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Rays of compassion

Scott Boyle | Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Chances are you’ve probably seen a sunrise or a sunset that has stopped you in your tracks.  There’s just something memorizing about the colorful hues that blanket the sky as the sun creeps up over a distant horizon or sets over a vast ocean.
I used to love these moments as a child.  And while I still appreciate the beauty of these moments now, I can’t help but realize these scenes often do not capture creation as it really is.  As the sun’s light shines the least at the beginning or end of a summer day, it causes dark reds and golds to blanket a landscape that is traditionally lush and green.  Shadows lengthen too, making our paths perilous and unsure.
At the peak of the day, however, the sun is at its brightest and shadows are at their shortest.  Trees stand tall and flowers bloom in true hue.  The sun’s rays reach far and wide and illuminate the horizon in its true color.
Those who know me well know that I am fascinated by the sun and all its metaphors.  This fascination began last year after I enrolled in a class on “Purgatorio” and “Paradiso,” the final two books of “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri.  Metaphors ooze from every page in “The Divine Comedy;” just when you think you’ve identified them all, one or two more appear.
My professor, Christian Moevs, loved to talk about these metaphors.  Although he would give beautiful descriptions of the symbolism and intricacies of these images in class, perhaps his greatest teaching moments came outside of class when he would write emails to us.
Professor Moevs always made sure to tell us that while the Comedy described Dante’s journey away from sin to God, it was applicable to all of us, too.  So, when he began these emails with salutations from the words of Dante, salutations like “Gentle rays of divine light” or “Gentle embodiments of divine love,” we were reminded that we too are these “gentle rays,” created extensions of God, the ultimate sun whose rays of light and love guide all of our paths.
Since finishing his class last spring, I have tried to consistently remind myself of these truths.  To do this, I have gotten in the habit of taking pictures of these “gentle rays” in nature.  While I like taking pictures of the sunrise or sunset, my favorite pictures come at the peak of day.  I’ll point my camera at the sun and snap away.  The brilliance of the sun at those moments reminds me that the more I let God’s light illuminate my path, the more I’ll begin to see things for the way they truly are.
I’ve come to call moments of clarity like these “gentle ray” moments.  I had one of these moments this summer when I lived and worked at a Catholic Worker community here in South Bend.
I was working at Our Lady of the Road, a drop-in center that provides clean clothes, breakfast and conversation for the underprivileged of South Bend from Friday through Sunday.  One particular day, I happened to be working the laundry machines.  It was a particularly busy day and we were running low on detergent.  One man – I’ll call him “Tom” –  brought his clothes to me to be washed.  You can imagine my relief when I discovered a large bottle on a shelf immediately adjacent to the washer I was using.  I threw it in quickly and closed the lid.  There was only one problem  –  it was bleach.
It didn’t take me long to realize my mistake.  I rushed back over and immediately grabbed his clothes out of the washer.  The damage, however, was done.  A couple of shirts and pants had large orange marks running along their sides.  As I put the clothes back in with detergent, my heart was pounding.  I knew I would have to tell Tom the bad news.
I was ready for him when he wandered over to pick up his clothes.  “Tom,” I mumbled, “I accidentally used bleach instead of detergent on your clothes!  I am so sorry!”  In place of the anger and frustration I expected, however, I found a smile: “That’s okay,” he said, “They’re just my work clothes anyway!”  He walked away without another word.
Chances are these were some of the only clothes that Tom owned.  But Tom simply brushed my mistake aside with a smile.  In that moment, I could not help but think of Helen Keller’s apt observation: “The best and most beautiful things in this world cannot be seen or even heard, but must be felt with the heart.”  In that moment, Tom was a “gentle ray” for me, echoing God’s love and compassion to the depths of my heart.
Scott Boyle is a graduate of Notre Dame and intern in the Office of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.