This is the second in a series of articles by Bishop Weisenburger on the “Five Wounds of Secularization” to be published during this “Year of Faith.” The first part, “Busyness: The Scourge of our Modern Time,” was published Nov. 30. An overview, “Probing the Wounds: A Different Look at the ‘Year of Faith,’ ” was printed Jan. 18.
In looking at the “Five Wounds of Secularism,” the second of the wounds we have identified is consumerism and materialism. The sin is focusing our lives excessively on money and possessions — the passing things of this world — while sacrificing the things that last into eternity. The grace that heals the wound is found in the call to simplicity of life, sharing with others and discovering right relationship with God and neighbor.
I realize that there are a certain amount of material things that I must contend with — to consume — in order to survive as a human. But this Lenten season challenges me to consider the right balance of the material things I need and the material sacrifices I need to make. An old question that prompts me to ponder this balance more deeply is, “What do I own, and what owns me?”
When it comes to money and possessions, the example of my grandmother always comes to mind. She spent most of her life in Catharine and Hays until she moved to St. Louis in order to live with her daughter, my aunt.
There was a one-year break in her time at St. Louis, however. It was in the late 1960s that she moved to live with my immediate family, as we were spending a year in Hays while my father was in Vietnam on military assignment.
My grandmother had grown up in poverty and had lived very simply all of her life. Actually, for the last 20 years or so of her life, her possessions fit neatly in the trunk of our car, with room to spare. Moving her was never a challenge. Her possessions included some clothes, a favorite rocking chair and a huge supply of rosaries, prayer books and holy cards.
The hours of her day were divided comfortably between time with family and time spent quietly in prayer. Those were her only desires or joys. Despite the lack of possessions (quite literally in her case), there was never any air of poverty, want or need about her. She was satisfied; indeed, more than satisfied.
When I reflect back on the fact that two of her children, my aunts, died in their childhood, and she already had buried her dear husband, as well, it makes the peacefulness that pervaded her all the more prophetic.
I think it was the sense of profound blessing and gratitude that made me want to know more about the God with whom she seemed so happy to spend her days. As a child, I was blessed to know good priests, parents, catechists and teachers. But the greatest witness to the faith for me was an old woman who mostly smiled, loved and prayed. I’ve always suspected it was the simplicity of her life that made it possible for the glory of God to shine through.
Of course, we have to be careful about exulting poverty. My grandmother had her extended family, reasonable health care and her physical needs were met. What I find very moving — and sometimes challenging — about my grandmother is that her possessions were in balance with the greater values of her life. It reveals that — at best — money, possessions and the things of this world glorify God when used in the right spirit and for the right purposes.
Material things become a danger and consume us only when we find that they are keeping us focused more on them than God. In all truth, the growing craving for excessive money and possessions can lead to a false sense of security and leave us with the very fragile illusion of control. Indeed, with our culture’s insistence that only those who are wealthy have real meaning, our endless desire for increasing wealth and possessions replaces our passion for God.
Moreover, what may be worst of all is that we become spiritually numb to the real needs of those around us. I suppose that in the end, material things are pretty much neutral. It all depends on how we look at them and what we do with them.
Again our question: “What do I own, and what owns me?” A case can be made that I don’t really own anything, since all good things are given to me by God and are to be returned to God. One way of gauging how much we’ve fallen prey to consumerism and materialism is to consider: “Do I measure love — given or received — by a monetary value?” For example, at Christmas or special event celebrations, we might find ourselves wondering, “Did I get them a nice enough gift?” or “How much did they spend on me?” If these or similar questions sound familiar, as powerful as love is, then there is a chance that something is owning me and my life is out of balance.
Perhaps a different way of phrasing this comes from another old saying: “Remember who you are, and whose you are!” To remember that we belong to the Lord puts us in touch with a power that cannot ever be taken away or destroyed; it connects us with the one who is eternal.
Again, the assault of secularization on the world and our Church is leaving deep wounds. One area of those wounds is found when we look carefully at consumerism and materialism. The sin is found whenever the craving for money and possessions becomes the focal point of our lives. The result is a restless spirit, anxiety and an inability to recognize Christ in the faces of those who are truly poor.
The grace that heals the wound is found in the Gospel call to simplicity of life, sharing with others, and then discovering the joy of living in right relationship with God and neighbor.