Having and Not Having

Note: We weren’t fundraising on Thanksgiving or Black Friday, partly because of some of the matters discussed below. We’re still in our end-of-year campaign, however. It bears repeating that this site is only here because of the generosity of our readers. Without your support, we’d simply cease to exist. So thanks to all who have already given. But we have to ask the rest of you, please, do your part – today – to make sure that The Catholic Thing is here in 2023, reporting on and trying to shape events in the Church and the world. – RR

Years ago, I was watching some late-night television talk show (why I would do such a thing,  lying down, unless I was inert with jetlag, now escapes me). A young actress, who’d been “raised Catholic” – of course, by then “ex” – somehow started talking with the host about the Church. Which – she said – “Has something they call Black Friday” (viz., Good Friday).  The slip, which went uncorrected, was annoying. But then it struck me as a small sign that the Faith leaves a mark, even if imperfectly remembered, even on people who choose to make their way to places of gross self-indulgence, like Hollywood.

We’ve just experienced a “Black Friday,” as most Americans now call it. And on this first weekday of the new liturgical year (alas, “Cyber Monday”), I find myself wanting to leave a mark on the season, to make some Catholic New Year resolutions for Advent, which like Lent is supposed to be a time of preparation. Because a self-indulgent “Spirit of Black Friday” is everywhere now and will continue to wreak havoc in the weeks leading up to Christmas if we don’t recover or consciously inject some counter-measures into the mix.

Dr. Johnson was a wise Christian and once remarked: “There are few ways in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” And where labor and trade are honest, which they mostly are, he’s right.

Black Friday used to be fairly innocent – the day on which many businesses moved “into the black,” i.e., became profitable. Judge, not, and all that. Still, from a normal human point of view, Black Friday (its advertising in particular) now appears to have all the hallmarks of diabolical temptation.

As the years pile up, I’m less and less inclined to make the kind of large generalizations that we often see in politics and the media: “We Americans are. . . materialistic/altruistic, racist/welcoming, unusually religious/increasingly secular.”  You can argue either side, and you would be – sort of  – right, either way.

So I’m not simply bothered that on Black Friday lots of people buy and sell a lot of stuff – though the “Friday” is now a week before, and some days after. I notice that even liberal media sites like The Washington Post that decry “consumerism” (a serious vice, when it grips a soul), but also Christian and conservative sites, cheerily offer discount subscriptions and “merch” for Black Friday.

The lone exception within my horizon was a seller of outdoor gear:  “We made it official. Since 2015 we’ve closed our doors on Black Friday, choosing time outside over the busiest in-store shopping day of the year.  This year we’re committing to it for good. Opt for leisure over lines, clouds over crowds, strolls over stress.” (Refreshing, but maybe also “virtue signaling.”)

It’s difficult, even for Catholics, to remember that there are specifically Christian ways to look at these matters. It used to be enough to remember that we should live simply. But in developed nations, we’re all wealthy now. And unless you’re called to the monastic life, you have to think more creatively about what Christian living means in the midst of abundance.

*

St. Augustine, for instance, reminds us that whether we have great wealth or little, possess many things or few, are powerful or influential, weak or unknown, isn’t really important. And isn’t good or evil, as such. What’s important is whether we order our lives – all we have and do – towards God. Or not.

The classic way of putting this, which may seem strange at first sight, is that we should be “using,” not “enjoying,” created goods. But wait, you might object. Aren’t we meant simply to enjoy what God made, and isn’t “using” them cold and calculating?

Yes, if that was what the tradition taught. But the teaching is actually the opposite. “Enjoy” in this Christian perspective really means to seek pleasure in things as a final end and to try to increase and hold on to them come hell or high water, which also blinds us from seeing further. (Tolkien called this the “dragon sickness.”) By contrast, “use” means to experience them as the goods that they are. And they are only truly good for us when we see them not as ends in themselves, but as helps towards our ultimate fulfillment.

In De Doctrina Christiana (“On Christian Doctrine”), St. Augustine puts it like this: “For to enjoy (Lat., frui) a thing is to rest with satisfaction in it for its own sake. To use (uti), on the other hand, is to employ whatever means are at one’s disposal to obtain what one desires, if it is a proper object of desire; for an unlawful use ought rather to be called an abuse.”

Put differently, we are not Marxists, whether of the classic, neo, or cultural kind; we don’t assume that rich means bad, and poor means good. Nor are we the kinds of capitalists or libertarians who assume the reverse.

Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man, but he used his riches to provide a burial cloth for Jesus and placed the body in a tomb cut in the rock, which must have cost a bit in ancient times. It was the common folk who were tricked into calling for Jesus’ crucifixion.

As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said repeatedly: good and evil do not run through social classes, but the middle of every human heart.

Our situation in the developed world today calls on Christians to look on our unprecedented wealth and to respond to both the material and non-material poverty of others with greater imagination than ever. The poor among us are materially rich by historical standards. And the uncountable government programs that provide food, shelter, medical services, etc. make it harder to know where to help, and where aid might be wasted or even counterproductive.

But all the more reason in this season to resist the Black Friday spirit and find new ways to follow the Holy Spirit. Wise as serpents, gentle as doves.

*Image: The Journey of the Magi by Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) ca. 1433-35 [The MET, New York]

You may also enjoy some of our most popular columns from the last dozen years:

Alan A. Anderson’s “Mary, Did You Know?” and the Immaculate Conception

Howard Kainz’s Angels and Their Hierarchies 

 

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.

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