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Noah Webster defines ragamuffin as a "street urchin." The biblical definition of ragamuffin is much more profound, as a brief investigation of Scripture will show.
Ambling down the corridors of salvation-history, we notice that God has ever shown a special affection for the poor and lowly, the humble of heart. From the moment the theocracy was shaped on Mount Sinai, Yahweh led Israel to understand that he expected something more from his chosen people than the mere external observance of the Mosaic Law. As the years passed, the Israelites gradually became aware that it was the ragamuffins (the anawimliterally, "the little poor ones"-as they were called in Hebrew) who were the special objects of God's tenderness and compassion.
At first the term ragamuffin bore only a sociological or economic meaning. The ragamuffins were the homeless, the landless, the street urchins, the dispossessed, whom God would one day restore to prosperity. Later, through the influence of the prophet Isaiah, the term took on a spiritual sense of tremendous depth. Isaiah's ministry began with a vision of God "seated on a high and lofty throne surrounded by a choir of angels chanting" holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! ... The vision burned on his soul an indelible impression: God is totaliter aliter , Totally Other. Human feelings could not touch him, and human thought could not contain him. As Charles de Foucauld learned at the hour of his conversion, "God is so great that there is an infinite distance between God and all that is not God."
While the idea of mystery remains an embarrassment to many a modern mind, it is the heartbeat of the prophets and saints of every era. They know that God can and will do anything so long as men and women are humble enough to acknowledge their need of him.
The later prophets, taking their cue from Isaiah, called these simple, humble people the anawim or, in contemporary idiom, "ragamuffins." This is how the vocabulary of poverty changed from having an economic meaning to having a spiritual one. The basis of the transfer was the Isaian principle: God works his divine effects only when persons acknowledge human insufficiency (or, in AA language, human powerlessness). God's true friends felt themselves to be really poor before him. They sensed that the most fundamental act of religion was that they owed their life and being to Another. Dependence and loving surrender were the very breath of their life. The ragamuffins were the poor in spirit, those who were little in their own sight, those who were conscious of their nakedness and poverty before God and who thus cast themselves without reservation on his mercy.
This was the spirit that God looked for in his people; it is the only attitude that rings true to human creaturehood. It compounds a sense of personal powerlessness with unfailing confidence in the love of God and total surrender to the guidance of his will. The ragamuffins were indeed the remnant, the true Israel to whom the messianic promises had been made.
When at last the Son of God drew aside the curtain of eternity and stepped into human history at Bethlehem, those who came forward to meet him were the truly poor in spirit: Joseph, Zachariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, the shepherds and the Magi. These formed his court, the holy ragamuffin remnant promised by the prophets. But long before, God's gaze had rested with special affection on Mary, the young Jewish woman of Nazareth. No one was so truly poor in spirit, so keenly conscious of need for him, so perfectly surrendered to his will. That is why he chose her to be the mother of the Messiah-the least and lowliest in the long line of ragamuffins.
Of course, when Jesus began his prophetic ministry, he immediately identified the ragamuffin spirit with himself. "Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart." And the first group called to the Kingdom? "Blessed are the ragamuffins; the reign of God is theirs."
Reflections for Ragamuffins is a series of meditations written over a span of twenty-two years-years of joy and suffering, fidelity and infidelity, intense commitment and serious relapses, muddling and struggling to be faithful to Jesus. I share these reflections with a specific purpose in mind: not to transmit inspiring thoughts, but to awaken, revive, and rekindle radical, ruthless trust in the God bodied forth in the carpenter from Nazareth.
I firmly believe that the splendor of a human heart that trusts it is unconditionally loved gives God more pleasure and causes him more delight than the most magnificent cathedral ever erected or the most thunderous organ ever played.
Ruthless trust in a ragamuffin today is a rare and precious thing because it often demands a degree of courage that borders on the heroic. When the shadow of Jesus' cross falls upon lives in the form of failure, sorrow, rejection, abandonment, unemployment, loneliness, depression, the loss of a loved one; when we are deaf to everything but the shriek of our own pain; when the world around us suddenly seems to be a hostile, menacing place, we may well cry out in anguish, "How could a loving God permit this to happen?" And the seed of distrust is sown, plunging us into a moment of choice: Will we turn away from God, or will we turn toward him even though the darkness hides him from our sight? To choose the light of God in the dark night of despair is an act of heroic courage.
I continue to confront this choice in the darkest, loneliest, and most desolate moments of my life. By inviting you to join me on this ragamuffin journey, I ask of you no more than I ask of myself- to trust in God's love no matter what happens to us.
Brennan Manning, New Orleans September 24, 1997
Excerpted from Reflections for Ragamuffins by Brennan Manning
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.