Monica Dutton describes a 30-second encounter that, for her, held everything contained in the message of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ.
BY Monica Dutton
I had been seeing Jake (not his real name) for years. On the first Saturday of every month, we would meet up in Martin Place around 9:00pm for coffee and a chat. He would arrive with his typically broad smile and a wave; footy beanie firmly in place, regardless of the weather.
It was a bit like 50 First Dates really, or Groundhog Day. We would have the same, almost scripted conversation every time; and he was always delighted, if not a little bemused, that I knew exactly how he liked his coffee, and what his favourite sandwiches were.
Jake was a regular at Vinnies Van, and I was under no illusion. I am sure he had the same conversation with one of the Vinnies volunteers every night of the week. He would appear out of nowhere, have a sandwich and a coffee, then look around anxiously and hurry off in case “they” found out where he was, and came to get him. As time passed, Jake’s demeanour gradually became more unpredictable, and ranged from bright and bubbly to moody and morose.
Even though I had known Jake for years, we never progressed past that one, repetitive conversation. Nonetheless, it was always a joy to see him arrive, have the coffee and chat, and then watch him disappear into the night until next time. Eventually, there were a couple of months where I did not see him at all. I asked a few of the other Vinnies clients about Jake, but no one had seen him. No one knew anything.
Not long afterwards, my family decided to attend St Mary’s Cathedral for the Easter Vigil. As always, the cathedral was packed, and on this occasion, it was a particularly warm evening as the crowds gathered and filed in for the ceremony. As the organ filled the cathedral, people began to fold their order of service leaflets and use them as fans to cool themselves; while little ones sipped on water bottles as they lay listlessly on the marble floor in between the kneelers.
At one point during the readings, my mind wandered, and I found my attention drawn to a vaguely familiar solitary figure a few seats in front of us. Despite the large congregation in attendance, two or three seats either side of him were vacant. It had been a while since I had seen him, however, I immediately recognised that the figure was none other than Jake.
Even from a distance, I could see that he, and his trusty beanie, were looking even more scruffy, and that he was possibly even a little less focused than he used to be. I could only guess that on such a warm and humid evening, the stench of someone who had been sleeping rough for so long, was too much to bear for the nearby members of the congregation, who kept their distance from him.
As the ceremony progressed, I noticed Jake remained seated and did not participate in the responses or hymns. I found myself remembering him at his most joyful and buoyant, and of our oft-repeated single conversation. I also wondered what had become of him over the past few months and what had brought him to this.
When the time came for the Sign of Peace, people in our immediate area exchanged the customary handshake and turned to face the altar once more. As the buzz died down, Jake was still seated on his own and seemingly disengaged.
It was only then that I noticed the immaculately dressed older lady. Unexpectedly, she left her seat, walked across the aisle and sat down beside Jake. Her pearls, impeccable fashion sense and grace were in stark contrast to Jake’s total dishevelment. As people in nearby pews watched in disbelief, she reached out to him, put her arms gently around him, embraced him, and softly caressed him on the forehead. Only in Michelangelo’s Pietà have I seen such depth of compassion. She then simply stood up, moved away and returned to her seat.
Jake appeared to slowly emerge from his daze, leant forward, placed his clasped hands on the railing in front of him, put his head on his hands and wept. Long, breathless, uncontained and uncontrollable weeping. It would be impossible for anyone to imagine what was going through his mind.
It took me quite some time to regain my own composure, and I can quite honestly say I do not remember much else of the Easter Vigil ceremonies that night. But for me, that 30-second encounter held everything contained in the message of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ.
So many images flooded into my mind. The Judas kiss replaced by the gentle caress. The mother enfolding her broken son. The love of Christ and neighbour. Perdition, compassion, mercy and peace. It reminded me of how quick we are to judge, to condemn, to alienate; and how slow we are to extend warmth, gentleness and peace to those who do not quite fit our narrowly defined, personally biased, and often unrealistic expectations and standards.
Another image that came to mind was the closing line of John Marsden’s Prayer for the Twenty-first Century, “May those who live in the shadows, be seen by those in the sun”. Jake, who lived in the darkest of shadows, had certainly been seen by the gracious, elegant lady in the sun that Easter Saturday night.
I never saw Jake again. I do not know what happened to him. My hope and prayer is that he is now living peacefully somewhere in the sun. The pragmatic side of me is a little less confident…