At the seminary, the accumulation of books is the last acceptable materialism. Seminarians do not make any money. The Archdiocese, using money from various initiatives like the Building a Future of Hope Campaign and other funds, pays for our tuition, room, and board. But for anything outside of that, we rely on donations and a monthly stipend. We often cry, "Woe is me, I'm a poor seminarian" but we have a knack for accumulating books like you wouldn't believe! I think I have four whole bookshelves at the seminary, full of books. And I tell myself that I need them, or that someday I will refer to them. Many of them are in fact very useful, but most of them go unread. And so at the end of each semester, at least at St. Mary's where I study, we have a tradition of leaving things we want to get rid of at the end of the hall so that other seminarians that may need them can freely pick them up. This is a very liberating exercise. Not only does it help practically in packing up to go home, but it also relieves that spiritual and psychological burden that escalates as we – as I – accumulate more and more books and things. One feels like a 50 pound weight has been lifted off of his shoulders as he returns from the end of the hall to his room.
I pray that I don't lose this tradition – the impulse at the end of each semester to pare things down, to unload a bit, to free myself of so many things that distract me from what is most important. We see this impulse especially in the elderly and most especially in those who are preparing for death. Facing death causes one to look back at how well one has lived. "Did I live well? Did I do the right thing? Was I a good husband and father? How well did my children turn out? Will my family be OK?" All of these are questions that I have heard elderly people ask as I have visited them at home or at the hospital. And the point that many make is that the things they thought were most valuable, really aren't that valuable anymore in the grand scheme of things. Many feel a certain disappointment or embarrassment. They fought and worked so hard for so many decades in order to have a wealthy retirement or to finally enjoy all of the things they felt cheated out of as they concentrated on raising their family. Now all they want to do is be free of it all, to have peace and quiet, to see virtuous living among their children, to give and to receive love, to share the stories and the lessons they have learned. And the wisest of the elderly want to die well, detached from all of the things and all of the plans that now have little value before the eternal value of their own soul and their preparedness for eternal life.
In one of the most important encyclicals of our Catholic Social Teaching, Populorum Progressio, On the Development of Peoples, Pope Paul VI wrote, "Increased possession is not the ultimate goal of nations nor of individuals. All growth is ambivalent. It is essential if man is to develop as a man, but in a way it imprisons man if he considers it the supreme good, and it restricts his vision." Our first reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes began by exclaiming "Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!" The Hebrew word, translated here as "vanity" really means "a breath" or "a vapor" and "vanity of vanities" is the Hebrew way of saying, "the merest breath." The author isn't talking about being "vain", he is emphasizing that the things we work so hard for in life, what Pope Paul VI called our "increased possession," are like "a breath", like "a vapor", they pass away with the wind. Those who are approaching death from sickness or old age readily see how their things will pass away like "a breath", like "a vapor" and the wisest among them are liberated, not embittered by this fact. Why can't most of us, who cannot see our death approaching, have the same liberation?
I often find that once I have finally gotten that rare book from that awesome theologian, I flip through it, put it on the shelf, and then focus on what the next book will be. The fact is, God put into man an insatiable desire for the infinite, but we try to fulfill that desire with finite things. Because we do this, we live in constant frustration, going from one thing to the next, never satisfied. But, our satisfaction will only come, even in this life, when we satisfy our infinite desire with infinite things. Perhaps we need a healthy reminder that death could come for any of us at any minute. This need not cause us to be nervous or anxious. Instead it should cause us to live each day valuing what is most important, what is infinite, what does not pass away. St. Athanasius, in his biography of St. Anthony of the Desert, wrote: "A person who lives as if he were to die every day - given that our life is uncertain by definition - will not sin, for good fear extinguishes most of the disorder of our appetites; whereas he who thinks he has a long life ahead of him will easily let himself be dominated by pleasures."
It is not a sin to be rich. We have many saints in our tradition who were kings or queens. But it is a sin to value finite things over infinite things. Our things should be instrumental toward our salvation. They should not amount too our salvation or be the source that we look to for a sense of salvation here on earth. Our lives should be characterized by an accumulation of infinite things. One should look back on us when we die and say: "Yes, he lived a life accumulating, day after day, year upon year, grace, prayer, charity toward his family and neighbors. He claimed parishioner after parishioner who decided to be a more faithful Catholic because of his example. He accumulated rosaries prayed, confessions humbly given, novenas offered, hours spent before the Blessed Sacrament. And he didn't accumulate these just so he could provide a final tally to God and say, 'Look at all that I did!' No he accumulated these spiritual things because they brought him fulfillment and happiness. They brought others relief from their burdens. They were pleasing to God." Will these things be said of us? Or instead will God say to us what he said to the foolish rich man, "'You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?' Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God."