photo of Larry Snyder, President of Catholic Charities USA

Eyes Wide Shut

In our liturgy yesterday we heard in the gospel reading about the man born blind, to whom Jesus gives the gift of sight (John 9:1-41).  Unlike the man in the gospel most of us are born with the gift of sight. The question raised by this gospel for us, then, is: What do we see?

For years Mark Bittman wrote about food for The New York Times . But as time went on he began to see food in a different light.  A few months ago he announced he was retiring his established column to begin a new career advocating for healthful food policies and “eaters’ rights.” Last week his journey took yet another turn when he decided to fast for a week to protest proposed Congressional budget cuts to programs that provide food for the poor.

In his column, Why We’re Fasting, Bittman writes:

I stopped eating on Monday and joined around 4,000 other people in a fast to call attention to Congressional budget proposals that would make huge cuts in programs for the poor and hungry.

By doing so, I surprised myself; after all, I eat for a living. But the decision was easy after I spoke last week with David Beckmann, a reverend who is this year’s World Food Prize laureate. Our conversation turned, as so many about food do these days, to the poor.

Who are — once again — under attack, this time in the House budget bill, H.R. 1.

H.R. 1 is the proposed budget that would reduce funds for the WIC program (which supports women, infants and children), food stamps, and other programs, but Bittman sticks to issues related to food. He continues:

These supposedly deficit-reducing cuts — they’d barely make a dent — will quite literally cause more people to starve to death, go to bed hungry or live more miserably than are doing so now. And: The bill would increase defense spending…    

This is a moral issue; the budget is a moral document. We can take care of the deficit and rebuild our infrastructure and strengthen our safety net by reducing military spending and eliminating corporate subsidies and tax loopholes for the rich. Or we can sink further into debt and amoral individualism by demonizing and starving the poor. Which side are you on?

Hunger is one of those conditions we tend not to see.  In a recent study by Hart Research nearly two-thirds of Americans rated hunger as a serious national problem.  More than three-quarters of Americans think the lack of nutritious food affects the physical development of infants and toddlers, makes it difficult for seniors to live healthier lives, and for children to concentrate on their schoolwork.  They also acknowledge that children frequently eat cheap, unhealthy foods so that their families can pay the rent; that seniors often have to choose between paying for their prescriptions or paying for food; that people run out of food toward the end of the month because food stamps aren’t enough.  But far fewer see these as serious problems in their own community.

Consumed by the responsibilities of our own lives we are in danger of walking through life with eyes wide shut to those who are truly in need. But Jesus asks us to open our eyes and look at the world in the brilliant light of truth.

In a few weeks we will observe Good Friday, a day of fasting observed around the world. Can we think anew about the hungry in our midst while we fast?  In his Message for Lent 2011 Pope Benedict XVI observes that “by rendering our table poorer, we learn to overcome selfishness in order to live in the logic of gift and love; by bearing some form of deprivation – and not just what is in excess – we learn to look away from our ‘ego,’ to discover Someone close to us and to recognize God in the face of so many brothers and sisters.”

In other words, to see the lives around us with our eyes wide open.