MAKING FRIENDS FOR OURSELVES IN HEAVEN

Sean Coghlan S.J.

I often reflect on four or five years of grace in my life, the grace of knowing a poor man who slept on the streets of Hong Kong. He was a grace to me, a gift from God, presented to me by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. They were kind enough to allow me to accompany them on their twice weekly visits to the street sleepers of Yaumatei. As a result, I met a man I will call Wong Lam.

He was a character. He had been a seaman for twelve years. Unfortunately, while at sea, he began to drink heavily. He had sadnesses in his life and he experienced some plain bad luck. When I got to know him he had been sleeping on the street for about ten years. Because of his health and because of his drinking problem he found it very hard to get a job. He did, in fact, spend several quite long spells in the sisters' home or the brothers' home. He stopped drinking, cleaned up and even fattened up! He was an obliging and useful handyman, but couldn't keep up the effort for too long.

When he had money he shared it generously. He was a very charming and a very funny man. I often brought him to a clinic or a hospital when he was sick. He could make even the sternest nurse laugh as she tried to get him to take his medicine.

Where is he now? I don't know. One day he disappeared without warning and without a trace. He is probably dead. I am grateful to the sisters for introducing Wong Lam to me. Without them I would never have noticed him on the streets of Yaumatei. I would have passed him by. I would never have dared to talk to him or bring him to hospital without their encouragement. Now I have a friend for eternity. When my turn comes to die I hope Wong Lam will be waiting for me and that he will shout out my name and that he will slip me in through a gate, any gate, into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Luke's story about the rich man and Lazarus is a story about the right use of money. The rich man didn't use his money well. He didn't invest wisely by making Lazarus a friend for eternity. He didn't notice Lazarus at his gate. He just didn't see him. To him, Lazarus was a piece of the street scene. The rich man had everything he wanted. He was totally preoccupied with his business, his pleasures and his joys. He didn't have an effective belief in God and in a life after death. He didn't see beyond his riches. Luke does not accuse the rich man of having harmed Lazarus. The rich man didn't curse Lazarus or kick him or have him moved away from his gate. He just passed him by. He didn't notice Lazarus, despite his obvious pain and misery. As a result, he lost an influential friend who could have helped him a lot with eternal credit in heaven.

For Luke being rich, while not actually evil, is dangerous. He regards the rich as unhappy and he invites us to pity them. The broad road along which they journey is not the most direct way to the Kingdom of Heaven. Riches blind us and prevent us from seeing a great deal.

I look back with nostalgia on the days when I visited Wong Lam and his fellow street sleepers. I don't go now because I tell myself I am too busy to go. When I went to the men I didn't have money to give to them, but I did have time, health and energy. Health and energy I still have, thank God. Time? I could make the time.

Without a doubt, Luke's story is addressed, first of all, to the financially rich. But it can also be considered as addressed to the "rich" in health, energy, time, education or experience, and by "rich" I don't mean super health or abundant energy or years and years of learning or experience or hours and hours of free time. I mean enough for oneself and something left over to share.

Certainly, many of us may not have much money to give to Lazarus, but most of us do have some energy, some time, some experience to share with him. Let's share and make friends for ourselves in heaven.

The starting point and the sticking point are the same. It is hard to see, to notice, to keep our eyes and our hearts open. Its hard not to be afraid of the Lazarus or the Wong Lam we meet. But we don't have to start an enormous, crushing programme to help every poor, sick or lonely person on our various ways. That's the stuff of nightmares. We can, however, sit with or walk with or talk to some of the Lazaruses we meet. We could even join an organisation that works for those in need. Our efforts unite with the efforts of the group and grow. They follow a momentum and logic of their own. We feel less frightened and become more confident.

Our fellowmen and women may need our presence to get them on their feet again or maybe, just to enable them to wait in patience for an improvement which may be long in coming. But we have to see them before we do anything.

Nobody -- not I, certainly -- can afford to talk about Lazarus without qualms or embarrassment. Most of us have failed and are failing to see. We will probably fail again in the future.

May God give us the grace to see what is obvious. May we notice one, a few, some, many who need our presence. May we make friends for heaven who, when our time to die comes, all shout out our names and kick up a fuss and put on pressure in the right quarters. May they slip us into the Kingdom not, perhaps, by the main door, but by a side door, any door, even the back door.