Mission Blog: Easter Orchid Series

“He was made know to them in the breaking of the bread.” Luke 24:35

Naples, Day Four of the Easter Appearances. Readers of The Missionary of Wall Street already know that today’s Easter Week reading, “The Appearance on the Road to Emmaus” from the Gospel of Luke, holds a very special place in my heart. It was this passage, and Diego Velasquez’s 17th century masterpiece inspired by it, “The Supper at Emmaus”, that marked a critical turn in the SoHo street mission, many years ago. By a crazy series of “coincidences” and “wrong turns” undertaken by two utterly unrelated strangers, the missionary and a man identified only by the pseudonym “Rich”, a skeptical missionary and a dying stranger met on a different road in space and time, but not in substance. Both, like the disciples Cleopas and the un-named second, were transformed by the experience. Years later, every time I read Luke’s account of the story, I keep coming back to my own experience on my own road to Emmaus, and of the man called “Rich”. He was one of the seven SoHo Mission souls Evelyn and I prayed for during our daily Memorare last week. And yes, I believe Christ was with me on that road that day in 2010. He is with all of us on our road to Emmaus, and in the Blessed Eucharist He continues to feed us with at the end of that road. That’s what the Emmaus journey is really all about.

No surprise that my prayer book has an Emmaus prayer in it as well. It’s another one of my missionary prayers that until now I’ve rarely shared:

On My Road to Emmaus with the Lord

On my road to Emmaus, Lord, thank you for walking beside me, for being so present, so real. On my road to Emmaus, Lord, my heart burns within me, it bursts with joy. On my road to Emmaus, Lord, grant me the grace to be fully present to others, to encounter them with my heart, to be open to them with my attitudes, to encourage them through my tone, to love them through my eyes. On my road to Emmaus, Lord, make my whole being radiate with the same overwhelming joy you and your disciples experienced on that first Emmaus journey long ago. On my road to Emmaus, Lord, let me experience the Resurrection. And on my road to Emmaus, Lord, grant me the grace to proclaim with confidence, as the two disciples did, “I have seen the Lord. Alleluia! Alleluia! He is risen! Alleluia!”

The Emmaus story is at once the oldest and the longest contained within The Missionary. Here’s the link to the story of what happened when a doubt-filled missionary and a fallen-away Catholic who’s dying both meet Jesus on “their road to Emmaus”, Prince Street in New York… Reprinted from The Missionary of Wall Street:

Prince and Mott, SoHo. Spy Wednesday, 2010.

