Living SimplyREV. THOMAS G. MORROW
In every age, when the Church has pursued reform, the reformers have gotten back to a life of profound poverty.
Every Christian is called to live this simplicity. Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. wrote in his excellent book, Happy Are You Poor, "Scripture scholars seem to be of one mind . . . that most New Testament texts that deal with poverty as an ideal are meant to be applied to all who follow Christ."
The most important example of poverty and simplicity is the Holy Family. Jesus was born in a stable. A stable! The Son of God! Was that a fluke, or was it a message? As St. Francis understood it, we should live humbly, simply. Jesus lived simply, and encouraged His followers to do the same: "Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk. 6:20).
If we observe the lives of the saints carefully, we see that much of their credibility comes from the fact that they lived so simply. In their very lives they taught detachment from material goods and the importance of living for the kingdom. This gives the Gospel a richness that the world can admire. Even the media could hardly resist little Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the poor sister who cared for the poor.
Danger of Riches
Jesus warns us of the dangers of riches: "But woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation" (Lk. 6:24). "Truly, I say to you, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Mt. 19:23-24).
Why is the Lord so hard on the rich? St. Ignatius of Loyola gives us an insight. He wrote in the Spiritual Exercises: "[The devil] bids [his demons] first to tempt men with the lust of riches . . . that they may thereby more easily gain the empty honor of the world, and then come to unbounded pride. The first step in his snare is that of riches, the second honor, and the third, pride." Pride is the root of every vice.
Well, "I'm not really rich," some will say. "I live comfortably, but I'm not rich." But, if we look at the history of the world, we in the United States are some of the richest people who have ever lived. And from the perspective of other people throughout the world, Africa, India, South and Central America, we are rarely seen as anything but rich.
Paul tells us there is great danger in riches: "But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction" (1 Tim. 6:9).
James has strong words for the rich as well: "For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits" (Jas. 1:11).
At His Service
There is another reason not to be rich: We are responsible for the poor. We cannot live in relative luxury while the poor do not have enough to eat. We find in the First Letter of John, "But if any one has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth" (1 Jn. 3:17).
St. Ambrose had strong words about helping the poor: "You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For, what has been given in common for the use of all, you have claimed for yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich."
Then he will say to those at his left hand, "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me." Then they also will answer, "Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty . . . and did not minister to thee?" Then he will answer them, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me." And they will go away into eternal punishment" (Mt. 25:41-46).Those are powerful words, even frightening. They should bring to mind two questions: (1) Do we help the poor? and (2) Do we help them enough? In light of these, we might ask ourselves, "Well, what can I buy and not offend the Lord? Should I feel guilty going out to dinner once in a while?"
The answer is broadly given in Scripture. In the Old Testament it is recommended that we give one-tenth of our income back to the Lord (cf. Num. 18:23-24; Deut. 14:28-29). Often it is recommended that we give five percent to the poor and five percent toward the support of our Church.
Ten percent should be taken as the average. Some, at least for a time, might struggle to give five percent. Others may find that they can live quite comfortably giving 20 or 25 percent. How can you have at least moral certainty that you are giving enough? It should be enough so that you at least feel it; feel you have made a sacrifice. Pope John Paul II said in 1979 at Yankee Stadium, "You must never be content to leave [the poor] the crumbs from your feast. You must take of your substance and not just your abundance to help them. And, you must treat them like guests at your family table."
One young couple began to give 10 percent of their income to the Lord, but they were perplexed as to whether it should be 10 percent of the net or gross. So, they went to their parish priest and asked his advice. He must have been Irish (he answered with a question), "Do you want your blessings net or gross?" They gave 10 percent of their gross.
Alms:The Best Investment
We tend to forget that giving to the Lord is a great investment. He promised a hundredfold return to anyone who would give up things for him (cf. Mk 10:29-30). That's a great return. No mutual fund will give you that!
