In the summer of 1990, during the annual Mozart Festival in Salzburg, Austria, my wife and I were staying with a new friend in his apartment. Richard had lived in Salzburg for many years, retired from his long-time career as the personal secretary to Herbert von Karajan, the famous Berlin Philharmonic conductor. Aristocratic society had been his world, but now Richard was serving the homeless a couple of times a week at a soup kitchen run by Franciscans. He, himself, had become a lay brother.

One particular “patron” of the kitchen, a bitter alcoholic, was invariably abusive in his language and manner, always demanding more soup and bread than he was given, thankless of the generosity that Richard and the other volunteers were willing to provide. Richard never replied to the man except with more food and maybe a kind remark. I could not understand this. It upset me to observe or hear about it, and part of my anger was aimed at Richard for not telling him off. The Franciscan way of unconditional love was beyond my mental and emotional grasp. To me it was stupid.

But I did notice this: Richard was happy.

I cannot say that I have learned the lesson of this experience completely. I still react at times when confronted with belligerence, rudeness, or a selfish demand. And, of course, I am the one who suffers the toxic effect. To see a hateful person as a child of God is one heck of a challenge.

But this I have also noticed: Selfish people are never happy, no matter how often their demands are met. And unselfish, service-minded people do not suffer the sting of others’ ill-mannered assaults.  What a concept!

Attunement to our highest potential, non-attachment to the fruits of desire—Oh, my, these are testy aims, because we are steeped in delusion above all else. Our society drives us to strive ever more for that which is hopelessly mortal, to believe that people and things are the source of joy. We’re conditioned to ask of every choice, “What’s in it for me?” And so it is that our highs turn into lows, and our lows turn into longings and strivings for new highs that are yet of the same soon-to-perish likeness.

Surely the most amazing part of this whole human journey back to God is the length of cosmic time it takes us to quit our worldly ways. In the lexicon of oxymorons, “intelligent man” ranks among the best. Richard had not forsaken the fleeting pleasures of outward living. He relished many common pursuits, and he fully enjoyed their yield. His Franciscan spirit, however, kept them in perspective, when otherwise his appreciation of them would have fled.