Generosity and Greed

The prosperity gospel, which assures its followers that wealth is a sign of blessing from the Lord, and the more one has the better, is really no different from the ‘greed is good’ mantra of Gordon Gekko. In some respects, it is far worse, because it spreads a religious gloss over behaviour that is anything but godly. Many of the words we associate with money-making have unpleasant overtones: greed, avarice, meanness, miserliness, profiteering, fraud — they are not words we would want applied to ourselves. The one that always strikes me is miserliness, from the Latin miser, meaning someone who is wretched, unhappy. It is, as always, the degree of attachment to wealth that tends to make one happy or unhappy rather than the amount of money one has or does not have; but amassing wealth and refusing to spend it is a sure way of becoming deeply, wretchedly unhappy. Who ever derived more than a passing joy from contemplating the noughts at the end of his bank balance? Surely only a nut-case.

Today and tomorrow we are re-reading St Benedict’s advice to the cellarer or business manager of the monastery (RB 31). He begins with a list of qualities the cellarer ought to have, and they make challenging reading. The cellarer should be

a wise person of mature character, who is abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, nor a trouble-maker, nor offensive or lazy or wasteful, . . . who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community. (RB 31.1–2)

I think that is a neat summing-up of an attitude we can all cultivate, of being detached in respect of our own material possessions, but generous to others in their use. We may have very little left over at the end of the month, perhaps nothing at all, but we can still be compassionate, ready to share what we have. I am reminded of a story my father once told me of a time when he was serving in the Middle East. He was running along, tired, sweaty and very fed up when he passed an elderly man walking in the opposite direction. The man immediately reached into a bag round his neck and pressed a handful of fresh dates into my father’s hand. The man was poor, materially much poorer than my father, but he was rich in compassion and showed himself a father to my father, sharing the little he had. Who he was, whether he was Christian or Muslim, we shall never know, but nearly three quarters of a century later his instinctive generosity is still remembered and celebrated. We might ask ourselves, will ours be?

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Poverty v. Being Poor

The feast of St Vincent de Paul always makes me do a little soul searching about the meaning of poverty. Is there a difference between that and being poor? I tend to think of poverty as an abstraction — real and painful to those who suffer from it, but still something that can be measured by economists and sociologists according to the arcane standards of their profession. It isn’t a universally valid concept, either. What constitutes poverty to someone living in north America may appear very differently to someone living in parts of India or Africa. Being poor is different, and can be found even in the midst of plenty.

One of the medieval descriptions of monks and nuns was pauperes Christi, ‘Christ’s poor’ — those who had chosen to strip themselves of every kind of personal possession in order to follow Christ.  Anyone viewing the remains of their abbeys today might be tempted to scoff. Many medieval monasteries did indeed possess great corporate wealth even though individually the monks and nuns owned nothing at all, not even their own bodies and wills being at their own disposal, as the Rule of St Benedict says (RB 33.4). However, I’d say being poor means more than lacking possessions or being deprived of the right to private ownership. Even the attitude of mind and heart monks and nuns call detachment only imperfectly expresses what it means to be poor. Being poor means having no choice — having no choice whether one eats or not; no choice whether one is educated or not; no choice about whom one does or does not marry. The poorest people in the world are probably the women and girls whose lives are so circumscribed by material poverty and intellectual and religious convention that their lives are truly not their own, even for a minute; and that is not to deny the terrible hardships suffered by men and boys whose lives are unending toil under appalling conditions.

Is there anything we who are rich can do? We can give money and time, of course; we can pray and work; but perhaps we also need to ask ourselves from time to time whether we aren’t confusing poverty with being poor, seeing abstractions when we should be seeing individuals. The Society of St Vincent de Paul is one of those great charitable organizations that quietly and perseveringly helps those who are poor, both here and abroad. It is not the material relief of poverty alone that has made it great but the gift of its members for seeing Christ in those they serve, of being poor with the poor.

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