Our missionary is approaching the corner just as Bob hails a middle-aged businessman rushing past. “Are you Catholic?” “Been there, done that!” the man barks. He presses on. Somehow the second missionary’s timing is perfect. He steps onto the sidewalk right into the man’s path. “What do you mean, ‘Been there, done that’?” The man is in a hurry, so he just starts walking with him. “Forty years ago, I was a good Catholic. Went to Mass every Sunday. Then, one day at Mass, it occurred to me that the whole liturgy thing is completely a human fabrication. Made up. And if it’s fake, well, then, so is the Catholic Church. I haven’t been in a church since. So now I have no relationship with organized religion, and I sort of work things out on my own. I have my own relationship, with God. I don’t need you people.” “How’s your relationship going?” “Not very good, to be honest. I’m starting to wonder if He even exists… Now, if you don’t mind, I’m in a bit of a hurry. Trying to get back to my hotel to pack my bags and get to the airport.” “Why? Are you leaving town?” “Yes, I’m leaving town, hopefully for good. I’m from Canada. I just came down to settle some family business.” “Rich, what else besides business have you been doing in New York?” “Not much. Went to the Met on Sunday.” “Really? What did you see there?” “Not much of interest. Mostly in the European painting section. Saw a painting about something called ‘Emmaus’ that seemed interesting, but I couldn’t figure it out.” Ding! Ding! Ding! Bells go off in the missionary’s head. He and his wife have been developing a tour at the Met on man’s relationship with God, and just two weeks earlier, he had spent the better part of an hour finding, and then studying, this very painting. How Rich stumbled onto it is a mystery. At that time, it was way, way off the beaten track in the Met: With maps, it took the missionary almost twenty minutes just to locate. But what’s more incredible is what the painting is all about. “Rich, that’s crazy! You were at the Met and somehow found the seventeenth-century masterpiece by an artist named Diego Velazquez, called The Supper at Emmaus. I just recently spent an afternoon studying that painting. Can you give me a moment to tell you what it’s about? It’s kind of related to your issue with the Catholic Church.” By now, Rich has stopped walking. Rich and the missionary are standing nose to nose along the old brick wall around Old St. Pat’s, down near Prince and Mulberry. “Try me,” Rich says. “Well, Rich, that painting was painted in the Counter-Reformation, and was partly intended to counter Protestant charges that the liturgy of the Mass was a fabrication by deluded human beings.” “Really? Come on.” The missionary tells Rich the story from Luke’s Gospel of the road to Emmaus, and the supper that followed-(Luke 24:13-35). “It’s ‘Easter Sunday. Two discouraged disciples have thrown in the towel. They thought they’d found the Messiah, but then he was killed on a cross. Now they’re leaving Jerusalem in despair. A man appears. They don’t recognize him, but he follows along with them, citing passages from the Jewish Scriptures, our ‘Old Testament,’ and explaining how those passages prophesied the passion of their teacher. The disciples’ eyes begin to open. Their ‘hearts burning within them’ by the time they reach their destination, they invite the stranger to dine with them. He agrees. And over the meal, as he says the blessing, their eyes are opened, and they see that the stranger is Jesus. The risen Lord. Overjoyed, they become some of the first evangelists, running (all the way back to the Upper Room to announce the Lord’s resurrection to their brothers.” Now he brings it back to the painting. “And that’s what Velazquez’s masterpiece is about. It depicts the single moment in time when the two disciples suddenly recognize Christ. They’re literally jumping for joy, right off the canvas! Rich, don’t you see? This is the story of the first Mass after the Resurrection. Christ himself gave it. On the walk was the Liturgy of the Word, the reading of the Old Testament and the New Testament story that’s typologically related. At supper was the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the offering up of the bread and wine, now blessed and transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ; Your disbelief in the Mass and the Church is addressed directly by this Gospel passage from Luke, and by Velazquez’s incredible painting of it! You saw where that painting was—it’s in a very remote part of the Met. People don’t just stumble across that painting. And for that matter, what led you down this particular street? And how did it so happen that as you were walking down this particular street you happened to bump into one of the few people in New York City who could have explained this painting to you? Someone who himself only learned about it two weeks before? What’s going on here?” Silence. A long silence. Rich’s eyes are filling with tears. “Rich, what’s wrong?” At last he speaks. “I’m dying. I have three forms of cancer.” Red alert! Red alert! The missionary looks skyward, thinking to himself, “Lord, are you kidding me? Why me? How am I supposed to do this? We might be on the edge of eternity here!” But he doesn’t say any of that to Rich. Instead, he asks him, “Rich, do you know what, hell is?” “No.” “It’s whatever you make it to be, whatever you want—but forever. So for you, it’s a life without God, for eternity. That’s what you’ve been making for yourself, and now you’re close to getting it.” Gulp. “Rich, there are too many coincidences here. Don’t you see what’s going on? He’s throwing you a life preserver. Grab it! Come back now. There’s still time.” “There’s no time, either now or later. Hell, I’ve already missed my flight, but if I hurry, I can still catch the next one.” The missionary is on his knees out on Prince and Mulberry.” Rich, please! This is not just you we’re talking about here! I’m involved in this story, too! He sent you out here to me! I can’t fail on this one! Rich, please, I’m begging you, just come into the church. Even if you don’t receive Reconciliation, at least come to pray. He’s trying to speak to you. Open your ears! Open your heart!” We went on like this for another twenty minutes. Bob was beginning to wonder whether I would ever get back to our corner post. But I was so blown away by all the crazy coincidences that had happened. I couldn’t let go. Eventually, after nearly an hour had passed, his and my hearts both burning, Rich marched into the church to pray. What happened next I don’t know. He said he was dying. I pray now, and will do so every day of my life, that he is living in Christ.