After a busy summer at the office, I finally got around to taking a brief vacation — or, more precisely, a “stay-cation,” since I’d be sunning myself while doing yardwork and visiting such exotic locales as the paint aisle at Lowe’s. Along with completing some overdue home improvement projects, I also planned to catch up on the readings for a class I’d been taking.
I consoled myself for the rather dull itinerary by purchasing a few toys, including the latest iPhone and an assortment of accessories to complement it. After snapping my favorite new gadget into its designer-print case, I set it on the coffee table and plopped onto the couch with my homework — the collected homilies of St. Basil the Great.
I quickly realized that St. Basil isn’t the author you want to read if you’re tickled over your tech purchases or determined to outdo the neighbors with your decor. In homilies such as “To the Rich” and “In Time of Famine and Drought,” this early Church Father minces no words in denouncing conspicuous consumption: “The more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love.”
I looked at my pricey new iPhone and cringed.
Basil isn’t much for keeping up with the Joneses, the Kardashians or anyone else, because he knew firsthand the true value of earthly riches. Born around the year 330 in Caesarea of Cappadocia, the future bishop came from an aristocratic family that owned several properties, including a country estate along what is now the Yesilirmak River in modern Turkey. But the multiple addresses didn’t turn the clan into a brood of snobs: eight of them — including Basil, his parents and several siblings — ended up as saints.
Basil knew that his privileged upbringing provided him with freedom and opportunity for which others could only long, including the slaves who made up an estimated one-third of the Roman Empire at the time. The teacher of rhetoric found himself trading the classroom for monastic life after reflecting on the Gospel and finding in it “a great means of reaching perfection … the selling of one’s goods, sharing them with the poor … and [refusing] to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy to things of earth.”
That’s exactly what he did for the rest of his days, both as a monastic and later as a priest and a bishop. More than just a powerful preacher and defender of the faith, Basil was a true social innovator, founding a charitable and spiritual center that came to be known as the Basiliad. Originally a kind of food pantry (seeded by his own liquidated inheritance), the complex came to offer shelter and medical care to the homeless and sick, while also providing a place for worship and religious education. In the Basiliad, rich and poor alike could experience a world where God’s gifts were shared as they were intended to be.
And for Basil, that was the key: he saw goods, treasures, talents and creation itself as gifts to be stewarded, not as spoils to be coveted and appropriated at all cost. “Tell me, what is your own?” he demanded. “What did you bring into this life? From where did you receive it?”
Hundreds of years before the concept of addiction was formulated, Basil identified what we would call compulsive shopping, observing that “constant accumulation does not quell the craving, but only further inflames [the] appetite.”
Getting rich to provide for the kids or to leave money to charity won’t suffice either, according to Basil. The former is “a specious excuse for greed,” and the latter is simply laughable: “When you are no longer among your fellow human beings, then you will become a philanthropist!”
Even the environment suffers from our greed, Basil laments: “This is why the fields are arid: because love has dried up.”
As more than 1,700 fires currently rage in the Amazon — a deforestation due in large measure to timber theft, illegal gold mining and land grabbing — love does indeed seem to have withered like a leaf under a hard and relentless summer sun.
Those same creases are visible too in the weathered, anxious faces of those who stand at traffic intersections and storefronts, hoping as much for our kindness as for our spare change.
For many of us, the close of summer coincides with an opening of our wallets. Our shopping carts will quickly fill with school supplies, new clothes, Halloween candy, Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas gifts.
But this autumn, let the words of St. Basil guide our steps through the store: “If we all took only what was necessary to satisfy our own needs, giving the rest to those who lack, no one would be rich, no one would be poor, and no one would be in need.”
Gina Christian is a senior content producer at CatholicPhilly.com and host of the Inside CatholicPhilly.com podcast. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.
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