Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. – Christian Scriptures, Hebrews 13:2
Today was a poignant day for my husband and me. We were driving home from Greensboro to our little wide spot in the road near Hillsborough, and we stopped at the rest stop between the two. We travel with our new puppy these days, a feisty little Westie, and so we made a pit stop for him. As soon as we got out of our car, a young man came up to us and asked if he could speak to us. Like most people, I suppose, we were leery, but we’re pretty sappy about trying to help people, so we listened while he told us how he accidentally got locked out of his car with his two dogs in it, had to call a locksmith, who overcharged him $150, and now, he said, he had no money to get home on and asked if we could we give him some.
May I say, here, that in this country where panhandling has become increasingly common and seems to be a fairly organized enterprise, our first reaction was suspicion. I tend to be a bit resentful when people with pathetic signs about their misfortunes come up to my car at intersections to ask for money, and my first impulse was to be kind of irritated in this situation. Increasingly, though, I find myself thinking, in such situations, “well, why not?” Who am I to say whether a person’s need is legitimate, and what do I care if they want to spend my money on drugs or whatever? At least they will know someone looked at them kindly and gave them what they wanted.
Now, like most people, we don’t tend to travel with much cash, so we explained to him that we didn’t have any money to give him, quite literally, and I said to him, “If you have a need, it will be taken care of.”
“Oh yes, yes,” he said, “I’m a Christian, I know that.” My cynical side was already thinking, “Nice touch: he gets our sympathy by telling us he was traveling with his dogs who got locked in the car, and then he tells us he’s a Christian. That always gets ’em.” Meanwhile, an oriental man in the car next to us was hissing at us to ignore the young man: “He’s a professional.”
“How do you know?” I answered. In any event, we headed for the restrooms prior to taking our pup out, and my husband commented that maybe he had a couple of dollars. He looked in his wallet and sure enough, he had four whole dollars, so he headed back and gave them to the young man. Why not? He could, at best, only buy a bottle of Boone’s Farm with those few bucks. He said the young man said to him, “At least you didn’t ignore me. Most people have.”
I waited in the car while my husband took the puppy across the road to walk him, and I watched the young man busily walk up and down the path, steering clear of most people, occasionally entering the building, speaking to a few. When my husband got back in the car, I had been thinking about it for awhile, and I said to my husband, “So where are these two dogs? And can’t this guy call the police, or family members or friends and ask for help…or maybe the personnel at the rest stop could help him?” We decided to play social worker, and my husband got out and asked him about all these things. He reported that the man answered him in monosyllables, indicating that his dogs were “down there” (where?). He said he lived alone, indicating that he had no friends or relatives to help him. He answered all the other questions in monosyllables, and that was that. My husband said he seemed irritated to be so questioned.
We went on home.
This young man, who said he was from Scranton (and sounded it) could have been an ax murderer, an escaped prisoner, an angel, a drug addict, an ordinary panhandler, or he could even have been completely honest about what was causing him to have this need for people to give him money. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know which it was, but I keep thinking of something that happened to me many years ago, when I was on a spiritual retreat in the mountains of Western North Carolina.
The first few days of a retreat are always excruciating for me: I have a terrible time turning loose of the world, my body hurts, my mind races, I’m hungry, and all in all, I spend much time wondering why on earth I ever got myself into this mess. As I persist in my spiritual practice, eventually there will come detachment, and a rising, a disengagement with my body and my environment and my involvement in life. But it comes when it comes, and it takes brutally hard work, or at least it did in those days, when I was new to this meditative path.
So there I was, sitting on the side of the mountain, and it had rained and it was cold and damp and dreary and I was feeling sorry for myself and in despair of ever reaching the deeper stages of my retreat. I have found, always, that it is only when I let go, when I “learn to love wandering in the dark,” as is common to that first stage of the inner alchemical process, the stage of nigredo, letting go . . . when I opened my eyes and in the pasture below me, a young boy was walking across the field with a gun over his shoulder, and he saw me up there and turned and gave a casual wave . . . and suddenly, I had liftoff, as the saying goes. I moved into the higher reaches of the retreat, and I left the earth behind, like a balloon floating upward.
A casual event, one might say, but I eventually concluded that the young man in the pasture had either been an angel, Lord Krishna himself, or perhaps Khidr, the green one of eternal aliveness, angel or beyond the angelic, available to the sincere seeker and present at all initiation. When one seeks the divine, I was taught, one is always guided by the masters, saints and prophets of all the ages, and one never knows who will come to aid in the sacred quest. So I never entirely knew who that being was who strode across the pasture and turned to wave his magic wand over me as he passed, but I have my suspicions, and it really didn’t matter, because it worked. Such experiences can never be understood deeply except by the one who experiences them, but if the story is told, it may aid another.
It is because of such visitations, which have come at various times in my life, that I wondered who was this young man who asked us for money at the rest stop today. It really doesn’t matter, of course, but I’m rather glad that we gave him what we could. Who knows? Allahu A’laam.