over the question of how to help our children to grow up with a "sacramental"
attitude toward things proves to be a somewhat startling experience. For
when one begins to consider the specifications of this Christian attitude,
one realizes with dismay how different it is both from the attitude of previous
generations, and also from the modern attitude which is now, unawares, forming
our chil- dren's views and re-fashioning our own.
The old attitude was one of appreciation of the value and quality of things
as satisfying needs, providing luxuries, and laying the ground-work for the
"finer things of life." Human prudence, thrift, foresight, carefulness with
regard to possessions, were among the highest virtues known to this attitude;
wastefulness, prodigality, taking no thought for the morrow, lack of ability
to make a living, were considered the worst of vices. God was the source
of all blessings, but He only helped those who helped themselves, and solid
worldly success was a sign of His approval.
Our own parents and the Christian teachers of all ages have warned us against
the danger of this attitude. It encourages selfishness, for it makes it seem
a positive duty to amass things for oneself and one's family even at the
expense of other people and other families. It leads people to overvalue
physical comfort, luxury, as well as "refinement," and either to despise
or to envy and over-value the "finer things of life" like music, art, literature.
Above all, it leads people to see in earthly possessions the guarantee of
security and the reward of right living, as did the rich man in the Bible
whom our Lord called a fool.
The basic assumption of the modern attitude, on the other hand, an assumption
sanctioned both by modern science and by the existence and operation of the
mass-production system, is that things really have no permanent form or value
in themselves. The form in which we find any object at the moment is accidental;
the thing can be junked tomorrow and turned into something quite different
and also much better than what we have now, for "progress" is seeing to it
that the products of our civilization are inevitably improving year by year.
There is little use, then, in learning to appreciate anything for itself,
in learning to value the quality of anything, taking great care of It, especially
as there are in existence millions of other objects just like this one, turned
out by the same machines on exactly the same pattern. What we can get out
of a thing right now is all that really matters, since, however we treat
it, we can either get another, or turn it in for something even more modern
and more efficient.
Again, ours is, strictly, a "consumer" civilization, one which literally
consumes things, uses them up. Science has not yet discovered for practical
purposes how to turn everything into everything else--how can we now make
use of the component parts of the crude oil consumed in the last twenty years,
or the coal, or all the metals in our myriad junk piles?
But we vaguely feel that science either has made such discoveries, or soon
will. And so we feel justified in continuing to use up raw materials in making
things designed to be used up and discarded in order that people will buy
new things and thereby keep the system going. And the system must be kept
going, because the mass-production machines which are its focus and its fetish
must be kept going or money will be lost, men will be thrown out of work,
fewer people will be able to buy, panic and depression will follow soon.
The claims of these machines, in other words, have been allowed to reign
supreme over true human welfare, let alone the claims of God. The real criterion
of value has now become, not the satisfaction of people's real need or what
provides them with real pleasures, even on the sensory level, but rather
what people can be persuaded to buy in order to keep the system going. For
the real needs, and the desires for legitimate pleasures of ordinary people
do not provide the ever-expanding market our system must have in order to
The only way out then, in times of peace or comparative peace, is continually
to "create" new "needs," to persuade people that they need ever-new models
of their present possessions as well as new things of whose existence they
never dreamed. And the means of persuasion necessarily appeal, not to real
human needs (which are, finally, self-limiting2), but to the unlimited and
illimitable desires that can be awakened in fallen man by appealing to his
emotions through his imagination.
If we contemplate soberly the implications of Fr. Vincent McNabb's statement:
"Every act of self-denial stops some wheel from turning," it is startlingly
clear that our system could not continue as it is without the deliberate
discouragement of self-denial, of Christian trust and detachment; without
the deliberate encouragement of anxiety, fear, and of what theologians call
the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, that is,
of fallen man's inappeasable itch for sensations, for acquiring things and
"experiences," for being up-to-date, "hep," just as good as the neighbors,
secure, successful, etc.
Again, since things are made primarily to be sold, not to be or to do what
they are presumably supposed to be or to do, the practice of good workmanship
is, generally, accidental, even where the mass-production system still leaves
room for its possibility. Things are not, then, generally made as God Intended
them to be, for somebody's special needs, out of the proper materials, by
an intelligent and skilled workman who knows what he is doing and intends
to do it for the love of God and man.
Rather, incalculable quantities of God's inanimate and animate creatures
are being misused to provide raw material for junk,3 and millions of men
and women are either not using or are misusing their human facilities to
design, produce and distribute goods which, whatever the individual workers
good motives, actually promote not the common good, but the common
ill--increasingly widespread selfishness, pride, covetousness, lust, anger,
gluttony, envy, and sloth.
