Recently, my wife and I watched the excellent movie, The Song of Bernadette, the story of St. Bernadette Soubirous, the seer of Lourdes. One scene in particular was especially moving: After the village school children completed their lessons well, a priest rewards them for their good behavior by giving them holy cards. Now, a holy card doesn’t sound particularly exciting to us, and most of us probably have more than we know what to do with. But the children in the movie were overjoyed. Most of them were incredibly poor, barely able to heat their homes, and having a “holy picture” was a luxury they had never experienced.
This scene got my wife and me thinking about how much we have and how much we take for granted.
Americans, and all those in the developed Western world, have a serious problem with ingratitude. We have so many luxuries that we don’t even see them any more. In the summer, we live in air conditioned comfort. In the winter, we have heat available instantly, without having to scrounge for firewood to fuel a meager fire. Rather than walking miles and miles to get water, we turn on the faucet. Our grocery stores, and our cabinets, are bursting with every imaginable food. Almost every American owns a smart phone, and giant flat screen TVs are in every home. Any and every imaginable convenience is only a shopping trip away.
And because we have so much, we face the serious, soul destroying danger of materialism. Did you know that 1 in 10 Americans has to rent a storage unit to store all their extra stuff?And yet we want even more. Every year, people are trampled to death by the stampedes of shoppers on Black Friday, and countless Americans are drowning in credit card debt because they bought things they didn’t need and couldn’t afford.
Materialism is at bottom the idolatry of things. While some of these things may be good in themselves, seeking our happiness in them, instead of God, is a spiritual sickness. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “How hardly shall the rich enter the kingdom of heaven.” Loving stuff more than God can literally kill our souls and keep us out of heaven if we aren’t careful.
So how can we combat this materialism? How can we keep our souls alive when the comforts and luxuries we enjoy desensitize us to the goodness of God? Here are three simple ways.
1. Gratitude – Gratitude flows from humility. When we realize that we are completely dependent upon God for everything we have, including our very existence, we begin to see everything as a gift. “Blessed is he that expecteth,” said Chesterton, “for he shall be gloriously surprised.” The difficult part is to take notice of these gifts and then appreciate them as undeserved favors from God. This doesn’t come naturally, it is an art we have to cultivate.
One way to take better notice of God’s gifts is to start a gratitude journal. Once a week, or even once a day, write down all the things you are thankful for. This practice will make you more attentive to all that you have.
2. Detachment – The saints constantly speak of detachment from the things of the world. What does this mean practically speaking? It means you don’t need anything to be happy except God. It means you use things and love God, rather than loving things and using God. It means your heart is completely free.
Have you ever noticed that sprinters wear very little clothing? Their outfits are minimalist because they don’t want layers weighing them down. The less clothing they have, the fast they can run. It is the same in the spiritual life. The less our hearts are weighed down by attachments and desires, the faster we can run towards heaven.
3. Generosity – Giving is an excellent antidote to greed. It helps us realize that all that we have really isn’t ours anyway. When we realize that everything we have is a gift from God, rather than something we are entitled to, we are much more likely to share it with others.
Even if you don’t feel generous or particularly want to give, do it anyway. The practice will help sever those attachments to possessions and make us grateful for what we have. You will also find that there is great joy in giving—much more so than there ever is in taking. “Give and it will be given to you,” said Jesus. God is generous to us in proportion to our generosity to others.
In Everything Give Thanks
We are all blessed in countless ways that we hardly notice. God our Father will not be outdone in generosity. Yet, far too often, all we can see is what we don’t have, and we grumble and complain. This ingratitude is sinful and it grieves the heart of God.
Let’s make a concerted effort to be grateful for our numberless blessings and to keep our hearts detached from material things, remembering the admonition of St. Paul, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:18).
Resource: The Catholic Gentleman