Sunday, 24 July 2011

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A, Shaftesbury

Mt 13:44-52; 1 Kgs 3:5-12
If you're wondering where I was last week, I was on holiday in Wales, and had a nice summer break.
While I was on holiday I visited an abbey of Cistercian nuns at Whitland, and while they showed me around the abbey I was very struck by the simplicity, the holy poverty of their setup. And it reminded me of the poverty I’ve seen lived by so many Religious in other places too. When I was a teenager I can remember visiting a young woman I knew who had entered the Community of the Beatitudes, and I was very struck then by the way that every member of the community had a bedroom that had the same regulation bed and furniture, and even the very same alarm clock. I’ve visited Poor Clares and been amazed at their ability to survive without heating. Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity amaze me even more, by their living out of poverty in depending on holy Providence to bring them their food, often not knowing what tomorrow's meal will be.
Now, if you put me in any one of those scenarios I fear that I would not be happy man, I would be looking back to what I used to have, I’d be thinking about what I had not: not having central heating, not having my choice of food etc. And yet, my repeated experience of Religious is that they are the happiest people I know -to live in Holy Poverty does not bring misery but rather brings happiness.

Those who live what we call "Religious Life”, taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as nuns and monks, live out in a very dramatic way what we heard Jesus speak about in today's gospel. Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a pearl of great price, a pearl so precious that it is worth giving everything else away in order to have that precious pearl.
A similar illustration was given to us in our first reading, when we heard the famous example of Solomon, and how the Lord appeared to him and offered him anything he might choose, and yet he didn't choose selfishly but he asked for the gift to be able to discern between good and evil.
The "pearl of great price" is of course Jesus Himself, He is, as the ancient Fathers put it, the Kingdom-in-person (Origen, c.f. Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth (NY: Doubleday, 2007), p.49).

As I said, those who have given up everything to be with the "pearl of great price" have put themselves on the path to the greatest happiness. Joy is the fruit of real love, especially love of God. And as St Thomas Aquinas very simply explains, the more the heart cleaves the one thing the less it must cling to another, and so holy poverty enables us to love God more by detaching us from the goods of this world. “It is abundantly clear that the human heart is more intensely attracted to one object, in proportion as it is withdrawn from a multiplicity of desires. Therefore, the more a man is freed from solicitude concerning temporal matters, the more perfectly he will be empowered to love God.” (St Thomas Aquinas, De Perf. Spirit. Vitae., ch. 6)

For ourselves, who live in the midst of the word, not in the cloister or the enclosure, how are these truths to be applied to ourselves? The growth in freedom to love that is enabled by holy poverty, that is enabled by voluntarily choosing to detach ourselves from the things of this world, and the growth in interior joy that accompanies the growth in love, these things can be something we aspire to in our daily living EVEN IF we are not called to the vowed life of the monk or nun.
In everything I possess I need to continually strive to possess it in such a way that I am willing to let go of it, to possess it in such a way that I remember that I exist in this world as a wayfarer, a pilgrim seeking to journey THROUGH this land to our true home of heaven (c.f. Phil 3:20-21).
And in every priority I establish in my life, my happiness in this world and my happiness in the next, depends on God being the first priority in my life. St Augustine famously said, "You have made us for Yourself the Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You" -our attitude to our possessions is a powerful test of what our hearts are attempting to rest in.

If the Lord appeared to us in a dream this night, and offered you a choice of anything you might desire, how many of us have recognised the "pearl of great price" sufficiently to be content to say: You Lord, you are what I desire.

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