Obviously, then, the modern attitude toward things does not simply contain
dangers against which we could warn and fortify our children. It is essentially
wrong in itself, for it necessarily fosters intemperance in the acquisition
and use of things, false solicitude about imagined "needs," the abuse of
human work and of God's materials. It necessarily discourages the Christian
spirit of detachment, poverty, and the right use of creatures.4 If it did
not, it would break down.
Yet we and our children have to live, work and trade in this civilization.
We cannot transform it over-night. We can only do what we can, in an
infinitesimal way, to join with others of like mind, and to begin thinking,
studying, praying and working towards such a transformation, and, at the
same time, help to prepare our children to carry on the transformation according
to their future vocations. For this purpose, obviously the first thing to
do is to become consciously aware of the Church's whole teaching about creatures
and their use, and to try continually to rectify our own attitude by this
teaching. Then we will be in a position to communicate the Christian attitude
to our children and to prepare them for their life-work in the world.
Where we can best, for our purposes, find the Church's teaching about things
and their use, is in Holy Scripture and in the liturgy and in the social
encyclicals of the recent Popes. From all these sources, we find, to summarize
roughly, the following:
1) God made everything for His glory and to be useful to man.
2) God made all things in wisdom, to the image of His Son, and, ultimately,
also for the sake of Christ. The vast diversity of creatures was planned
by Him: each thing gives Him glory by being and acting according to the nature
He gave it, taking its part in the great harmony of creation and the drama
of the history of the whole cosmos.
3) God gave to man, whom He made in His own image and likeness, a share in
his power of making and ordering created things. He made various "raw materials"
so that men could re-fashion them in various ways, according to their natures
and potentialities, and He gave man the intelligence and potential skill
to re-fashion such things. He also gave man the power of "ruling" living
and non-living created things, that is, of ordering them. By making and ruling
things, man was to perfect his own nature as an individual and social being,
and thus fulfill the purpose for which God made him; so to live on earth
as to prepare for eternal life in heaven; and, in a sense, to complete and
perfect God's creation by acting in the capacity of His vice-regent over
4) By the Fall, man handed over to the devil, so far as God permitted, his
own over-lordship of material things. This satanic power needs to be exorcised
by the power of Christ in order that Christians may be able to use and order
things for Christian purposes.
5) But, as all things were first made through the Son, made fundamentally
good and holy and given their proper degree of life through Him, so by His
redemption they have been, in principle, redeemed from the devil's power
so that they can be blessed by Christ and given to us, who have been re-made
to His image, to use through Him, with Him, in Him, in the love of the Holy
Spirit, for the honor and glory of the Father.
6) God made things to be useful to men in two ways: a) by serving their complex
physical, mental, and spiritual needs, individually and socially (the very
complexity of these needs forcing men, even on the natural level, to specialize
in serving one or another, and to serve each other's needs as well as their
own), and thus enabling men to grow up and live and work together on earth,
according to God's plan, and prepare together for eternal life in heaven.
b) Things have been made, and used by God in the course of history, to serve
also as signs of spiritual realities, so that in the very use of those material
things which necessarily take up so much of our time and energy, we can raise
our minds and hearts to God, and to the wonders of our creation, redemption,
sanctification and eternal life.
Our Lord's own words, and Christian teaching throughout the ages, add several
conclusions to these general principles.5
1) God only gives us things and lends us power over them to use them according
to their natures, to enable us to live according to our human and Christian
nature. We have no right to abuse anything.
2) Material goods have been "lent" by God to all mankind, to serve the good
of all mankind through all the ages of its history. We have the right to
private property only in so far as such an arrangement enables us more
effectively and fully to provide for our own needs and serve those of our
neighbor. We have no absolute right to anything, in the sense that we are
free to destroy it, or to use it wrongly.
3) We have no right, then, to own or to try to acquire more things than we
need to provide for our own needs as individuals or families according to
our state of life, and to enable us to satisfy other people's needs according
to our own special talents and capabilities. We have no right to anything,
in other words, which we cannot really use to help us to take our own part
in building up the kingdom of God.
4) Anything we have or acquire beyond this norm belongs, in charity if not
in justice, to others who do need it or could use it.
