Sunday, 30 July 2017
Poverty & Joy, 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Mt 13:44-52; 1 Kgs 3:5-12
If you're wondering where I was last week, I was on retreat with the Dominican Sisters in the New Forest.
And I want to share with you an observation that I’ve made every time I visit nuns and monks:
They live poverty and simplicity, and yet they are the happiest people I know.
The only things they possess is the Lord Jesus, “the pearl of great price"(Mt 13:46), as we heard in today’s Gospel, and yet possessing that one thing they have everything.
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 nuns and monks is that they are the happiest people I know
-to live in Holy Poverty does not bring misery but rather brings happiness.
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).
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?
Well, what we want is to be FREE to love. Holy poverty makes us free to love.
DETACHING ourselves from the goods of this world enables us to grow in that interior JOY that comes from loving the GREATEST Thing, God, rather than lots of lesser things.
The nun or monk choses holy poverty in totality. But we can at least choose it small “bit size” decisions:
In everything I possess I can 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 repeated acts of small self-denial, saying “no” to something desirable, is living holy poverty.
Another way of putting it is to note that it’s about priorities: 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 O 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 you 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.