“Take nothing for the journey, neither walking stick, nor sack, nor food, nor money, and let no one take a second tunic.  Whatever house you enter, stay there and leave from there.  And as for those who do not welcome you, when you leave that town, shake the dust from your feet in testimony against them.”

Luke 9: 3-5

There is, at least for us contemporary readers whose lives have been formed in the so-called “developed world,” an unmistakable note of hyperbole in the gospels.  It seems unrealistic and extreme to us that when Jesus sends out his disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God, he would command them to take nothing for the journey and for their work.  When we look at our lives and our works as disciples of Jesus, we are well aware that we not only have walking sticks, sacks, food, money, and more than one tunic, we now have institutions, trust funds, corporate structures and even stock portfolios that allow us to serve others and to proclaim the Kingdom of God in a way that our societies permit and value.  To see ourselves above all as disciples of Jesus and brothers and sisters of the peoples of the world requires us, then, to wrestle with the meaning of Jesus’ words to his disciples and to try to hear, realistically, what they are asking of us.

At the personal level, I have pretty much every technological tool that I would want to facilitate my access to information and my ability to communicate.  I am always discovering, however, that these tools are a two-edged sword.  While they so expand that access to information and my facility in producing documents, they do little for my capacity to think about and reflect on that information and to contemplate God’s vision of life and world.  Because I can now see more of what is happening in the world, I often get absorbed in such a way that the eternal nature of the “now” is lost to me.  As the breadth of my being informed expands, its depth diminishes.  This results in a decrease in the quality of my presence to and appraisal of the present moment in faith.  I increasingly struggle with the tension that as the quantity of the information which I am able to access increases, my human and faithful presence and appraisal of its meaning decreases.  The disciples are sent out by Jesus with “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases” but not with a well developed theology, ecclesiology, or catechesis.  They are to go unencumbered because they are not to be distracted by taking care of themselves or their things, but rather they are to be fully present to the other and to the presence and call of the Divine which will manifest itself to the one who is empty enough to receive it.  

As he opened the Italian Bishops’ Conference in 2016, Pope Francis told them:  “In an evangelical vision, avoid weighing yourselves down with a pastoral plan for preservation, which blocks openness to the perennial newness of the Holy Spirit.” In my own life, I discover that the more “things” I possess, even those intended to improve the quality of my ministry, the more complex my life becomes.  Every “thing” becomes another concern, something to be tended to in one way or another.  This is also true corporately and institutionally.  Churches and other religious institutions are always living the polarity of maintenance on the one pole and mission on the other.  In Jesus’ instructions to the disciples today, he is clearly coming down on the side of mission (in what may be a hyperbolic, if necessary, way).  Jesus is telling us that we must go with nothing if we are to remain true to the mission.  Now in contemporary terms this may be quite unrealistic.  But it must be kept before our eyes, as Pope Francis tells the Italian Bishops.  Avoid not only material possessions but plans for preservation that block openness to “the perennial newness of the Holy Spirit.”  

While Jesus, as all great spiritual teachers, speaks in what seem to be extremes to us, he is realistically pointing toward the nature of our human psychology.  Anything we seek to hold and possess soon comes to possess us.  This is what corporate powers so well understand.  Quite readily we come not only to need a cell phone or tablet but the newest one.  For most of my life I lived without access to the internet (which didn’t exist), yet now if my network connection goes out, or even slows down, I become obsessed with the lack. What Pope Francis understands is that this is true not only of our material possessions but of our ideas and plans.  With the radical decline in Church membership and attendance and with the financial distress brought about by this decline and by the cost of the sexual abuse crisis, dioceses find themselves forced to downsize in a radical way.  Pastoral plans have often been drawn up in order to respond to the personnel and financial demands of these pressing and what seem to be overwhelming difficulties.  So, the words of Pope Francis must seem, as those of Jesus, to be unrealistic.  Francis says don’t be weighed down so much by these pressing concerns and your plans to deal with them that you lose the vision, that you allow your “openness to the perennial newness of the Holy Spirit” to be blocked. 

As his patron, Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis attempts to live the polarity between maintaining what we have in service of the mission of the gospel and ministering in openness to the newness of the Holy Spirit and the emergent and ever new summons of the moment.  He knows that although the specific circumstances of crisis in the Church are new, the dynamic is always the same.  Be it in our structures and institutions or in our mental constructs of theologies and doctrines, we are always tempted to what Adrian van Kaam calls “inverted awe.” That is awe of our own creations and thoughts rather than of God’s.  Faith is always in God, not in what we already know and believe.  Faith is not a “thought.” It is action and practice.

So to go out empty means also to encounter the other out of our own emptiness.  It is be available to recognize and receive the presence and the call as it comes to us in the encounter.  Whatever we are possessing, materially, intellectually, emotionally is an obstacle to that openness.  The power and authority with which the disciples go out is their faith in Jesus. And we know from the gospels that they do no yet know in any definitive way exactly who Jesus is.  So their authority lies in their radical abandonment to what they encounter in their going out.  It may be rejection, at which point, Jesus says, they are to let it be and move on.  This is the opposite of power and manipulation.  Where there is no reception of the gift, they are to move on to where it/they will be received, and thus where they will also receive.  

It is our will to power, over others, over the world, over ourselves, that leads us to put our trust and our attention on our possessions.  We ask, “How can we do what we must without these resources?”  The problem is this is no longer the mission of Jesus but our mission, our agenda, our plan.  Perhaps the perennial newness of the Holy Spirit can only be manifest when we can no longer maintain the tools of our projects.  Those projects arose, at one time, as the expression of that newness of Spirit.  But, as we do with all we possess, we try to deny death and to hold on long after the tool has ceased to serve that newness.  Actual life truly is a polarity between maintenance and mission.  Yet, Jesus says, never forget that your human tendency is to dissolve the polarity’s tension in favor of maintenance and preservation.  So, he says, bring nothing with you.  

In meditation and contemplation we learn by practice the art of letting go.  And we experience in the practice how difficult and foreign this is to us.  To live the life of contemplation in action is to bring that practice into our daily activity in the world.  It is to learn to let go, every time we want to grasp at and keep hold of.  In my experience this is not only difficult but sad.  I not only fear letting go but I also suffer it, especially when it means letting go of what I have cherished.  Thus, the Buddha would readily recognize the words of Jesus today.  We suffer because we refuse to let go, to go empty realizing that our emptiness is actually our availability to the fullness.  

The relationship between grace and freedom, between divine and human action, retains its vitality only as a question and not as a “perfect” formula: this is a conviction that will be at the center of Bergoglio’s thought. His criticism of “doctrinalism,” abstract dogmatism, and the petrifaction of revelation originates here—from the idea that faith, before being an answer, is a question, an opening of one’s heart to a Presence of grace. This question must be lived; it must become experience, evidence of a real relationship between the human person and God on the stage of history. 

Crumbach continues: “Faith cannot live when it becomes closed in on itself. . . . Faith refers to another, beyond oneself. Only in this way can it survive. Only in this way can it also become true, can it be verified. Faith becomes true in expectations that concern reality. In the ‘as if everything depended on you,’ the expectations of faith must penetrate into the reality of life, and they must ‘point out their meaning in ways of living.’ Faith must take responsibility for a world in which understandable behavior is only possible in practice.”  Faith cannot live closed in upon itself, but only by opening itself up. Bergoglio, as pope, will say that the Church lives when it comes out of its self-referentiality.”

Massimo Borghesi, The Mind of Pope Francis, Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Intellectual Journey

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