Who is 'the dear neighbor'?

A homeless woman sits on a sidewalk in 2014 in New York City. (CNS/EPA/Justin Lane)

One of the fundamental tenets of the spirituality of the Sisters of St. Joseph is union with "the dear neighbor" as reflective of our union with God. We speak of "total double union" with God and with neighbor as inseparable.

As an SSJ associate, I find it challenging and sometimes difficult to really recognize my neighbor in God, and God in my neighbor. But several months ago, I was deeply touched and greatly inspired by a simple act performed by a Sister of St. Joseph. The act spoke volumes about how to really live and practice this love of God in everyone and anyone without analysis, hesitation or debate regarding the recipient's deservedness to receive that love.

Another associate friend and I met this sister — I'll call her Sister Mary — for dinner to discuss a ministry in which we worked together. After several hours of dining and conversation, we left the small restaurant, which was situated in a quiet town on a street with other businesses. It was just getting dark, and the street was quiet as we began to say our goodbyes and proceed to our respective vehicles.

Suddenly, a figure approached coming down the street toward us, waving T-shirts and asking us to buy them. It was a woman who seemed disoriented, loud and intrusive as she came nearer, and her purpose for selling these shirts was to raise money for bus fare to her methadone clinic the next day.

My first reaction was fear, followed by hesitancy and concern for our safety. It was dark, we were three women alone, and the woman seemed overbearing and somewhat desperate. I froze, not knowing how to react or respond, and in no way felt moved to even take out my wallet to withdraw money to purchase a T-shirt I did not like nor want.

However, Sister Mary calmly and quietly withdrew a dollar bill from her pocket, handed it to the woman and said she hoped this small donation would help her to get to the clinic. The woman took the bill, thanked her and continued on her way.

Sister Mary explained she always carried a dollar bill in her pocket in readiness to give to "the dear neighbor" who may approach her or be in obvious need on the street. She didn't ask the receiver any questions nor try to determine the person's justification for being in need. Sister Mary simply and wholeheartedly responded to the needy Christ in the stranger without comment or judgment.

I did much soul-searching as I drove home, considering and praying about my initial response to the woman.

What would I have done if I had been alone? What did my hesitation in that situation tell me about my awareness of God in my neighbor and my neighbor in God? Why was I feeling dissatisfied with my inability to simply give what I could in a manner that would affirm and validate the dignity of the receiver as a fellow human being made in God's image? Why was I so moved and touched by Sister Mary's spontaneous generosity and graciousness?

I have retold this story many times in different settings and on different occasions. For me, Sister Mary's small gesture became a powerful lesson in how to give simply and lovingly. It has been a real challenge to prayerfully and honestly reflect on my acceptance of Jesus' admonition that if you do it for "the least" of his brothers or sisters, you do it for him.

Sometimes, it can be a smile, a greeting, a kind word to someone I pass on the street or meet in line at the grocery store. It doesn't have to be a monetary gift. Most importantly, it is the willingness and generosity — like Sister Mary's — that each of us can practice where we are, as we are, in all encounters with "the dear neighbor."

Fr. Anthony Oelrich, pastor of Christ Church Newman Center in St. Cloud, Minnesota, wrote a reflection published in the May issue of Give Us This Day: "By the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, our faces — the faces of us who are called disciples of Jesus — have become the face of God turned toward the world in mercy and healing love."

The woman we met that evening certainly glimpsed the face of God in Sister Mary's compassionate response. With God's grace, I am now more aware of my invitation to be God's face for all with whom I come in contact each day. That witnessing of love for "the dear neighbor" has had a profound and enduring impact on me. May that always remain with me!

[Judy Principe is an associate of the Sisters of St. Joseph, Philadelphia. Her professional career was spent in training and development, organizational development and human resources. She holds a master's degree in management and supervision and a certificate in organizational development.]