Sometimes, a bowl of soup will do. The former Benedictine priest Benet Hanlon, a painfully shy man with a soup pot as big as his heart, made that clear years ago in the Fells Point rowhouse he opened to all who needed a meal. Benet Hanlon believed he could save the world - one man, one woman, one child at a time - with a bowl of homemade soup.
I can still see the cross-eyed teenage boy with dirty red hair sitting at a long table on the first floor of Hanlon's rowhouse on Aliceanna Street. The boy is among strangers, poor and homeless adults who've come there for lunch. Hanlon extends his long, thin arms and sets a steaming bowl of soup in front of the boy, then hands him two slices of white bread. The boy smiles.
Benet Hanlon lived for that smile. It was a Christmas-morning smile.
It gives me pleasure to raise Hanlon's name from the dead on Christmas Eve 2006, to savor the memory of that modest man's inspiring work among the hungry of Baltimore.
Having left the priesthood and then teaching, he found a career track working for a computer company in Washington, and he probably could have earned gobs if he had been willing to devote more time to that job and seek promotions. But Hanlon had that other life in Fells Point, at the original soup kitchen that came to be known as Beans and Bread. He marked each day with the generous spirit we celebrate at Christmas - that which the rest of us wish we had time for.
Hanlon made soup.
He understood that sometimes, and even most times, a bowl of soup will do.
A bowl of soup settles pangs of hunger.
It restores the soul.
It is probably the ultimate comforting food.
"I wanted to work in the inner city," Hanlon explained to someone who asked about his soup pot ministry. "To me, the message of the Hebrew prophets, and of Jesus, is to get involved where the misery is."
There was plenty of misery in the Baltimore of the years I speak of here, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, when the city experienced the first waves of homelessness brought on by mentally ill men and women being deinstitutionalized. Benet Hanlon wanted to be there, in that miserable Baltimore, where the census-takers always found the highest concentration of poverty in one of the wealthiest states in the nation.
The poor get the lion's share of misery, and you can find it everywhere, all around the globe, from Baghdad to Darfur to New Orleans to Kazakhstan. To make matters worse, even in the absence of misery, we humans manage to fill the gap. We have a tendency to inflict misery on each other - here and abroad - because too many of us are still too violent, too ignorant, too foolish or greedy.
There isn't much we can do about all of that, so most of us don't even try. All due respect (and knighthood) to Bono, but eliminating world misery seems a bit beyond the average person's capability.
So we remember Benet Hanlon, head down, eyes focused on picking the meat off chicken necks for the soup at Beans and Bread.
You don't have to open a soup kitchen.
Sometimes, you can find faith and hope in a bowl of soup - in the making of it and in the giving of it to friends and neighbors. You could take time out of your day, any day of the year, to make some and see what I mean. And don't just make a cup of soup. Make a big pot of it, as Benet Hanlon did, so that there will be enough for many.
This would not be soup for the needy, in the conventional meaning. This is not soup for those in the prolonged misery of poverty, the people who still come to Beans and Bread's dining room, for the past 10 years on Bond Street.
I am speaking of a different kind of needy - those who need our friendship, who need to feel connected, who need to talk, who need to feel a little less lonely or unsure of themselves, those who are caring for sick relatives, or who are suffering a spell of bad health themselves, those who have had a tough time, those who are just way too cranky and unhappy for their own good.
There is a lot of that low-simmering kind of misery around. There are a lot of people who live relatively comfortable lives - many who are quite affluent and outwardly stable - but who need us nonetheless. They would probably appreciate some homemade soup.
Three weeks ago, a friend lost his wife, in a sudden and shattering way. The other night, he sat with us for supper and ate some homemade minestrone. Then he took some home to his two sons, and the boys ate it after a long trip back from college for what I'm sure will be the saddest Christmas they will ever know.
I received a message of thanks the next day. The boys had been eating pizza all week at college, their aunt told me, and so they really appreciated the soup. In the three awful weeks since their mother died, I had been at a complete, utter and awkward loss for any words that might be comforting. Sometimes, a bowl of soup will do.