A few years back during one of those gigantic East Coast storms there was a multi-car accident. Many people were injured and a few even died. This news program I was watching interviewed the daughter of one of the women who had died in the pile up. The daughter talked about how short life is and how sometimes death can sneak up on us without warning. The accident, “really moved her” she said. I thought she was going to go on and say how we need to be spiritually prepared and how we always need to be ready for death so as not to be taken by surprise. But instead the daughter went in the other direction saying, “life is so short I need to go and buy those things I’ve always wanted.” “I need that big screen TV; I need to buy those things that I want, before it’s too late.” There was no mention of God at all.
Today’s readings remind us that we can sometimes get caught up in idolizing the things of this world, idolizing all the goods and products that surround us and when taken to an extreme it’s called hedonism, an idolizing of the world. At the other end of the spectrum is Puritanism a demonizing of the world, saying that all that is of the world is evil. The proper Catholic response is a balance of both extremes. It’s both a yes to the world and a no to the world. A yes to the world taken too far is hedonism while a no to the world taken too far is Puritanism. We should enjoy the world; it’s good because God made it and gave it to us, while at the same time understanding that it’s not as important as the God who gave it to us. Everything in moderation.
In our first reading Qoheleth (King Solomon) is someone who had it all. He had knowledge, material wealth, fame, power, influence, and sensual pleasure. And he called all of these vanities. To put our trust in these things is vanity. To obsessively pursue these things is vanity. They are good, because God made them and gave them to us, but they are not God. Only God is the ultimate good, only in God is ultimate infinite joy to be found.
In the narthex of the Old Cathedral in Saint Louis Missouri there hangs a painting which depicts King Louis IX (the future St. Louis). He’s kneeling before an altar on the night before he’s to be named king of all France. On the floor beside him is the golden crown and scepter that he’ll be given the next day. On the altar in front of him, however, is a crown of thorns. St. Louis had a life-long devotion to our Lord’s crown of thorns, a relic which he himself had received as a gift. To house this relic he built La Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel), a masterpiece of architecture and even today a popular tourist destination. We can’t help but wonder what anxiety King Louis may have felt that night. He the future king of France, someone who wanted to be holy, was to carry upon his head a crown of gold while the King of kings, carried upon his head a crown of thorns. Could he, be rich and powerful and, yet at the same time, remain a disciple of the Lord?
In the Gospel today Jesus warns us “To guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Our Lord does not say that the Christian cannot be rich; he says, rather, that the rich must be careful, not letting their wealth and possessions become the reason for which they live. It’s very difficult to keep focused on loving God when we are preoccupied by the thoughts of owning more and more possessions, and by the constant determination to be as comfortable as possible in this life. Materialism steals our attention from God and distracts us from our principle concern; the salvation of our soul. If we are too preoccupied with material things, then we are not going to pay enough attention to the spiritual life, which requires detachment from things so that we can attach ourselves to God.
St. Francis de Sales in his book Introduction to the Devout Life teaches us detachment from things and possessions and how to exercise a real poverty of spirit even though we may be materially rich. First he says, we need to remember that nothing that we own, really belongs to us. Nothing belongs to us. Everything belongs to God. And, God has been pleased to give more to some, than to others, because he expects those who have more, to use what he has given them for his greater honor and glory. Second, this means that those who have must be generous with those who have not. Christ was poor, and the poor reflect his face. Third, he recommends seeking out the poor, serving them in some capacity, feeding them, cleaning their houses, caring for them in some way. And fourth, as a test we can measure our own attachment to material things, and material comforts, de Sales asks us to consider our reaction when we find ourselves inconvenienced in some way, by a storm, power goes out, a theft of some sort, or maybe we received bad service or bad food at a restaurant or maybe the hotel where we stayed had an uncomfortable bed. If we find ourselves agitated, impatient, frustrated, and angry, we would know, then, that we are not as detached as we ought to be.
By following these four concepts King Louis IX became a saint, even though very rich King Louis lived a poverty of the spirit. Everyday St. Louis invited 120 poor people into his own house, and he fed them personally (bread, wine, meat, and fish), also giving them money as they left. Before dying St. Louis wrote a letter of advice to his son who would succeed him. It’s good advice for us today. Here are a few excerpts, he wrote: my dear son love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength. Without this there is no salvation. If the Lord bestows upon you any kind of prosperity, thank him humbly and see that you become no worse for it, either through vain pride or anything else, because you ought not to oppose God or offend him in the matter of his gifts. Be kind hearted to the poor, the unfortunate, and the afflicted. Give them as much help and consolation as you can. And finally everyday thank God for all the benefits he has bestowed upon you, that you may be worthy to receive greater.
“Let Christ be your possession and your strength, don’t get drunk on other things.” Pope Francis
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley