Last night I slept at our parish’s shelter for the homeless, something I’ve been doing pretty regularly for a while. I sleep on a mattress near the door, easily available in case anyone needs anything in the night. I am the night portress.
At the end of my shift this morning I went, along with the overnight host (who sleeps in an actual room with a door!), to 6:30 am Mass, arriving 2 minutes late, something that’s hard to miss in our small chapel. The presider noted with puzzlement the appearance of several regulars from the 8 am crowd, but went on to preach about St. André Bessette and the job of the porter in a community.
It was an apt reflection after my night at the door. The door is such a liminal space to inhabit, the hallway so public, so spare. In the summer there is no air conditioning there, in the winter, the drafts are noticeable. There are no shades to draw, no way to block out the light from the streetlamp, or from the headlamps of the cars that use the parking lot as a short cut. And when the little ones stir in the night, their mothers are not the only ones awakened.
To sleep here is a privilege. It is a privilege to hold, at least for one night and however symbolically, the difficulties of the outside world at bay, and let those within sleep safe. It is a privilege to ease the passing back out into the world of those who have taken refuge for the night, to make a thermos of coffee at 4:30 am for a mother who must get up, get her small children ready to leave, and out the door by 5:15 to get to her job on time. To carry the makeshift bag another has scrambled to assemble for daycare. To bounce the baby and amuse the toddler long enough to let their mother use the bathroom.
This is my own little theophany, no camels, no frankincense. There is a babe and a mother. And the only gift I have is a thermos of coffee.
Epiphany. It’s more than a feast. It’s a call to be shown the door.
Michelle Francl is a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, an adjunct scholar of the Vatican Observatory, a writer, wife and mother. This blog post is used with permission of Michelle and originally appeared in her website www.quantumtheology.blogspot.com.