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When Did We See Thee Hungry?

The photograph appears in Christopher Hibbert’s London: The Biography of a City. It is captioned “Match seller, 1905.” It shows a man leaning against a dirty brick wall. On the right edge of the photograph is a battered door; on the left edge is part of a window with the shade pulled halfway down and a pair of suspenders hanging below the shade.

The man’s left arm is held in front of his chest. In his gloved hand he holds a cigar box; no doubt he keeps the boxes of matches there. From his forearm hangs a small purse or satchel. It glistens and may be made of worn leather. With his right hand he leans on a reed-like stick, which bends from his weight. The right hand is not gloved. His fingers, long and thin as an artist’s, are blackened, as though he had worked all day in a coal mine. His stance suggests that he has barely the strength to remain erect.

Like his hand, his clothes are dirty and black. His derby is set just above his eyebrows. His ill-fitting coat has sleeves that do not reach his wrists. His pants, though cut with thin legs, hang loosely, testifying to his emaciated condition. On his feet are mismatched shoes. The right has a large hole on the top, apparently not from wear; he likely cut the hole to give his toes room in a too-small shoe.

Then there is his face. It is a young-old face. He looks somewhat like the youthful Orson Welles, jowly, with a straight mouth and no deep lines that suggest advancing years, but the bags under his eyes are pronounced. He may be not yet 30, but his eyes are those of a man of 60.

I look at this image and wonder first if the man was still alive when the Great War began nine years later. He may have been too old to serve in it, but could the mobilization have given him a way out of his penury? Could he have lived through the next war and even into the second half of the century, into my own time? If so, what would he have said about his life during the glittering Edwardian years? Would he have been inclined to say anything at all about it, preferring to forget his years as a match seller?

Then I imagine myself in the London of 1905, turning a corner and finding him leaning against the wall. “A box of matches, governor?” I do not smoke, but would I have the wits about me to buy his entire stock and to invite him to take a meal with me, trying to phrase it so that we both could pretend that he was doing me the favor?

We talk while he eats what likely is the largest meal he has had in months. I learn, unsurprisingly, that he has little interest in religion. He never enters a church, except to escape the rain. His consolations do not come from sermons, if they come at all. He does not think about eternity; he has trouble thinking even about tomorrow.

A young countryman of his one day will write a book called The Problem of Pain, but who will write for this man The Problem of Despair? What have I to say to someone whose next meal depends on convincing a stranger to buy a box of matches? No use to him my comments on theological squabbles, on Vatican decrees, on interpretations of obscure passages of Scripture. He does not need an apologist, and his need reminds me that there are things that are antecedent to apologetics, that are more elemental, that are more important.

An hour later we part, I back to my own time, he to his wall. I do not know if I have left him with more than a meal. I do know that he has left me with the conviction that whatever I have done, for him or for the Church, has been too little. “Too late have I loved thee.”

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