A few days ago, I saw a man hug a pew in a small chapel where I pray. Seemed pretty strange at first, but it ended up as one of those “life lessons” that sometimes come unexpectedly. Here’s how it happened.
I get to pray in an adoration chapel attached to a monastery of cloistered Poor Clare nuns. (Here’s something about cloistered life.) I pray in the late afternoon when the place is usually empty. What a fellowship, what a joy, to pray with the Lord and the unseen nuns. The picture is the monstery here in Cleveland.
A few days ago, there was a frail little man in the front pew on one side praying. I had not seen him before. He was bent over where he sat in that way that lets you know this fellow simply cannot sit or stand straight. At one point, he took off a light jacket and I’m not exaggerating – it took three minutes just to get his arms out of the jacket and the jacket out from behind him. I wasn’t “watching” him or anything like that, but when there are just two of you, it’s hard not to notice things.
When he was ready to leave, this dear old man gathered himself and stood up. Then it was like he sort of fell and grabbed the end of the pew and hung on. He hugged the pew. My reaction was that he was in trouble. I almost stood up to go help him. Then I realized what he was doing.
The Church asks us to make a gesture of respect any time we come into or leave the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Most people double genuflect. Those who cannot manage getting down on both knees, and then up again, will make a profound bow from the waist. Well, this little man couldn’t do either of those. Balancing while he walked gave him trouble. So instead, he hugged the pew and sort of slumped over it. He bowed the best he could.
This obviously is not a prescribed gesture of respect. You won’t find hugging the pew in any of those pamphlets that tell you what to do in an adoration chapel. Yet, I’m sure I have never seen a more moving or beautiful or eloquent posture in my life.
He did what he could
Just before Jesus was killed, he was anointed by Lazarus’ sister Mary with perfume that cost a year’s wage for a working man. It’s in the first part of Mark 14. Everybody who was there were angered at such extravagance. Except Jesus. Part of what Jesus said in Mary’s defense was “she has done what she could”.
That is exactly what that sweet, slumped over man did when he hugged the pew. He did what he could. I don’t doubt he would have preferred to be able to genuflect or give a profound bow. But he could not do that, so he did what he could. It may have occurred to him that what he did must look pretty odd, but that didn’t stop him. He did what he could.
It brought tears to me then and it still does today. It was a grace to know this Christian had struggled just to get to the chapel (there are stairs), yet there he was. It was a privileged moment to see a man give what he could, give everything he could, in a sign of respect for Jesus present in the Sacrament. It was faith and love and hope that hugged that pew.
I reflect on how little it costs me to give Jesus what I give, then I think of the man who hugged a pew, and I am thankful for a God so good that he draws such devotion and love. I am simultaneously humbled and encouraged and made to know that I am surrounded by saints. And I resolve to do what I can, not merely what is convenient or cheap.
For if the eagerness is there, it is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have. II Corinthians 8:12