The Scriptures speak a great deal about giving to the poor: "Store up almsgiving in your treasury, and it will rescue you from all affliction" (Sir. 29:12). In the book of Tobit we find:
"If you have many possessions, make your gift from them in proportion; if few, do not be afraid to give according to the little you have. So you will be laying up a good treasure for yourself against the day of necessity. For charity delivers from death and keeps you from entering the darkness" (4:8-10).Our Blessed Lord said, "Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys" (Lk. 12:33). And again in Tobit we read, "It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold. For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin. Those who perform deeds of charity and of righteousness will have fullness of life" (12:8-9).
Judging by my own experience, and that of others, it seems that God is very quick to reward those who give to the poor and to the Church. And He is never outdone in generosity.
Attention, Christian Shoppers
We should reflect on the words of Jesus above when we are considering the purchase of a new house. Is this the sort of house the Lord would have us buy? Is this the kind of house Jesus would live in? Can we buy this house knowing how the poor are housed in South America? If we buy this house, will we model Christian simplicity? Can we afford to help the poor and have a mother at home for our children if we buy this house? How often couples strap themselves with crushingly burdensome payments when they buy a house beyond their means. Or, even if it is within their means, perhaps it flies in the face of Christian simplicity.
Do we take into account the poor when we buy a car? Can we justify an expensive, gas-guzzling car in light of the fact that some in our world haven't even the means to buy a car? Can we justify frequent visits to the beauty parlor at $50 to $100 per session?
Must the furniture we buy be new and expensive? Or, might we get the same quality or better in used furniture? When we want some new thing, do we wait a few weeks or months to reflect on whether we really need it? Must we spend so much on clothes? Again, could we perhaps find high-quality clothing in second-hand shops? Would Mary and Joseph shop in thrift stores? I believe they would.
One woman told me she bought all the latest styles for her children. "I bought them at consignment shops," she said. And she knew where all the best ones were. Her children had nice clothes but she was teaching them a simple lifestyle.
These attempts to save money should be done not so that we can horde our treasure, but so that we can give more to Jesus in His poor. And, as we have seen, how important it is that we do help the poor!
Teach Your Children
Pope John Paul II points out that parents must teach their children not to be materialistic. Children must grow up with a correct attitude of freedom with regard to material goods, by adopting a simple and austere lifestyle and being fully convinced that "man is more precious for what he is than for what he has" (Familiaris Consortio, no. 37).
Parents who buy their children $70 or $100 sneakers, or $70 chains, or $150 leather jackets, or give them expensive gifts for birthdays or Christmas, are not teaching them a "simple and austere lifestyle."
It has been said that there are two philosophies in life. The first is to feast first and then suffer the hangover. The second is to fast first, and then feast. Need we ask which is the Christian philosophy? Applied to the use of money, those who save for what they want, doing without in the meantime, will save a fortune in interest over those who buy everything on credit. And, those who live simply early in life will have money to spare later on.
As Janet Luhrs said in her delightful book, The Simple Living Guide: "Simple living is about living deliberately. You choose your existence rather than go through life on automatic pilot . . . Simple living is about having money in the bank and a zero balance on your credit card statement . . . When you simplify, you'll have space and time to know and love people in a deeper way . . . You'll surround yourself with people who like and love you for who you are deep inside . . . Living simply will allow you the freedom to work moderate hours, and thus have the time for intimacy with God and others."
Living simply includes good stewardship of what we do own. For example, the person who keeps his house or car in good repair, will save a good deal of money, money that can be shared with the poor.
Living simply, however, does not mean having inefficient tools. St. Maximilian Kolbe lived in Franciscan poverty, yet always bought the best printing presses so that they could efficiently do their work of publishing. By doing so, he was conserving time as well as money.
There are several reasons why the Christian should live simply. Jesus lived simply and encouraged His followers to do likewise. The Lord expects us to care for the poor as we would for Christ Himself. Giving back to the Lord in His poor and His Church is a great investment. And living simply allows us the freedom to have intimate relationships with God and others.
"Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God" (Lk. 6:20).
Thomas G. Morrow. "Living Simply." Lay Witness (June 2004).
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
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