I was having lunch in a local restaurant recently. Just me, my salad (yippee) and some time to catch up on overdue reading. Across the way mom and dad and their toddler were having lunch too. The toddler was learning about assertiveness and materialism. Every object that could be touched or pointed to was claimed with the announcement, “Mine!” This applied to her food – and mom and dad’s. It applied to her pacifier, and dad’s cellphone and mom’s keys. When mom or dad disagreed and said, “No,” tears flowed.
Everything “belonged” to the toddler. The world was hers for the claiming. It doesn’t take long for us humans to pick up the fact that life is often measured by what we claim to own and possess. It was all rather sweet and cute… until I thought about it. That little girl had learned something that was going to lead to lots of tears and disappointment. And being a spiritual nerd, I realized that her desire to possess, unchecked or unchanged, would lead her to live a lie about her place in the universe, and in her family and relationships, and… well… everything.
We spend a great deal of our adult lives wrestling with “ownership.” What belongs to whom is a big deal. From the perspective of eternity, or the point of view of all time and space, what really belongs to me? John Chrysostom, the great 4th-5th century preacher and Bishop of Constantinople thought about the notion of ownership a lot. Here is what he wrote those long centuries ago:
“Do I possess the house in which I live? No, it is only on loan to me from God while I remain in that place. Do I possess the clothes I wear? No, they are on loan to me until they wear out, or until I give them away to someone in greater need. Do I possess this body that you see before you? No, it was lent to me by God when I was born, and he will take it back when I die. Do I possess the mind that is composing the words that I speak? No, that too was lent by God at my birth and will go when I die. So do I possess anything?”
Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, nor even – dare I say – Donald Trump can claim that they somehow made or supplied their wealth and possessions. It seems to me that they are examples of toddlers who managed to grow up and be really good at asserting that things were “Mine!” Sure, they may have worked hard, they may have great gifts. But ultimately, they brought nothing into the world and we will take nothing out of it. Mr. Gates and Mr. Buffet seem to have realized, at least in part, that giving what seems to be yours away to those who need is the real blessing of possessions. Good for them. So, we may ask, what is the point of life is if it isn’t about stuff being “Mine!” Can we really possess anything? St. John Chrysostom offers this:
“Yes, I possess the virtues which during my life have grown and flourished within my soul. Inasmuch as I have grown in love, I possess love. Inasmuch as I have grown in faith, I possess faith. Inasmuch as I have grown in gentleness, I possess gentleness. These things are immortal; they are divine gifts which God will not take away, because he wants heaven itself to be filled with virtue. And, of course, I possess my soul, in which these virtues have their roots.”
When I find myself in possession of material things, faith in Christ pries my hand open and teaches me love. I come to realize that I’m just a distributor of blessings to others in the world. I find that, through the practice of faith, I can stop my infantile urge to claim everything as “Mine!” and think like an adult, think like a person of faith, a person with an eternal view of things that transcends material things and even death. After all, things that die, things that rust, things that cannot stand the death of the cross, really don’t matter anyway. That is faith that sets me free from the toddlers obsession with grabbing at everything. That is faith that trains me to desire what can actually be mine and to let go of everything else.
Quotes from On Living Simply, Robert Van de Weyer ed., (2012-07-20). (Kindle Locations 290-297). Liguori Publications. Kindle Edition.