Recently, I was invited to see Les Misérables. There is this incredible scene where Jean Valjean steals from a bishop who had taken him in, fed him, and showed him every sort of human kindness when he was in his greatest need. Having been caught red handed, Jean Valjean is brought by the police to his victim. The bishop, in a superhuman display of charity, humility, and generosity, saves Jean Valjean from an almost certain life sentence by denying that he was robbed, but rather that he had given those precious items to him as gifts, and that Jean had in fact forgotten the most precious items given, a pair of silver candlesticks (which the bishop subsequently presents to Jean Valjean)... In a never ending struggle for growth in humility, charity, and a deeper appreciation for my vow of poverty, I found myself faced with the raw and human reality that rears its head when someone tries to take you for all you're worth. Though in my heart of hearts I desire to emulate the noble qualities characterized by Victor Hugo's bishop, I failed to act accordingly...AGAIN.
I spent this past summer studying Arabic in Cairo, Egypt. Less than 12 hours after having landed at Cairo International Airport, I had to make my way to the language academy where I was registered. I flagged down a cab just outside the priory gate. He was a pleasant cab driver and, in a diluted form of Arabic (thinking I'd understand him better), he offered a bit of a tour of the streets and various places we were passing on the way to Garden City, the area of Cairo where the academy is. Though already familiar with the city from my previous trip in 2009, I bliged him out of a sense of respect for the kind, Egyptian hospitality I have come to admire. All in all, it was a pleasant ride, and I dutifully paid the driver the 15EP (Egyptian Pounds, roughly $3) that the meter required of me. After taking care of my business at the school, I began to peruse the streets for a return taxi. Many cabs were in the area because the Four Seasons Hotel encompasses several blocks in the neighborhood, and one could easily find an eager cabbie who saw only EP signs on shirts of all the semi-foreign-looking passers-by. One man approached me and asked if I was looking for a cab, which indeed I was. I entered his more-luxurious-than-normal car, but did not notice a meter. I began to negotiate and communicated to him I'd pay 15 EP, knowing that was what cost me for the trip down. He counter-offered with 50 EP, at which point I unhesitantly exited the vehicle. I told him it cost me only 15 EPs on the way down, and that there was no way I was going to pay 50. So I began to walk up the block and look for a more "standardized" cab, with the identifying white paint-job and meter. The cab driver, following close behind, helped to hail one down for me. Feeling more secure upon seeing the ticking meter on the new dash, my first red-flag should have been when the two cab drivers chattered a bit to each other in quick Arabic. Though, wanting to get back to the priory, I got in the cab anyway, trusting in the meter. Thus began the most round-about tour of Cairo, amid the densest traffic I had ever been on. From the get-go the cabbie engaged me with his fair facility with English and tried to come off as pleasant and friendly, like I was his best friend. And in fact, he was very good at it. I was comfortable with him and enjoyed our conversation. Yet, as the meter ticked on and the traffic moved slower, I began to become irked and suspicious. Having been somewhat familiar with the layout of the city, the particular landmarks and the relative location of the priory to them, I began to suspect he was taking the long and congested way around. With each minute, the meter ticked higher: 10...15....20...25 EPs. When we began to approach an area I was pretty familiar with, he took a left when we should have turned right. I told him, we should have turned right there, and responded, "Do you want me to turn around?" and I said, "Yes." Yet, with an uncanny ability that only Egyptians cab drivers have, he convinced me that the other way was the right way. However, in a short while I found us, once again, stuck in the midst of a busy round-about...sitting in traffic. With an assertiveness that only comes after collecting one's wits, I demanded that he turn around and head back the way I told him. From there, I guided him correctly to the priory, regretting I had not trusted my earlier instincts. And with a predictable irony, upon reaching the front gate, I paid the cab driver the 50 EPs demanded by the meter.
I felt robbed, manipulated, upset, and angry at the driver and was cross about it the rest of the day. Moreover, I felt justified in my feelings. And perhaps I was. Yet, also, I found myself unable to muster up a sense of Christian love for him, for something as trivial as 50 EPs (around $10), and this disturbed me. Our obligation for Christian charity and humility should not come from some contingent, though perhaps justifiable, circumstances. We are called to be loving and humble everywhere, always, and to everyone, no matter the circumstances. We can still feel angry or upset, but are still called to love, just like that bishop in Les Mis. Thinking about him throughout the day, I asked God to forgive my lack of charity, to help me strive for growth in the virtue, but also a greater sense of detachment from the trivial things so that my focus can be on the truly valuable: God and his beloved people.
May God, too, grace and guide all of you in Charity, Humility, and Generosity (the sign of true and holy Poverty). Pax and joy!