Van Gogh once wrote, “I prefer painting people’s eyes to cathedrals, for there is something in the eyes that is not in the cathedral, however solemn and imposing the latter may be – a human soul, be it that of a poor beggar or of a street walker, is more interesting to me.”
I will never forget the day I experienced Van Gogh’s truth for myself.
I had just parked my car on the top floor of a downtown parking garage, donned my Harry Rosen suit jacket, grabbed my brief case and was headed for the stairs (I was working as Director of Development for a downtown London, Ontario office building project at the time).
As I entered the stairwell I ran into a problem. A disheveled old street person was standing in the middle of the top step… blocking my way. He looked terrible and smelled even worse. I had the sense he’d slept there that night.
“I’ve got to get by him,” I thought. But when I asked him to move, he was unresponsive; totally incoherent.
“But I’ve got to get to work.” So I held my breath, edged my way along the stairwell’s concrete wall and squeezed by him. Clear. When I got down to the first landing I took one last look at the poor guy. He was teetering so badly I thought he was going to take a nosedive.
Then I faced a moment of truth. “I’ve got to get to work, I’ve got things to do… but if I leave guy in this predicament he’s going kill himself.”
“I need to help him.” But there was no way I wanted to walk him down six floors… and I certainly wasn’t going to carry him. So I retraced my steps, edged by him again, and went and got my car.
After opening the passenger door (and window), I helped him in, shut the door and then got into the driver’s side. No sooner had I started heading toward the down ramp, the old guy fell over into my lap! I hit the brakes. “How am I going to do this?” I thought. I came up with a plan.
Gingerly I lifted his head up and then pushed him over toward the passenger door window. Propping him up with my right arm I headed toward the down ramp. It was one of those spiral ones. So I figured that if I took it real fast the centrifugal force would keep his body upright and away from me. It worked.
When we got to the ground floor, my conscience hit me again and I thought that the least I could do was give the guy a ride home. So I paid the $12 fixed day rate for my five minute stay and headed out onto the street.
The moment we hit the pavement the old man wakes up. Incredibly, he’s now lucid and able to carry on a conversation. I asked him what his name was.
“Wendell Hathaway,” he replied.
“Where you from Wendell?”
“What brought you to London?”
“Work… I used to work in construction.”
“Do you have any family?”
“Used to… I was married… and I also have two kids.”
There was a 30 second pause. “A wife and two kids” I thought, “and now this heartbreaking life? How tragic.”
We talked a bit more about his life; where he grew up, when he got married and how his kids were baptized in the Catholic church.
“Hey Wendell, it’s starting to rain, where do you live, I’ll drive you home.”
“I live at the men’s mission just down the street.”
“Ok, I’ll take you there…”
A few minutes later we pulled into the mission parking lot and I said my goodbyes. But then, out of nowhere, Wendell decided he doesn’t want to get out of the car. He mumbled something about how hated living at the mission. I could tell he hated his life.
But I’ve got to get back to work.
So I got out of the car, went to his door and tried to help him out. But, like a little kid refusing to budge, he wouldn’t move. After a few minutes of pleading he eventually fell out of the car, onto the asphalt parking lot, and started crying.
By now it was raining quite heavily. My suit was getting soaked and Wendell wasn’t moving. So I knelt down and tried to pick him up. No luck. So there I was, stuck, kneeling in this men’s mission parking lot, holding this street guy’s head in my arms in the pouring rain.
What a mess. But then I looked into his eyes.
They were a piercing, deep ice blue. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t noticed them until then. I couldn’t stop staring. And as I did I started to feel a deeper sense of empathy and compassion for the man. His life story started to flash in front of my eyes. I thought about how proud his mom must have felt when she first looked into those eyes when he was a baby, about how his wife was in love with those eyes on their wedding day, and about his children proudly looked up into the eyes of their dad as he held them.
And then I started crying. This is not way things are supposed to be.
Wendell crying, me crying, and in some strange cosmic sense God crying through the rain.
It all seemed pretty hopeless, until something quite mystical happened; something I’d never experienced before or since. As I was looking into Wendell’s eyes, there was this moment where it felt as though his eyes became transparent and I was looking into Christ’s.
For a second I lost my breath, time disappeared and every part of me trembled. And for a moment everything was Christ. Christ in me holding Christ in him, surrounded by a world that was mysteriously held by Christ.
Van Gogh was right. There was more glory in Wendell’s eyes that day than any cathedral could ever hold.
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Jesus in Matthew 25:40, TNIV