5) We shall be judged by our Lord on the last day primarily by how we used
material and spiritual goods to satisfy each other's fundamental physical,
mental, and spiritual needs; by how we used all these things to serve Christ
in our neighbor. Therefore, obviously, one of the most important aspects
of Christian education, to put it mildly, must be in the intelligent and
skillful and habitual use of material and spiritual goods to serve other
6) We are not to be "solicitous" about providing for our own needs, that
is, to be at all anxious about it, or to spend any more time and strength
on it than necessary. If we seek first the kingdom of God and His justice
(that is, if we are trying primarily to take our part according to God's
will in building up the kingdom according to our vocation), then God has
pledged Himself to provide for our needs (Matt. 6:24-33)
7) If we are thus seeking His kingdom, and yet our physical, mental, or spiritual
needs do not seem to be provided for, we can be sure that God sees that we
have a greater need to share in the poverty and suffering of His Son in His
passion, in order to share in our Lord's work in the special way He has planned
for us, become the particular 'images' of Christ that He wants us to become,
and share in the special way He intends in His happiness forever in heaven.
Now, if we set side by side the main characteristics of the Christian attitude
with those of the "modern," we shall see, perhaps, some ways in which to
go about our attempt to establish our children in the Christian attitude,
to strengthen them against the "modern" one, and to prepare them to take
their parts according to God's will in transforming civilization.
First, the Christian tries to find out, to fit into and to take his part
in carrying out God's whole plan for the use of himself and all creatures;
while the modern attitude considers everything as man's, if he can make it
so by "science," to be used in any way he wants. Our first effort, then,
should be by the prayerful reading aloud and study of Holy Scripture and
of the blessings of the Church, to make ourselves aware of God's whole plan,
and of how material creation is included in it.
And our second effort should be actually to go about using things, as far
as possible, according to the Church's plan as outlined in the blessings,
and to use the blessings themselves,6 asking our priests to administer them
when possible, and otherwise we ourselves, father or mother, saying the words
of the blessings and making the sign of the Cross with holy water.
We need to make a continual effort, then, to establish and maintain ourselves
in the Christian attitude. One of the best ways of going about it is to read
and study and think about the blessings of the Church and the events in Sacred
History to which the blessings, indirectly or directly, refer. Then we should
have things blessed, as occasion arises, by a priest. And, lastly, we should
try to use things according to God's plan as it is shown to us in the blessings.
For example, if the family is about to acquire a new car, we could take the
opportunity to study with the children the Blessing for an automobile. We
could read over with them the passage from the "Acts" to which the blessing
refers. We could discuss our obligation to drive carefully and so make ourselves
worthy of the angels' protection. We could also discuss the idea that every
journey we are going to take in the new car is a kind of 'sign' of our whole
life's journey to heaven.
Then, when we get the car, we could begin our use of it by driving it to
the rectory of our parish and asking our priest to bless it. Again, the occasion
of a journey by train or boat or airplane could be used to study the blessings
for all these means of transportation. Or, lacking a journey, books about
trains or planes, cutting out pictures of them and so on, could be used as
the spring-board for interest in and familiarity with, the blessings the
Church has provided.7
In this connection also, since the Christian tries to find out what God made
things to be and do, to praise and thank Him for them, and to use them rightly,
we can try to be as conscientious and patient and intelligent as possible
in the never-ending task of teaching the children to look at things as they
actually are; to appreciate them for what they are, and not for something
else; to judge man-made products by how well they imitate God's making in
being well-made and in fulfilling the needs they are supposed to fulfill.
Such training will involve, as any parent realizes with dismay, a continuous
process of "debunking" what the children are told by advertisers everywhere,
including their own friends; such debunking, moreover, needing to be carried
out as matter-of-factly, humorously and unheatedly as we can manage. On the
positive side, this training will involve training the children's senses,
to taste, smell, touch, see, and hear what is before them vividly and
discriminately, as the indispensable prerequisite and accompaniment to training
the children's powers of appreciation, judgment, self-restraint and proper
use with regard to toys and tools, food and clothes, furniture and means
of transportation, as well as books, music, and pictures.
Then, since the Christian tries to use things as God meant them to be used,
while we are training the children to appreciate things rightly, from God's
point of view so to speak, we need to be training them to use things rightly.
Such use involves taking due care of things, using them for what they were
meant to be used for and not some other way. It also involves constant care
to avoid our great American vice of waste, showing the children that it is
foolish and expensive, but still more that it is wrong, for it means not
using something for what God meant it for.
