Early one brisk January evening a few years ago, I was driving to a speaking engagement at a parish in North Seattle. As I exited the highway I noticed a coffee shop on the other side of the road. A good, hot cup of coffee was exactly what I needed, so I parked, went in and ordered an extra hot mocha. As the barista was steaming milk and preparing the espresso, my eyes were drawn to an odd sight happening outside in the parking lot on the far side of the coffee shop. A man about my age wearing a jacket and a backpack was slowly walking forward with both his arms extended in front of him, as if he were walking in the dark, even though there was still daylight. He bumped into a parked car, steadied himself with his hands, changed direction and then almost immediately bumped into another car. I went outside to find out what was going on.
A Matter of Trust
As I approached the man, I saw a large round button pinned to his jacket that read, “I am blind and deaf.” That explained his outstretched arms and bumping into cars. This guy needed help, and I wanted to help him, but I was at a loss. How do I communicate with someone who is blind and deaf? Ordinary modes of communication won’t work. After thinking about it for a moment, I did the only thing that seemed to make any sense; slowly I reached out my hand and touched him on the shoulder. He flinched at my touch, since I had startled him. But he quickly composed himself and extended his left arm toward me almost like he wanted to shake hands, but with the palm of his hand turned up and his fingers together. He then used the pointer finger of his right hand to mimic the act of writing on the palm of his outstretched left hand. It wasn’t hard to figure out that he was showing me how we could communicate: through touch. He reached out his hand towards me and I put my hand in his. Slowly but surely, he began writing letters in my hand, letters that spelled a word, and then more letters that became more words. Words connected into a meaningful sentence. When I understood what he was asking or saying, it was my turn to take his hand and reply by writing my own string of letters and words in his palm until they made a sentence. It felt more than a bit awkward, but regardless, by putting my hand into his and taking his hand into mine, we could overcome his blindness and deafness. Touch was a way for us to communicate.
What I learned from all this back and forth writing in each other’s hands was that he was trying to get home. So I wrote in the palm of his hand, “Do you need a ride?” He nodded. With that cue, I took his arm and guided him over to my car and into the front passenger’s seat, got back in the driver’s seat and buckled myself in. I noticed that my new traveling companion had a notebook out on his lap and he was writing in it. This man who could not see or hear had learned to write! He wrote that his name was Brian. I traced my first name into his palm. He nodded and then wrote down the address where he wanted me to drive him; it was an intersection about a mile from where we were parked. I started the car and turned down the road towards his destination.
Along the drive, he explained how he had come to be at the coffee shop. He wrote that he had a full-time job in a city fifty miles south of Seattle, and had arranged to have a shuttle van drive him back and forth to work during the week. The shuttle picked him up and dropped him off at the corner where the coffee shop was located. He had arranged for a taxi to pick him up there after work and drive him the rest of the way home. For whatever reason, that day the taxi didn’t show up. Needing a ride, he had tried to make his way over to the coffee shop to ask someone to call him a taxi. That explained why I saw him bumping into parked cars. This evening, I got to be his taxi.
Why Didn’t You Put on My Seatbelt?
We arrived at the destination he had written in his notebook. He asked if I could help him out of the car and orient him in the right direction on the sidewalk. Once there, he could make it the rest of the way home on his own. Of course I agreed to help, but before I could get out of the car, he reached over and felt down next to my seat where my seatbelt was inserted into the buckle. He was confirming that I had driven with my seatbelt fastened. For the second to last time, he took his pen and wrote something in his notebook, “Why didn’t you put on my seatbelt?” I sat there stunned. When I first got in the car with Brian I thought about fastening his seatbelt, but I didn’t. Why not? Because it was uncomfortable. That was the only reason. I didn’t feel comfortable reaching across this unknown person and buckling him in. I never even considered the situation I put Brian in; ‘uncomfortable’ doesn’t begin to describe it.
