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On giving it all away.


I think about the story of our Lord and the rich young man all the time. It is related in three Gospels and cautions us against the dangers of wealth and worldly possessions; but the young man is also startlingly sympathetic and almost modern. (Steven Knepper looks at a penetrating interpreter of the modern world, Byung-Chul Han, page 41.) He is an eager and attentive follower of Christ who wants to pursue holiness, but when confronted with what is required of him cannot do it, though he knows he should. His conscience is not clouded as to what he must do—Christ tells him—but he is weighed down by his worldly attachments and unable to follow.

Saints Augustine and Jerome view the young man’s struggle from different angles. For Saint Augustine, “in the love of worldly superfluities, it is what we have already got, rather than what we desire to get, that most strictly enthralls us.” Dickens portrays Jacob Marley’s ghost, enslaved by his greed, as literally fettered by his love of money. (See Tess Owen’s meditation on a graveyard, page 5.) The rich young man knows he bears the same chains; “for whence went this young man away sorrowful, but that he had great possessions?” Christ does not ask him to moderate his desires, but instructs him to sell what he has. “It is one thing to lay aside thoughts of further acquisition, and another to strip ourselves of what we have already made our own,” Augustine writes. “One is only rejecting what is not ours, the other is like parting with one of our own limbs.”

Saint Jerome, though, mindful that perfection exists in degrees, remarks that “many who leave their riches do not therefore follow the Lord; and it is not sufficient for perfection that they despise money, unless they also follow the Saviour, that unless having forsaken evil, they also do what is good.” In short, “it is easier to contemn the hoard than quit the propensity.” (To make a good confession, we must resolve to do both; for Sister Carino Hodder’s reflections on the sacrament, turn to page 26.)

But for me, enduring beyond the warning against any specific attachments to possessions is the reminder that even in seeking Christ we deceive ourselves constantly about what He asks of us. We rationalize our sins and spiritual lethargy not as obstacles to overcome but as parts of ourselves, things we can no more forgo than part with our limbs. Saint Jerome had a vision of himself condemned for his love of pagan literature by God the Father: “Asked who and what I was I replied: ‘I am a Christian.’ But He who presided said: ‘Thou liest, thou art a follower of Cicero and not of Christ. For where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also.’” Saint John Henry Newman recognized among these temptations today “pride of intellect, reputation for philosophy . . . precious gifts of mind, beauty, richness, depth, originality.” We must ask how often we, too, excuse ourselves from following Christ in pursuit of these fetters.

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