Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Question of the Letter 'O'

We’re on the home stretch of going through Pope Francis’ pre-Christmas (!) address to the Roman Curia. For those arriving late to the party, I am doing this because I was rather horrified at the social media response to that address of ‘Yay, Pope Francis! Stick it to those jerks in the Vatican! Woohoo!’

Yeah, no. When a figure on the global scale of the Pope offers an examination of conscience like this, the right response to it is not, ‘Look at those guys squirm!’ but ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.’ And so I have been going through the Pope’s fifteen spiritual diseases one by one, and using them as a springboard for personal examination.
We are up to disease thirteen, which is the:

disease of hoarding. When an apostle tries to fill an existential void in his heart by accumulating material goods, not out of need but only in order to feel secure. The fact is that we are not able to bring material goods with us, since “the winding sheet does not have pockets”, and all our earthly treasures – even if they are gifts – will never be able to fill that void; instead, they will only make it deeper and more demanding.

To these persons the Lord repeats: “You say, I am rich, I have prospered and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked. So be zealous and repent” (Rev 3:17, 19). Accumulating goods only burdens and inexorably slows down the journey! Here I think of an anecdote: the Spanish Jesuits used to describe the Society of Jesus as the “light brigade of the Church”. I remember when a young Jesuit was moving, and while he was loading a truck full of his many possessions, suitcases, books, objects and gifts, an old Jesuit standing by was heard to say with a smile: And this is “the light brigade of the Church”? Our moving can be a sign of this disease.

At first glance this disease seems to refer specifically to those in consecrated life, those with vows or promises of poverty (like me!). Indeed we who have freely chosen to take up that particular call of austerity and dispossession must constantly examine not only our consciences but our drawers and closets, our shelves and rooms, as material goods do seem to have a way of accumulating, even without our direct intention to have them do so.

It is a well known truism in my community of Madonna House that being transferred from one house to another is the great invitation to take stock and pare down one’s possessions. Those of us who find ourselves in long-term assignments have to be doubly vigilant, then.

So this disease of hoarding is one that I know religious and other types of consecrated have to be watchful of. What about the rest of you guys? Are the laity off the hook, and able then to acquire and hoard freely? Is that the general idea of Christian life—that the consecrated live austerely while the laity stack up possessions without any brake or qualms?

I don’t think so – do you? The sin of avarice (read all about it in my new book!) applies to all of us, don’t you think? The rich fool in Luke’s parable (Lk 12) is a lay man, after all. As is the rich man who denied Lazarus even a crust of bread (Lk 16). And that is the heart of the matter—the world’s goods are given to us for our use for our need; to store up and stock up beyond our reasonable need is to deprive and deny the poor, and if the Lord taught us one thing clearly in His life among us, it is that to deny the poor is to deny God.

It does bear witness, as the Pope says, to a spiritual emptiness, something amiss in our relationship with God, our trust in Him. So if we see ourselves constantly expanding our tents to make room for the next shipment of goods, it is a call on our part to prayer and fasting, interior examination and spiritual renewal. Material good is not our security; God is our security. In English, one little letter makes all the difference – but to remove that little ‘o’ can be quite a battle.

While the battle is fought on the front of how many clothes are in our closet or how many nice things are in our house, we have to be aware that the spiritual ramifications are immense and urgent—do I believe in God, or don’t I? Is He my all-in-all or not? Where is my security? And what about the poor? Big stuff, big questions, and eternal life hangs upon them.

So no, questions of poverty, avarice, hoarding, and generosity are not only for those with vows or promises. It is a basic Christian stance towards reality, which plays out in the concrete and very material choices we make each day, buying and selling, giving and taking, keeping and losing. Let us pray to choose wisely and well, mindful of Who we are really choosing or failing to choose in it all.

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