What would it be like to be driven in a car without being buckled in a seatbelt, when you couldn’t see or hear? Think about it. You wouldn’t know when the car was going to slow down or speed up, turn or go straight. The simple act of buckling Brian in would have eliminated much of his concern, but I had failed him. I wrote in his hand, “I am sorry. Please forgive me.” He wrote the last message to me in his notebook, a message of mercy: “I forgive you.” I helped Brian get in the right position on the sidewalk. He nodded thanks to me for my help, took out his walking stick and headed home.
Driving away from Brian, I couldn’t help but be moved by what had just happened. Beyond my sense of shame about not buckling Brian’s seatbelt, I was deeply convicted about something else, something that made me feel like I should be wearing the button on Brian’s jacket that said, “I am blind and deaf.” God had given me the incredible abilities of seeing and hearing, and truth be told, I took them for granted. When was the last time I thanked God, really thanked God, for the ability to see and hear? I couldn’t remember. After meeting Brian, how could I ever forget to thank God for these gifts? God used Brian to teach me gratitude. But God was teaching me so much more through my encounter with him.
When I met Brian I was on my way to an event where I would teach others about the Catholic faith. That evening, Brian did more than teach me about faith, he was a living witness about what it means to have faith. What did Brian do that expressed the essence of faith? He put himself completely in my hands. Brian is a man who has to rely on a taxi and a shuttle to drive him a hundred miles or more just so he can get to work and back. All by itself, that is impressive. But more than that, in so many aspects of his life, Brian willingly puts himself completely in the hands of others, even strangers like me, for the most basic of necessities. The evening of our providential meeting, he trusted me completely without even knowing my name, just so he could get home! Unfortunately, his faith in me wasn’t entirely warranted, since I couldn’t even be trusted to buckle him in.
Brian is a man who lives out the most important and profound meaning of faith, the act of completely entrusting oneself (surrendering and abandoning are other words used in our Catholic tradition) into the hands of God. What was so astonishing to me was that he wasn’t putting himself into the hands of God. He put himself into my hands!
The Gift of Confession
Sitting in the car alone, I realized something; Brian had trusted me more than I trusted God. His actions that evening expressed a total faith in me even though he had never met me and knew nothing about me.
Why didn’t I put myself into God’s hands as willingly, completely and quickly as Brian put himself into mine? I wasn’t blind and deaf regarding God. Or was I? I didn’t think so. Then why would I hesitate to entrust myself completely into God’s hands? Didn’t I believe that God loved me enough to seek me out when I was bumping around the parking lot of my life, to find a way to communicate with me despite my blindness and deafness and to “buckle me in” and get me “home” to a safe place? What a gift Brian gave me that night! What a gift God gave me through Brian that night! God brought me into contact with a witness to the essence of faith. I thought I was helping Brian, but Brian helped me far more. God used a blind and deaf man to reveal to me that “I am blind and deaf.” Blind and deaf to the ways that God faithfully reaches out to me and touches me, invites me to take His hand and allow Him to lead me safely home. Unlike my situation with Brian, God does not “drop me off” and leave me to make it the rest of the way home all alone. There is no “I’ve got it from here” in my relationship with God. When God leads me home, He leads me back into His arms like the Prodigal Son, who comes home to a father who runs out to meet him and embrace him.
Which brings me to Confession. Confession is THE Catholic blind spot. “I am blind and deaf to the blessing of Confession.” How many Catholics could wear that button? Confession is where God approaches all of us who are blind and deaf to His faithfulness because of our sin, to offer us His merciful touch. Through Confession, God safely brings us back into a loving union with Him in our spiritual home, the Catholic Church. God offers Confession as a gift to Catholics, but like Brian, so many of us are blind and deaf to it in one way or another. Sadly, Brian wakes up each and every day of his life and has no choice but to remain blind and deaf. But we don’t! We have a choice. We don’t have to remain blind and deaf to the gift of Confession. We can come to understand and experience for ourselves the awesome power of God’s mercy that reaches out to us, takes us by the hand and leads us safely home.