Have the same regard for one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not be wise in your own estimation.

Romans 12:16

Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ 

Luke 14:21

In today’s familiar parable of “The Great Feast,” Jesus tells of a master who invites many of his friends and acquaintances to a great feast, but they are all too busy, for one reason or another, to accept his invitation. So, in a rage, he tells his servant to go out and to invite those on the street, the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.” What so enrages the master is that those he wanted to come to the feast he was offering were all too busy for him. It is the disregarded, the outcasts, the poor and the suffering who are available to come, who are not too busy to accept his invitation.

Although I never learned a lot about my own mother’s conflictual relationship to her mother, I could see that despite that my mother, as she aged and after her mother’s death, could recognize and appreciate how this immigrant who was illiterate and spoke English only poorly, could raise on her own five children after her husband’s death in his twenties. One day my mother was speaking with her younger sister about their mother, and my mother repeated what I had often heard her say about how constantly busy her mother had been in making a living for her family. In reply, my aunt angrily asserted, “Face it, Jo, she didn’t have time for us.”  

This is not a judgment against my grandmother. How she, a fairly recent immigrant from Italy, managed what she did is beyond me. And, of course, she didn’t have all the time her children would have wanted her to have for them. Yet, it does remind us that relationship takes time and space. When another does not have time and space for us or we for them, then relationship is impossible.

In my grandmother’s case, the circumstances that created the sense of distance her children felt were more than extenuating and understandable. She truly was struggling constantly, this was during the depression of course, to provide for her family. Those who reject the invitation to the feast in today’s gospel are not too busy for the sake of survival but rather for their own sakes. As with them, so it can readily be with us that we are too busy to offer and share life with others, not for the sake of survival but to fulfill our own need for status and significance.

It seems likely to me that the master is so enraged because those he took to be his friends are occupied with many things that to them are more important than he is. So, what is so true in our own time has perhaps always been the case for human beings. Wealth and accumulation of those things and attributes that make us feel well, significant, and respected can easily take the place in our hearts of our want and need of love for each other and God.

In saying, “do not be haughty but associate with the lowly,” St. Paul is offering the same teaching as the parable of Jesus. It is dangerous for us to associate with the wealthy, with the important people. This is not because they are less or need less to be loved, it is rather the danger that their status poses to us. Once a community such as mine worked in poor parish schools. The brothers walked to school from their residences. Besides teaching school, they would train altar boys in the parish take up the Sunday collection, coach sports and moderate other activities. As poor among the poor, nothing was too menial for them. As the Fundamental Principles describe, they lived “in solidarity and availability among the people.” And the people they lived among and with were poor immigrants who had yet to assimilate into the “mainstream” of American culture and life.  

With the rising “success” of the Catholic population, the brothers found themselves also rising in social status. Remaining with those whom they had served in their poverty, they came to live at the same level of affluence and comfort as those they served. At times, by choice, some would individually choose to “associate with the lowly” but many of us began to take for granted our lives among the affluent. Our lives increasingly became filled with things that once we only held in common, if we had them at all, but that now we hold personally. We unconsciously began to develop the sense of entitlement and haughtiness that St. Paul warned about.  

The problem with too many things, be they physical, intellectual, or even “spiritual,” is that they fill the space that is our vacancy for God and for relationship. For many years I lived in a very affluent neighborhood in the Boston suburbs. When our brothers from Africa would visit and we would take a walk around the neighborhood, they would always ask “Where are the people?” In their homes and villages people are always out and walking, being and speaking with each other. In that affluent American suburb, there were large and beautiful homes, and perfectly manicured lawns, but no persons to be seen.

Six years ago at what we call a General Chapter, the body declared that “For some time now we have experienced a crisis of community life.” Community requires poverty of spirit, poverty of mind and heart. If we are filled with things, or our minds are filled with our pride and arrogance, and our hearts are filled with ourselves, there is no space for relationship and community. In many ways, I think the experience of my religious community is a microcosm of the American experience. Although we ignore it, there is obviously a mental health crisis in the United States. It is manifested in our high rates of homicides, suicides, drug addiction, depression, and anxiety. Many years ago, there was coined a term to describe our state: “affluenza.”