Children of bicycle age, for example, can be shown that a really well-built
bike, made to fulfill its purpose of carrying somebody swiftly and easily
from one place to another, is not necessarily a bicycle with many gears,
or complete with glittering accessories, but one whose essential parts are
strong, well-designed, well-put-together. The children also can be shown
that the right use of a bicycle is to learn first to control it, then to
ride it swiftly; but that to misuse it by making the tires squeal, loosening
the handlebars and so on, is both silly and wrong, as doing an injustice
to the nature of the bicycle.
In all this, we will, of course, be working not only against the children's
natural carelessness and destructiveness, as parents have always had to do,
but against the whole spirit of the times, the spirit of pretending that
one thing is just the same and just as good as another which costs more or
is harder to make or obtain (why "butter substitutes," for instance, why
not simply "margarine?") and the spirit of acquiring and using things for
some entirely irrelevant or non-essential reason or purpose (buying a brand
of soap, for example, because you get coupons with it to buy something else,
admiring a car for its "modern lines," using a college education to "get
All this training in rightful appreciation and rightful use may often seem
unendurably common-sense, old-fashioned and prosaic, as well as difficult.
Let us remember, then, that its purpose is not to turn our children out as
Horatio Algers or "solid citizens," but rather to give our children as complete
a training as we can give them in using the things of this world rightly
so as to achieve life eternal for themselves and their fellow-men.
But by far the most important aspect of our training of our children in the
right use of things, is to train them in making things, especially in making
things for other people's needs; and this for many reasons. First of all,
such training in making is education of the whole child, body, mind, and
soul, towards perfecting him in the image of God the Creator that God wants
him to become.
Secondly, no other training is so efficient in inculcating true appreciation
of materials, tools and skill in the products of the workmanship of both
God and man. If you have once really tried to make a table, you have an insight
into furniture-making and a basis for judging good furniture that no amount
of book-learning alone can give. And if you have tried to make a table for
the use of someone who really needs it, then you have had a full experience
of mature craftsmanship.
And, finally, since doing things and performing actions are also forms of
making in the widest and truest sense, the children should be trained to
"make" a dance, a play, a tidy well-swept room, etc., as well as being trained
to make actual things, according to their age and capacity. And a higher
reason for all this training in making is that the bread and wine used in
holy Mass are artifacts of man's skill; if a person had never made anything,
it is much more difficult to show him why and how the bread and wine can
stand for us, for our human work, for all we have and do and make and are.
In our encouraging and training of the children to make whatever they can
learn to make reasonably well, let us then try as far as possible to lead
them to make things that somebody really needs (rather, for instance, than
things that are easy and effective to make so that kind grandparents will
pretend that they like them). And let us try to show the children by any
means our ingenuity may suggest that these products of their making are to
be offered to God, with our Lord's offering in the Mass, as their work is
to be offered with His work, their very selves with Him.
Obviously, also, if we are to train our children in the Christian appreciation
and use of things, we must take as much care to give them, and to see that
they learn to make and buy for themselves, things that are well made and
well designed, of good materials. How can we invite the children to raise
their minds to the true Bread of Life, and their hearts in thanksgiving to
God, how can we urge good craftsmanship, if we sit down every day at a table
made of some plastic that pretends to look like marble, covered with a plastic
cloth intended to look like lace; when on the table is the white bread of
commerce that has had some small amount of nourishment "added" to its essential
constituents, a breakfast food that amounts to slightly sweetened air, and
only nourishes because of the milk and sugar put on it...?
Of course, it is simply not possible for most of us to be perfectly consistent
about buying real things today, but we can at least do our best. It would
be quite possible for some of us, for example, to find out where the nearest
furniture factory is, visit it, and buy the furniture we need unfinished,
and perhaps, with slight flaws in it (much more cheaply than we could buy
the finished product in a store). Much good furniture is ruined only by the
finish which tries to make it look like something other than the original
wood it is. In any case, we can make it a habit to look for things that are
well-made and not pretending to be other than they are. And we can also point
out occasionally our own unavoidable inconsistencies to ourselves and the
Another characteristic of the Christian attitude towards things is to enjoy
the perfections that God, or man, His image, has put into things- -whether
or not one actually owns the thing and can profit from or enjoy its use.
We can, then, encourage the children to appreciate and rejoice in the qualities
of other people's things: gardens, lakes, lovely china or furniture or houses,
cars, and achievements.
