greed in all its forms
Two lines go together in this gospel reading (Lk 12:13-21). ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…’ goes with ‘So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.’ All kinds of greed! And what does it mean to be “rich toward God”? I ran into this passage the other day from the Chandogya Upanishad, that seemed to speak to the same thing:
As here on earth all the wealth that one earns is but transitory, so likewise transitory are the heavenly enjoyments acquired by the performance of sacrifice. Therefore those who die without having realized the Self and its right desires find no permanent happiness in any world to which they go; while those who have realized the Self and its right desires find permanent happiness everywhere.
That word “Self” is a translation of the Sanskrit word “atman,” which to me has a double meaning, both the absolute reality of God as well as our own real self which, as Saint Paul says, is hidden with Christ in God. And so the phrase, “the Self and its right desires” speaks to me of being rich in God.
Of course there is the most obvious meaning of this gospel text: don’t waste your time storing up so-called earthly treasures, don’t spend all your energy pursuing wealth and material goods, career advances and prestige, all things that will eventually fade and not bring lasting happiness, especially when those things are pursued at the expense of other important elements like relationships, family, health, justice. But it’s interesting that the Chandogya Upanishad says that so likewise transitory are the heavenly enjoyments, at least the ones that are acquired by the performance of sacrifice, in other words those things that we think to gain by our own works. Perhaps this is what John of the Cross refers to when he urges us also to let go of spiritual consolations––nada, nada, nada. I think that often our spirituality begins with an eye toward what we can acquire––special powers and gifts, even peace of mind or some kind of enlightenment. But it makes me wonder, could we also have a kind of spiritual gluttony? A spiritual greed? Where our spirituality is all about acquiring “things” for me, and building up an image of ourselves that we want to project to the world and have the world admire?
Thomas Merton wrote in Seeds of Contemplation that until we have been stripped poor and naked within our own soul we will always unconsciously do the works we have to do for our own sakes rather than for the glory of God. Until we have been stripped poor and naked within our own soul we’ll be virtuous not because it is God’s will but because we want to admire our own virtues! Beware all forms of greed! “I’m a monk! I’m a hermit! I’m the prior! I’m enlightened!” I always giggle when someone introduces him or herself to me by saying “I’m a mystic!” Abhishiktananda tells the story in The Further Shore about someone taking the sannyasa diksha, that ritual of utter renunciation, and walking out afterward whispering to his friend proudly, “I’m a sannyasi!” Which is like saying, “I’ve renounced everything!” That leads Abhishiktananda in the end to say that perhaps even renunciation has to be renounced. Could these also be “treasures that we store up for ourselves”? ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…’
This is similar what Paul has been praising about Abraham throughout the whole fourth chapter in the letter to the Romans (which we have heard this past week), praising his faith in having left the security of his homeland. (This is the same scriptural image, by the way, that is also used for Saint Romuald on his feast day.) Leaving behind a homeland does not necessarily only mean leaving behind a geographical location. This is also why the image of martyrdom is so valuable for us, even if the martyr be, as Saint Romuald was called, a “martyr for love” instead of one of blood. As Saint John de Brebeuf (whose feast we celebrate today with the other North American Martyrs) wrote, “I will never fail to accept the grace of martyrdom,” even if it be only the martyrdom of love and the martyrdom of service. Nothing, not even the most precious things in life, not even, John of the Cross would say, our spiritual consolations, not even the people we love must be allowed to stand in the way of our availability to the Spirit, even to the point of being totally bereft of what e think of as our real self. We have to be prepared to part with everything if it keeps us from God. Anything else is greed in one of its many forms.
This absolute availability is what matters, to be ready to even have our concepts of God and of Absolute Reality be challenged and overturned, to have our idea of what our vocation is, what a monk is, what a priest is, what a householder, a teacher is, be overturned, to have our entire narrative dismantled and sit with our blind and naked being before the absolute reality of Absolute Reality, my real self without costumes before God as God really is in the Universe as it really is. It may be only then, in that absolute poverty, that we become rich toward God.
Perhaps we could make our own Saint John de Breboeuf’s prayer especially as we approach the Eucharistic Table in response to the Word: “My beloved Jesus, because of the surging joy which moves me, here and now I offer my blood and body and life.”