Every Saturday morning at exactly 7:28 a.m. Big Ben would appear at the doors of the church, waving his arms and jumping up and down like a child crammed with ice cream. At 7:29 I would unlock the doors to let him in. He would wrap his arms around me and bless me with a bear hug, press his head against my chest, and cling to me as if we were long-lost brothers. Then he would mess up my hair and giggle as he bounced into church, leaving me in a redolent wake of Aqua Velva, cheap wine, and mildew. How I loved Saturday mornings.
Big Ben was five feet seven inches tall and weighed maybe 100 pounds. Like most of the people of Saint Vincent de Paul parish in downtown Portland, he suffered from a broken heart, a broken mind, and a broken body. He looked to be in his 50s, but might have been much younger. He hobbled around on arthritic knees, laughing at ghosts, talking to trees, chasing pigeons. He hung around the parish and did odd jobs for us. He sorted donated clothes, swept floors, and washed windows. But mostly Big Ben went to church.
He went to Mass every day, sometimes twice a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, and received communion every single time. Lord knows we tried to explain why he shouldn’t receive communion more than once a day. Two years of arguing, cajoling, and pleading failed to make a dent, and in the end it seemed the greater mistake would have been to turn this lovely man, this child of God, away from the table of the Eucharist.
The only meal I ever saw Big Ben eat was one we offered every Friday to the hungry of the neighborhood. We would open the church doors and set up tables and chairs. Candles lit the night, lending our makeshift Brother Andre Café a Parisian feel. Volunteers would bring sandwiches and doughnuts and hot bread and the occasional pot of soup straight from the oven. Students from the University of Portland would help serve meals. And there in the corner, hidden in the throng of hungry people, was Big Ben, lapping up his soup and devouring his ham sandwich. It would take him all of five minutes to finish his meal and then he would bounce out the doors and into the night, not to be seen until exactly 7:28 the next morning.
One Christmas Eve we decided to have a special café evening. An unusually large number of people came. At 9:00 we were down to the last pot of soup, though the hungry line still wove around the block. By 9:30 we were down to the last bowl, and there was Big Ben, face alight with his toothless grin. We filled his bowl to the brim, much to his delight, and that was the last of the last of the soup.
As Ben made his way to the table in the corner, a tiny teenage boy whom none of us had seen before appeared. He looked like he had slept in mud. He was shivering for lack of a coat and his left eye sported a nasty bruise. Seeing that the last of the soup was served, his eyes grew large and it seemed he was going to cry, but he didn’t. God knows how long he had waited in line only to find no soup. Some of us were reaching for our wallets when Big Ben appeared with his bowl and handed it to the boy. He then put his hand on the boy’s cheek and caressed it as a father would caress his son’s, and then mussed the boy’s hair and giggled, and wandered off.
It was a tender moment that stood in contrast to the steel, concrete, and cold that too often embrace those without hearth and home. It was a moment that knitted us all together a little more tightly, and made me proud of my species. And it made me see, maybe for the first time, why God wanted to be human.
People noticed. The throng of homeless men and women and children gave Big Ben an ovation you would give a king. It made him laugh and giggle as he skipped away, as if he were the keeper of a great secret that none of us were privy to. All he did was applaud back at us until he disappeared into the night.
He showed up for Christmas Mass next morning, at 7:28 exactly, bouncing and giggling like a child. When he came up for communion and held out his hands to receive the Lord, he looked down in wonder as I placed the host in his hand, like he was witnessing a miracle, and I thought of the night before, when I witnessed a miracle—when I saw God doing what God does best.
Patrick Hannon is the author of The Long Yearning’s End, in which this excerpted essay appears at full length. We spotted it in Portland (Fall 2009), a magazine that often nudges us toward spiritual reflection. www.up.edu/Portland