In the summer of 1985, I attended a church conference that brought together persons from every continent on earth.
In the group within which I was the recording secretary, there was a young nun from the third world who was very much in the mode of Mother Teresa. She wore a traditional religious habit, had a deep life of prayer, went to Eucharist every day, and nobody could have had the slightest doubt concerning private moral life.
She was no stranger to the church1s social teachings either. In sharing her story, she described how, she and her whole community, had made a decision to try to be in radical solidarity with the poor. Hence, they had abandoned many of the comforts they had formerly enjoyed. Now she lived in a convent where the nuns slept on beds with straw mattresses, had only two sets of clothing each (a Sunday habit and a work habit), fasted regularly, avoided luxuries of all kinds, and, as a ministry, worked full-time with the poor.
But that is not the end of what she would share with us.
Our conference was being held in a retreat center, near Brugges, Belgium, and the accommodations, while comfortable, were not palatial. Hence no one was scandalized that we were living too high, even as we talked about poverty in the third world.
On the fifth day, at the noon meal, Christiane Brusselmanns, who had organized the conference, stood up and announced that we had been working too hard and deserved a break. Accordingly she decreed a free afternoon. Our sole challenge for the rest of the day was to go into the beautiful city of Brugges, spend the afternoon shopping, taking strolls, having drinks, and then, at 7:00 o’clock, meet at a restaurant for a gourmet dinner. A general cheer went up … but not everyone, as we found out the next day, was so enthusiastic.
A number of the participants later complained that it was wrong that we, while talking about the poor, should spend time and money so frivolously.
The conference ended with a Eucharist at which there was an open microphone. People were invited to come forward and share if they had experienced some deep grace. Many people spoke, especially people from the first world, who shared what a grace it was for them to meet and share with their brothers and sisters from the third world. Near the end of this, the young nun also approached the microphone and shared in words to this effect:
“I too had a graced-experience these past days – and I was converted in a way that I never dreamed I needed to be converted. It began with the announcement of the free afternoon. From the second it was announced, something inside of me froze and I was angry. I kept thinking: What an insult to the poor! This is a waste of time and money. We are here with the money and time of the poor, and what do we do with it? We walk around terraces and drink alcohol and have a gourmet meal!’ I only went along because I wanted to stay with the group, but I was miserable all afternoon. We walked and looked at shops loaded with luxuries and then I was offered a drink on a cafe terrace. I was so miserable that I didn’t even refuse – I drank my first gin and tonic. Everything culminated when we got to the restaurant for the dinner. I walked in, saw all the silver knives, forks, and the linen serviettes, and I nauseated and couldn’t go through with it. I went out and sat on the bus and waited while everyone ate.
But I had to sit there a long time. Many thoughts ran through my head and I asked myself the question: Would Jesus be in there eating and drinking and having a good time? And l had the horrible realization that he would be! I realized that there was something wrong with me. There was coldness inside me. I had become like the older brother of the prodigal son, doing all the right things, but having no celebration in my heart.”
A most revealing story. Here is a young woman who is seemingly living out Jesus’ full praxis. She is praying, fasting, and giving alms, combining private prayer and a good moral life with a healthy concern for social justice. So what is missing in her life? Where is her spirituality inadequate? She, herself, gives the answer: “l was becoming too much like the older brother of the prodigal son.”
Fasting, as Jesus prescribes it, also includes fasting from bitterness of heart. Mellowness of heart is a non-negotiable within the spiritual life. Why? Because otherwise, like the older brother of the prodigal son, we might succumb to the temptation that T.S. Eliot describes: ” The last temptation that’s the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
We do not just need the right truth, we also need the right energy.