Piety for Things

Note: We’re within a few thousand dollars of our fundraising goal now. Please, we just need one final push to get these things done. We do our part – every day. Please do yours too – today. – Robert Royal

 

If the opposite of greed is detachment, then greed takes some very strange forms, because detachment does.

Let’s call detachment any ordered use of material goods, while greed is disordered, disproportionate use.  Modern, mechanical images of society conceptualize greed as something like an excessive draw of energy – too much fuel demanded and expended by a part.  Older, organic conceptions imagine it as disproportionate growth, grasping after more than is right for smaller parts such as yourself.  On both of these simple images, the remedy for greed is something simple and a reduction: look for less, ask less, use less, consume less.

We can grant that greed is looking for “more” than you should (the Greek word is pleon-exia, “more grasping”).  But “more” can mean something other than quantity.  Take C.S. Lewis’s excellent lesson for Christians as regards gluttony.  To be fastidious about food, caring about how it is prepared or spiced or heated or presented, beyond what is reasonable (sharp insistence on the perfect manner of each of these would be fully reasonable for the teacher in a cooking school), counts as gluttony, just as much as eating too many calories.  Actually, wanting fewer calories can be gluttonous as well, say, when showing that you are unhappy about a food’s richness would offend your host.

In my experience as a father, the original sin of children as regards anything conferred on them is abuse, not looking for more of that possession conceived of as stuff.  But abuse is a kind of “more.”  The most recent instance (fresh from a week ago): my wife gave our youngest children inflatable dodgeballs for playing Four Square in our court over Thanksgiving.  Despite repeated warnings against indoor play, such rough-housing was something they could not easily give up. . .until the other day an errant throw hit a precious picture on the mantle, knocking it to the ground and breaking the glass.

This was, strictly, wanting more, pleonexia – wanting to use the balls in “more” places and “more” times than during daylight in the court.  (For older children, as with St. Augustine’s youthful theft of pears, there might also be the “more” that is the thrill, simply, of deliberate lawlessness.)

Just as gluttony can be shown in “less” not more quantity, so greed can be shown in “less” care about things, not more, especially, when more care costs you something.

Our Lord wore a seamless garment, which he must have possessed since he had grown to full stature, perhaps twenty years, and yet which was still in such excellent condition that even rough soldiers didn’t want to damage it.  After the feeding of the five thousand, Our Lord taught detachment (presumably) by insisting that the fragments be carefully gathered.  From this verse alone we can infer that thrift is the opposite of greed.

*

In a famous homily, St. Josemaria Escrivá comments:

I preach that detachment is self-dominion. It is not a noisy and showy beggarliness, nor is it a mask for laziness and neglect. You should dress in accordance with the demands of your social standing, your family background, your work. . .as your companions do, but to please God: eager to present a genuine and attractive image of true Christian living. Do everything with naturalness, without being extravagant. I can assure you that in this matter it is better to err on the side of excess than to fall short.

A rebuke against slovenly dress for church, to be sure, but also against every kind of lack of care that stems from ourselves and isn’t truly necessitated: “one of the signs that we’re aware of being lords of the earth and God’s faithful administrators is the care we take of the things we use: keeping them in good condition, making them last and getting the best out of them so that they serve their purpose for as long a time as possible and don’t go to waste.”

Of course, doing so is as difficult in the long run as clearing out a to-do list is in the short run.

Part of this detachment from things is attachment to the persons who made them.  Our Lord was not a stoic who pretended he didn’t know where his seamless cloak came from, when the soldiers rudely stripped him of it.  By his attachment to its maker, he made himself all the more vulnerable to getting hurt when despoiled of it.

Reflections such as these seem salutary at the start of the Christmas shopping and gift-giving seasons.  Advent conversion for us might include prayerful reflection on where all these manufactured things came from.  The two great failings of our countrymen today, I believe, are division and distraction, which feed each other.

How much of our polarization comes from not appreciating how many people from former generations sacrificed their “chance” in life, to build up this economy and culture for us?

Or take the smartphone that you may be using to read this essay.  Most likely, it was made in a mega factory in China, where upwards of 300,000 people live, eat, and sleep, working overtime up to 12 hours a day, each doing the same repetitive task, say, screwing in just one screw, for a couple of thousand phones each day, with one day off per week to see spouse, children, or grandparents.

The mega factory (as an Apple executive once told me) has analogies with a college campus; it offers good work in that poor province of China; the workers wish to work there for a year or two; and smartphones are great works of brilliant design.

Still, it’s difficult to work in such conditions. And piety for things, which implies solidarity with others, will lead me to ask: As a “faithful administrator” am I getting the best possible use of this machine?  Or am I distractedly grasping for “more” in all the wrong places?

And there’s a good place to start.

 

*Image: The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ’s Garments by William Blake, 1800 [Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge]

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

Robert Royal’s The Catholic Thing (our very first column)

Brad Miner’s Facing East

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available.

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