Our nation’s economic crisis has provoked some interesting commentary, and not only in the political realm. I’ve heard more than one pundit observe that the nation’s financial hardship has a silver lining. Comparative poverty is going to force us to re-evaluate our priorities. We’re going to learn not to be so materialistic.
Christianity is the religion of hope, able to draw good from evil circumstances, so there’s something to the idea that collective belt-tightening could have the salutary effect of teaching us not to place our security in the things we own, and not to live beyond our means.
It’s a mistake, however, to confuse wealth with materialism.
Being rich doesn’t automatically make us materialists any more than poverty magically makes us saints. A poor man can have the same disordered attachment to the little he has that a wealthy man might have for his riches.
It’s the use to which we put what we have – and how attached our hearts are to it – that makes a thing good or evil. Wealth can be corrupting if it tempts us to live decadently. If we imagine we don’t need God because we can buy everything we seem to need, we’re on the wrong path.
Wealth can also start great apostolates, however. It can endow Churches where sacraments are celebrated for centuries, fund missionary trips and employ the poor.
Materialism isn’t having things or even wanting to have them. It’s believing or behaving as if we believe the material world is all there is. It’s easy to tut-tut the extremes of Hollywood starlets or to read of stunning sums of money spent on frivolities and bemoan the seeming emptiness of other people’s lives.
But every day I let serious prayer go by, I am joining all “those people” in their assertion that what matters in life is the material.
In a way, maybe I make my life smaller than theirs. “If you’re going to go to hell, you should go first class,” as my godfather says. It profits a man nothing to lose his soul for the whole world, but for something small – a few more chores on my to-do list?
What do I assert with my life each day? Do my choices show that I really believe in things unseen? That I believe God has more power than I do ? Do I daily pray to intercede for my family, my community and the whole world?
Or with my life do I say: Grace is nice, but first I must get my promotion. Or make partner. Or get my house clean. I want to be holy, but first I want to be thin. Lord, I entrust my children to you, but not enough to sit before the Blessed Sacrament and let you show me how to form their hearts. I want them to be adults capable of changing the culture for the better, but the example I give is of re-making our schedule to adjust for music lessons and sports and play dates. Not Mass. Not the rosary. Not reading the Bible. Not retreats.
Earning a living, sports, music lessons, a clean house and a fit body are important goods. No one says otherwise. They just are not first priority for a Christian. They do not come first in the real world, which is not the material world.
The Father knows we need them, but instructs: “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you as well.” A person not seeking God daily in prayer is a materialist, rich or poor.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.