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Antidote to consumerism

Bernardo Villegas

Tags: Detachment
In the encyclical Centesimus Annus, Venerable John Paul II refers to the phenomenon of consumerism, a lifestyle which "maintains a persistent orientation towards 'having' rather than 'being.'

"In his condemnation of this new and subtle form of materialism, the late Pope already foresaw the serious crisis of capitalism that the whole world witnessed in 2008-2009 with the so-called Great Recession. Very much a root cause of the global economic crisis was the consumerist attitude prevalent especially in the advanced countries that the limitless accumulation of material wealth was the end-all and be-all of earthly life. This confuses the "criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality."

As an antidote to consumerism it is necessary to create "lifestyles in which the quest for truth, beauty, goodness and communion with others for the sake of common growth are the factors which determine consumer choices, savings and investments."

It is no coincidence that a very strong ally that John Paul II had in combatting the nefarious effects of consumerism in the modern worlds was the person he canonized on October 6, 2002 and called "The Saint of Ordinary Life," St. Josemaria Escriva. In his writings and oral teachings, St. Josemaria always advised ordinary Christians to strike a balance between "passionately loving the world" and being detached from worldly goods. He was careful to warn people in the middle of the world to avoid adopting the spirituality based on the contempt of the world (contemptus mundi) of consecrated souls in religious orders.

St. Josemaría during the homily
St. Josemaría during the homily "Passionately loving the world" he delivered on the campus of the University of Navarre on October 8, 1967
In a homily he delivered on the campus of the University of Navarre on October 8, 1967, he spelled out the authentic lay spirituality based on "consecratio mundi," to make full use of the goods of this world and consecrate them to God: "I have taught this constantly using words from Holy Scripture, The world is no evil, because it has come from God's hands, because it is His creation, because 'God looked upon it and saw that it was good (cf. Gen 1:7 ff). We ourselves, mankind, make it evil and ugly with our sins and infidelities. Have no doubt: Any kind of evasion of the honest realities of daily life is for you, men and women of the world, something opposed to the will of God."

It is obvious in the writings of St. Josemaria that the antidote to the modern form of materialism called "consumerism" is not a modern version of Manicheism, the ancient philosophy which regarded matter as inherently evil. In fact, St. Josemaria dared to coin the phrase "Christian materialism" in his homily "Passionately Loving the World." To him there is no other way: "Either we learn to find our Lord in ordinary, everyday life, or else we shall never find Him. That is why I can tell you that our age needs to give back to matter and to the most trivial occurrences and situations their noble and original meaning. It needs to restore them to the service of the Kingdom of God, to spiritualize them, turning them into a means and an occasion for a continuous meeting with Jesus Christ. Authentic Christianity which professes the resurrection of all flesh, has always quite logically opposed 'dis-incarnation,' without fear of being judged materialistic. We can, therefore, rightfully speak of a Christian materialism, which is boldly opposed to that materialism which is blind to the spirit."

Christian materialism means considering material goods as means and not as ends in themselves. It means giving the appropriate value to all the goods of this earth as coming from the hands of God to be used to attain what is called integral human development, the development of every man and the whole man. The antidote to consumerism, to the worship of material goods, is not beggarliness or a refusal to make legitimate use of all the material comforts that modern technology can provide to men and women in the middle of the world. What is opposed to consumerism is a spirit of detachment.

St. Josemaria describes detachment in graphic details: "Following the example we see in Our Lord, who is our model, I preach that detachment is self-dominion. It is not a noisy and showy beggarliness, nor is it a mask for laziness and neglect. You should dress in accordance with the demands of your social standing, your family background, your work...as your companions do, but to please God, eager to present a genuine and attractive image of true Christian living."

St. Josemaria speaks of naturalness as a virtue that the ordinary Christian should cultivate: "Do everything with naturalness, without being extravagant. I can assure you that in this matter it is better to err on the side of excess than to fall short. How do you think Our Lord dressed? Haven't you pictured to yourself the dignity with which He wore His seamless cloak which had probably been woven for Him by Our Lady? Don't you remember how, in Simon's house, He was grieved because He had not been offered water to wash His hands before taking His place at the table? No doubt He drew attention to this example of bad manners to underline His teaching that love is shown in little details. But He also wants to make it clear that He stands by the social customs of His time, and therefore you and I must make an effort to be detached from the goods and comforts of the world, but without doing anything that looks odd or peculiar."

Christian materialism, instead of making us despise consumer goods, should move us to take good care of the material wealth that we possess. As St. Josemaria wrote: "As far as I am concerned, one of the signs that we're aware of being lords of the earth and God's faithful administrators is the way we take of the things we use: Keeping them in good condition, making them last and getting the best out of them so that they serve their purpose for as long a time as possible and don't go to waste. In the Centers of Opus Dei you will find the decoration simple, attractive and, above all, clean, because poverty in a home is not to be confused with bad taste or with dirt. Nevertheless, it seems quite natural to me that, in keeping with your means and your social and family commitments, you should possess some objects of value which you take care of with a spirit of mortification and detachment."

Finally, the acid test that we are detached from the goods that we possess and use is our accepting cheerfully situations in our ordinary life in which through financial reverses or natural disasters, we find ourselves deprived even of the most basic goods.

Especially during these times of economic upheavals and natural calamities, we may find ourselves impoverished. The detached person can also accept these trials as part of the omnia in bonum (all things work unto good for those who love God). St. Josemaria has this advice: "Get into the habit from now on, of facing up cheerfully to little shortcomings and discomforts, to cold and heat, to the lack of things you feel you can't do without, to being unable to rest as and when you would like to, to hunger, loneliness, ingratitude, lack of appreciation, disgrace..." These are the real tests of a truly detached person.

By BERNARDO M. VILLEGAS, bvillegas@uap.edu.ph.

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