I’ve been writing recently about stuff–our tendency to acquire too many things, our difficulty letting go, our need to simplify as we get older. Recently I ran across a quote on possessions and spirituality by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. As befitting someone who gave up personal possessions in order to enter the monastery, he doesn’t consider possessions all that important. What is interesting is how he suggests that serious, mature followers of Christ handle the possessions they do have. He writes as follows:
“A man cannot be a perfect Christian–that is, a saint–unless he is also a communist. This means that he must either absolutely give up all right to possess anything at all, or else only use what he himself needs, of the goods that belong to him, and administer the rest for other men and for the poor: and in his determination of what he needs he must be governed to a great extent by the gravity of the needs of others.” New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 178
The book containing these thoughts was published in 1962, in the midst of the Cold War. To advocate for communism at that time was to be deliberately provocative. Merton wasn’t referring to the capitalized Communism that characterized the totalitarian state founded by Lenin in 1917, though, or even to communism as public ownership of a society’s means of production, an alternative to capitalism. He’s not suggesting the abolition of personal property. Instead, he’s suggesting that followers of Christ not withhold any property from the realm over which Christ reigns. He seems to suggest two forms that such a renunciation of control over possessions can take. One is for us followers of Christ to give up all possessions and own nothing–and that’s what’s been done through the ages in many monastic communities and intentional Christian communities. The other is to retain possessions but to not regard those possessions as our own, to be disposed of as we wish. Instead, possessions are to be administered–stewarded might be a good equivalent here–to meet not just our needs but the needs of others.
Frankly, I would prefer to regard the things in my name–a house, the contents of that house, a car, several bank accounts–as mine. I’m pretty good at managing them so as to have money left over at the end of most months. I’m not extravagant. I have made some purchases recently–buying a house after selling another one and getting a new couch and kitchen table for that house. They were sensible purchases. And I do make charitable gifts to meet the needs of others. But I haven’t fully adopted the view that Merton is proposing, which means to take the needs of others as seriously as I do my own needs.
What does it mean to take the needs of others, especially those who are quite needy, that seriously? Is it to do something like mid-twentieth century thinker Simone Weil is thought by some to have done–refusing to eat more than residents of Nazi-occupied France while herself seriously ill? That was a costly choice, contributing to her death at age 34. I can’t imagine that degree of self-denial, and I don’t see how those in whose name she sacrificed were materially improved by what she did. Taking others’ needs as seriously as I do my own probably does mean, though, to be well-informed about poverty in our world, to live quite modestly so as to have extra resources, and to share generously of those resources. It’s to remember as well that poverty isn’t just material. It’s also social, emotional, and spiritual. Some people I pass on the street have ragged clothes; some have ragged souls. I could do much better than I am doing now at being aware of both sorts of need, and sharing of my resources to try to help with both. To do otherwise is to be miserly. I want to be a better communist, seeing my resources as not mine alone but as available to whatever members of the human community can benefit from them. I’ve been blessed, and it is only just to try to bless others as well.