How Much Is Enough?
Written by: Lisa Kelly
Please don’t take offense at what I am about to write. It is truly not directed at any one in particular. It is a reflection of the tension and desolation I am feeling within myself. I am going to write about something people have a very hard time talking about publicly and I must admit that in 42 years of being a Catholic have never really heard addressed directly in church (which is part of the tension and desolation in which I find myself today.)
It all began last Thursday night when my family and some friends went out to dinner at a nice downtown restaurant, white table cloths, candlelight, smartly dressed waiters. We don’t go out often, maybe a few times a month, but this time I wanted to crawl out of my skin before walking into the restaurant. Have you ever had that feeling of wanting to be anyone but the person you are on the outside? The menu offered appetizers, soups, wines from around the world, desserts, and a half a page dedicated to different types of meats from lobster to salmon to Argentine steak (the most expensive item on the menu.) Not being much of a seafood person and at the behest of others that the Argentine steak is the best around, I offered to split the entrée with another member of our party, thinking that in some way would justify my ordering the most expensive item on the menu. As we partook of a full salad bar and soup, I could feel my breathing becoming more difficult. I don’t know if Ignatius wrote about the physical symptoms of desolation, but I had all of them: churning stomach, dry mouth, nerves. I was just in a freaking restaurant! What was my problem? How can this be making me feel like I am distancing myself from or not moving towards God? It’s a family dinner for heaven’s sake! The meal comes and tears well up in my eyes. My only relief is to cut the thick, juicy steak in slightly more than half and put it on another’s plate. How can something so delicious be so hard to swallow? It’s only an $11 steak.
Yes, as I said, it was the most expensive item on the menu at one of the nicest restaurants in town and it cost all of $11. The fact I neglected to share with you (in hopes that you could share my gastric experience) is that the restaurant is in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a city of 1 million+ people in the second poorest country after Haiti in the western hemisphere. My $11 steak was close to a week’s wages for the majority of the population here (the majority being poor.) A middle class Bolivian, such as a hard- working school teacher just like in the states, makes about $500 a month. I have had these experiences before of being, quite frankly, the rich ugly American. Ignatius has taught me to name the reality in front of me. The reality is I am, by virtue of my country and family and skin color, in the top 1% of the world economically.
And at this moment that is filling me with desolation.
Please do not think for a moment that I am not grateful. My spirituality is very much rooted in gratitude. Never more in my life have I been grateful for my freedoms, government, and every health and financial regulation ever written than when I face the poverty of the marginalized world. I am grateful to my parents for all they sacrificed for me and to my many teachers along the way. And to a certain extent I can take some personal credit for working hard in school and at the jobs I’ve had. But those things alone cannot account for nor justify the obscene wealth I carry in my purse alone (including a digital camera, mp3 player, and credit card) compared to the people I walked past on the sidewalk today.
I consider myself to be middle class in the US. We are blessed to have, for the first time in years, two full-time incomes, an 1800 sq foot house, and two cars, but we have three children on the verge of college. How much is enough? How much is too much? Therein lies my desolation. In having what I have, at least in this context, I feel distanced from God, from the person I am called to and capable of being (far more generous), from the other, from the humanity around me.
Throughout Christian history, the call to “go and make disciples of all nations” has been a far greater motivator in Church teaching than John the Baptist’s instructions that “The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and he who has food is to do likewise.” The first has allowed Christians to maintain their superiority over the non-Christian, making them more like us. The second calls for us to be changed by the presence of the poor. Even Christ himself clearly stating to the rich young man, “Go sell all that you have, give to the poor, you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me” quite frankly gets really short shrift in homilies and in many “Christian” households. Other Gospel passages as well support Jesus’ teaching not just that we should give, but that having more than we truly need when others go without is actually against our faith. And that is my desolation; that by my excess I distance myself from God.
But this excess is, seemingly without question, what our western society calls us to; to constantly seek to earn more than others, consume to excess regardless of others, and get ahead of the other instead of walking with them. I should savor the fact that I can eat dinner in a nice steak house with my family. So why then does it give me so much desolation?
In a week I will go back to my comfortable home. The poor will no longer be sitting right outside my front door trying to sell a homemade concoction for meager pennies. They will be out of my sight to the extent that I choose to distance myself from them. And in so doing, I will be choosing to live in my excess and distance myself from God. Ignatius would find the western obsession with wealth and financial security an extremely disordered attachment, inhibiting those who have it from serving the greater Glory of God, particularly from serving God in the guise of the poor.
How much is enough? We have very clear teachings on sex, abortion, war, dying—why not money? Does a Christian belong in the 1%? It is a conversation we don’t like to have, but one I would like to have more openly, certainly before I go out to eat in a nice restaurant again.
. Photo: “Steak Pommes-Frites presentation 2″ By Waferboard on Flickr