4th Thought – Greed
It’s not easy to attain purity of heart. There’s always something trying to get in the way and ruin it. The early monks and nuns identified a certain pattern of eight negative thoughts, which to varying degrees afflict everyone.
At the beginning of this series we saw how these were grouped into categories, the first of which are the thoughts which afflict our bodies. We’ve looked at two from this category already: gluttony and lust. This week we look at the third thought in this category: greed.
Whereas lust and gluttony are to do with natural internal desires for food and sex, greed, (or avarice) is about our attention to money and things; it ‘invades our bodies by slow degrees and has more far-reaching and disastrous effects…’ (p115), which are both personal and communal.
Abbot Christopher argues that many of our political and social problems in our culture are due to greed, e.g.
- The way our western lifestyles demand that we take natural resources from poorer countries as cheaply as possible,
- The nightmare of Third World Debt, with poor countries massively in debt to the rich.
- The cost of industrialisation and globalisation to our environment, despite their benefits.
Greed is something we see more easily in others, than in ourselves: the company boss who gets a huge bonus, the politician who take a bribe, the celebrity who wastes millions on a spending spree. “It’s the corrupt and rich who are greedy; not me!”
But it’s not as simple as being greedy or not greedy.
Greed operates on a spectrum, and whether it’s weak or strong, it affects us all as a subtle influence on all our decisions about material things. Our happiness as individuals and as a society depends on us taking better control of our greed.
Even the desert fathers and mothers struggled with greed.
They were poor by choice, but still had thoughts about wanting more. We can still be tempted by greed even if we don’t have much. And the more we get, it’s never enough.
There’s always the next one, the next thing, the next version.
Because this can be so destructive to a community, it was taken really seriously by all those who founded monastic communities. But some the insights they offer are useful for any of us today.
John Cassian, one of the early teachers of monastic wisdom, taught how greed begins with apparently harmless thoughts.
- At first, the monk thinks “Hmm, there’s not enough supply here to sustain a healthy life.”
- Then he focuses great attention on how to get hold of one penny.
- Then he’s consumed with trying to work out: “What am I going to buy with it?” or, “How can I double this penny?”
- Then he decides he needs to leave the community or else he will perish on the spot!
- Storing up his money and possessions, the monk moves to the edge of the community, becomes an observer, then blames the others for treating him like a stranger, becoming angry.
In this almost comical depiction, we see the monk gradually ‘drawn away from his true setting by the magnets of money and possessions.’(p119), and it’s especially fuelled by the person building up a story in their own imagination about what they think they need.
- So, greed has its origins in the mental picture we have or our life and its needs;
- If we get that mental picture wrong, it’s can potentially lead to disintegration in our own lives, and the whole community around us.
What are the stories we tell about ourselves, and what we think we need? The fantasies or half-truths that might take power over our imaginations, which make us increasingly unsatisfied?
From here, the Abbot looks at the way in which everything is consumerised in the west – not just material things, but even culture itself, and stories (he gives the example of Disney). This is not a problem in itself. What is a problem, is the way in which the consumer culture tries to persuade us that more things = more happiness. ‘The marketing upon which the consumer culture is based, is always about more, never about less.’(p122).
Resisting the Greedy Culture
How can we overcome the overwhelming temptation to greed, in a culture where shopping is not just a major pastime but even seen as a virtuous activity? We can’t avoid shops, and we can’t extract ourselves from the consumer culture in which we live. Yet there are simple things we can do to prevent it taking over our lives.
First: take stock every so often. Each Lent, every person in Abbot Christopher’s community writes an inventory of their personal items and shares it with the Abbot, as an exercise to help them think through whether they need all those things.
Every so often at home we like to have a good sort out of our stuff, and take bags of things to charity shops or see what we can give away. Not only does it feel cathartic, it helps me learn that I still buy things I don’t actually need:
- If I haven’t used this for a year, I probably don’t need it;
- So next time I think I need ‘that thing’, check whether I really do!
There was a best-selling book about recently, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, with all sorts of advice in it for de-cluttering.
The fact it was best-selling means there are lots of people trying to do it.
Another tip from Abbot Christopher: Don’t be tricked into thinking that self-indulgence will make you happy: ‘at best [it’s] temporary and at worst [it] makes the problem worse.’(p127)
Perhaps the biggest challenge to young people and older people alike is the way we celebrate Christmas. It’s a time of year with huge potential for spiritual imagination, and engaging our children in healthy creativity, and that’s what we try to do with many of the special church services we put on over the Christmas season.
Yet, writes the Abbot, it’s also the time of year ‘when commercial forces are at their most predatory.’(p128). I think that word ‘predatory’ describes well the forces of consumerism in the lead up to Christmas. Perhaps this year as we move closer to that time of year again, we can go into it with greater self-awareness about of greed (and gluttony!) in order to see through the consumerism and reach the part of Christmas that is about true, deep, spiritual happiness. That’s what Advent is given to us for.
Demons of the Body
So we’ve looked at Gluttony, lust, greed, and ways of putting ‘a filter between those thoughts which urge us to be self-indulgent, and the actual carrying out of those thoughts.’(p130)
The basic challenge of these chapters: ‘To have a truly spiritual life, we must have the discipline of the body that is not simply bodily. Body, heart and soul must all be in tune with each other.’ Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and body…
Sermon by Rev. James Pettit on Sunday 9th October 2016