On The Beauty Of Useless Things

Last evening I caught up with an old friend, who has been busy having a bit of a clear-out. Old books long since read and never reopened, knick-knacks which seem to come from nowhere, and even a diploma frame emblazoned with the school logo were being tossed out. The experience was described as freeing, and of course that’s to be taken both literally and figuratively: as living space becomes less cluttered, the mind feels less cluttered also.

It’s a feeling I know well, having to go through the de-hoarding process regularly. Despite public perceptions of what living in Georgetown must be like, one thing that all village residents know well is that homes built a century (or quite a bit more) ago, while very quaint, often present significant storage problems for their residents. Closet space is at such a premium that, at least twice a year, I end up hauling great sacks full of worn, but still wearable clothes out of the house to give to the poor.

Yet the guilt we may sometimes feel for having useless “stuff” must be tempered by an acknowledgement that utility is not a virtue, in and of itself. Employing a spirit of utility in the imitation of Christ’s poverty is virtuous, whether you are a Capuchin friar who has renounced all earthly possessions, or a successful entrepreneur giving away your substantial resources in order to aid those in need. The application of utility as the sine qua non of human existence however, can just as easily lead to evil (see, inter alia, Jeremy Bentham, Karl Marx, Margaret Sanger.)

In Whit Stillman’s film “Metropolitan”, textbook college leftist Tom Townsend criticizes the Christmas parties he’s been attending, which he finds wasteful when there are people less fortunate than himself in the world. Nick Smith points out that there’s something rather arrogant about not enjoying yourself at a party that you’ve been invited to, because you’d rather stay at home and think about others whom *you* consider to be less fortunate. It’s a scene that, in a way reminds me of one of those moments in the Bible when consumption and utilitarianism come head to head, in an unexpected way.

In each of the four Gospels, we read the story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ head with costly perfume, washed His feet with her tears, and wiped them clean with her hair. In their respective versions of the event, Saints Matthew, Mark, and John also recall the words of Judas during this scene. He criticizes the “waste” of the perfume, which could have been sold to help the poor. Judas is trying to make himself appear more virtuous, but he’s also embracing a utilitarian attitude toward what is taking place in front of him.

Christ not only rebukes Simon the Pharisee, in whose home this scene is taking place, since he failed to even offer the basic material comforts which were due to a guest, but He also rebukes Judas’ utilitarianism. As to the former, a host who fails to provide for the needs of his guest is not acting with the generosity with which God acts toward us. As to the latter, Jesus notes that we will always be able to help the poor, but that this woman was doing something very special to honor Him: an act which He predicted would be remembered throughout the world. And of course, He was right.

During His time on earth, Christ may not have owned anything, but He certainly enjoyed things that were lacking in utility. He liked to sing with His friends, sail on the Sea of Galilee, and even barbecue. Perhaps you are being called to give up all that you own, in imitation of Christ, and that is a special calling indeed. For most of us however, I think we’re called to remember that moderation is what we’re after, not a wholesale rejection of Creation – for Creation was, after all, a gift that was made for and given to us.

Christ In The House Of Simon The Pharisee by Jean Beraud (1891)

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Let’s Have Some Above-Average Life Goals

Some months ago, my attention was drawn to a popular Twitter account being linked to by a number of my contacts.  Average Life Goals tries to present aspirations which might be considered rather mundane, in a humorous way. Although meant to be ironic, the account’s writers often choose to look down upon things which, once upon a time, we saw as being acceptable and enjoyable, or at least suited to their purpose.

Take this tweet for example

I grew up in a rust belt Pennsylvania county where agriculture was the main industry, and steel manufacturing was a distant memory. There were only a couple of restaurants where one could expect a level of dining comparable to that you might find in an urban setting. Chain restaurants like this one, for most people, were as fancy as one could reasonably expect to be able to experience beyond fast food.

People in the hundreds of small towns across America whose pay does not allow them to dine luxuriously whenever they choose, are not going to be spoiled for choice when it comes to taking their sweetheart out to dinner on St. Valentine’s Day. So while it may not seem particularly nice to some that the anonymous fellow evoked in this tweet is taking his girlfriend to Golden Corral for a special dinner, maybe that is the best that he can afford to do? To scoff and suggest that there is little or no value to such a practice seems to me rather off-puttingly bitter and childish.