While my grandmother worked so hard by necessity, merely to survive and provide for her children, young people today, who were born and raised in perhaps the most affluent society in the history of humankind and who are well educated, are working just as hard in order to pay off their indebtedness to extraordinarily profitable banks and financial institutions and to survive, that is “make it” in our society. The affluence born of technology has not increased our leisure time and quality of life, but rather only made us more and more the slaves of its own demands and controlling institutions and interests. Instead of allowing more time for truly humane and relational experiences, we are now acolytes not of a God of persons but  rather a god of wealth and social status.

The feast, the communion, to which The Master invites us is a gathering of the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame. It is a stark contrast to our constant insistence that we, in our individualized, separated, and too busy lives are complete. It is our need for each other that is our space for each other. As St. Paul says, we have gifts that differ one from another. This is so that we may, by bringing the gifts together, know ourselves as one body. Culturally, however, we relish our dismemberment. We are constantly the eye saying to the hand, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21). If the eye is trying to do the work of the hand, there is little wonder that it is too busy to accept the invitation.

My grandmother did not have the time for her children that they wanted and perhaps even needed. But that, in all likelihood, was blameless for it was not desired or chosen. In our affluence we are constantly choosing to be busy rather than to be loving. We refuse what is offered us, for we have become unable to accept the gift that others offer us. We are lonely because we have come to fear the rejection of those who are too busy to offer their love to us. The parable that Jesus tells today is a painful one to hear in our time, for it challenges the very unconscious and taken for granted basis of our cultural life. Yet, God continues to invite us, despite all the times we are too busy to accept.

So hospitality requires poverty, the poverty of mind and the poverty of heart. This might help us to understand the importance of a “training” for  hospitality. There are many programs to prepare people for service in its different forms. But seldom de we look at these programs as a training toward a voluntary poverty. Instead we want to become better equipped and more skillful. We want to acquire the “tools of the trade.” But real training for service asks for a  hard and often painful process of self-emptying. The main problem of service is to be the way without being “in the way.” And if there are any tools, techniques and skills to be learned they are primarily to plow the field, to cut the weeds and to clip the branches, that is, to take away the obstacles for real growth and development. Training for service is not a training to become rich but to become voluntarily poor; not to fulfill ourselves but to empty ourselves; not to conquer God but to surrender to God’s saving power. All of this is very hard to accept in our contemporary world, which tells about the importance of power and influence. But it is important that in this world there remain a few voices crying out that if there is anything to boast of, we should boast of our weakness.

Henri J. M. Nouwen, Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, pp. 107-8

2 comments on “Affluence and Loneliness

  1. Scott C on

    Wow. So many insightful thoughts here. To highlight a few that resonated with me:
    “The problem with too many things, be they physical, intellectual, or even “spiritual,” is that they fill the space that is our vacancy for God and for relationship. For many years I lived in a very affluent neighborhood in the Boston suburbs. When our brothers from Africa would visit and we would take a walk around the neighborhood, they would always ask “Where are the people?”…In that affluent American suburb, there were large and beautiful homes, and perfectly manicured lawns, but no persons to be seen.” So very true. I have experienced the same thing travelling in parts of Europe and southeast Asia. Everyone is out and about. People are always talking to one another, sharing stories, and watching out for each other. This is so different than in the US when, say, I am walking the dog and encounter few people outside. I am walking through beautiful neighborhoods full of beautiful houses and yards…but few people and few human interactions.

    The second one:
    “The affluence born of technology has not increased our leisure time and quality of life…” This is really quandary of modern life. One would think that with all the improvements in technology and time saving devices (microwaves, washer/dryers, GPS, online shopping) that we’d have dozens of hours a week to devote to worship, hobbies and face to face social events. But it seems these technological improvements just speed up the treadmill we were already on.

    Thank you, John, for posting this.

  2. Brother John Hamilton on

    Thanks. Scott, for your personal dialoguing with the reflection. Our longing for relationship is probably the greatest sign of our distinctive humanity as spirit. It is striking how our own creations tend to actually diminish rather than enhance our quality of life. There has to be, in all this, a lesson about the primacy of our form receptive capacity over our form giving one.


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