I hope I haven’t scared you off already. I actually took the title from our Holy Father Benedict XVI. He was giving a talk on one of our monastic fathers, St Theodore the Studite. He said, in speaking of the poverty professed by monks: “in the following of Christ this is from the beginning an essential element of monasticism and indicates as well a path for us. Renunciation of private poverty, freedom from material things, as well as sobriety and simplicity, are only valid in their radical form for monks, but the spirit of this renunciation is the same for everyone.”
In light of the current economic anxieties (not to mention chaos, though I just did), it might be prudent, if not imperative, to enter a bit more fully into the spirit of renunciation—not only to ride out the present storm, but also to learn how to live in a way that is more in keeping with the simplicity enjoined by Jesus in the Gospel.
Now I’m not going to try to offer a series of practical penny-pinching pointers; there are enough of those around. My task is more to help you gain a better perspective on things so that the practical details will more naturally and less painfully fall into place.
The main principle in living in a happily self-disciplined way during tough times is a simple reminder: You don’t need everything you want. You do need some things and, as Jesus recognized, our heavenly Father knows you need them as well: food, clothing, shelter (but not gourmet food, designer clothing, and plush or opulent shelter). His advice was to seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and everything you need will be arranged for by the providence of God—with your conscientious cooperation, of course! God doesn’t make deposits in our checking accounts, but He is able to (and usually does) make it possible for us to live in such a way as to provide for ourselves, our families, and even for those in greater need than we are.
One of the problems with a generally affluent, high-tech society is that everyone thinks they need to be affluent, high-tech people. We surround ourselves with comforts and gadgets that we just gotta have. Well, maybe we don’t gotta have them. I’ve talked to people in financial distress who got that way by maxing out their credit cards and going deeply into debt. But it wasn’t that they had been saddled with astronomical medical bills or some other tragic turn of events that unexpectedly exhausted all their resources. They were just living way beyond their means, thinking that the high material standard of living they wanted to achieve was something that was necessary to their happiness. They were evidently not seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.
St Paul says that our contentment should come from living in a godly manner, “for we brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1Tim. 6:6-9). Since most of those who would take the time to read a blog such as this are not likely to be thirsting for countless riches, let’s replace “rich” in the above quote with “materially comfortable with financial security.” Now we get a little closer to home. For we may not be aware that our dissatisfaction with having only our basic needs met can be a snare; it can generate “many senseless and hurtful desires” which will lead to unhappiness and perhaps even some resentment toward God, who is not giving us all we fancy. It is not really the actual doing without the “finer things” in life that is the source of unhappiness—it is clinging to a frustrated desire for these things that makes us miserable. Let go of the desire, and the absence of the things will not be so irksome.
When the Pope mentioned “freedom from material things” he didn’t mean simply not having any, but freedom from the attachment to them and hence from the desire for more and more. That is why the spirit of renunciation, which is expressed in “sobriety and simplicity,” is necessary, not only for coping with hard economic times but simply for living the Gospel at any time. This is part of the wisdom and the witness of monasticism in the Church—showing that it is possible (and even desirable) to renounce the excesses of the world for the sake of a more faithful and less distracted following of Christ. St Paul told his Corinthian charges that his purpose in his admonitions was to “secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (1Cor. 7:35). Perhaps this is the bottom line: how much do our desires for material prosperity—and our anxieties or frustrations over the lack or threatened loss of it—divide our hearts, draw us away from a peace-giving and trusting relationship with God, and hence urge us to try to “serve two masters”?
Probably our unraveling economy will give us the occasion to see what we can in fact live without, and as our material standard of living falls we may actually be pleased to notice that our spiritual standard of living is rising. But in order for that to happen (since it’s not automatic) it is best now to begin “testing the waters” by embracing the spirit of renunciation in certain things, so that we are not merely forced to “do without” when things are simply taken from us or denied us. We’re pretty much out of control as a nation—corporate greed and unscrupulous economic manipulation notwithstanding. Yes, we have been lied to and robbed by the fat cats who couldn’t care less about anyone or anything else except making themselves fatter still. But we all bear a share in the responsibility, for we all have a bit of greed in us, or acquisitiveness, or possessiveness, or stinginess and excuse-making when it comes to sharing what we have with the truly poor. We’d like to see the playing field leveled between the filthy rich and ourselves, but we don’t want to see it leveled between ourselves and the dirt poor.
So this is perhaps a good time to evaluate our relationships to God and to the world. Try to discover what the Lord might wish you to renounce, or at least accept not having or receiving, so that you can live in that “sobriety and simplicity” that the Pope (as well as the Gospel) enjoins—perhaps not as radically as those who make vows of poverty (though some of these also ought to check if they are really living them), but in sufficient measure as to still be able to live a blessed life of faith and love, even with reduced material prosperity. We take pains to meet the demands and reap the benefits of being American citizens. But Scripture says our citizenship is in Heaven, and I wonder how much that influences our daily lives here and now. Are we living as good citizens of our true homeland? The values of those expecting to live forever in Heaven are different than those who have no hope beyond this world. Are our lives indistinguishable from those who live for this world alone? The extent to which we embrace the spirit of renunciation can be a litmus test, and through it we will discover the extent to which God’s grace suffices. I think we may be pleasantly surprised at the blessings that come to those who seek first the Kingdom.