This summer marks the tenth anniversary of my time in Tlalpan, a section of Mexico City, studying Spanish with two of my classmates as well as seminarians from the Archdiocese of St. Louis. As I look back on my life thus far, my time there remains one of the most significant. This is so not because of any natural reasons related to world travel and cultural experiences, although these realities did affect me. No, that time abroad has a fixed place in my heart for the supernatural realities that came into play. God imbued that time with His grace in a special way; and it was the presence of one man, in particular, that proved to be so consequential.
While the time in Mexico was primarily for language study, the combination of being away from home, along with ample opportunity for prayer, those weeks in Tlalpan also served as a quasi-retreat. The physical separation from home, family, and familiar surroundings, and the resulting psychological distance effected by that reality, opened up a space for God’s grace to take up residence in an area of my soul which hitherto had no vacancies. His grace was light and fire: a light because areas of my heart that dwelt in darkness were laid bare to the light of His Face; a fire because it warmed and consoled even as it destroyed. We don’t like to think of God’s grace as destructive. In our day and age we’ve grown accustomed to a “feel-good” God; therapeutic deism, as it has been described. Yet, God is not always there to make us feel good — God desires us to be good, and the latter two realities do not always coincide.
What was churned up as the Divine Sower tilled the soil of my heart and scattered the seeds of His divine life? Through the lens of today’s gospel from Matthew, one thing in particular stands out: attachment and the need to allow God to free me of those things which held me back from giving myself wholly over to Him.
The gospel passage of the Sacred Liturgy today finds us with Jesus as He crosses to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Thereupon, two men following this new and intriguing rabbi, present the Lord with their desire to be His disciples. The first, a scribe, tells Him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus’ answer, while enigmatic, betrays a certain doubt on His part of the full sincerity of the scribe: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” The second, while desirous of discipleship, asks Jesus to allow him to bury his father before joining Him. This, to be sure, is a reasonable request. Besides, is not the need to honor one’s parents even in the Law itself? For a first century Jew, and person of goodwill of our time, equally, the desire to bury one’s parents is held as a solemn duty. And yet, Jesus’ reply stuns us: “Follow me. And let the dead bury their dead.” What are we to make of this? In His characteristic style, Jesus cuts to the very heart of the matter: the call to discipleship is a radical one, cutting across all relationships and affiliations: whether they be familial, social, or political. To be Jesus’ disciple means to put Him first and to view all things in light of that most primary and fundamental of relationships.
This truth started to become a concrete reality for me during those weeks in Mexico. Although there was a priest in charge of this particular language program, once a week he brought in another priest of his religious order (who ministered elsewhere in the area) to hear confessions, should any of the seminarians desired to avail themselves of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There are some people whose holiness can be felt before they even say a word, and this man exuded a sanctity that was readily apparent. He was a very kind and seemingly prayerful man, so his presence brought peace, but it also made me squirm, it made me uncomfortable. Here he was, thirty years in Mexico, a very far way from his native Ireland. While in hindsight, I imagine he must have had at least a few opportunities to travel home and visit family, at the time I wasn’t so sure. All the same, whether he had chances to go home or not, he was a man utterly given over to the Lord and the Gospel. The thought began to take hold in my heart: could I do the same? In response to that question, all I saw inside of me was over attachment; attachment to family, to friends, to my own familiar surroundings and cultural milieu, and to earthly realities that, when viewed in the light of eternity, were of no significant consequence. This holy priest had spent most of his adult life in Mexico, speaking a language that was not his own, eating food that he had not grown up with, interacting with people who were not blood-relations, and living in an environment that was quite different to his native land. Moreover, he would probably spend the remainder of his life there as well, and here I was, barely able to spend seven weeks!
In hindsight, whether the Lord was calling me to the radical abandon of a missionary is not necessarily the point. What was and continues to be at stake is the need to live that life of abandon and radical detachment which the Gospel beckons me to live — maybe not within the context of missionary work, but nonetheless, in the concrete, everyday circumstances of my vocation and state in life. This call to radical discipleship applies not only to the priest, not only to the nun or religious sister, but to all; it’s a common vocation that is lived out in the celibate state of a priest or nun, in the vows of a monk, and in the vows of holy marriage and the mutual consecration of husband and wife.
As you look at your own life and its concrete, everyday circumstances, where does the Gospel challenge you to radical discipleship? Where does the Gospel challenge you to the necessary detachment from things that inhibit your freedom to serve the Lord without reserve?