an exercise in freedom

Aug 19, 2010

This week I heard a radio interview with a young man who had decided to live with as little as possible. His website (cultofless.com) has become one of the more visited personal websites on the planet in recent weeks.

Kelly is not too happy being a victim of a consumer age. He is clearly not one who spends recreation hours at the mall. His website lists and pictures all of his possessions. Most of these are for sale. Some he knows he needs to keep. In the interview he very calmly reflected on his desire to live with less. At this stage of his project his possessions fit into “two suitcases, two boxes, with a bed and a chair.”

One of the readings at Mass earlier this week was the Gospel account of Jesus’ encounter with the ‘rich young man.’ I have been thinking about Jesus’ words to this good young man all week: “let go of all you possess, and come follow me.” We usually hear the more casual translation: ‘sell all you own.’ But Jesus is not simply talking about material possessions. More often our possessions are our attitudes and fears, our relationships, our anxieties, our plans and projects. However lessening out attachment to material possessions is a good place to start the journey to freedom.

The radio interviewer seemed quite taken with Kelly’s idea and gave him good airtime. The interviewer’s questions and excitement suggested that he had never before heard of someone doing such an extreme thing. He was captivated by this new idea.

But the idea is not new at all. Such detachment and simple living have always been the Christian ideal.

I recall a community of brothers talking about a practical expression of their vows of poverty and obedience. Every year, when they travelled to meet together for their annual retreat, they had to take all of their possessions with them in a suitcase They also had to take a train ticket back to the place they had travelled from. On the last morning of the retreat at breakfast, the superior gave every brother an envelope that contained a letter of appointment for the following year. Some brothers received new appointments. Others were re-appointed to their present homes and ministries. After breakfast train tickets were swapped and the brothers travelled to wherever God was sending them for the coming year.

Of course this practical example of detachment is a simple exercise of practicing the ordinary reality of everyday human uncertainty. I am healthy this morning, but this afternoon I fall sick. Today I am happy, but in the evening I get unexpected news of the death of a friend. If I am attached to health or to happiness then I am placing a lot of confidence in circumstances or emotions that in reality I have no real control over.

Today’s Gospel reading calls this: ‘entering by the narrow door.’ If we try to keep all the doors open and avoid any life decisions we fall victim to whatever preoccupations and practices the masses promote. We end up just doing what everyone else is doing. Life is given to be better than that. The best moments in life come when I pass through a particular door of the home of friends and eat drink and laugh with them.

So I watch the “Kelly” space with interest. I hope he keeps the website going and updates us with his new living of the Christian ideal of poverty.

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