IN WEST PALM BEACH, A MEDITATION (AND WARNING)
During a recent trip to West Palm Beach in Florida (for a retreat with a
truly special group of people from that area) we were led to meditate on
the entrapments of this world. That's because this vicinity affords some
of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world, right there in the class
of Beverly Hills; Greenwich, Connecticut; or Fifth Avenue in New York.
There are mega-rich here (just three and a half miles from our retreat, across a
short bridge, is Donald Trump's second home at Mar-A-Lago), and there are
other "celebrities" ensconced in the area, most of them behind
magnificent and impeccably groomed hedge walls along the cerulean and turquoise shades
of the Atlantic (Jimmy Buffet, Michael Jordan, Hank Aaron,
Tommy Lee Jones, Vic Damone, Glenn
Close, and Howard Stern are a few examples of the rich and famous who live in or
hail from West Palm Beach).
listings for homes for sale along this stretch range up to
$27 million and no doubt there are a number not currently for sale that would
cost more (a nondescript house on a sidestreet a block or two from the ocean can fetch four million
and however "modest," sport a Ferrari in the driveway).
It is all very tempting, this "paradise," just blocks away
drug-infested neighborhoods (reminding one that it still is earth). But you get
Or do we? How often -- despite the teachings of Jesus,
and what the Church constantly
instructs -- are we sucked into the lure of or admiration for materialism (which at its extreme is what the
baptismal rite called "the glamour of evil")?
It's hardly to say these are bad folks up
in the mansions. Who can judge? Wealthy people can be holy and devout -- for all
we know, saintly. But Jesus said it's
difficult; that such things are baggage at the doorway of Heaven; eye of the needle; we are expected to
relinquish excess and follow Him to the desert (and sometimes Calvary).
die -- no matter "who we are" and what we have -- we are stripped down to our
real selves and all possessions and pretenses vanish; at the end of life, we are alone (one can say
"naked") before God.
After death is a wondrous eternity that nothing on earth -- not even the most
splendiferous mansion, not even Rush Limbaugh's compound with five guest houses
and a fleet of $500,000 limos, nor the private jets (with full-sized bedrooms, bathrooms, and
kitchens), nor the enormous yachts parked on the intracoastals -- can begin to
match, however hard, with our landscaping, and jewels, and gold, we try.
Did you ever notice how much humans strive to make earth their paradise?
That will never happen, of course -- humans re-creating
Heaven -- and while we were there in West Palm the Pope was among the poor and
downtrodden in Mexico, where, ironically, he explained that the three
temptations that Christ faced in the desert (wealth, vanity, and
pride) "seek to destroy what we have been called to be" and "try to corrode us
and tear us down." Wealth, he noted, takes "the 'bread' based on the toil of
others, or even at the expense of their very lives," and causes pain,
bitterness, and suffering.
When the Pope was elected to the
seat of Peter, and given a tour of the papal apartments, he barked, "This is
big enough for five people!" and instead opted to live dormitory-style with
priests and seminarians nearby.
It's when we can divorce ourselves from luxury
that we find true contentment (and spiritual power: see Saint Francis of Assisi,
who gave it up, or Saint Padre Pio).
For no matter how much a person accumulates, he
always seems to want more -- more cash, more prestige, more fine food, more
elaborate jewelry, more homes, more cars (if
you haven't been there, the roads near Route A1A will treat you to a steady
stream of Mercedes Benzes, Lamborghinis, and Jaguars; one feels sorry for those
who tool about in a mere Cadillac or Lexus).
One particularly encounters this sense of
unsettlement at the most magnificent structure in the area, the mansion of Henry
Flagler, which is now a museum. It is one of America's twenty-five largest homes, about the same size,
100,000 square feet, as the Vanderbilt Mansion in Newport, with seventy-five
rooms and exquisitely crafted fireplaces, furniture, lace, vases, and sterling punch bowls from the
Yet, there is a vacancy; there is a lack of warmth; there is that unsettlement.
Money never buys true freedom and
more often than not prevents it.
The desert frees. The desert heals (when we are out there with
The entrapment can also be literal; overattachment to people or places or things
can cause a soul to wander earthbound (in our discernment).
There is certainly the sense of wandering souls in need of prayers
at the Flagler mansion
(please pray for any such) and it has its share of strange accounts.
There is the woman in a floppy hat, white gloves, and ecru dress, clutching a
parasol, who was seen during a guided tour of the mansions -- 19th-century garb
(the witness thought it was a costume) -- and vanished.
There is the museum
volunteer whose Timex watch always froze the day of the week she worked there.
There is the Episcopalian bishop who was seen in
apparition blessing the place.
There are the
plates that crack inside a locked case.
Up in St. Augustine, where Flagler built
a luxury hotel (now a college), as well as another mansion
(since torn down), have been accounts through the decades by students who insist
they heard chilling screams
from a woman and see what they perceive to be an image of Flagler that appears
on a tile in an august hall (although this probably takes some imagination).
Lights that go on and off. A fleeting image of a woman hanging. A mistress, it
is said, went mad and committed suicide at the now-college by hanging from a
Notes a website that specializes in such arcane
matters, "Flagler's second wife Ida Alice Flagler is said to also haunt the
hotel. Mrs. Ida was not the most mentally stable person. Though committed to a
sanatorium she did not gain any health and ranted constantly at the walls. Now
she haunts the the school wandering around and staring at the many paintings
past and present as well as the beautiful ceilings. It is stated that she knew
of the many affairs that her husband ensnared himself in and this drove her mad.
She is seen at times staring at a place in the wall where a large painting of
Flagler himself stood."
Strange stuff. Again, please pray -- for those there and at any "haunted" area.
Back in West Palm Beach, the feeling is
especially uncanny on the second floor of the mansion where
all the bedrooms are, as well as in a gallery of paintings that includes one gentleman who bears an unfortunate resemblance to Mephisto.
One must be cautious, in life, about what one
attracts, and especially about what one attaches to.