Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ladder of Divine Ascent - Steps 16 and 17 On Avarice and Poverty

We will be looking at these two steps together because they represent opposite sides of the same coin.  Step 16 describes the spiritual illness, while Step 17 prescribes the spiritual cure.  The words of Jesus fittingly introduce their theme: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth . . . but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven . . . For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matthew 6:19-21).  There is very little which reveals the state of our hearts more clearly than our attitude towards our possessions and the way we use them.  It is easy to say we are living for heaven.  The way that we use our money demonstrates the veracity of our claim.  Are we living for the kingdom or do the things of this world predominate and consume us?
            The cure for avarice is poverty.  For the monk this poverty is absolute.  The true monk owns nothing, having forsaken it all in his pursuit of God.  For those of us who live in the world, this poverty is approximate.  We have obligations ("mouths to feed, bodies to clothe, shelter to obtain") and we must fulfill these obligations.  Poverty is best approximated in our position by striving to reduce the amount of our obligations.  What we should be aiming for is the simple life, not deprivation.  Severe deprivation can be as distracting as financial prosperity.  The words of scripture reveal the royal way: "Give me neither poverty nor riches - - feed me with the food allotted to me, lest I be full and deny you, and say, `Who is the Lord?'  Or lest I be poor and steal, and profane the name of my God" (Prov. 30:8,9).


1-5            In these paragraphs John describes Avarice and the avaricious man.  His words are brief but full of insight and strike to the heart of the matter.  They ask us: "Do we trust in God or do we trust in the things of  this world?"  "Do we believe that God can and will take care of our needs if we seek first his kingdom?"  "Does the future belong to him or to our financial planner?"  "Do we claim that we are prudent and discerning in our use of our money and possessions as a cover for our lack of faith?" 

            Avarice is the worship of idols and is the offspring of unbelief.  It makes excuses for infirmity and is the mouthpiece of old age.  It is the prophet of hunger, and the herald of drought.
            The miser sneers at the gospel and is a deliberate transgressor.  The man of charity spreads his money about him, but the man who claims to possess both charity and money is a self-deceived fool. 

            A generous man met a miser, and the miser said the other man was without discernment.

6            This issue is truly a spiritual one.  If we worship worldly goods, we won't truly worship God.  The more we have, the more complicated our lives become.  The more things we own, the more we have to worry about their care and preservation.  All of these issues, although not sinful and wrong, may work to distract us and keep us from pursuing the one thing which alone is needful.  The less cares we have the more we can pursue God undistractedly.

            The man who has conquered this vice has cut out care, but the man trapped by it can never pray freely to God.

7            In addition to making our lives more difficult and spiritually distracting, material possessions also can make us insensitive to the needs of others around us.  It seems that the more we have the less we are inclined to give away. 

            The pretext of almsgiving is the start of avarice, and the finish is detestation of the poor.  The collector is stirred by charity, but, when the money is in, the grip tightens.

8            John teaches here that material poverty and living among those who are poor in spirit can eventually make one rich spiritually.  A monk gradually learns how poverty leads him to acknowledge his dependence upon God and to reach out to Him.  In doing so he discovers a treasure greater than anything this world can offer.

            I have seen the poverty-stricken grow rich and forget their want, through living with the poor in spirit.

9            One driven by avarice is never subject to tedium of spirit; that is, spiritual boredom.  The reason for this is clear: They have no spiritual life to begin with.  The spirit of avarice drives them to work excessively, taking them away from their spiritual labors and the silence and solitude of prayer.

            The monk who is greedy for money is a stranger to tedium of spirit.  Always he turns over within himself the words of the Apostle: "The man who does not work does not eat" (Thess. 3:10) and, "These hands of mine have served me and those who were with me" (Acts 20:34).


1-7            John begins by defining poverty.  The one who embraces poverty is truly free - a slave to no one and no thing.  Such poverty concerns not only one's possessions, but one's will.  Obedience is the truest and most personal form of poverty.  The greater the renunciation the more pure one's prayer becomes and one's hunger for the things of heaven.  John warns, however, that poverty not offered or directed to God simply leaves one destitute.  If we do not turn to God in this poverty we simply remain empty. 

            The poverty of a monk is resignation from care.  It is a life without anxiety and travels light, far from sorrow and faithful to the commandments.  The poor monk is lord of the world.  He has handed his cares over to God, and by his faith has obtained all men as his servants.  If he lacks something he does not complain to his fellows and he accepts what comes his way as if from the hand of the Lord.  In his poverty he turns into a son of detachment and he sets no value on what he has.  Having withdrawn from the world, he comes to regard everything as refuse.  Indeed he is not genuinely poor if he starts to worry about something.
            A man who has embraced poverty offers up prayer that is pure, while a man who loves possessions prays to material images.
            Those living in obedience to another are free of all cupidity, for when the body has been given up, what else is there to call one's own? 

            The man who has tasted the things of heaven easily thinks nothing of what is below, but he who has had no taste of heaven finds pleasure in possessions.
            A man who is poor for no good reason falls into a double misfortune.  He goes without present goods and is deprived of these in the future

            The man who gives up possessions for religious motives is great, but the man who renounces his will is holy indeed.  The one will earn money or grace a hundred times over, but the other will inherit eternal life.

8-10            Anger John tells us is the constant plight of the miserly.  With an increase of goods comes the need to protect them.  He who has a lust for possessions is often willing to use force to obtain them.

            Waves never leave the sea.  Anger and gloom never leave the miserly.
            The man who thinks nothing of goods has freed himself from quarrels and disputes.  But the lover of possessions will fight to the death for a needle.  Sturdy faith cuts off cares, and remembrance of death denies the body.

            Avarice is said to be the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10), and it is so because it causes hatred, theft, envy, separations, hostility, stormy blasts, remembrance of past wrongs, inhuman acts and even murder.

11-14            The saving virtue in the struggle with avarice is detachment.  This is attained when one's experience and taste for the things of heaven increases.  The more one longs for the imperishable, the less he will cling to what is passing and corruptible.           

            A small fire can burn down an entire forest.  But one virtue can help many to escape all the vices mentioned above. That virtue is detachment, which is a withdrawal from all evil desires, and which grows from experience and taste of the knowledge of God and from a meditation on the account to be rendered at death.

            This is the seventeenth step. He who has climbed it is traveling to heaven unburdened by material things.

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