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James T. KeaneJuly 03, 2024
Photo from Unsplash.

A Reflection for the Memorial of St. Benedict, abbot

Find today’s readings here.

Jesus said to his Apostles:
“As you go, make this proclamation:
‘The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’
Cure the sick, raise the dead,
cleanse the lepers, drive out demons.
Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.
Do not take gold or silver or copper for your belts;
no sack for the journey, or a second tunic,
or sandals, or walking
stick.
The laborer deserves his keep. (Mt 10:7-10)

Most of us have probably met a few people over the course of our lives who take quite literally Jesus’ command in today’s Gospel to take nothing for the journey: “Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.” Such people seem to live on air, and the rest of us wonder: How can you live without this thing, or that thing? What if you get sick? What if you need to travel? What if you could help more people by sharing a life of means?

Few of us want to live their way, of course, and many of us feel we can’t for one reason or another. We might admire the people we meet who do, and we might look to figures like St. Francis of Assisi in an aspirational sense, but that’s often as far as it goes. Jesus, we may say, liked to speak in hyperboles. I’ve recommended Myles Connolly’s novel Mr. Blue to young adults a billion times, but the title character’s actual life of homelessness and destitution works better as a literary trope than a daily reality. At what point does voluntary poverty become a hindrance instead of a source of evangelical zeal?

Many years ago, I spent a few months living and working in an AIDS hospice run by the Missionaries of Charity. The sisters lived in profound simplicity, forgoing almost all creature comforts. I found their poverty admirable but sometimes frustrating, because it could become contrary to efficiency. For example, every time we had to send medical records somewhere or fill a prescription, one of us had to run to the local Kinko’s; the sisters would not allow a fax machine in the hospice.

But one day I had a glimpse of what that commitment to an intense missionary asceticism could mean. I told one of the sisters that day that we were out of toilet paper. She gave me a small zippered canvas bag and asked me to go to the local supermarket for more. When I got to the cash register, I was astonished: I had needed $10. The bag had three $100 bills in it.

I realized on the walk home what had happened: Though that woman was fully capable of running a medical facility that was treating a dozen dying patients at any time, she had absolutely no idea what anything cost. Did toilet paper cost $2.50 a roll or $250? Money—in the form of donations and reimbursements and everything else—flowed in and out of the hospice on a daily basis, but it meant nothing to her or the other sisters. How much of our lives do we waste figuring out the vagaries of our finances and our expenditures? They didn’t pay it much attention at all.

An interior freedom is so evident in people like that. Their poverty isn’t a point of pride or of stubbornness, but a release from the silly stuff of life.

In their example, we see Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel as less of an impossible demand and more of a welcome and a bit of advice: You really don’t need all that stuff.

More: Scripture

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