A third characteristic of the Christian attitude as opposed to the modern
is that the Christian sees the use of things as a trust, a "stewardship,"
to be exercised for the love of Christ, for the good of one's neighbor and
the whole mystical Body of Christ. We should, then, when the children want
us to buy things for them, or want to buy things for themselves, help them
to consider not only the quality and price of the things, but also how it
fits into the whole picture of their daily lives as Christians: Can you really
use it, or learn to use it rightly? Can and will you take proper care of
it? Will it cause unnecessary trouble in the family or among your friends?
Can you somehow share or enjoy it with other people?
Obviously, this is a habit of mind to be established, not a puritanical
check-list. We and the children need things that are just for fun, need to
do things just for fun without always consciously adverting to ultimate
significances. But such significances do need to be in the back of our minds,
to have been thought out at some time or another, or the fun will cease to
be fun and become distraction and escapism.
So, in the same way, for major family purchases at least, we can call the
children into consultation: Will this laborsaving device, for example, that
we can now afford, actually give us more time and energy to praise God better,
to love and serve one another in Christ, to serve our neighbors more effectively?
Will this relatively expensive means of entertainment really re-create us,
or will it simply wear us out and make us less fit to carry out God's will?
Again, the Christian realizes that he has no right to more things than he
can really use. We and our children, then, might well have a yearly examination
of conscience on our possessions, perhaps at the beginning of Lent, or perhaps
in connection with the Bishop's Thanksgiving clothing drive, or some other
special opportunity to give things away.
Should father keep that old dress suit he hasn't been able to get into for
twenty years? Should mother keep that old extra coat just in case-- when
so many people don't even have one? What about those half-worn-out shoes
that John says he can't get into? Should we keep them for five years till
Tom gets that size? Or give them to somebody who needs shoes now?
Such questions are not always at all easy to answer with due prudence as
well as charity, and both virtues have their claims. But it does seem from
the lives of the saints as if the Lord preferred us to err on the side of
generosity when there is any real doubt as to which virtue should be followed!
Again, we can try to show the children both by example and words that giving
is an essential part of living, that actually doing without things in order
to be able to give to those in need is a normal Christian thing to do, especially
in times of penance, Lent and Ember days.
But, since Christians are not to be solicitous or unduly worried about their
needs, while we must encourage the children in habits of prudence, foresight,
reasonable budgeting and so on with regard to money and to possible future
possessions, let us discourage them in any undue amount of planning, worrying,
working to acquire things for themselves, especially things that are simply
means to personal recreation.
And, finally, since we are followers of Christ, let us try to realize ourselves
and to communicate the realization to our children that we have no "right"
to freedom from want, that if we lack even necessities, we are sharing our
Lord's Passion to some small extent. Grumbling about a lack of comforts,
complaining about having less than our neighbors, about not being able to
buy things we want and that other people have, all this is unworthy of soldiers
of Christ, to whom hardships, doing without and suffering are not important--so
intent should we be on accomplishing our mission, doing our job, taking our
part in the battle, looking forward to the final victory of Christ.
1. What does the author mean by the "old attitude" toward things?
2. What does the author mean by the "modern attitude" toward things?
3 What are the principal points from the Church's teaching regarding things
and their use?
4. What does the author mean by the "right motive" and the "wrong mo- tive"
for buying such things as bicycles and soap?
5. Why is it important for children to make things?
1. Read the Gospel of St. Matthew 6:25-34. Discuss how this teaching of Christ
gives us a guide for determining a Christian attitude toward things. Is a
housewife materialistic if she wants an automatic washing machine? if she
wants new furniture? if she wants a fur coat? a picture window installed
in the living room? Does the parable of Christ mean that parents are not
supposed to be "solicitous" about things for their children? Should parents
practice thrift? have insurance?
2. Discuss ways and means for increasing the use and the appreciation of
blessings of things in the home.
3. What things can and should children make at home? About what percent of
their time should children be "making things" as compared with the time they
spend "being entertained" by watching others perform? Suggest ways in which
the average home could be expanded in opportunities for the children to make
useful and functional things.
4. Discuss ways and means for aiding children to increase their respect for
property--for clothes, family furnishings, other people's property and community
property. At what age should children begin to buy and take care of for
themselves the more expensive items of property? What standards should we
teach them to employ in buying one item rather than another?
5. Discuss the "proper" amount of things that children should have at the
various age levels. Do children get too many toys or get them at too early
an age? How might the amount of things children have today affect their idea
of "stewardship" of property? Are the amount and value of gifts given at
Christmas or for birthdays an aid or hindrance to children for developing
a Christian concept of goods?
The Christian Pattern
"...You Did It Unto Me"
Training for Life's Work and Play
Redeeming the Times
Attaining Our Ideals