We live in a society and at a time when we are obsessed with acquiring things, and the constant acquisition of things has become ridiculously easy. Our lives very often become a cluttered reality, and when the clutter becomes too much, it suffocates us and replaces those things that we should really be seeking.
Not surprisingly, those men and women who fled into the desert of Egypt a couple of centuries after Christ, saw leaving things behind as an essential aspect of their lives:
‘Go, and sell everything that belongs to you and give it to the poor and taking up your cross, deny yourself; in this way you will be able to pray without distraction’.Abba Nilus
Obviously, this story about Abba Nilus is based in Christ’s invitation to those who would take following him seriously – we are asked, at an earl;y stage of our discipleship, to renounce things which come between us and God, which weigh down our lives and distract us from what is important. Thus, the second half of this saying is crucial – when we renounce things, when we make a deliberate decision to downplay the importance of owning things and making our lives dependent upon them, we create a context for prayer and for encountering God and hearing what he has to say to us.
We are invited, as part of the countering of the things thought, to begin a joyful renunciation, which culminates even in a renunciation of self. While this might sound extreme, the Gospel invitation which Christ makes is to renounce our self interests and agendas so that the other person and their service by us will take first place. I renounce myself so that God and neighbour become the most important thing for me, and my love of them and service of them is, above all else, the thing that nourishes me.
Central to the things thought is then a crucial moment of decision – to discern between what I need, and thank God when I receive this, and what I want; to be always happy with the former, and stop running after and trying to satisfy my wants.
The Cistercian Fathers know this discernment well and see it at the heart of community life – Baldwin of Forde gives us one of the most beautiful descriptions of community to be found in any writing – community is for him ‘the love of sharing and the sharing of love’. In such circumstance no one should find themselves without what they need to live.
As our constant acquisition of things demonstrates, things beget things! The more we acquire, the more we desire, because the last thing we bought will always be superseded by something which appears superior, which works faster, which always makes our lives better – without which we cannot live! The afflictive thought of things, when it takes hold, makes things in my life idols – they replace God as the one who gives my life meaning, joy, and eventually redemption.
Can we effectively combat this thought? Perhaps, today, it is one to which we should all give attention. In our Christian discipleship the invitation is always to separate gradually from dependence upon material things and to aim for something higher, to be persons who enter into the mystery of Gd present, to be men and women who transcend our present reality to attain communion in another, divine and ultimately salvific reality. Things may give us fleeting pleasure or relief, but they cannot restore health of mind and heart, they cannot wash away the sins which cling so easily to our lives, and they cannot establish relationships which give us the meaning, identity and belonging which we so much desire and need.
Thus, to combat the afflictive thought of things we are invited to move from thoughts of ownership and greedy possession to a real reverence for the God who gives us all we need; to move from the idea and practice that all that I have belongs to me to the selfless practice of sharing with those who have not; and even to enter into that practice which leads to a greater shared stewardship of creation, and above all, of the irreplaceable human person. And today, our society is shamed by its unabashed attitude that the human person is a thing of which society can dispose.
Perhaps we might begin by linking this teaching on things to the teaching on the cell as our place of prayer and encounter with God. In many monastic communities members regularly de-clutter their rooms and cells and the spaces in which they study and pray to re-focus on what is important, indeed, to give centre stage to the only thing which is of lasting importance in our lives – the search for God. So, time to give away and to clear aside those things which hold us back, distract us from prayer, replace God and the relationships which make us who we are.
-Part of our ‘Afflictive Thoughts’ series-