Friday, July 31, 2009

"They're Called Bums"

When I teach world religions, I ask students if they remember this conversation from the movie Pulp Fiction. Vincent and Jules have both witnessed an unusual event, but Jules thinks the event is a miracle and sign from God, and he plans to abandon his gangster life.

VINCENT So if you're quitting the life, what'll you do?
JULES That's what I've been sitting here contemplating. First, I'm gonna deliver this case to Marsellus. Then, basically, I'm gonna walk the earth.
VINCENT What do you mean, walk the earth?
JULES You know, like Caine in Kung Fu. [RIP, David Carradine.] Just walk from town to town, meet people, get in adventures.
VINCENT How long do you intend to walk the earth?
JULES Until God puts me where he want me to be.
VINCENT What if he never does?
JULES If it takes forever, I'll wait forever.
VINCENT So you decided to be a bum?
JULES I'll just be Jules, Vincent – no more, no less.
VINCENT No Jules, you're gonna be like those pieces of s*** out there who beg for change. They sleep in garbage bins, they eat what I throw away. They got a world for 'em, they're called bums. And without a job, residence, or legal tender, that's what you're gonna be – a f****** bum!
JULES Look my friend, this is just where me and you differ –
VINCENT – what happened was peculiar – no doubt about it – but it wasn't water into wine.
JULES All shapes and sizes, Vince.
VINCENT Stop f****** talkin' like that!
JULES If you find my answers frightening, Vincent, you should cease askin' scary questions.

In my classes, I discuss people like sanyassi in the Hindu culture, as well as Theravada Buddhist monks, who have renounced earthly ties and rely upon the benevolence of others. I make the point that, for world-renouncing to “work,” the indigenous culture must be supportive of such a lifestyle. You’re not going to find too many sanyassi in America, though; we relate to homeless persons, for instance, with suspicion and disdain.

These thoughts are probably hypocritical, since I'm not embracing a personal, indigent lifestyle. But I don't mind scary questions. I’ve been reading a few chapters of Simon Tugwell, O.P., Ways of Imperfection: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality (Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers, 1985). His chapter on Francis of Assisi is interesting. Tugwell writes, “The monastic tradition had assumed that the development of a proper spiritual life depended on the monks being protected against disturbances and temptations; but the Franciscans made it their boast tht their enclosure was no other than the whole world. If this is God’s world, ruled by his providence, we ought not to have to protect ourselves against it. Whatever happens is God’s gift to us" (pp. 129-130).

The author concludes that the source of Francis’ love of nature--for which we think so fondly of the saint--is this belief in God’s providence. But though we think sentimentally of Francis’ love, he was no armchair lover of the outdoors. He actually wanted to be completely unprotected as he faced nature. He even tried to prevent a friend from extinguishing the fire that had caught his habit: “Dearest brother, do not harm brother fire,” he said (p. 130).

The Franciscans were not supposed to be mendicants; they could work and be paid if they could be. But they were not supposed to be in jobs that gave them authority over others, and if they could not find jobs, they of course must beg. “It is not proverty as such, that [Francis] values, it is rather the readiness to be in a position in which it is impossible for you to insist on your own will. The whole point of Franciscan life is a radical converation away from a life of self-will to a life of submission…The heart of conversion must accordingly be the disappropriation of your own will” (p. 131).

The whole point, though, is not to be obedient on principle, but to follow Christ and to be like Christ. Christ himself went through life obedient and unprotected. Christ accepted the cruelty and vulnerability of the Cross. Francis did not sentimentalize this approach to life: Christ was obedient and because of it was cruelly killed, after all. But if we follow Christ in this way, we discover “a new way of relating to other people”; poverty and vulnerability leads to love of others (p. 133).

It also leads to personal happiness. Francis told the story of a traveler who, on a rainy and cold night, would not be accepted into a place of lodging for the night. “I tell you,” says Francis, “if I have patience and am not upset, this is where true happiness lies, and true virtue and the salvation of my soul” (p. 132).

"Walking the earth" is risky! On the other hand, living unmindful of God in the world is risky, too (as Vincent in Pulp Fiction eventually discovered).

Within the next few weeks I’ll bring in some thoughts from John Wesley whose theology and example are closer to our own experiences than 13th century Francis, though perhaps similarly scary!

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