The Road To Emmaus

We could enter this story anywhere, and it would still lead us in its own directions. Very much like life, really. But because one has to start somewhere, I will begin in the middle.

The rain is horizontal, and my umbrella is determined to turn itself inside out. I fight to prevent it from reaching escape velocity, and stumble blindly on among the crowds thronging the main shopping street in Sheffield, the city in England's East Midlands where I was born and raised. In spite of wind and weather, memories still bubble to the surface of my consciousness, especially as I cross Fitzalan Square. Unlike almost all the rest of the city, this square still looks much as it did when I was a child. For a moment I am back here with my father, and it's Christmas Eve. For two days he has been freed from work-a mundane and frustrating daily chore that takes him every morning to the East End of the city and the desolate steel mills and dusty offices, euphemistically known as Brightside! (Why do we do that, I wonder, calling our most derelict slums by the prettiest names?) But today he comes home early and we take the tram down to Fitzalan Square to choose our Christmas tree from the market there.

That was decades ago. He is long dead now, and yet he walks with me today across this rain-driven square as if we were still in search of a spruce. And that's a good place to enter a story....

It wasn't all spruce trees and Christmas lights, and it wasn't all daily work and tram rides. Every silver lining has a cloud, and the cloud that hung over us at that time was my father's alcohol addiction. Memories like those of Christmas Eve are like slivers of gold streaking through a rather dark and bewildering forest with not many paths. We became familiar with the coping strategies that families of alcoholics learn; and life continued, between job losses and tightrope walks among creditors. And now, as I look back, I realize that these were the roots and the reasons for my being here in Sheffield on this rainy day in 2008. Because we could so easily have become homeless ourselves, part of my heart has continued to dwell here, in this particular city, alongside the men and women who travel a path similar to my father's. I am here today to celebrate the opening of a homeless center that I have been helping to support.

But not just a homeless center. This is an Emmaus house. The Emmaus movement was started by Abbe Pierre in France, who opened his home to beleaguered casualties of the Second World War. It seeks to create homes where those in despair can "find a bed and a reason to get out of it." The reason to get out of it is that all the companions, as they are called, are expected to contribute in whatever way they can, through their own efforts and talents, and they are required to come off state benefits and form a self-supporting community. They do this mainly by restoring old furniture, mending abandoned electrical equipment and recycling unwanted books, clothes and other goods. The profit keeps them going, and they give any surplus to people who are in even worse situations than themselves. Most of the companions eventually go on to lead independent lives in the mainstream community. Although it is a secular charity, it is not called Emmaus for nothing. It is about "companions" walking a stony road of despair and disillusionment, and experiencing the presence of one alongside them who reveals that the miracle is real, and that God truly is constantly striving to "make all things new." The Sheffield house has itself been restored from a derelict steelworks-my father would have known it.

Starting conversations with strangers does not come easily to me, but I found myself sharing lunch with a woman who had no such inhibitions. In no time we were deep in conversation. Sometimes God's synchronicity leaves me speechless. Here was a woman who had grown up in the same city, and even had the same name as mine. We were both supporting the same project. We exchanged stories, and it was like discovering the mirror image of ourselves. She had attended a no-hope primary school at the "wrong" end of town, and had therefore had no chance at all of moving on to a college prep school, which might have opened the door to higher education, as it did for me. She had been repeatedly told that she was useless and would do nothing with her life. I had been consistently encouraged to achieve the best I could. She had gone through the same pattern of job losses and addiction as my father. And then, by a stroke of grace, she had been invited to help out at a hostel for homeless alcoholics. It was like meeting another incarnation of myself as I might have been, in a parallel universe.

This other Margaret is now running a rehab center in the city, and she shines with the presence of God, even though she wouldn't see it herself. She told me about some of the ways in which she tries to help people break free from their old destructive lifestyles, and she expressed her philosophy to me like this: "If you always think what you always thought, you will always do what you always did and you will always get what you always got." I thought of Einstein's wisdom, which says the same thing: "You will never solve a problem with the same mindset that created it." We laughed at the way her mind and Einstein's had reached the same conclusion.

God's wisdom comes quietly alongside us where we least expect it, and every road is a road to Emmaus.

Margaret Silf lives in Staffordshire, England. Her latest books are Companions of Christ: Ignatian Spirituality for Everyday Living and The Gift of Prayer.

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