The First Readings at Mass for all of this the 25th Week in Ordinary Time have come from our Old Testament patrimony of wisdom literature. The passages are all terribly familiar, treasured and esteemed words to live by. My favorite of the week was Wednesday’s:
“Every word of God is unalloyed, he is the shield of those who take refuge in him. To his words make no addition, lest he reprove you and know you for a fraud. Two things I beg of you, do not grudge me them before I die: keep falsehood and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches, grant me only my share of bread to eat, for fear that surrounded by plenty, I should fall away and say, ‘The Lord – who is the Lord?’ or else, in destitution, take to stealing and profane the name of my God.” (Proverbs 30:5-9)
Speaking for myself, in all honesty, I must confess that living with a sufficiency has always been a great challenge for me. It’s like packing for a trip: airline baggage weight restrictions are about the only effective motivation that keeps the “just in case” change of trousers out of the overnight bag. Sadly enough the extreme cases we encounter of people attached to material things are all too common. Although I cannot bring myself to watch such shows, I can imagine it’s like the reality TV programs out there about people who hoard, with something about “buried alive” in the title of the show.
Even detachment of a measured or moderate sort is all too rare. I still remember as a young priest, watching with amazement one of the priest mentors from my childhood as he moved to a new assignment. I am sure he was 30 years ordained at the time and yet he could still pack all of his personal belongings into his car, have elbowroom sufficient to drive and have a clear view of the road behind through his rearview mirror. He was the rare one even then when a priest’s base salary was $125.00 per month and not much was left over for frills or impulse buying. Somehow we still managed even back then to possess too many things beyond our personal library of books from the seminary. What was true then is all the more so now: yes, believe it or not, you can have too many pairs of dress socks!
O Lord, I make the words of Proverbs my own: give me only my share of bread, lest… or lest… Ouch! It’s a prayer I need to work on to make it as free as possible, with no dread or fears or hesitations factored in.
This and Ecclesiastes’ refrain about vanity have been echoing through my head this week as I look at the news or page through the daily papers. More than anything else, I would say Wisdom is a challenge to your and my pretenses, whether they center on recognizing that for me at age 60 there is no longer the “time for certain occupations under heaven” or our not being surprised at Iphone mirror pictures a certain Eddie Long is supposed to have taken of himself duded up in spandex. “…give me neither poverty nor riches, grant me only my share of bread to eat, for fear that surrounded by plenty, I should fall away and say, ‘The Lord – who is the Lord?’ or else, in destitution, take to stealing and profane the name of my God.”
Beyond moderation and discipline, wisdom’s call first to the ministers of the Church and then to all who have been buried with Christ in baptism, involves self denial. I always have to laugh at these women in the commentary boxes on web pages who gravely and almost triumphantly announce their discovery that the lifestyle of prosperity gospel preachers does not conform to the image of Christ. Why are they surprised and why do they think they are risking something by making such a statement? The whole mendicant movement, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Dominic, was based on a society-wide conviction that Christians followed Christ in His poverty. St. Albert the Great, even after he was made a bishop, continued to walk cross country never riding a horse or taking a carriage, as did his prize pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas (Jesus walked and so did centuries of His disciples). The perception about the rightness of following Christ in His poverty has not changed or been otherwise since the Lord Jesus Himself sent out His first missionaries without walking stick, traveling bag, extra tunic or sandals. “…give me neither poverty nor riches, grant me only my share of bread to eat, for fear that surrounded by plenty, I should fall away and say, ‘The Lord – who is the Lord?’ or else, in destitution, take to stealing and profane the name of my God.”
It is only our vanity which would have us hold to other or seek to justify an approach modeled on the success-oriented movers and shakers of this world. I can remember back in the seminary in Rome one year we had the venerable old Father John Tracy Ellis, a church historian, as our scholar in residence. In a very candid moment, he expressed skepticism concerning the heroic virtue of Fulton J. Sheen. Fr. Ellis had lived in a New York rectory with him and found him too full of self, too vain. Although shocked by this criticism at the time and wanting to dismiss it as perhaps sour grapes, I must admit that nowadays seeing some of Sheen’s old TV programs on EWTN it is hard to miss certain details about the way he dressed for TV and that “wardrobe” or someone eliminated the bow from the archbishop’s ferraiolo… Granted, the look is more tailored.
The object of the exercise is not to criticize, not even to put down the proud and condemn vanity. It is to give the proper content to what we call good example. Although some people are indeed hard to please, there are a lot of seekers out there among the young who condemn us for our attachment to electronics, cars, jewelry and clothes. I think their search is honest; it is a search for Christ where He is to be found. If we would represent or present Him, we should be coming from where He is to be found.
It’s not as easy as cleaning out the overstuffed sock drawer or weeding out clothes you haven’t worn in forever and then purposely dressing down, while going about subdued. There’s nothing particularly brilliant about that sort of pretense or posturing either. It’s not simply a matter of resisting the upgrades, updates, new models or whatever. We need not be told that a big, beautiful watch as jewelry will not draw anyone to the truth which is in Christ alone. The point is that more often than I am willing to admit I am chasing after my own comfort and convenience; I can be demanding; my vanity or my attachment to things effectively excludes me from the list of those who are seeking. “Flashiness” or “Tailoredness” might be a point of contact with a world caught up in the material, but by the same token it is a capitulation and not a gain, as that world is passing away.
Why is all of this so hard or awkward? Why do we have examples of heresy on the side of poverty as well? Maybe the Gospel of Saturday of this Week can help, if nothing else, to console us in our plight:
“At a time when everyone was full of admiration for all he did, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘For your part, you must have these words constantly in your mind: The Son of Man is going to be handed over into the power of men.’ But they did not understand him when he said this; it was hidden from them so that they should not see the meaning of it, and they were afraid to ask him about what he had just said.” (Luke 9:43-45)
Let us pray for each other in our struggle to be content with a sufficiency of bread, lest we be unmindful of the Lord or lest we be a source of scandal by our chasing after things.
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI