It came down to the wire. I was supposed to leave for St. Michael’s to insulate and sheetrock the Abbot’s cell, but with Christmas, all of our kids and the grandchild staying with us for the holidays, the youngest’s 18th birthday bash, and a new daughter-in-law to be to celebrate, our finances got stretched thinner than angel hair pasta. Fortunately, I picked up a couple last minute jobs that I could collect a daily check so I could afford to buy some winter clothes, pay for gas to get to the Monastery and leave a few dollars for the Wifey to buy groceries and electricity while I was gone. I should have had my truck checked out since it has close to 100,000 miles and I’ve never had any “recommended services” done, the “check engine light” has been on for a few months, and it needs an oil change, but I just couldn’t afford it.
Last week the “Mega-Millions” lottery was up over 300 million, I was broke, so like all broke people, I spent money I didn’t have and bought one wishful thinking ticket. It was a buck, what the heck. I’ve bought lottery tickets probably a half dozen times in my life and sometimes even when I wasn’t broke. I told Wilma the Circle K Cashier that if I won I’d set her up with a retirement plan. Of course that was my way of telling God that if *I* won some good would come of it. This morning on the way to the monastery I bought coffee and told her we’re both going to have to keep working, I didn’t win. She said “Yeah, I saw that, oh well.”
If only I had won the lottery… I’d give Circle K Wilma a life. I’d pay off my kids’ student loans. I’d fix up St. Michael’s, St. John’s and St. Paisius’ Monasteries, I’d buy a Church building for our Mission parish, I wouldn’t have to worry about electricity, oil changes and whether I can afford a pair of long johns and work gloves. I could build stuff for churches and monasteries for free, write and podcast all my *ahem* “wisdom” that no one will pay for, hand out hundred dollar bills to random needy people and cartoon all day. Oh, the good I would do…
“The good I would do for God if I were suddenly rich” (or even slowly rich) idea runs rampant among Christians for some reason, and especially among wannabe full-time ministers like myself. But I’ve come to realize there’s a lot of problems with that idea, problems that, in the still of the frighteningly silent nights in the bottom of the snow crusted canyon of St. Michael’s Monastery, become all too clear because there is nothing else to do but listen intently.
First of all, there is a problem with just the idea of “the good”. In my wish to be rich I think of myself and my intentions as good. A corollary is that my judgment of what is “good” is actually good. Another is thinking that having money to throw at things I’m interested in is a good thing to do for myself and for those to whom I give. And yet another issue is that I might question the worthiness of someone to receive my generosity, but I don’t question my judgment of their worthiness.
But as problematic as those things are, they are not the real problems.
The real problem is me. If I were rich, the fact of the matter is I would do good for ME first. I’d pay off MY debts, I’d buy ME a better car, I’d by ME a better house and probably more houses around the country close to places *I* want to be (I’d assuage my guilt by making sure they weren’t mansions or in gated communities). Or, if I didn’t buy houses, I’d just be sure that I’d have enough money laying around to get me to those places. And of course I’d buy some more and better stuff than I have now, instead of a 21 inch TV, I might even buy a 32 inch flat screen something or other. THEN with what was left over I’d spread it out among my kids and interests AFTER I made sure I’d have an endowment that would sustain MY new lifestyle, even if it is going to or building Monasteries and Churches. Bottom line: I’d take care of myself first before anyone else, even if my life wouldn’t be extravagant or self-serving by “worldly” millionaire’s standards.
But as real as that is, the other reality is, my delusion runs deeper than where and how the money is spent. It is the same delusion that fueled my aspiration to priesthood, my illusions of quasi-monastic capabilities, my ego that torpedoes good intentions and the vainglory that has fed a life of public ministries. It is the delusion that if my life were different or someone else’s I would be a better person. It is the delusion that I am indeed so spiritual that I would rise above the temptations of riches that others have fallen for, that I am so spiritual that I am capable of greater things than others who have what I do not. If only I were rich, if only I were a priest, if only I were paid to write, if only I were married (or not married, or married to someone else), if only I didn’t have to worry about paying the electric bill, if only I had a reliable car, if only, if only, if only.
The problem is, all of the “if only” scenarios I’ve ever had exist only in my head. “If only” is a fantasy world constructed by my narcissistic and ego driven self perceptions. “If only” is me telling myself lies and believing them. “If only” is a foggy distraction from the clear mirror of what is true about myself.
“If only” is the delusion that I would rise above my current self, my current inclinations and passions and lusts if given more of what I am not a good steward of now, even in the small things. If I hand forty bucks to a homeless mother in a parking lot on Christmas Eve, I think I’d be as generous with 40 million the whole year ‘round. “If only” is the delusion that given others’ circumstances that I desire or even envy, I would be better than the others I sit in judgment of. “If only” is the delusion that I would manage another life better than I manage the one I have. “If only” is the delusion that, given different circumstances, I would do great things. “If only” is the delusion that I even know what a “great thing” is. “If only” is a lack of faith that what I have been given is according to my capacity for “greatness”. “If only” is laziness and the delusion that if I am given something other than what I have I would actually work harder at goodness than I do with what I have been given.
In the end the reality is that I am living in a fantasy dream world, not in the reality of the present moment. It is pride, it is thinking I know better than God what is good from evil, what is beneficial and harmful, what will lead me to perfection or perdition. It is ultimately the antithesis of Eucharistic living, being thankful for this daily bread. It is ingratitude and grumbling about the manna that falls from heaven each day and sustains me even in whatever martyric wilderness I narcissistically believe I am wandering in. It is a distraction from holiness which comes only in the present moment of an encounter with God through my attentiveness to who is or what is before me. It is a rejection of humble acceptance of this hour, this minute of my life and the grace given in it.
Indeed those who desire to get rich in this life pierce themselves with many a pang, even if they have good intentions.
Well, it is time for bed. I’m an Arizona guy and I don’t do well with cold weather. It was two below zero this morning when we started working. If I were rich, I’d buy a set of flannel pajamas right now.