Apologia: The Fullness of Christian Truth


``Where the Bishop is, there let the multitude of believers be;
even as where Jesus is, there is the Catholic Church'' Ignatius of Antioch, 1st c. A.D


IV.
Things

Thinking next 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 keep going.

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 it.

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 people's needs.

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 ahead").

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 children.

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.

Study Questions

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?

Discussion Topics

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?

Continue:
The Christian Pattern
Our Neighbors
"...You Did It Unto Me"
Things
Places
Work
Training for Life's Work and Play
Vocations
Redeeming the Times
Sex Education
Attaining Our Ideals

 

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