In the Office of readings for January 17 we read of the Abbot’s renunciation of worldly goods, prompted by the scriptural readings of the mass:
. . .entering the church just as the Gospel was being read, he heard the Lord’s words to the rich man: If you want to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give the money to the poor—you will have riches in heaven. Then come and follow me.
It seemed to Anthony that it was God who had brought the saints to his mind and that the words of the Gospel had been spoken directly to him. Immediately he left the church and gave away to the villagers all the property he had inherited.
Anthony did hold some of his fortune in reserve—which most of us would think a prudent move—until hearing at another mass, “do not be anxious about tomorrow,” at which point he dispensed with the rest of his goods and settled his responsibilities, freeing himself completely for Jesus.
This story comes just as many of us are putting away the last decorations and accumulated “stuff” of Christmas, and trying to find room for all of our newly acquired clothes, electronics, and sporting goods. Our Christmas was a modest one, by choice, and no one in our family is consumed by a burning need to own the latest in gadgetry, so finding “new” room is no issue. Still, in packing up Christmas, I felt overwhelmed by our inability to parse the seasonal bundles down, and by the sheer volume of our ownership. Discovering a crack in a Christmas lantern, I moved to throw it away, but my husband stopped me, saying, “but it’s pretty; just turn the cracked part around to the wall, next year!”
Anxious to be done and not seeking an argument, I acquiesced; I packed the thing away for next year, but grudgingly. Three days later, it is still nagging at me that something as inconsequential, meaningless, and unnecessary as a Christmas lantern could not be parted with because it was “pretty.”
Theologically, my husband was on solid ground: a thing needn’t be perfect in order to be valued, but then did the lantern’s “prettiness” assign to it a false value which has played him for a sucker? And was that not reflective of our whole society’s willingness to excuse a great many faults in individuals, because they are good-looking, or in institutions because they are powerful?
An issue of fractured prettiness seems able to plumb the depths or skip the shallows, and the salvation of the cracked Christmas lantern is beginning to give me existential agida. Neither my husband nor I would call ourselves particularly “materialistic” people, and yet we have allowed our garage and basement to become so crammed with things we neither need nor use that one can barely find a clear path to walk in either area. Every bit of wall space has something lined against it and every drawer is full-to-bursting with clothes we do not wear, utensils we do not use; the shelves are loaded with books we do not re-read and DVD’s we never watch.
It is all evidence, of course, of the prosperous middle-class American life–the rewards of capitalism. Some might suggest that evidence of our productivity and purchasing power should fill me with a sense of patriotic pride; people in third world nations enjoy neither the norms nor the niceties of our Western life, but “make no mistake” we are told, they all aspire to it.
And certainly, that is true: my husband’s grandparents and my own arrived at Ellis Island straight from the hovels of the meanest Irish and Italian peasant’s poverty; in the promise of American liberty and opportunity, they sought relief from the unrelenting sense of need. But just about a hundred years into this adventure, there is evidence that need has been replaced with unthinking greed and a loss of long-term perspective. We tend to forget that the “marvels” to which we are accustomed—indoor plumbing, Western medicine, insta-communication—are a short blip within human history; notions of “income equality” ring thin and weak when shouted through the ages; the jeering of peerage and peasantry echo back.
Though our impoverished origins were centuries established, the only remaining connection to them is in our church, and for many of our siblings and cousins that is a tenuous connection, indeed, for prosperity and good fortune rarely prompt us to worship anything beyond ourselves and our stuff; we do not often fall to our knees in thanksgiving, or with a heart opened to surrendering all that stuff in exchange for a whole life full of Christ.
In pondering the boxes of Christmas, and packing up that cracked lantern, I did not feel like the queen of all I surveyed; rather, I felt robbed of something, and ruled over; owned by ownership.
Barely into Ordinary Time, I found myself flipping through a calendar seeking out Ash Wednesday, and circling the date: February 22. In just a little over a month, we enter into a season of penance and reparation and the renunciation of excess, and even the most casual of Catholics will make an effort at sacrifice and doing without. In so doing, we will be figuratively reaching back, fleetingly touching the fingers of our past impoverishment. Perhaps it can bring some perspective to the increasingly empty ring of our prosperity.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.
Divine Office: Office of Readings
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.