Monday, May 19, 2014

Covetousness (the Treasure Hunter)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money."  -Matthew 6: 19-21, 24

These words were spoken by Jesus Christ during His Sermon on the Mount.  (If you've not read it, please do- it's the greatest piece of condensed wisdom ever uttered in human history.  It is contained in Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7.)

I felt it a good way to begin the discussion about Covetousness.  I would start by asking a simple question about Jesus' admonition: what happens when your heart is with your treasure?  I take the answer to be that this will be your treasure-- only earthly and temporary wealth-- and when you leave this Earth, your treasure will stay here and there will be no more treasure for you.  In fact, even while you are still on this Earth, there will be nothing beyond earthly wealth for you; because you have made it into your everything.

From our discussion on Envy, you may remember that Envy is about people while Covetousness concerns itself with things.  The Latin word for Covetousness is "avaritia" (Avarice), and along with the Greek "philargyria" (Greed), it means excessive love and desire for possessing riches.  So, this particular sin, which can never be satisfied, seeks to obtain more and more and more worldly riches-- to a disordered degree, of course.

~~  "Few things are needed to make a wise man happy; nothing can make a fool content; that is why most men are miserable."  --François de La Rochefoucauld  ~~

Now this is not to say that worldly riches are necessarily bad in and of themselves.  The same old caveat on capital vices/sins applies here again: it is a corruption or deprivation of some good thing, to the point of perversion.  By Covetousness we sin against ourselves, because it causes disorder in our affections (even though not in our bodies as with the sins of the flesh).  To quote an old Italian proverb:  "Big mouthfuls often choke."  Covetousness' insidiousness is clear because it often cloaks itself as a virtue under the pretext of making provisions for the future, etc.  It is the inordinate desire that is the vice; not the treasure itself.

"For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." -1 Timothy 6: 10

Covetousness, like any vice, can be big or small, and can have as its aim objects that rightfully belong to another person or objects that are "up for grabs" for anyone.  Its real malice, broadly speaking, is that it makes the acquiring, increasing, and keeping of riches the purpose in itself to live for.  Already we see how it can lead to other things.  In fact, here is a listing of the "daughters" of Covetousness, as reckoned by Gregory the Great and St. Isidore of Seville: "treachery, lying, fraud, theft, falsehood, perjury, restlessness, violence, rapacity, inhumanity, and insensibility to mercy."  Wow.  Now we know how Covetousness found its way into the Super Seven club.

Getting to the root of Covetousness is not really that difficult.  You don't need a lot of psychology training to see how people often seek to obtain one thing to satisfy (or perhaps hide from) a subconscious desire for something else entirely.  This seems true in most, if not all, of our vices/sins; and all of us are subject to it to some degree.  People sometimes eat too much because they are sad or because something inside them wants to be filled up.  People sometimes drink too much because they want to dull some ache deep within them.  People sometimes get into bad relationships because they want to find someone-- ANYONE-- who will love them.  People sometimes seek more and more and more money because they see it as the answer to the resounding emptiness that echoes inside them when they stop long enough to listen to it.

~~  "The covetous man is always in want."  --Horace  ~~

The truth is we often don't really know what it is we really want... and when we do have rare moments of realization, we run from them.  We are restless creatures constantly seeking satisfaction for desires-- sometimes to the point where those desires lead us wildly astray.  Why is this so?  In his "Confessions," St Augustine said to the Lord:  “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

There it is- a large clue for those of us seeking to better understand the hows and whys of human behavior and thought.  We were designed to be restless until we find "it:"  the one thing that will take away all the restlessness... the thing that will finally and actually satiate us.  There is a strong correlation to be made here between some of our sins (especially Covetousness) and this restless heart concept.  Have you noticed that we often behave as if we desire something that we've never had before?  How is this possible?  We cannot yearn for something we have never had; we can only yearn for our idea of what that thing is.  For example, if I have never eaten a chocolate cookie, I cannot yearn for one; I can only yearn for what I think a chocolate cookie is.  In equating this to coveting something that we've not had-- say, our neighbor's property-- it is clear that we're coveting an idea that sprang from our own restless (and sinful) heart.

This is important for a few reasons.  First, it shows a new level of complication and insidiousness to the sin of Covetousness; to the point where it has us wanting things we've never had.  Second, it shines a bright floodlight on the fact that we are rejecting, and even disdaining, our true, eternal desires for the sake of temporal things.  So often, our desires are stretching and groping and reaching out for anything and everything except for what we really want and need.  In this, we can see how Covetousness can be considered a sin against God (like all "mortal" sins).

~~  "We would earnestly desire but few things if we clearly knew what we desired."  --François de La Rochefoucauld  ~~

The mighty C.S. Lewis made famous a great concept in arguing for the existence of God.  It is known as the argument from desire and looks like this:

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." (Mere Christianity, Bk. III, chap. 10, "Hope")

Professor Peter Kreeft (quite mighty in his own right) has taken Lewis' argument and put some additional logic armor on it.  Take a minute sometime and read his page on it.

In summation, Covetousness is an often serious disorder within our desire center.  It is clearly quite destructive and can lead to very bad things-- both for ourselves and against our fellow man.  Mostly, it shows that we have a hole inside of us that won't be filled with earthly things.  Socrates said that if we're not content with what we have, then we will not be content with what we think we would like to have.  The bible is never shy about discussing this subject:  "Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income."  -(Ecclesiastes 5: 10).  So, there we have a pagan Greek agreeing with a scriptural passage he never read.  How about a word from another pagan, this one Roman-- just to make it unanimous.

~~  "For greed, all nature is too little."  --Lucius Annaeus Seneca  ~~

All we're left with now is what to do about Covetousness.  As I so often do, I'll turn to Thomas Aquinas, who reminds us that Virtue is perfected in accordance with right reason.  So... what does our right reason tell us?  For starters, that our "natural inclinations" should be regulated and governed by our reason and will.  This is the hard part, though, eh?  The spirit is willing, and all that.  Good news, though: according to some orange, dwarf-like creatures, we'll be happy if we can just get past this vice.

~~  “If you're not greedy you will go far, you will live in happiness too... like the Oompa.... Loompa.... doompity do.”  --The Ooompa Loompas  ~~

Those ultra-creepy (but quite lyrical) little folks make it sound so easy: just don't be greedy, right?  Well, we all know better now... it's in our nature to sometimes go full-on with Covetousness-- the degree of which being relative to the person, of course.  No, it's not easy.  If it was easy, these Capital-Deadly-Vice-Sins would not be known as such.  As for me, I'll turn to Almighty God for help.  His Virtues and His Word can do more for me against this vice (and all the others) than anything else out there-- no doubt about that.

I will have Faith that He has prepared real treasure for me; I will Hope that I can be worthy of it; I will strive to practice true Charity whenever and however I can; I will pray for Fortitude to keep me upright in my quest; I will practice Prudence when thinking about money; I will keep in mind Justice in all financial matters; and I will call upon Temperance whenever my mind begins to think I need more and more and more.

Finally, I will read His Word and try to make it a daily (hourly) presence in my life... because I know that in that Word is the secret to real, true, and eternal happiness.  After all, He promised:

"Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for God Himself has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'” -Hebrews 13: 5

God bless!!


(By the way, here is an experiment of mine: a video/audio version of this essay.)

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