I drove past a homeless encampment yesterday and it reminded me of the shanty towns we used to have in America. Especially in the 1930s, there were many thousands who lived in cardboard villages on the outskirts of big cities. I got to thinking about our collective human history and how homelessness has always been with us. In some cases, being homeless was accepted and held spiritual opportunities not available to the more “blessed.”
Many spiritual traditions portray homeless people as spiritual seekers, and even at times as gods and angels. In Greek Mythology, for instance, Jupiter and Mercury appeared to townspeople as beggars. Most people slammed their doors in their faces, but not Baucis and Philemon. This old couple welcomed the beggars into their home and shared their only food with them. These folks were on the brink of starvation themselves, yet they shared what little they had with the homeless. At the very least, homeless provide others with the chance to test their generosity.
In his Asian Journal, Thomas Merton defines a Hindu Ashram as “any of the four stages of Brahmanical scheme of life, which are: that of the student, of the householder, of the hermit, and of the homeless mendicant (sannyasi).” Imagine, one of the stages of spiritual enlightenment involves being a homeless mendicant.
Does this really come as any surprise? Is it any different in Christianity? Imagine, the God who created us and loves took human form and came to Earth, and while on earth, he was often homeless: “Foxes have dens, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” God himself was homeless while on earth. Seems a pretty lofty station in life if God himself came as a mendicant.
In the Bible, a rich young ruler asks Jesus what he needs to do to be saved. Jesus replies, “Sell all you have, give it to the poor and come follow me.” The rich young man walks away depressed. But think about what he would have gained from being able to follow Jesus at that moment. The New Testament might have another gospel written by him. Those who are already free of the burden of too much stuff, might more easily follow after Jesus.
In Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam, a dervish takes a vow of poverty and in most cases becomes a mendicant seeking God above all else, ignoring the ego. The most famous Sufi poet, Rumi, says this:
Water that’s poured inside will sink the boat
While water underneath keeps it afloat.
Driving wealth from his heart to keep it pure
King Solomon preferred the title ‘Poor’:
I don’t mean to encourage homelessness. Most people who are homeless are in dire straits and need great help. Many suffer from addiction, but that should never stop anyone from spiritual growth. The story of St. Mark Ji Tianxiang (pictured above) is a beautiful witness to this. He was an opium addict who could never beat his addiction. Yet he kept going to Mass even though he could not receive the sacraments.
So I believe God is calling the homeless to a deeper relationship than many of us with security and stability can have. I would encourage homeless to deepen their relationship with God. Seek the friend. Do you really think He is far from you? That’s the funniest thing I’ve heard. He is the very air you breathe. Always has been. He is loving you in your humility. The rules of etiquette apply to you even more so. You have a great opportunity to experience your creator in a way most of us will never be able to. Make the most of it. Get to know God, who is your home and mansion.