In America we want it all. In a sense we demand it all. Even though we might deny this statement, still – it’s true. We claim as personal self-entitlements things like: “bail-outs”, “affordable” bankruptcy and the right to a comfortable, easy life, filled with things that make our pursuit of happiness a national pastime. OK , so maybe we don’t want it all – but certainly we want a lot: good looks, success, prosperity, money, more money, and a care free ,easy, early retirement. A hamburger purveyor in this nation, Burger King, (how ironic!) once told us in an advertising jingle that you can “Have it your way…” and our way is most often the way of consumption, consumerism, greed, and outright worship of material things. We have a distorted view that “If only I could have more…. If only we could have this… or that….” If only we could retire early and not have to work….” Then… Then I would have peace and contentment. Then will my life and soul will be at rest.
So I ask myself this question as I look at a nation deep in bankruptcy and steeped in financial turmoil: “Can having less, actually become the means to experiencing more?” ‘Can poverty, the destruction of our inordinate passions for owning and possessing more worldly and earthly things, actually be one of life’s greatest gifts?” Can getting rid of the worry for what I possess, and don’t possess, be more valuable to me than gold, or a well-funded 401K, or social security checks?
So where do we go for answers to questions like these? We can listen to many opinions, but since coming to Orthodoxy, I have been learning a great lesson: First, go and listen to the fathers! To the Elders, to the wisdom from monastics. From Monks who live, pray and depart this life on Mt. Athos, Holy Mountain, where for almost two millennia monastic men embrace a counter cultural, Christo-centric, understanding of wealth, poverty and true riches… The grace-filled elder Avvakum from Lavra (on Mt. Athos) teaches us:
Joy comes from one’s relationship and union with God. Mankind has been created to be joyful, not sad. When you enjoy the wrong things, you will inevitably pay back for all this pleasure you have had. But God’s joy demands no repayment. For instance I, who own nothing in this world, cannot pay for the happiness I have. I am not the only one proclaiming this truth. My brother monks, who also have nothing else besides God, are filled with joy. I have emptied myself for Christ’s sake. I have nothing but my Lord – and joy. Poverty is beautiful for it sets you free. One should empty himself to make room for Christ to enter his heart. When the Lord is with me, there is my happiness also. In each ascetic cave you will find spiritual joy.
Remember Jesus’ story about Lazarus and the Rich man in St. Luke’s Gospel?
There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at this gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom…
For in this world the rich man had everything, and Lazarus had nothing. But now, in Paradise, it is the poverty-stricken, poor man Lazarus who rests in the bosom of Abraham. In the arms of Abraham, in the courts of Paradise, the poor become rich. The point is not that money, or possessions are evil. For they are not. The real issue is this:
Do my possessions possess me? Am I willing to give away everything , to lose everything, that I have, and in spite of this to remain content? Am I willing to thank the Lord, even when I have less, or very little, or nothing? Finally, and most importantly: “Will I offer what i have, freely, to those who have not?”
Poverty is beautiful only when we let go of greed and give. When we fill ourselves with the Bread of Life, and the Water of Eternal life, for when we eat and drink of Him, we will not hunger – neither shall we thirst. And since He cares for the sparrows of the world, who neither toil or labor, how much more will He care for those who love Him?