|Eugène Atget , Lilies|
Verses 24-33 of St Matthew are the Gospel for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, and urge us not to worry about earthly possessions, but rather to store up merit in heaven. Few things would render our lives more counter-cultural than following this advice:
19 Nolite thesaurizare vobis thesauros in terra: ubi ærugo, et tinea demolitur: et ubi fures effodiunt, et furantur. 20 Thesaurizate autem vobis thesauros in cælo, ubi neque ærugo, neque tinea demolitur, et ubi fures non effodiunt, nec furantur. 21 Ubi enim est thesaurus tuus, ibi est et cor tuum. 22 Lucerna corporis tui est oculus tuus. Si oculus tuus fuerit simplex, totum corpus tuum lucidum erit. 23 Si autem oculus tuus fuerit nequam, totum corpus tuum tenebrosum erit. Si ergo lumen, quod in te est, tenebræ sunt: ipsæ tenebræ quantæ erunt? 24 Nemo potest duobus dominis servire: aut enim unum odio habebit, et alterum diliget: aut unum sustinebit, et alterum contemnet. Non potestis Deo servire et mammonæ.25 Ideo dico vobis, ne solliciti sitis animæ vestræ quid manducetis, neque corpori vestro quid induamini. Nonne anima plus est quam esca, et corpus plus quam vestimentum? 26 Respicite volatilia cæli, quoniam non serunt, neque metunt, neque congregant in horrea: et Pater vester cælestis pascit illa. Nonne vos magis pluris estis illis? 27 Quis autem vestrum cogitans potest adjicere ad staturam suam cubitum unum? 28 Et de vestimento quid solliciti estis? Considerate lilia agri quomodo crescunt: non laborant, neque nent. 29 Dico autem vobis, quoniam nec Salomon in omni gloria sua coopertus est sicut unum ex istis. 30 Si autem fœnum agri, quod hodie est, et cras in clibanum mittitur, Deus sic vestit, quanto magis vos modicæ fidei? 31 Nolite ergo solliciti esse, dicentes: Quid manducabimus, aut quid bibemus, aut quo operiemur? 32 hæc enim omnia gentes inquirunt. Scit enim Pater vester, quia his omnibus indigetis. 33 Quærite ergo primum regnum Dei, et justitiam ejus: et hæc omnia adjicientur vobis. 34 Nolite ergo solliciti esse in crastinum. Crastinus enim dies sollicitus erit sibi ipsi: sufficit diei malitia sua.
And the Douay-Rheims:
 Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal.  But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.  The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome.  But if thy eye be evil thy whole body shall be darksome. If then the light that is in thee, be darkness: the darkness itself how great shall it be!  No man can serve two masters. For either he will hate the one, and love the other: or he will sustain the one, and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.  Therefore I say to you, be not solicitous for your life, what you shall eat, nor for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the life more than the meat: and the body more than the raiment? Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns: and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they?  And which of you by taking thought, can add to his stature by one cubit?  And for raiment why are you solicitous? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin.  But I say to you, that not even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these.  And if the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is cast into the oven, God doth so clothe: how much more you, O ye of little faith?  Be not solicitous therefore, saying, What shall we eat: or what shall we drink, or wherewith shall we be clothed?  For after all these things do the heathens seek. For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things.  Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.  Be not therefore solicitous for tomorrow; for the morrow will be solicitous for itself. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof.
We live in a world driven by self-indulgent, narcissistic consumerism. And even (especially?) within the Church itself - in the activities of our parishes and other ecclesial organisations - there is generally a built-in assumption of prosperity that can effectively exclude those who are poor due to unemployment, ill-health or other causes, or worst of all, choose voluntary poverty. Indeed, so far from our roots are we that I've even see someone thrust a collection plate in front of a habit-wearing nun!
Yet Scripture and the example of the saints constantly urge us to take a different path, and their example is worth meditating on. One of my favourite examples of this comes from St Gregory's Life of St Benedict:
"At another time, there was a great dearth in the same country of Campania: so that all kind of people tasted of the misery: and all the wheat of Benedict's monastery was spent, and likewise all the bread, so that there remained no more than five loaves for dinner. The venerable man, beholding the monks sad, both rebuked them modestly for their pusillanimity, and again comforted them with a promise. "Why," said he, "are you so grieved in your minds for lack of bread? Indeed, today there is some want, but tomorrow you shall have plenty."
And so it fell out, for the next day two hundred bushels of meal were found in sacks before his cell door, which almighty God sent them: but by whom, or what means, that is unknown to this very day: which miracle when the monks saw, they gave God thanks, and by this learned in want, not to make any doubt of plenty."
Not all of us can aspire to complete voluntary poverty, however, for we have families to provide for. St John Chrysostom's commentary on this text therefore offers some practical advice on this subject. He doesn't back away from the possibility of achieving the ideal:
"Let us not therefore suppose His injunctions are impossible: for there are many who duly perform them, even as it is. And if you know not of them, it is nothing marvellous, since Elias too supposed he was alone, but was told, I have left unto myself seven thousand men. Whence it is manifest that even now there are many who show forth the life; like as the three thousand then, and the five thousand. And if we believe not, it is not because there are none who do well, but because we are far from so doing. So that just as the drunkard would not easily believe, that there exists any man who does not taste even water (and yet this has been achieved by many solitaries in our time ); nor he who connects himself with numberless women, that it is easy to live in virginity; nor he that extorts other men's goods, that one shall readily give up even his own: so neither will those, who daily melt themselves down with innumerable anxieties, easily receive this thing.
Now as to the fact, that there are many who have attained unto this, we might show it even from those, who have practised this self-denial even in our generation.:
He also, though, suggests some steps along the way:
"But for you, just now, it is enough to learn not to covet, and that almsgiving is a good thing; and to know that you must impart of what you have. For these things if you will duly perform, beloved, you will speedily proceed to those others also.
For the present therefore let us lay aside our excessive sumptuousness, and let us endure moderation, and learn to acquire by honest labor all that we are to have: since even the blessed John, when he was discoursing with those that were employed upon the tribute, and with the soldiery, enjoined them to be content with their wages. Luke 3:14 Anxious though he were to lead them on to another, and a higher self-command, yet since they were still unfit for this, he speaks of the lesser things. Because, if he had mentioned what are higher than these, they would have failed to apply themselves to them, and would have fallen from the others.
For this very reason we too are practising you in the inferior duties. Yes, because as yet, we know, the burden of voluntary poverty is too great for you, and the heaven is not more distant from the earth, than such self-denial from you. Let us then lay hold, if it be only of the lowest commandments, for even this is no small encouragement. And yet some among the heathens have achieved even this, though not in a proper spirit, and have stripped themselves of all their possessions. However, we are contented in your case, if alms are bestowed abundantly by you; for we shall soon arrive at those other duties too, if we advance in this way. But if we do not so much as this, of what favor shall we be worthy, who are bidden to surpass those under the old law, and yet show ourselves inferior to the philosophers among the heathens? What shall we say, who when we ought to be angels and sons of God, do not even quite maintain our being as men? For to spoil and to covet comes not of the gentleness of men, but of the fierceness of wild beasts; nay, worse than wild beasts are the assailers of their neighbor's goods. For to them this comes by nature, but we who are honored with reason, and yet are falling away unto that unnatural vileness, what indulgence shall we receive?
Let us then, considering the measures of that discipline which is set before us, press on at least to the middle station, that we may both be delivered from the punishment which is to come, and proceeding regularly, may arrive at the very summit of all good things; unto which may we all attain, by the grace and love towards man of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen."