Let nothing frighten you
God alone suffices.
I proposed these verses from Teresa of Avila as this morning’s theme statement because they succinctly sum up the message of today’s gospel: Let nothing disturb you…. Whoever has God lacks nothing; God alone suffices. Likewise the Gospel of Matthew recounts that Jesus says, “Do not worry…. First seek God’s kingdom and God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you besides.”
The parable of the lilies of the field has long been a favorite of mine. It is probably the amateur naturalist and outdoorsman in me that likes the analogies to nature. And like the truest parables, they paint simple, familiar realities of everyday to open our eyes to the world of faith. And this particular parable was affixed permanently in my heart a quarter century ago by a very special meditation.
I was accompanying Daniel Groody, now a well-known Holy Cross priest, spiritual writer and migrant activist, on a backpacking retreat in preparation for his first vows on the upper reaches of the Rio Grande in southern Colorado. We were camped at an elevation of 11,000 feet at Triple Ute Pass. Unfortunately for us the monsoon rains came early that year, in mid-July rather than mid-August, and so, when we were not confined to our tent, I didn’t wander far from camp to pray. One day toward the end of the week, I found myself seated on rock with a meadow of wildflowers at my feet.
Now if you are an Easterner who has never traveled in the West, you cannot imagine the profusion of wildflowers that flourish in the mountain West. God made the East wet and green. Lifelong Californians are astonished when they encounter the green of the East for the first time. Though I have hiked hundreds, if not thousands, of miles in the mountains of the West, I remain astonished at the density and variety of the wildflowers in the high mountains of the Rockies, the Sierras or the San Juans. A single meadow can contain flowers of every color and shape, as if they had just poured off the Creator’s palette.
Well, seated like the Buddha, cross-legged on an upturned slab of brown sedimentary rock, I gazed with enormous delight at the wildflower garden on the slope below. What more natural text to pray at that place than “the lilies of the field” (Matt 6: 24-34)? I was about to have one of the most consoling meditations of my life. Suddenly, like a great gust off the summit, a deep sense of peace pervaded my soul. It was a true grace, because it didn’t end with that hour of prayer or with the retreat. It lasted for months.
I have written before how the conditions of a wilderness retreat open the soul for prayer. The arduousness of the climb and the daily hikes, the slender diet of freeze-dried foods, the triggers for prayer in the natural environment, the altitude, the thin air, the vistas; but nothing prepared me for that moment. Grace came like an angel guest, and I was different because of it.
Now, as parables, “the lilies of the field” and “birds of the air” are intended, like the conditions of a wilderness retreat, to open our imaginations to the world of grace. The better scripture scholars tell us parables are meant “to provoke thought.” By that they don’t mean we are asked to do problem-solving, find one-to-one correspondences or project a meaning from our pet concerns on the scriptures. They mean the parables are intended to launch us into another world of meaning.
A parable first wrenches us free from the everyday life we live.
Do not worry? Don’t be concerned about holding a job? Don’t be preoccupied with what you will wear? Forget about what you’ll put on the table?—Come on! How unrealistic can you get? I recall how every day my mother and grandmother were concerned about what cut of meat they would serve for dinner that night. Even on the hottest summer days I couldn’t dissuade Mom from cooking meat. Salads alone were never an option.
If you are reacting, “That’s right, this is really unrealistic,” if you are doubtful about Jesus’ advice, but you don’t leave it at that, but instead find yourself wondering how to really hear Jesus, then you have just barely begun to be provoked out of your everyday world. Now, the difficulty is how do you get launched? How do you enter the world of grace?
As I said up front, I don’t think it is a matter of reasoning or analysis. Kierkegaard spoke of “the leap of faith.” Well, after the parables have shocked us out of our everyday ways of thinking, they call for a leap of imagination into a new world of values. After we have made Jesus’ “Do not worry” our own, then it is a question of living as if “God alone suffices.”
Young Jesuits have it easy. Early on we get thrown, as C.S. Lewis might write, “into the sea at night.” Jesuit novices make a month-long pilgrimage trial. They are given five dollars and a one-way bus ticket to their first destination, and then told to rely for the next month on the goodness of God and the charity of others, for their food, shelter and return fare. It is what Gandhi would have called “an experiment with truth.”
Ignatius used the same term for the pilgrimage: “experiment.” Like Gandhi he understood that religious/moral truth is not a matter of ideas, nor even simply a matter of the heart. Truth reveals itself in action, especially when we venture something, when we put ourselves on the line. So, the picturesque images of the lilies of the field and the birds of the air carry no comforting truth. Rather, they are a challenge to do something risky for God.
As I said, the function of parables is to shock us into a new way of being: to live as if God alone suffices. There are countless ways to conduct our own experiments with truth. You hear, for example, of poor families who share the little they have with some who are poorer still, only to find their own needs supplied. There are the antagonists who decide they will be kind and open with their rivals, only to find their former rivals to be open and generous too.
Think about how you might do the same. Where are you anxious? What are your compulsions? Where do you seek security through control? How are you protecting yourself from anxiety by shopping, by living online, by overworking? What would be the most difficult thing for you to rely on God for? Where do you fear God will not stand by you? Where do you feel most exposed and vulnerable? Those are the points at which to carry on your own experiments with truth.
In “Perelandra,” the second novel in C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy, the angelic Edil tells the visiting humans that at night they may not remain on dry land. They have to throw themselves into the sea until sunrise. Alone at night, treading water in the surging sea, that is what it feels like to do an experiment with truth—only to discover, of course, that God has buoyed you up all along.
God alone suffices.
Jesus, a good rabbi, of course, is more concrete than Teresa or I have been. “Seek God’s Kingdom and his justice,” he says, “and all these things will be added to you.” It is not enough to be free of anxiety or hang-ups. It is not enough to hand ourselves over to God, to allow ourselves to rest in him. When dawn arrives, the sun as it rises must find us again on dry land, in the territory where our action and our choices matter. There our release from our compulsions morphs into freedom for doing good, for those close to us, of course, for they are the first to pay the cost of our anxieties and compulsions, but then especially for the poor.
Serving God’s justice, as Pope Francis never tires of telling us, means serving the poor. Following Francis’ example, we must embrace the poor, befriend them even before we share our wealth with them.
More than anything, my friend Dan Groody taught me, people on the margins want relationships. So, personal contact is primary.
My custom is to share the change in my pockets with people living on the streets. But, after learning from Dan, even when I have no change, I will share a word with homeless beggars, exchange a “God bless you” or even a prayer with them. Conversation confers more dignity than a handout. But after the chance encounter, it is important to do the things that will keep people out of homelessness: to support an increase in the minimum wage, to oppose unjust eviction and foreclosures, work to see that everyone has a home to live in and to support candidates who understand the evil of gross inequality.
So, the pastoral images of the wildflowers and birds are more than a comforting balm to soothe our low-grade fears. They are a challenge to take a leap of faith into the mystery of God and there to find our call to befriend the poor, and for their sake, bring justice to the world.
So cast your cares on God, trust in his loving power to sustain you, and with the poor by your side, labor with Christ for the sake of his Kingdom.