In the Gospel today, we hear Jesus tell the apostles that as they go out, they are not to be distracted or weighed-down by anything unnecessary—only the basic needs, and most principally, his power and his word.
In the spiritual life, we hear it said, that we are to find freedom for God, by freeing ourselves of the things that weigh us down. And we might tend to think automatically of material things, which is certainly part of what we are called to find freedom from, but perhaps to follow Jesus we need to also be freed from the complicated workings of our hearts and minds: our baggage, if you will.
Two saints, whose feast days just occurred, come to mind for me, as I considered this freedom. One is male, the other female; one is from the 5th century, the other from the early 20th century; one died in his 60s, the other at age 11.
The first is Benedict of Nursia. He was born around the year 480, into a distinguished family in central Italy and was educated in Rome. Rome, still a large city for its time, despite having been invaded and sacked by barbarians, was no longer the well-ordered and powerful city it once was. The noise and chaos of city were disruptive to Benedict’s sense of peace. With a desire to abandon anything that would prevent him from hearing God, he withdrew from it all, and eventually settled for the next three years in a distant cave in a village called Subiaco. There, living among hermits, he began to wear a monk’s habit and to live in utter solitude.
Over those three years, in the silence he began to hear God’s plan for him: instead of living in isolation, monks could live together in order to benefit from unity, fraternity and shared prayer. God’s plan eventually led to his establishing 12 monasteries, as well as the Benedictine Order. And for this order and its monks living in community, he wrote the Benedictine Rule, that would provide structure and stability, fostering a way of life that ultimately gives way to freedom through silence and simplicity of life.
The second of these saints that demonstrates freedom for us is Maria Goretti. She was born in Italy, the third of six children, into a poor family, who worked as farm laborers. Things got worse for her at age 9. Her father died of malaria, forcing the family to move to another town. They began living in a multi-family dwelling of sorts, which was also home to a teenage boy named Alessandro.
It wasn’t long after Maria had received her First Holy Communion in 1906, when she was home with one of her younger siblings. Suddenly, the young man, Alessandro burst into the home, intending to rape her. Her struggle to resist eventually resulted in multiple stabbings.
In the 24 hours that she would remain alive and conscious, with a Passionist priest at her hospital bedside, 11-year-old Maria prayed that her attacker would be forgiven. Somehow, Maria’s prayerful pleading gave way to freedom from the horror of her attack and its effects.
It’s worth noting that Alessandro remained unremorseful for years after the murder he committed. But at some point, during his 27 years of imprisonment, he had a dream or vision of Maria gathering flowers and offering them to him. Everything changed.
When he was eventually released from prison, his first task was to beg forgiveness from her mother. They attended Mass together the next day, receiving Holy Communion side by side. He prayed to Maria every day, calling her ‘my little saint’. 44 years after he had murdered her, at her canonization ceremony, he and Maria’s mother were in attendance, as he knelt and cried tears of joy. Through Maria’s prayers, Alessandro found freedom from his horrid past. He later became a Franciscan lay-brother, peacefully living and working in a monastery until his death in 1970.
Like the disciples, whom Jesus instructed to go out, but to do so with nothing that would weigh them down, with nothing unless it was useful, we too are to be disciples for our world. And some of the things we need to leave behind—to be freed from, to be freed for God—are, like Benedict, the material things that clutter our lives. The novelties we accumulate to constantly entertain ourselves or even facilitate our compulsive behaviors—things which too often we convince ourselves our necessary for our happiness—which means we make a god of those things. Or also like Benedict, it may be freedom from the noise, the sensory distraction and chaos, all of which keeps us from giving space to God’s guiding and consoling voice.
Or it may be that like young Maria Goretti, we are in need of freedom from some poison that has found is way into our hearts. As she showed, I believe that ultimately, it’s only through reliance upon Jesus’ healing that such radical liberation can occur. Or it may be like Alessandro, we need to be freed from our regrets and shame. It was through the voice of a saint, working as an extension of Jesus’ love and healing, that he found freedom.
Freedom from these things—whether it’s material goods, the noise of life, pain inflicted upon us, the voices in our head, or our past transgressions—finding freedom is not necessarily easy. But we need to be freed, if we are to be more fully alive, to carry Jesus’ presence and power within us for others. Every one of us needs freedom from something right now—from something that’s not useful, that’s weighing us down—in order that we might be free for God. In only a moment of quiet honesty, I could recognize what it is for myself. What is it for you?