|Most economists expect that the entire 2019 holiday season will see healthy US retail spending growth of 3.7% to $1.035 trillion. For Thanksgiving Day, Black Friday and Cyber Monday alone, the total is larger than the yearly Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of eight of the top ten countries in the world. (Source: Adobe Analytics) The first “official” thing we do, ostensibly to mark the birth of Christ is, as the poet William Wordsworth wrote, “to get and spend.” Getting and spending is, without doubt, an American obsession and no more so than during days when we remember a road-bound, homeless family, with a working class father, a single pregnant teenage mother, and an infant who at last found lodging in the crudeness of a cold cave. There seems to be a great disconnect, an incongruity between how we choose to celebrate the birth of God-with-us, and the coming to earth of Him who said: “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15) Let’s reflect a bit closer on this “covetousness.”
In all my years as a priest, rarely, if ever once, have I had a penitent come to Holy Confession and confess covetousness. Some synonyms are “avarice”, “greed”, “acquisitiveness”, or “possessiveness.” The Fathers of the Church were in universal agreement that this acquisitiveness (πλεονεκτικ?τητα) — the constant desire to acquire and own more (get and spend) — was one of the passions that required urgent spiritual attention. More than a temptation, the Fathers identified it as an illness, a pathology of the soul. As St. John Cassian wrote: “Although we may easily guard against this disease, and repel it, yet if we are unwary and once let it into our hearts, it proves most dangerous and very difficult to eliminate.” (the Institutes VII, 21) St. John Chrysostom adds: “If we do not uproot this sickness of avarice at the beginning, if we do not close the door of our soul to it, it will become an illness which no longer will be curable once it has gotten inside of us.” (Homilies on I Corinthians, XI, 4-5) How often we lament the “commercialization of Christmas” as we stroll into the nearest mall or sit at our computers looking for gifts.
Acquisitiveness is a passion that compels us to want more, get more, have more – not based on our real need, but on our “wants.” It is almost an auto-response we have that is fueled by society’s advertising machine and driving consumeristic philosophy, convincing us that we need the latest, the best, the most powerful, the top quality, the thing that everyone else has. It is rooted in the desiderative function of the brain, that part that originates and controls our biological, crudest desires and wants. Used judiciously, those desires may add to our life’s quality. Left unbridled, they can eventually destroy our happiness and life’s meaning, even becoming a subconscious voice repeating the insidious motto of greed and possessiveness: “Much wants more.” The Fathers taught that such uncontrolled acquisitiveness can be not only psychologically damaging, it is, moreover, both idolatry and deception. We raise “things”, “material goods”, to an importance and value level that God alone should have (idolatry) and that those who truly need ought to have in their sight. We become convinced that the getting and spending will give us some measure of happiness, fulfillment, ease our pains, lift our spirits, and make our lives bearable. We don’t have to be a millionaire or wealthy to be controlled by this kind of acquisitiveness.
We have made a turn, as David Cloutier notes in his book The Vice of Luxury: Economic Excess in a Consumer Age, from concern for “the good life” to an acquisitive, determined fixation on “the goods life.” Oddly enough, even Mark Twain caught the threat of getting and spending: “There is no such thing as material covetousness. All covetousness is spiritual. Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for only a moment.” In the first Epistle of St. John we read “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world (1 John 2:15). And in St. Luke: “Jesus warned, ‘Beware of covetousness: for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses.” (Luke 12:15) Things – our possessions – can tie us down to this world. While heaven and hell do spiritual warfare for our souls, we go shopping. While the ultimate day of the Lord approaches, we are busy playing with our toys.
To herald once again the birth of the “Wonder-Counselor, the Mighty God, and the Prince of Peace” – we fill our shopping baskets or online carts, all for that fleeting moment of the fix, that “high” of getting and spending, forgetting that the eventual crash will come – forgetting that the impulse to buy and to own is yet another symbol of the interior craving we have for God Himself – a craving we subconsciously try to satisfy with things. The result? We lose sight of the true meaning of life and faith – turning Christmas into a secular bacchanalia of spending with little regard for the poor Christ who was born and who, in Luke’s Gospel, clearly, completely, threw his lot in with the “have-nots” and the destitute – not the moneychangers. What was the parable of Lazarus the poor man sitting at the gate of the wealthy but a precursor of the Christmas trudge through the malls or online, totally oblivious to the One who warned: “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” (Matt. 6:24) We not only clutter our houses and our lives, we clutter our souls in the process.
How can we avoid the trap of acquisitiveness? St. Gregory Palamas instructs us: “Being delivered from bodily sins is not enough, we must also cleanse the inner energy which dwells in our soul. For out of our hearts proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornication, murders, thefts, and covetousness. These are the things that motivate people.” As with all the passions, acquisitiveness requires cleansing (purification) and cleansing requires awareness. Being aware of this tendency in us goes a long way towards actual healing. At the end of the day, in our examination of conscience, we need to ask ourselves: Have I been overly concerned with “things” today? Do the inner eyes of my soul focus on the chaos and commerce of the here and now or are they uplifted towards the heavenly, to “the one thing needful?” (Luke 10:42) Did I spend my resources wisely and prudently? Did I buy things I really didn’t need? Did I experience the “getting and spending” impulse? Am I easily influenced by the lure of the stores? Did I try to fight the impulse to get more? Making ourselves mindful of the power “things” can have over us is a certain way to heal acquisitiveness. The fact is, we are surrounded by it.
Secondly, have I ever seriously considered simplifying my life and lifestyle? Starting this effort means desiring fewer “things” in your life. St. Paul wrote to the young Bishop Timothy: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.” (1 Timothy 6:6-8) The complexity of life can smother our most virtuous instincts. Ironically, the more we acquire, the emptier we seem to feel. The greater our impulse to get and spend, the more it seems we feel that “there is something missing.” There is never enough, always something more to acquire. We survey our homes, all our possessions, carefully purchased and beautifully placed, and deep down in the cavern of our soul we quizzically whisper “Is that all there is?” Unbeknown to us, we have sought from the city of man what can only come to us from the City of God: wholeness, inner peace, fulfillment, and authentic happiness.
As we commemorate the Nativity of the Lord in all its poverty and stark simplicity, the bottom line is: What do we truly desire in life? More pointedly, WHOM do we desire? St. Matthews Gospel is clear: “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also lies your heart.” (Matt. 6:21) What you value most in life is what you give your life to. If it is Jesus Christ, His Word, His life, His personal poverty and utter simplicity, His Lordship over you — then you will give yourself to Him – totally and completely. As we prepare for the Nativity, what is the real treasure of your heart? Prepare for His coming!
Your servant in the Lord,
(Please find attached a copy of Sunday’s Bulletin for your prayerful preparation.)