There is too much truth, goodness and beauty in the world to ignore it. But every day we do. Why? Obviously, no one wants to be miserable. No one wants to see ugliness, sin and decay. It is uncomfortable to look at and brings us much pain and grief, even as we want to extend our compassion to those who are suffering. The word compassion itself conveys the beauty of how pain, shared personally among companions, somehow eases the burden on everyone. 

Suffering certainly has a way of isolating us from one another. No one can physically feel the pain of another. And if no other person — not even one’s most beloved — can feel that pain, certainly a group cannot, let alone a corporate or government entity, in principle or by agency. Compassion requires some kind of personal interaction. A good companion — a friend — certainly “feels bad” for the suffering friend and, in that sense, experiences his or her own pain, albeit of a different nature. But there is a bond forged through the attention, time and care that, even in the desire to share the experience of a suffering friend, changes both and deepens the relationship.

It might even be said that suffering shared — compassion — is beautiful. For one thing, it is a gift. No one can force another to care or empathize.  It must be free, an act of love. Love is always free. It cannot be bought. Wealth has no inherent power to heal or to cure a person. It may be possible to collect it, earn it, distribute it and invest it in something, some cause, endowment or program. But in itself it cannot create the bond that only compassion between persons can. The bond that really heals is the relationship, bridging the abyss of loneliness, isolation and longing.
The poverty of wealth and the wealth of compassion are best seen perhaps in stories that tell this truth and display its beauty. Let me share one with you.

A good friend of mine, Dr. Joe, a pediatric surgeon recently retired, has spent much of his life taking care of children with disabilities. He continues to extend his creative compassion in ways that reveal the rich humanity of the little ones often considered among the poor of this world and that exposes the poverty of those whom the world would regard as wealthy. Jesus himself, as we know, has shown us how what the world values is not how the kingdom of God works, that those poor in the eyes of the world — children, the sick, those in the margins — are often the richest, the most blessed and beautiful in God’s eyes.

Dr. Joe has brought together members of the New York City Ballet and children with disabilities, along with their families and friends in a remarkable dance, one might say, that is transforming lives. On ­certain Saturday morn­ings, the artists and children dance together, each according to their own disability, or, as Dr. Joe, prefers to say it, in the way in which each is “perfectly human.”

The dancers themselves express their experience beautifully, and not only in their virtuosity. Through these encounters, they discover the real beauty of their art, in the freedom of expression, etched in form and grace, that their God-given talent, permits them to celebrate. These moments, however, afford them a singularly redemptive moment that can elude them throughout much of their professional lives: a judgment-free zone. As the professional dancers and many other performers and public figures confess, though not without much joy and satisfaction, their work is always being judged, critically evaluated. Every day, they even judge themselves, with every self-assessment, every look in the mirror. The children do not judge them. They only affirm and enjoy them.

One might even say the children have compassion on them as their co-performers. For partners in a dance are always equal, different yet complementary, dependent on the other. In their own gift of self, from the wealth of their innocence and disabilities, they enrich the artists in the poverty of their servitude to excellence and ever higher expectations. One dancer reflected how she discovered her own poverty in partnering with the humility of these children and in the wealth of the overflowing joy they radiate.

Anyone witnessing the dance workshops cannot help but be amazed and moved, even to tears, by the ways in which the children, some with cerebral palsy, others with Down Syndrome, will pick up the lead and the paces of their partners with surprising ease, symmetry and grace. As the mother of one of the children remarked one day, after watching her child’s sheer delight in the movements, “for the first time I saw my daughter as the person she really is, and not with a wheelchair.”

What more could words express? Parables from life such as this, if we have the eyes to see, reveal the truth, goodness and beauty of the Gospel, the joy that the “good news” brings, lived. As we, in our wealth — the things we cling to, the stuff we fill our silos with, the reputations we guard, the connections we catalogue — amass the titles, positions and accomplishments required by the world to validate us, we can easily miss our need to be filled by the wealth that lasts. Discovering our poverty in the wealth of those the world regards as disabled, unfit, burdensome or insignificant is a path to personal transformation. If experienced in person, through personal contact and interaction, it is even redemptive. 

This is the sacramentality of the life of grace in which God reveals to us, through the incarnate divinity of his Son, the presence of Christ in humanity, the humanity he shares with us, especially those who suffer or are regarded as least in the eyes of the world. We all know how the Scriptures call us to discover the Lord in the poor. Jesus continually reminds us and spends his public ministry showing us by his own example. Page through any of the Gospels and you can find your own favorite passage. But go out into the street and just look around you, or, if you don’t mind me saying, we can try a little more eye to eye with the real people our phone or “face” time often screen us from.

The poverty of our own wealth is nothing we should fear, unless we take it too seriously and are unwilling to let go of it. The Gospel message reminds us that there is plenty of real wealth to go around because God’s grace is so generous. It is found, surprisingly, in those the world regards as least.

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