This weekend I will be traveling to the University of Georgia to visit with the students at the Catholic Center and to give a reflection at each of the masses. My reflection is based on the readings for the day, found here.
They say that money can’t buy happiness. But then again, money can buy wave runners, and I dare you to find a sad person riding a wave runner. Am I right? Probably not the opening line you expected from a Franciscan, but I stand by it. The reason I say this is that there are a lot of good, physical/temporal things in this life that make us happy and keep us going. While riding a wave runner might be a bit of an exaggerated example, our lives are often focused on fulfilling these physical/temporal needs, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. For those of us in school, getting good grades is among our highest priority, and it’s good to do so. For those of us in the working world, earning a good paycheck helps us to eat, pay the bills, and provide the general necessities of life, which are all good things. Eating is good. Having fun with friends is good. Looking nice is good. Going to college football games is good. In a lot of ways, these physical/temporal needs, eating/drinking, work/play, accomplishments and status, are not only good to have, but also necessary to our survival.
In my life before becoming a friar, I was filled with more blessings that I can count. Like the Israelites wandering in the desert, I was often unable to see all that God had done for me and was often ungrateful. Although I never had an abundance, God continued to bless me and stand by me, to keep me safe and well-nourished. I was blessed with great parents that supported me. I played baseball for our club team in college and even had a chance to go to the Club Baseball World Series; I had a beautiful girlfriend that made me happy; I got good grades in most of my classes; and I had friends that made me laugh and joined me in never missing a party. For all intents and purposes, I was living it up, and very happy with the life I had.
That is, until the summer after my sophomore year when I was invited to live and work at the church run by the friars in Greenville with three other students. What started out as simply an opportunity for free room and board turned into the most life-changing experience of my life. The four of us prayed together twice a day, ate meals together, and really, grew together. We spent each day serving the church and community, and then each night sharing our lives, talking about faith, and becoming amazing friends. It was an intimacy of friendship that I had never experienced, and an intimacy that was life-giving. It was because of that powerful experience in community that I found myself able to be poured out day after day for others and yet never tired of what I was doing.
The following year, I realized something had changed in me. For spring break, sixteen friends and I found a house in Key Largo on a private beach; the weather was perfect sunshine and 85 all week; we had no cares in the world except to grab a drink and sit in the sun. For most of us, that’s paradise: we could do that all day, every day. What could be a better life than to sit on the beach all day? To this day I’ll never be able to explain it, but by the third or fourth day of the week, I found myself a little restless. There was something unfulfilling about it, and I started looking forward to going back to school. I know, it sounds absolutely crazy. It was a tremendously fun time, and don’t get me wrong, I’d kill to be back there, but there was something about it, and something about the majority of my life, that was completely unsustainable. I longed to be back at church, living in community, serving people who needed help. There was a thirst in me that couldn’t be quenched by a day on the beach, no matter how fun. I longed to be doing what truly fulfilled me: serving others.
As I continued on my journey, I spent a summer with the friars in Philadelphia where we have a soup kitchen. There, I met a friar with a similar story. Owning his own business with an office in New York and Atlanta, making incredible amounts of money, and working with celebrities like as Elton John and Bon Jovi, he says that his life was like the most expensive, rich and creamy dessert you can imagine: decadent, extravagant, and eventually unfulfilling. Eating a twelve layer chocolate cake is delicious for dessert, and there are times when it is exactly what we’re looking for; but what if we ate 12 layer chocolate cake every day? I imagine that even the most delicious cake in the world would get old after a while. That was how his life was: he had all the money and prestige he could ever want, but it wasn’t until he gave those things up and devoted his life to the poor that he felt truly fulfilled. There are few people I know that are happier in what they do than him.
In this time of Lent, God is calling all of us to this sort of life-changing experience. Rather than continuing to drink from wells that cannot quench, seeking happiness in things that do not last, we are called to drink of the water of eternal life. We are called to the Word, to the Eucharist, to a life in Christ. We are called to replace a life of fear, emptiness, and futile pursuits for a life of love, fulfillment, and building up of God’s kingdom.
A life like this truly is a calling, and it is a calling Christ has for each of us, each of you. Like the woman at the well, Jesus is calling you, because he knows you intimately. Just as he knew that she had had five husbands, he knows who you are and where you’ve been. He knows what you’ve done well, and where you’ve fallen. He knows this because he was walked this road with you, standing by you as you drank the water of earthly life, while always offering the water of eternal life.
What would happen if you answered this call, took in living water, and let it spring up in you throughout the whole world? Where do you think it would take you?
In the life of the Church, it has taken people to serve the lowest and most forgotten people of society, people who would otherwise never be loved or cared for; it has built schools and universities all around the world, spreading not only knowledge, but wisdom to people who need it most; it has inspired doctors, lawyers, politicians, and business leaders to put their tremendous skills toward the common good, even working for free in order to bring life to those without hope.
For some, it has moved people like me to do even wilder things: to vow ourselves to the Church in poverty, chastity and obedience. Let me tell you, it was the most freeing thing I ever did. Don’t believe me? All I have to worry about in life from now on is how I’m going to best love God’s people for him. Because I have given up the ambition to be rich, or even comfortable, the desire to have a family, and the need to be in control or have a successful career, I am free to move where I’m needed, to love without restraint. I live a life centered in prayer, poverty, and humility, and the best part about it is that we don’t have to do it alone: we do it together, living in community. Through these things, God has given us friars so much life-giving water that we can’t help but share it with the world. We work in parishes, universities, schools, retreat centers, and soup kitchens; we act as priests, teachers, artists, musicians, writers, and social workers; we have brought the gifts God has given us to serve the people of God, and we do it together, as Church and fraternity.
In all of these ways, the seeds of living water have been planted. Jesus has used men like Father David and Father Tom, along with thousands of other men and woman, to bring living water to the world for two thousand years. Jesus tells us that the fields are “ripe for the harvest.” In this time we live, there is an incredible harvest to be had and so few laborers. The churches they’ve built, the schools they’ve founded, the soup kitchens they’ve established, and the movements they’ve sparked, all need strong men and women to keep them going. People often ask, “Why are there so few priests, brothers, and nuns today?” I wonder: “Do you think that Jesus has called fewer people to serve or are fewer people willing to answer that call?” He says in today’s Gospel: “I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.” Jesus is calling you to this harvest. With Jesus as the life-giving water, and others having done so much of the work before us, what is ours to do but to say, “Yes” and continue what they’ve started? It doesn’t matter how old you are or what skills God has given you, the world needs what you can offer.
There is nothing wrong with things of this earth. Much of the physical/temporal things we seek are good. But are they ends in themselves? Can they satisfy us forever? The wave runner eventually runs out of gas, beauty fades, money runs out, jobs end, power weakens, and no one cares about your grades after your first job. In this Lenten season, I ask you to look at your life and ask yourself this question: am I drinking from waters that leave me thirsty, seeking happiness in things that do not last? If this is the case, now is the time to turn your hearts, to say yes to the Lord, and drink of living waters. Just one sip and you can’t help but spring up for the world; you’ll realize that it’s in pouring yourself out that God continues to fill you up. And so, Jesus is calling, “The hour is coming and is now here.” Will you answer? “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”