This week a professor of art education came to talk with a few of us about making art withing a monastic context. He was curious about how a monastic setting changes and shapes artistic practice and how the making process may also shape the monastic life.
We talked about many things in our nearly four hours of conversation, but I kept coming back to the word “abundance.” At one point I said to him that when I’m making a quilt, for instance, I do the best job that I can within the limitations both of my skill and of the materials. I select a pattern. I choose fabrics that I think will pair well with one another. I do my best to line up the seams, to quilt the piece without any bubbles in it. The whole time I imagine, with great anticipation, what it will look like when it’s done. And yet, no matter how careful I have been, and no matter how many so-called mistakes I have made in the quilting process, every single quilt ends up being so much more than I could have imagined. The finished quilt has a life and a beauty that somehow far far exceeds whatever I have put into it.
So it is with the monastic life, and, indeed with any life faithfully lived. Our little efforts at prayer, at compassion, at self-improvement, at loving those God surrounds us with—they’re paltry, really. And yet, somehow life ends up being so much vaster and more abundantly beautiful than we could ever have asked for or imagined. You see, God’s answer is always more. More life. More mercy. More love. Not in spite of our efforts, but not because of them, either.
On its surface, this morning’s gospel reading seems refreshingly clear. We get none of the maddening puzzles and turnabouts that so often run through Jesus’ teachings. Greed is bad.
When we focus on our possessions, we lose track of our need for God and God’s great mercy toward us. In fact, the more tuned in to our possessions we are, the more they possess us.
This is a message we need today, isn’t it? We who are living through the death throes of late-stage capitalism. Who know the rich landowners, who not only store up for themselves huge sums of money and property but also the political control that goes with such riches. We who are living through the early years of climate collapse, due almost entirely to our overweening greed.
And this greed is not limited to stuff. Jesus tells us to guard against all kinds of greed, indicating that greed wears many faces. John Cassian, the great pioneer of monastic spirituality, reminds us that greed “is a catchall of the vices and the root of all evil.”1 Greed lies at the root of lust, gluttony, vainglory, and pride, all of which leave us wanting more—more money, more sex, more food, more adulation. Cassian adds that “the madness of covetousness is that it always wants more than whatever a person can accumulate.”2 There is never enough to substitute for God, never enough to make us self-sufficient.
Those of us who get caught up in the compulsive accumulation of more—whatever our more of choice may be—end up like the rich man in Jesus’ parable. We become fools, and God, always on the lookout for hypocrisy, exposes our foolishness and undermines our self-destruction.
This parable begs an important question. What does it mean to be to “rich toward God?” Again, Cassian provides an answer: “Th[e] madness [of greed] is stopped not with wealth but with poverty.” (XXIV)
Holy poverty is the answer to our compulsive grasping at food, money, sex, esteem, self-righteousness, or whatever else we cling to rather than God. The way to be rich toward God is voluntarily to dispossess ourselves of all that is not God. God invites us not only to let go our faults and sharp edges—which would be delightful, wouldn’t it?—but also the good in our lives that is self-centered rather than God-centered. This latter is much harder to relinquish and includes our perception of spiritual “progress” (whatever that is) as well as all our certainties that we are good and right and that we know the best way forward.
In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton writes about this dispossession:
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty[…] . It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.”
God reveals himself, in the face of Jesus, as suffering love, utterly dispossessed in order to draw us ever deeper into the heart of God. Jesus shows us the way of dispossession and emptiness that leads to total freedom in God. The freedom to allow God’s suffering love to flow through us to a hurt and broken world. The freedom to allow God’s mercy to fill us up and to overflow in radiant abundance.
From this place, today’s reading takes on a different light. Our initial clarity about this rich landowner and his greed appears smug and self-satisfied in the light of God’s mercy. Jesus says to the young man, “Who set me up to be a judge and arbitrator?” With this question in our hearts, we can look at this foolish rich man, not with condemnation or smugness or superiority, but with compassion. Do you see how he suffers? He not only has no place to store his crops. But he has no community with which to share his abundance. He has no friends to delight his soul. He must find his companionship only in the things that surround him. He may be materially rich, but he is utterly alone. His choices have cut him off from the great abundance that surrounds him. Can we allow our hearts to break for this man, even as we decry and condemn the poverty his wealth inflicts on others?
Mercy begets mercy. When we allow God to dispossess us and to draw us into the flow of suffering, merciful love, there is always more love. We can love the poor who have nothing to eat and also the rich who are so enslaved to their possessions and hungers that they enforce poverty on others. Even more difficult, perhaps, we can love ourselves and those people with whom we live, despite our very many faults and trials.
No matter what we put into it, this life manages to astound us with God’s extraordinary abundance, if we have the eyes to see it. As Jesus says over and over again in his teaching, the kingdom of God is all around us and within us, and the gate of heaven is everywhere. There is no place separate from God. Even in the midst of death and suffering and heartache, and of the great anxiety of this moment in history, God’s answer is still—and always will be—more life.