A Begging Bowl

Too often I go to meetings at which one of two things happen: Either nothing gets said of importance or whatever is said is repeated ad nauseam. As I grow older, I find myself avoiding as many meetings as possible, particularly if they are clergy meetings. Far too often, clergy gatherings turn into a “my church is better than your church” contest. Last week, however, I went to a clergy meeting at which I received a valuable reminder of an old truth.

A wise, woman pastor shared the opening devotions. She placed on the conference table a beautifully crafted, wooden bowl. She asked if we remembered the monastic tradition of a “begging bowl.” Like everybody else, I nodded my head in the affirmative; even though the truth was that I had no idea what a “begging bowl” was. It would, however, impact my theological reputation to appear ignorant of such an obviously well known monastic truth.

I think our leader intuitively knew that some of us were not up to speed (truthful!) about “begging bowls,” so she proceeded to give us a remedial lesson. In the monasteries centuries ago, monks were given a bowl in the morning and sent out into the streets to beg. Whatever was put into their bowls, whether food, money or other stuff, was all that they had for that day. They had to be satisfied with whatever ended up in their bowl. Our teacher went on to tell us that we might do well to approach each day as if it is an empty “begging bowl.” As each day begins, we have no idea what will end up in our bowl. All we really know is that the next morning we will get a new bowl to fill.

This was, of course, a reminder that every day is a new day. What is past is past and the future will be what it will be. Better to live in the present moment. Therefore, in the words of Jean-Pierre de Caussade, we should live as if the present moment is a “sacrament,” as if every moment is Divinely blessed.

I have no intention of hitting the streets to beg, but I can decide what to put in my “begging bowl.” I can fill it up with painful moments or old resentments from my past that are best left in my rearview mirror. I can fill my bowl with all kinds of essentially meaningless stuff, like fretting over the ups and downs of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I can also fill it up with concern for what will happen tomorrow, a future over which I have little or no control. Thanks to one wise pastor, however, I am going to try to start each day with an empty “begging bowl” and do my best to fill it with what really matters most; my relationships with family, friends and the awareness of the Divine presence in human life. Furthermore, I am going to stop my resistance to meeting with my clergy colleagues. Like at last week’s meeting, there is always the possibility that a nugget of Godly wisdom will be placed in my “begging bowl.”

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts

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