18th Sunday and St. Ignatius

I celebrated Mass this morning for the Sisters of St. Francis at Clare Hall in St. Francis, WI, a suburb of Milwaukee.  I told them that I couldn’t stay for brunch because my Jesuit community would be celebrating the Solemnity of our founder, St. Ignatius.  I also told them about the connection between St. Francis of Assisi and St. Ignatius Loyola.  Here is more of my homily:

It’s nice to be able to celebrate Mass today with Franciscan Sisters because, as I always like to remind people, there would be no St. Ignatius without St. Francis.  Reading about St. Francis while he was convalescing from a war wound, Ignatius was inspired to leave his worldly aspirations and follow St. Francis’ example of total dedication to Christ. 

St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises” begin with a meditation called “The First Principle and Foundation.”  In it, he reflects on the meaning and purpose of life.  Humans are created to give praise, reverence, and service to God here on earth and forever in heaven.  We’re created for love.  The things of earth are given in order to help us attain this goal. If they get in the way, then we are to avoid them; if they help us attain the goal for which we are created, then we hold on to them. 

Then, after reflecting on the love of God revealed in Jesus, St. Ignatius concludes the “Exercises” with a reflection on all God’s blessings, including the gift of God’s very self.  Aware of such love, we will naturally want to return love by making a total gift of ourselves.  And here is where Ignatius’ famous “Suscipe” prayer comes in:  “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me.  To You, O Lord, I return it.  All is Yours.  Give me only Your grace and Your love.  With these I am rich enough and want nothing more.”

Today’s readings (Ecclesiastes 1: 2; 2: 21-23; Psalm 90; Colossians 3: 1-5, 9-11; and Luke 12: 13-21) offer us a way to further reflect on this. 

Ecclesiastes begins with the famous words, “Vanity of vanities. All things are vanity.”  Another way of putting it today would be “Absurdities of absurdities.  All is absurd.”  Why?  The author says that humans, like animals, are born, they live, and then die.  But for humans, life is absurd because all that we work so hard for must be left behind.  No hearse ever had a U-Haul trailer behind it!  Thus it seems best to eat, drink, and be merry now for tomorrow we die.  Or, as the beer commercial says: “You only go around once in life so you gotta grab for all the gusto you can.”  

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the rich man who builds bigger barns to accommodate his wealth that he is a fool.  He will die and all that he worked so hard for will go to another. But what makes him especially foolish is that he thinks this life is the only life.  He has not used the things of this earth to prepare for treasure in heaven.  It’s been said that the only thing we take with us when we die is all that we have given away. 

With this in mind, Paul tells us to “think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”  Thinking about our goal, we will try to use the things of this world to prepare for the world to come.  Our earthly life is fleeting, but the next life is eternal.

This is what the vow of poverty is designed to do.  The vows that consecrated persons take are “eschatological signs” that point beyond this world to the next.  They witness to the entire world that this life is not the only one and so we ought to live in such a way that we are prepared at any given moment for passage to the next life. The vow of poverty witnesses to reality, to what is most important.  All people are called to live in the spirit of poverty.

In the 1980’s I lived and worked at our Jesuit novitiate in St. Paul.  Every year a conflict arose.  Some novices declared that the community was not living poverty because it had a cookie jar.  Of course no one was forced to eat the cookies and it often happened that those who complained about cookies were the first to defend having a cable television.  It’s always good to ask questions about how we can live in the spirit of poverty more faithfully, how we can live a more simple life in which we hold everything in common, like the early Church communities.  But ultimately poverty is something deeper.  It touches upon the human condition.

The truly poor do not have choices. 

Peter Maurin was a French immigrant who died in 1949.  He taught Dorothy Day that she did not have be a communist to work for social justice.  The Catholic Church has a great tradition and great examples to guide us toward justice.  Peter was committed to living in solidarity with the poor.  But it was always a choice and he only truly became poor near the end of his life when he had no choice and lost what was most precious to him.

In his book “Peter Maurin: Prophet in the Twentieth Century,” Marc Ellis wrote:  “Dorothy reflected on Maurin’s life and his poverty, which, in her view, had now become absolute.  Maurin’s mind was no longer keen and Dorothy thought the decline significant. After all, the only thing he had retained in his poverty had been his mind. But the last years had seen the deterioration of the interior senses, the memory and the will. … Incontinent and bedridden, he began his last days separated from the work and the people he loved” (161-2). 

Ultimately each of us is poor.  We are not in control and the day will come when we will have to let go of everything.  We do so with the assurance of faith, that as our lives are emptied of everything we will receive everything and more than we can imagine. 

And so, in the spirit of the poverty that St. Francis and St. Ignatius lived, we say:

“Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me.  To You, O Lord, I return it.  All is Yours.  Give me only Your grace and your love.  With these I am rich enough and want nothing more.”