A similar tone of bitterness pervades the tone of the following tweet:

Here, someone’s parents paid for and installed this contraption for their child out of love, but we are supposed to mock it for not being…what, exactly? Gold-plated? Signed by Lebron? Would it be better if it came complete with tattoo artist, pole dancing Kardashian, and contraceptive/marijuana dispensing unit? Would that then make it more palatable?.

Now to be fair, two tweets do not condemn an entire Twitter account. Some of the tweets posted by those who run this particular account are actually quite sensible and even clever. Yet these tweets should make us pause and ask, what do we actually value? Are we really so jejune, that we have to denigrate others’ aspirations or acts of generosity? And to what end?

We should certainly cultivate an appreciation for quality, and aspire to learn more about the world around us. Yet being a little more charitable, and engaging in more realistic self-examination as part of that charity, would go a long way toward our treating one another with a bit more compassion, patience, and appreciation. Those would be far better life goals for each of us to try to espouse.

An Invincible Woman

Somehow it seems fitting that today is not only the birthday of Friedrich Nietzsche, but it’s also the Feast of St. Teresa of Ávila.

Nietzsche, of course, not only proclaimed that “God is dead”, but he also gave us the concept of the “Übermensch” or “Superman”.  In his book, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” – which, if you ever studied advanced German, you probably had to struggle through at one point – the Superman was a kind of new human, brought about through a rejection of Christian hope in the next life.  The materialism espoused by Nietzsche sought a perfection of the physical and mental capabilities of human beings in this life, since he believed that there was no afterlife to follow, and that whatever creator-god there may once have been, he had faded away leaving only a cloud of dust, like the remains of a supernova.

In creating the post-religious superman as a goal for mankind to strive toward, Nietzsche laid the groundwork for all sorts of monstrosities, from eugenics to Nazism. In fact, when the comic book character of the same name was first conceived back in the 1930’s by two Jewish kids in Cleveland, he was actually a super-villain, along the lines of the materialist, amoral ideas of Nietzsche then being championed by Hitler, et al.  It was only later that Superman was changed to become an anti-Nazi champion and the world’s biggest goody-two-shoes.

St. Teresa of Ávila was probably just about as opposite a thinker to Nietzsche as you can get. A woman whose childhood piety was muffled in young adulthood as she was drawn to seek the material pleasures of this world, she later rejected those comforts in order to draw herself and others closer to God through her life of prayer, her many writings, and her work.  She also gave us something far better than the concept of the Superman: an encapsulation of her thinking which today is referred to as “St. Teresa’s Bookmark”, so called because it was found written on a prayer card which she kept in her breviary, the book of daily prayers centered around the Psalms still used to this day in the Church.

ST. TERESA’S BOOKMARK

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I’ve shared this counsel of St. Teresa’s with others, particularly non-Catholics who have never heard of it, and there’s always a positive reaction.  It’s really a reflection of what Christ told His listeners in the Sermon on the Mount (St. Matthew 6:25-34) about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. It’s also a reflection of St. Paul’s exhortation in his Letter to the Philippians: “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

We all have choices to make in this life. We can conform ourselves to this world, saying that this is all there is, as Nietzsche did, so let’s all have a good time.  I can then put on the rather tight tights and the cool (if admittedly pointless) cape, and go around pretending that I’m invincible, but in the end suffering and death are my kryptonite just as they are yours.  Sooner or later I’ll be made painfully aware of the fact that I’m not invincible after all, and material satisfaction is just as much a passing fantasy as leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

If however we choose to see this life as a kind of training ground for the life to come, as St. Teresa did, then we can find meaning even in our suffering.  She demonstrated how invincibility comes not through a reliance on material ends, but rather through spiritual means.  If the goal becomes obtaining eternal life in Heaven, and not the finite, ultimately futile effort to conquer the world rather than ourselves, then we realize that there, at last, lies the permanence we are seeking.

This only happens, as St. Teresa came to understand, through the surrender of our will to God.   “Christ does not force our will,” she observed. “He takes only what we give him. But he does not give himself entirely until he sees that we yield ourselves entirely to him.”

On her Feast Day then, let’s try to exercise that real superpower, by making the same choice to show our invincibility through our surrender.

"The Holy Spirit Appearing to St Teresa of Avila" by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)  Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam

“The Holy Spirit Appearing to St. Teresa of Ávila” by Rubens (c. 1612-1614)
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. Rotterdam