Friday, September 17, 2021

"The Uncertainty of Wealth": Does STUFF Make Us Happy?

"For we brought nothing into the world, just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it. If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that. Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.

"But you,
[Timothy,] man of God, avoid all this. Instead, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness....

"Tell the rich in the present age not to be proud and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth but rather on God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share, thus accumulating as treasure a good foundation for the future, so as to win the life that is true life"
(1 Timothy 6:7-11, 17-19).

Ah, "the love of money...." Why do we love money so much? Because it enables us to get stuff. It gives us the power to pursue all our often dangerous (and usually foolish) desires. We want to grasp all the stuff we think we need to obtain security, even though in reality it is vain to measure ourselves by what we possess, by our power over stuff, by "rely[ing] on so uncertain a thing as wealth."

Yet today it seems that the sheer quantity of stuff and the rush to accumulate it define the entire horizon of human life. Obsession with stuff has become a kind of social pathology of monstrous proportions. As a result, many people are sad. We "have pierced [our]selves with many pains." 

Many of us humans are dis-illusioned. Our pride has been shaken. We have experienced unimaginable power over things in this world. We have lived "like gods," with the average first-world person taking for granted his or her easy access to a vast infrastructure of stuff that would have utterly astonished the people of Saint Paul's time. (Imagine, just for starters, the light switch...!) Yet Saint Paul's words to Timothy continue to be vindicated.

We have so much power over the stuff of this world. And we are so bored!

Time plods on relentlessly. Everything is reduced to stuff: stuff to do, stuff to move, stuff to say to people, stuff to eat, stuff to read, stuff to achieve, stuff to "experience," stuff going on in the world. It's not so surprising that people are materialists. We are preoccupied with stuff. Indeed, it's no surprise that people are desperate materialists. We are drowning in stuff. Things that once seemed so interesting and full of promise are grasped, devoured, taken apart, and ravaged until they become dull, monotonous, and disappointing. Stuff. Everything ends up in storage bins, in storage facilities, because for some reason we can't just let it go.

Many of us are afraid to let go, because we think, "What else is there?" Our power always runs into limits. We can't stop time. We can't go back to the past. We have misused the material world in pursuit of our foolish and dangerous desires, and now we are staring at ruin and destruction. 

We are not so powerful after all. Are we in fact nothing but weak, fragile, apparently insignificant specks of cosmic dust whirling about an inscrutable, implacable universe? It seems as if all things follow their course and then disappear, and that they have been doing so for millions of years.

But... no! We can immerse our lives (especially today) in the distractions of stuff, but there are those moments when we "come to our senses" and realize that what we really want is something more, something that is beyond our power.... Then we become conscious of the "piercing pain" of our utter impoverishment in front of the Mystery that illuminates reality, that awakens desire and yet eludes our grasping - our effort to reduce the Mystery to something we can dominate. Then we become aware of our need to have our lives changed, to seek, to cry out from our poverty, to decide on an adherence, a fidelity, an allowing-ourselves-to-be-measured-by-Another

In the end, all our self-defining and self-acquiring power only leads to a more profound awareness of our insuperable limits, but also of the inextinguishable human aspiration to go beyond those limits - to endure, to flourish, to love and be loved without limits. But this aspiration takes us beyond our own power; it reveals the need for a relationship with a Mysterious Other. It requires "trust" in something - some One - beyond our "control." The One who is the source of all things, the source of their attractiveness, their fascination, their promise: the ineffable One who is beyond all things, the One who is source of all that is good.

What can we do? We can cry out for that "beyond," or we can give up on finding meaning and goodness in life (but does anybody really, completely "give up"?). We have a dramatic choice: prayer or the void. Prayer or nothingness.

Ironically, we don't have the power to choose "pure nothingness." We don't have the power to destroy our own being. Despair, instead, turns into nihilism, and spends itself in deceit, resentment, and violence. 

Prayer turns to the Mystery and says, "You are here." Prayer turns to God and says, "I belong to You. Rescue me. Save me."

Christians are supposed to know about their need to pray. Christians have encountered Jesus Christ, and have come to know that the love of God gives all things meaning in Him. Still, Christians easily forget what we have encountered; we forget the teaching to which we have been entrusted. So often we turn what is supposed to be a living relationship with God into a set of ideas that spend most of the time "in the back" of our minds while we live in the world grasping for stuff just like everyone else. We may follow some rules ("no stealing") or at least we try to convince ourselves that we are following them, but our hearts are easily taken in by the dominant mentality that measures the value of human existence in terms of riches, wealth, and superficial achievements. 

We must hold fast to Christ, and we must pray. Emotionally and intellectually the experience of prayer can seem dry and insignificant just like everything else we do. Indeed, that is the great lie: that prayer is just more stuff that we do during the day. 

Prayer is, first and foremost, something that God does in us. He whispers in our hearts, opens them, awakens them. If the desire to lift our minds and hearts to God stirs within us - however faint and weak and wretched that desire may seem - it means that God is attracting our hearts. He is drawing us to Himself. 

God calls us to pray everyday. He has given us the words. "Our Father.." To accept God's words and address them to God in obedience to God is already the beginning of the conviction that the "stuff" of the day is more than it appears to be. Hallowed be thy Name / thy Kingdom come / thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Pray! Perhaps it seems "dry" and "distant." Perhaps we don't pay much attention to the words. We should try; we should yearn to speak with God. Often we begin the words and our minds are immediately sucked back into the stuff that surrounds us and that appears so real, the stuff that is perishing all around us. Still, the most fragile prayer is an event that takes place within our hearts. We may feel like we are only "saying-the-words" but in our hearts there is the beginning of the affirmation of eternity

If we are faithful to prayer - to the desire to pray that has been awakened in our hearts - God will bring all the rest: the attention, the conversation, the conviction, the transformation of the way we look at reality. He will do so in His time, according to His plan. But we must be faithful. We must pray. Pray, pray, pray. Even if that means just saying the words and believing and hoping in God. We do not need to fall into disappointment, discouragement, and nihilism. 

Jesus. His very name is a prayer. "God saves." God, save me.