From Both Sides Now

Chicago Skyline by Mr Noded at Flickr

As a Jesuit in philosophy studies here in Chicago I’m privileged to work with the Ignatian Spirituality Project, a ministry that offers Ignatian spiritual retreats for homeless men and women in addiction recovery programs (a quick plug: I highly recommend checking out the great work ISP does here).

One particular retreat I was helping with found me driving a car full of homeless men from their shelter on the south side of the city toward St. Gertrude’s, the little parish on the north side where we hold some of our retreats.  On the way I asked the guys about how things were going for them at the shelter, about how they’d been since I’d seen some of them on their last retreat.  Tony was the first to answer.

Loud and confident, he sat in the back seat and looked out of the window as he talked. He looked out intently, as if the answers were out there somewhere, as if to see this city and to see himself in the morning light was the one thing wanted, the source of a deep joy. Tony smiled as he spoke.

He was proud of himself, honest about his ability to accept the new jobs being given to him by the staff at the shelter who trusted him.  And he was aware enough to realize that the biggest change in himself since the last retreat was a simple matter of perspective. Looking out the window like a child who’d never seen the city before, he told us that the hardest thing about getting out of homelessness was believing that you had something to offer.  The hardest thing, he said, was changing your motivating question from “What do I need?” to “What can I give?”

As we reached the end of Roosevelt Road and turned north onto Lake Shore Drive, Tony was present and responsive to the conversation in the car, but gaze remained fixed outside of the window.  He looked east onto Lake Michigan, rough-waved and blown by the wind, and then back west to the dramatic Chicago skyline, and a big toothy grin came across his face.  In a moment of sudden wonderment he said simply, “Oh man! The city sure looks different from this side. It looks real good from over here.” He paused for a moment and then continued, “It actually looks like a nice place to live.”

Remembering Tony’s prophetic gaze is moving, I think, because it was a graced moment of renewed perspective. Outward gazing, and authentically personal, Tony knew and made known something of his inner-life. As Tony described the city from the new perspective it was as if he was describing himself from that same new perspective as well, like he was telling his story from both sides. Freed from the what’s-in-it-for-me mentality of need and giving generously the very what-can-I-give vulnerability that makes us human, Tony, in that brief moment, was no longer a self-enclosed thing, a dependent object.  Instead he was an independent person, free to gaze out the window, free to see that same city, that same self, in a radically new light.

I smiled at Tony in the rear-view mirror. “Yeah, Tony. It looks real good from over here.”

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