the poor, whom the world looks on with contempt; among the imprisoned, who so often lose their families and friends during the long years of incarceration; among the socially inept, perennially re--jected because they are awkward or repulsive. It is the duty of those who bear the light of Christ and the joy of human communion in their hearts to go out into these ghettos of loneliness.
It cannot be easily done. Mother Teresa once noted, “People who really want help may attack you if you help them.” Her conclusion? “Help them anyway.”
Loneliness, especially, has the power to cramp and harden the heart. Those who have been abandoned and rejected are often suspicious — understandably so. Go to them anyway. Those who have been humiliated and scorned are often proud and difficult to reach. Reach them anyway. Those who have suffered often turn to the fleshpots — to sex, alcohol and hard drugs — in search of consolation. Do not judge them.
The charitable who are concerned with their own safety, with “comfort zones” and “appropriate emotional distances,” are turned in on themselves from the moment that they head out the door. They cannot reach into the loneliness of another any more than the Pharisee could help the man beaten on the roadside without getting blood on his shining white clothes.
Mary did not go to Elizabeth in pride. She did not declare, “You are bearing an ordinary child, but I bear the Son of God.” Her Magnificat is a hymn to humility, in which she describes herself as a lowly handmaiden, favored by God. This must always be the attitude of those who serve the lonely, for loneliness has never been penetrated from above.
Christ, in order to enter into human loneliness, not only descended to Earth, but emptied himself on the cross. There, in a state of total abjection, in the final agonies of his passion, he joined himself to the loneliness of the human heart. And there, in suffering and solidarity with the sinful and abandoned, he established the reign of his unfathomable love.
Melinda Selmys is a staff writer