There was a young friar who sought to live simply and a contemplative life. His Guardian gave him permission to live in his own lean-to down by the river. For the first week the friar was ecstatic – his prayer life blossomed and he really felt he had taken a major step on his journey to God. At the end of the week, the young friar washed his one habit and put it out to dry. The next morning he was dismayed to find that some rats had torn his habit to shreds. So he covered himself as best he could, went to a nearby village and begged for another. A week later, after washing, the rats destroyed that habit as well. So, the young friar got a cat – and presto – rat problem solved.
But he found he had to beg for milk for the cat. And all the begging was taking away from his life of prayer. So he got a cow; but of course the cow needed hay. And he needed fields to grow the hay and a barn to store the hay. And that took away from prayer time and his journey to God. So he hired people to farm and tend the animals, but then he found he was the de facto mayor/sheriff/paymaster of a small village. So he hired village administrators and a small police force. And there were town meetings – and on and on the story went. Several years later, the Franciscan guardian came back to check on the young man’s spiritual journey – and in the place of that lean-to by the river, he found a mansion and the young friar was the wealthiest man in the region – loved and respected by all. He was their patron, their leader, the one they looked to. The Franciscan guardian asked the young friar what was the meaning of all this? “Oh Holy father guardian, there was no other way to keep my habit.” The guardian pointed out all the possessions that had been acquired and then reminded the young friar that he had taken a vow of poverty before the Lord and his brothers. And in that simple reminder, the friar experienced the words of the second reading…“Indeed the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart…”
You would think that in the simple reminder the young friar would say, “Yes, father guardian you are correct – how foolish I have been.” But even as the words penetrated between soul and spirit, joints and marrow the oscillations began. “Yes, I took a vow of poverty, but look at all the good I am doing here – people have jobs, our village is a wonderful and faith filled place to live, we are safe and secure. And besides it is not as though the riches are really mine – they belong to the villagers, I just enjoy the use of them. And I can walk away anytime I want. But I am needed here, these people want me here.” And over the course of the day and the day that followed the young friar bounced back and forth between the life he had vowed and the life that had come his way. When the guardian friar suggested that the young friar return to his fraternity of Franciscans, the young friar informed him that he would be staying with his people who depended upon him. At that the guardian went away sad.
Perhaps you are thinking that this story, like the gospel, was about possessions taking control of you – although it could be, it isn’t. It is really a story about how the young friar’s vision of the spiritual journey to God and life along that way, got waylaid and lost – or maybe just changed. After all, we assume the young friar was a person of good will and intentions. In the course of living the life in the place he was trying to be a good steward of things. Life is complicated and there are all kinds of decisions – ones that can have unintended consequences. It can be easy to lose sight of the spiritual vision, to be drawn away from the spiritual life the one desires.
Perhaps you are thinking this story was a story about life as a Franciscan – and it is in some ways. We have plenty of friars that don’t think we should be in parish settings because of the quiet ways in which our vision of life depending on God becomes the easy assurance of the support of the parishioners. But it is also a story about you. All you have to do is remember when you have moved house. When I went to the Naval Academy I left home with one suitcase. When I left the Naval Academy for my first duty station, everything fit in my car. When I left my last duty station, everything fit in a small moving van. When I moved to Virginia, the moving van was a whole lot larger. When I went to Kenya I had two suitcases. When I came back I had none. When I joined the friars I arrived with two suitcases. When I came to Tampa…. well, let’s just say I had more than two suitcases. The question is how much of this is reflective of my inner life, of my journey to God. That is the challenge everyone of us has – are we remaining attentive to the vision we have for our life in God. The young man in the Gospel has one vision – keeping the commandments, going to Temple, enjoying the blessing from God seen in his riches – and then comes the word of God… living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow – offering another vision of what it means to follow God. And in our hearing of the Gospel story, like the young man, we wrestle with God’s call. Too often our thoughts are only directed outward to those who need us and the life that enmeshes us. Those reflections also need to follow that two-edged sword inward to see what lies between soul and spirit, joints and marrow. Is there that inner wisdom keeping your vision clear and your steps sure on life’s journey. In the end, all these stories were really about the wisdom that comes from God – do we rely on that as a guide?
A parable of wisdom: An American tourist in Jerusalem met up with one of the Holy Land Custody friars. The friar offered to show him around the monastery of which he was a part. On their tour they came to the friar’s room; the tourist noticed no TV or radio, only one change of clothes, a towel and a blanket. He asked, “How do you live so simply?” The monk answered, “I noticed you have only enough things to fill a suitcase; why do you live so simply?” To which the tourist replied, “But I’m just a tourist, I’m only traveling through.” To which the friar said, “So am I, so am I.” So are we all Amen