A novice meditates on the readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C). The rich fool’s problem is not that he wished to enjoy his things too much, but that he would enjoy them too little. True asceticism demands that we despise things only in order to love them truly.
Viewers of British comedy in the early 90s will remember Hyacinth Bucket (though she insisted on her name being pronounced ‘Bouquet’), a comically snobbish social climber whose main aim in life was to impress others with her pretended refinement and affluence. She boasted of her possessions, including her ‘Royal Doulton china with the hand-painted periwinkles’ and her ‘white slimline telephone with automatic redial’ to any and all who would listen, not least the workmen whose shoes she insisted be removed so that they would not stain her carpet. Deeply insecure about her social credibility, she would try to shore it up by endearing herself to posh people and making extravagant purchases, to the exasperation of her honest, hardworking, henpecked husband. ‘Vanity of vanities’ indeed (Eccles 1:2)!
Christ cautions against ‘all forms of greed’, and St Paul condemns it as idolatry (Lk 12:15, Col 3:5). Being tied up in material things and getting pernickety about paraphernalia impoverishes us by denying us leisure and the pursuit of self-expression: we risk becoming slaves to wealth, unduly placing all our security in them and giving them a value they do not have. In and of themselves, earthly goods cannot win for us heavenly merit.
And so it is tempting to read a certain dualism into today’s readings, to think that ‘heavenly things good, earthly things bad’. But the Scriptures do not deride created matter as waste or evil; instead, our goods are precisely goods because they are intended to help us achieve our Highest Good – they are provisions on our pilgrimage through earth to heaven. What the readings do lament is our disordered affection for earthly things, and what these reveal about the state of our immortal soul. What good lies in storing ample goods if one’s purpose in so doing is to ‘relax, eat, drink, be merry’, scorning the poor (Lk 12:19)? Can there be right order in a society where ‘riches and wealth’ are in the house of a man not ‘generous, merciful and just’ (cf Ps 111:4)? And what of our interior possessions: egotistical self-worth, ‘fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed’ (Col 3:5)? Do we place too much security in routine that we are unwilling to cast off established patterns of sinful behaviour? If we constrain our concerns to the purely carnal, we will have made ‘gods of our bellies’ and sordid desires, and our work will be nothing but vexation and vanity if done in their pursuit (Phil 3:19, Eccles 2:23). The rich fool’s problem is not that he wished to enjoy his things too much, but that he would enjoy them too little. If he found in them a reason for naught save revelry, he would have shut his eyes and heart to their true beauty – as necessary materials for the works of mercy, and to provide the conditions for contemplating the truth of God, in whom rests our Highest Good. The rich fool’s goods, deprived of their true goal, become mere appearances of wealth: he really is poor, for his heart lies in dissipation.
Christ warns against storing up treasures for ourselves but not being rich towards God (Lk 12:21). Not much later, though, he adds, ‘Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (Lk 12:34). True asceticism demands that we despise things only in order to love them more deeply: let us despise created things as objects of possible preference over God, so that we may cherish them as made by God out of love for us, and use them in his service. ‘If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above’ (Col 3:1): since we have been raised with Christ, let us be like Mary Magdalene on the morning of the Resurrection, who did not cling onto him, but who left the consolation of his presence to attend to the greater consolation of his will. St Paul exhorts us to put on the ‘new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator’ (Col 5:10). Let us pray for this knowledge, this sacred mentality that opens us to the sacramentality of the everyday – finding an opportunity to love and serve the Lord in all things – so that all our experiences and encounters will be ‘eucharistic’, bearing the character of thanksgiving to the God from whom all good things come. In this way, we will not be keeping up appearances, but bearing witness to the truth (John 18:37), the truth that we are ourselves possessions, for ‘we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God’ (1 Cor 3:23). ‘So, whatever you do, do it for the [greater] glory of God’ (cf 1 Cor 10:31).
‘Finding God in all things’, ‘love and serve the Lord’, ‘to the greater glory of God’ – these are expressions attributed to a man well-acquainted with vanity in his former life. St Ignatius of Loyola, who on this day entered the glory of heaven, had been a Spanish courtier entranced by airs and graces. His leg was injured in battle, and at his behest his bones were set and re-broken to remedy what he considered a defect in his otherwise-stylish appearance. However, this left him with a limp, and during his long convalescence, he was graced with interior prayer and discernment. Leaving his past of privilege and prestige behind, he wrote his influential Spiritual Exercises and founded the Society of Jesus. His life’s work he offered to God as the first-fruits of a harvest. Ecclesiastes reckons it vanity that the fruits of the land he toiled will pass to an heir who has not contributed to the work (2:21), but St Ignatius, giving himself to God’s service, would pray for generosity: ‘Lord Jesus, teach me to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to toil and not to seek for rest, save that of knowing that I do your will.’ After all, nothing we do succeeds without God. Was it not ‘God who gave the growth’, though ‘Paul planted and Apollos watered’ (1 Cor 3:6)? ‘The rich man’s land produced abundantly’, for ‘the harvest is plentiful’ (Lk 12:16, Mt 9:37). God has bestowed blessings, skills, talents, resources on us – exterior and interior possessions: let us serve him through them.
But our service necessarily falls short, because we can give him nothing he has not already given us. ‘The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness’ (Ps 23:1), and from it we produce bread and wine, under whose appearances the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Saviour will be truly present on the altar. ‘To us, who can give him nothing more than ourselves, he has given nothing more than himself’ (fr Vincent McNabb OP). Let us find him and give him thanks in all things, always and everywhere, for it is truly right and just. The Eucharist is provision for our pilgrimage through earth to heaven: let us discard empty appearances and present ourselves to him as we are, so that, at journey’s end, by his grace, we will see him as he is (1 Jn 3:2). As our offerings are placed on the altar, let us offer ourselves to God with our gifts, as St Ignatius did:
‘Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory,
my understanding and my entire will;
all I have and call my own.
You have given all to me; to you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
these alone, O Lord, are enough for me.’
Image: ‘Cannonballs and Conversion: Embracing the Ignatian Year’ (Loyola Spirituality Center, 25th June 2021) < here > accessed 28th July 2022