Monday, October 17, 2016

Are You Possessed by Your Possessions?

A Story

As the young novice knelt in his cell he prayed for detachment.  After years of having many possessions and living a worldly life, he asked for the grace to be able to detach himself from the desire to have or keep worldly things.

He was off to a good start.  His cell was located in a courtyard near the old stables behind the 
monastery.  The room was basic.  A small cell with a door and in the door a window the size of a man’s face allowed him to look out over the snow-covered courtyard.  There were simple, modest furnishings in the room.  Along one wall stood an old rickety desk and chair with a few sheets of paper and a dull pencil sitting on top.  Beside the paper was a dog-eared Bible that had been left by the ancient priest who had previously lived in the cell for forty years before his glorious departure to be with the Lord.  Across the cell from the desk on the floor was a thin straw-filled mattress and above the mattress hung a simple wooden crucifix.

As the young man was praying there was a knock upon his cell door.  A priest from the monastery 
informed the young novice that a visitor had arrived in the night and was in need of a bed.  The priest asked the young man if he would consider giving up his bed for the night for this visitor, who may be Christ in disguise.  The novice thought of the cold uncomfortable floor that was hidden beneath his straw mattress and then he remembered his recent request of the Lord.  He offered his bed and cover as well.

The following morning the same priest returned with some terrible news.  As it turned out, the visitor was actually a thief who ransacked the chapel and started a fire with the straw mattress that destroyed the interior of the chapel.  Since the chapel had been gutted, the priest asked the novice if he could part with his desk for they needed an altar for mass.  He also asked for his Bible and crucifix so that mass could be offered with some dignity.  The young man thought long and hard.  He knew he would miss sitting down with Sacred Scripture but he willingly gave the priest the desk and the Bible.  The crucifix was harder to part with for many reasons.  It was a gift from his mother when he entered the religious life and she had passed away shortly after.  To look at the crucifix was comforting because he remembered his mother and at the same time entrusted her to the Crucified One.  As he looked at the crucifix he again remembered his prayer for detachment and with a smile removed it from the wall and handed it to the priest.

That night he lay on the cold stone floor in his habit looking at the rickety chair in the middle of the cell by the light of the moon.  The room was quiet and cold and he could hear whispering outside his door.  In an instant the door was kicked in and two men entered his cell.  He jumped to his feet without saying a word.  The thief and an accomplice had returned to the monastery to find more items of value but all they could see in the cell was the rickety old chair.  As one thief turned to leave the light of the moon shone through the doorway and onto the trembling young novice.  Without a word one thief grabbed the young man and threw him to the ground ripping his habit from his body and began kicking him.  The other picked up the chair and began striking the novice until the chair fell to pieces.  The thieves beat him until he was nearly dead and then ran off.

The light of the moon shone brightly on the young man’s face as he lay there naked and dying.  He 
remembered his prayer for detachment and a smile came to his face.  He had been stripped of all his worldly possessions and he was quickly fading but he was happier now than at any other time in his life.  He was happy because he still had one possession that no one could take.  He came into this world with nothing but he would leave this world with one single possession.  He was happy because he was possessed by this greatest possession, this great treasure, the pearl of great price, Jesus.


In his book Happy Are You Poor* (Ignatius 2003), Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. writes, “for us wounded human beings, possessing imperceptibly slips into being possessed.”  

We live in a culture of things.  The world tells us that our happiness and fulfillment exists in objects.  For the most part our grooming and education is geared toward the goal of accumulating items of value.  Those of us who try to live lives that are faithful to the Gospel are not exempt. Often our religiosity can lull us into believing we are detached from the desire for worldly goods when in fact we are possessed by the very objects we claim to possess.

For a Christian in today’s society this detachment can be extremely difficult to achieve.  It is difficult 
because the radical nature of Christ’s message has been diluted.  In many denominations Jesus is either the friend next door that will hang with you no matter what you do or He is the social justice superhero of the Twenty-first century.  The predominate Christian message today is that we should all “love” each other and we are all free to make up our own definition of “love”.  Hardly ever do we hear the message that Jesus wants us and wants us without any baggage!  I have never heard a radio evangelist call those listening to renounce all they have and follow Jesus.    I have never heard a priest call his parishioners to sell their second car and give the money to the poor.  

Too often we rationalize by saying, “I give this much to the Church and I pray and I am a good person.”  The Gospel has a blunt and difficult answer for us if we have the ears to hear.  When the rich young man approaches Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus tells him to follow the commandments.  The young man replies that he is doing all of that.  In short, he is a “good person.”  Jesus replies that the next step would be for him to sell what he has, give it to the poor, and then follow Him.  This disturbs the young man and he goes away.  Here we could ask a simple question, “why couldn’t the young man simply follow Jesus?  Why did he need to detach himself from his worldly goods?”

To follow Christ and to follow Him closely requires a complete detachment from earthly goods.  We 
cannot serve God and mammon.  We cannot have it both ways.  This in no way means that we can possess nothing but that we should not be possessed by anything.  Our soul, spirit and disposition should be one that could care less about any possession we claim to possess.  This sounds easy but we are, as Fr. Dubay says, “wounded human beings.”

Think of the last gift you received and the person who gave it to you as well.  Now imagine parting with it.  Is it hard to imagine parting with this object?  Why?  Is it because you look at it often and enjoy its beauty?  Is it because the gift has deep sentimental value?  Why is it so hard for you to imagine being without this item that until recently you never had in your possession?  Have you imperceptibly slipped into being possessed by that object?

If you are truly honest you will admit that when faced with the above questions you rationalized many reasons as to why you should not part with the particular item.  That is our fallen human nature at work.  With this simple self-examination we find that not only are we fighting against a world that offers all that glitters, beeps, and tastes wonderful but also against our fallen desires and a tempter who one moment is our advocate and the next our accuser.


How can we live this radical call of Jesus?  How can we detach ourselves from everything to the point that we haven’t a care for anything except Jesus?  How do we get over the speed bump of being a “good person” and back on the road to being a holy person?

Like the young novice we should constantly pray for detachment and then stay awake so that we recognize when Christ is asking us to give up yet one more thing.  We should be ready to give everything away.  Like the novice we should be able to detach ourselves from anything regardless of material or sentimental value.  Finally, like the novice our main concern should be with the one possession that rust does not affect and moth cannot destroy.  We should be concerned with the one possession that can never be taken from us.  We came into this world naked and with nothing but we can take one thing with us when we leave and our life must be spent being possessed by this one possession, Jesus Christ!

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