I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the Gospel reading for this Sunday. There's a unique connection to wearing the habit in public and hearing the words: ‘Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, to be greeted obsequiously in the market squares, to take the front seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets; -Mark 12:38-39. While I avoid the temptation to become someone of honor when wearing the habit in public, I've learned that it's more of a challenge than I'd like.
For me, the wearing of the brown habit of our Order is a testimony or witness to my vocation. In my discussion about A Theology of the Habit, the wearing of my garb in public is more about my personal decision to live the vows, identify the group I belong to, and be open to questions and criticisms about my lifestyle. Sometimes I simply get weird looks - looks that say: "Why is that man wearing an ugly dress?" Yet when attending Mass or religious functions, there is this desire to put me up on pedestal for the choice I've made to live this life.
In listening to this Gospel, and reflecting on the life of minority that I am planning to join, I see how easy it is to allow the praise and enthusiasm to get to my head. We've had people try to buy things for us (mostly food...I think people want us all to be fat and jolly!), offers of prayers, and words of great encouragement. And while I am always grateful for the interest and love we receive, I feel torn by the desire to be simple and humble.
My fear is that the guys in long robes that Jesus describes could easily be me if left unchecked. Having lived a life focused on power and recognition, I become wary when people ask for speaking engagements, extend offers for dinner, invite us to events, and invite us to become part of a liturgical service. Perhaps I'm just being overly-conscious or worrying too much...but would the same love and generosity be shown to me if I were a begger or a homeless man? Would people bring me food and tell me: "I pray for you every time I do the Rosary," if I was just a nobody...the nobody that Francis of Assisi tried to be?
Again, I don't wish to sound ungrateful for the love and generosity that is shown to us by the many people who we interact with. And I realize that those actions help us as men and women discerning religious life, knowing that others are thinking and praying for us. However this Sunday's Gospel reminds me that there is the ever-present danger to allow the love and kind words build up my pride instead of my love for others.
Of all the love and acts of graciousness that have been shown to me, the one I remember most is when John and Laura, a homeless couple living in Milwaukee, called me their angel. They could offer no stage for me to speak from, no food...only their appreciation and love for me as a chaplain and a human being. That was their "two small coins worth only a few cents," but I've learned to value them more than any other gift I've received.