How many of us walk by the kiosks where the lottery tickets are sold and just for a second imagine what it would be like to win 50 million? What would we buy? What would we give to family, church or charity? Personally, I imagine what it would be like not to have to worry about paying the bills, and how settled it would be to have my home paid off. I’d plan elaborate vacations with the extended family and shopping sprees in Europe. In theory at least, I’d be happier, less burdened, and magically problem-free!
It seems as if having money means having no struggles—there are no marriage problems among the rich, they never stub their toes, and their kids are all brilliant rocket scientists who spend their summers feeding children and puppies in Africa. Money, it seems, makes everything brighter and better and these days, in North America, having it seems to be inextricably linked with happiness, contentment and being loved. At least that’s the message we’re bombarded with from corporate America. Next time you’re tolerating the commercials between your favourite TV shows, pay attention to how many of them subconsciously speak about happiness, contentment, or love in relation to a product or service. Mom is happy with her husband and kids because Mr. Clean keeps the house in order. Your brain registers—buy those products to get along with my kids. Or grandpa acts lovingly towards grandma because she gives him a Worthers. Your brain equates those candies with deep affection. How disappointing and sad when the poor lonely schmuck with visions of finding love on the sandy white beaches of Cuba (as he’s been subliminally told he will), arrives only to find out that life is just as lonesome and boring there as it is anywhere else. Yet we still believe “the man” when he tells us that true contentment is available for three easy instalments of $19.95.
Sure the car, boat, and the 16 pairs of jeans might serve specific purposes in life, but the truth is that they are merely means to an end, not the end in themselves. But we treat them as if they were ends in themselves. We want to believe that this world is home—because sometimes we can’t see beyond ourselves or the created world. We’re tempted to just “pitch our tent here and live as though there were no death, no other destiny,” says Fr. Thomas Dubay in his book Happy are you Poor. “But one cannot look to the Lord if he is looking at things. We cannot serve God and mammon. We are to be present in this world but not home in it. That is the ideal.”
You see, the thing about things is that they clutter up one’s life, they impede spiritual growth and destroy what Caryll Houselander in her book Reed of God calls the virginal emptiness within each one of us—that form given to the very self “by the purpose for which it is intended,” like the hollow of a reed or cup. This emptiness within us is what predisposes and readies us for our ultimate purpose in life—to know, love, and serve God in this world and to be happy with Him in the next. (Thank you Baltimore Catechism!) It is the spiritually mature soul who does everything he can to keep his heart free and clear of the material junk that threatens to gum up the works. Because when we do clog ourselves with stuff, Caryll reminds us that there is neither “room to receive God nor silence to hear His voice.” And without even knowing it, we begin to “fill our lives with trivial details, plans, desires, ambitions, unsatisfied cravings for passing pleasures, doubts, anxieties and fears”—and these are further overlaid by exhausting pleasures, which are always futile attempts to “forget how pointless such lives are.”
That’s right. The more stuff we own for its own sake, the more pointless our lives become, and the more we crave more stuff. It’s a pretty simple, nasty cycle—and easy to get into these days.
So you want to be really radical? Or even just shock the heck out of your friends? Give your stuff away or quit buying it! Or tithe more than ten percent. (Gasp!!!) Let me ask you this. If Jesus said to you, “Look here Sally, I’m going to give you Heaven … that is, happiness and contentment beyond your wildest imaginings for all eternity, I just need you to give away your personal effects”—would you be sad about it? Would you be thinking, “Aw man, I just bought a new car—can I keep that? And my favourite jeans? And maybe a few rings—they were my grandma’s?”
Yeah. So would I. Just goes to show that I’m not “there” yet. In fact, I wonder if I’m even on the road some days. When I forget though, I don’t have to go far to find good examples of giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s—from Francis of Assisi to Mother Theresa—the saints all knew, in the depths of their souls, that material things aren’t worth the boxes they’re packed in. The gospel of materialism preached by the church of corporate America couldn’t be further from the real truth—that Jesus Christ alone is the source and summit of all happiness, contentment, and genuine, lasting, unadulterated Love, both in this life and the next. And He is the only “thing” that will suffice for our souls, no matter how many flat screens or four wheelers we try to wedge in.
Sarah explores authentic Catholic femininity on her blog The Feminine Gift.