As Christians, when we think about avoiding materialism, we focus on trying not to accumulate things just for the sake of accumulating them, like clothes, shoes, DVD’s, whatever it may be. But it seems like the accumulation of books is an acceptable form of materialism. The guys who helped me move into the rectory will tell you that much! I have four bookshelves over there filled with books on philosophy, theology, the spiritual life, the sacraments, etc. They go on and on. 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 have only been read in bits here and there.
The guys who helped me carry in box after box of books may not believe this, but I actually gave away many books as I packed up to move here. That was a very liberating exercise. It not only helped me have less to pack, but it also relieved a bit of that spiritual and psychological burden that escalates as we – as I – accumulate more and more books and things. I felt like a 50 pound weight has been lifted off of my shoulders as I gave those books away. My dad says for every one book I buy I should take two off of the shelf. Well, then they would just pile on the floor!
I pray that I can retain an impulse to periodically pare things down, to unload a bit, and 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 he has lived his life. “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”; “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 and experience the same freedom of detachment?
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 things that have eternal significance. Perhaps we need a healthy reminder that death could come for any of us at any minute. This might cause us to be a little nervous or anxious; maybe it should. The better reaction though is to live each day valuing what is most important, what does not simply pass away on its own, for example, the share in God’s own divine Life in the grace of the sacraments; the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Love; the spiritual growth of our children and grandchildren; the peace and fulfillment that comes from working with “wisdom and knowledge and skill,” as the First Reading put it; or the freedom that comes from interior detachment from the things that we own.
It is not a sin to be rich or to own many things. We have many saints in our tradition who were kings or queens. But it is a sin to value finite things over eternal things. Our things should be instrumental toward our salvation; they find their value in the way they help us toward it. They should not amount to our salvation or be the source that we look to for a sense of salvation here on earth. When you and I die, what will people say? Will they say: “Yes, he lived a life accumulating, day after day, year upon year… grace, prayer, charity toward his family and neighbors, parishioner after parishioner who decided to be a more faithful Catholic because of his example. He thought ‘of what is above, not of what is on earth,’ as St. Paul wrote to the Colossions. He accumulated rosaries prayed, confessions humbly given, novenas offered, hours spent before the Blessed Sacrament. And he accumulate these not so he could provide a final tally to God, but because they brought him true fulfillment and happiness. They brought others relief from their burdens. They were pleasing to God.” Or… instead… will God say to you and me what he said to the foolish rich man in today’s Gospel: “‘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.”