15 July 2018

Making idols of things

15th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic/OLR

When I received my letter of admission into the Dominican novitiate back in Feb of 1999, I rejoiced. . .and then I panicked. I was 34yo at the time, and I had most of what most 34yo men had: lots of stuff – suits for work, furniture for a house, a house, a car, about 300 CD's, kitchen equipment, a desktop computer, and boxes and boxes of junk that seem to travel around with me wherever I go. The letter from the Order made it clear that my room in the novitiate was small, very small, and that I was to bring the absolute minimum with me. I got rid of everything but the computer, some pants, a couple of dress shirts, and a two pairs of shoes. My room was a 10x12ft cell in a renovated Incarnate Word sisters' convent. Turns out: I'd brought too much! Since I joined the Order 19yrs ago, I've moved six times; lived in ten different priories in five provinces of the Order. The longest I've been in one house is six years – right here at St Dominic's. Our Lord knows what we often forget: the things of this world can weigh us down, keep us paralyzed, and eventually suffocate us. To do the work we've vowed to do, we must be truly free, unattached from the world and wholly, completely attached to him.

Way back in the 13th century there was a heated debate between the two begging Orders – the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Both Orders required their friars to take live out the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Early on in the history of the Order, the Dominicans friars realized the necessity of owning property in order to survive. We adopted a communal property notion of poverty – we own nothing individually but the community owns what is necessary to carry out our mission. The Franciscans – as they are wont – went to the extreme, claiming that poverty must be understood as destitution and that this kind of poverty was necessary for salvation! So radical was this definition of poverty that the Franciscans split into two groups and some members of the more extreme group were declared heretics in the 14th century.* The point of this brief history lesson is this: detachment from things is not about not owning and using the things we need; it's about knowing the difference between owning and using things and allowing those things to own and use us. Our Lord's instructions to his disciples are meant to free them from the necessities of owning and using things that they do not need.
We could call this view of poverty “simplicity” – live simply, humbly, detached from luxury and excess, owning and using nothing more than you absolutely need to do your work in Christ. But there's a danger here, one the Enemy recognizes and exploits. If simplicity is used as a means to an end, all is well. However, if simplicity becomes the end, simplicity for simplicity's sake, then you end up with a new attachment, new idol to worship. An example, how many of you here recycle? Recycling is a good thing. It's a good means to a good end. But if recycling becomes for you a Sign of Righteousness, a Badge of Goodness and Purity then you've elevated it to an idol. IOW, if recycling (or going to the gym or driving a Prius or wearing a veil at Mass) become your sole touchstone for being holy, then you've attached yourself to a creature, a created thing. There's nothing wrong with any of these activities in themselves. The question is: do you use them, or do they use you? Jesus wants his disciples – and us – to know how the world tempts us to attachment, tempts us to entangle ourselves in the things of the world to create little gods that we think we can control. Thus his admonition to “take nothing for the journey but a walking stick – no food, no sack, no money in their belts.”

What we are made and remade in Christ to be and do is bear witness to the mercy of God to sinners. Whatever we need to accomplish this singular task is good and holy. But the things we need are means not ends. Our end is eternal life with the Father. Every single thing in our lives must be measured against that end. Christ frees to us to complete his work. And we cannot do his work if we are consumed with tending to the needs of our things.

*This is a ridiculously truncated history, of course.

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