Can the Middle-Class Be Saved?

 

Speaking to His disciples, Christ said, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mk. 10:25) Doubtless, most modern Christians take comfort from the fact that they are not rich. Over the centuries, the eyes of needles seem to have grown, while camels have gotten thinner. At the time, the disciples were astonished at Christ’s saying and wondered, “Who, then, can be saved?” Christ told them that it was “impossible,” adding, “but with God, all things are possible.” Today, His saying astonishes no one. Somehow, centuries of explanations reassuring us that this saying is a hyperbole (and so on), have removed the scandal that Christ intended.

I will raise the bar, and suggest that today, the saying would be better translated as, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a middle-class man to enter the kingdom of God.” This is not based on any deflationary meaning of wealth. Instead, it is based on understanding the principle involved and what stands between us and that needle’s eye.

Both Old and New Testament have a theme running through them concerning the poor. It is not the product of some ancient Marxism (nor am I trying to sneak some modern Marxism into this article). However, it seems to be a matter close to the heart of God and utterly essential to the Christian faith:

Blessed is he who understands the poor; The LORD will deliver him in time of trouble. (Psa 41:1)

In the Psalms, it is almost always the case that the “wicked” is paired with an oppression of the poor. Given the nature of the laws of the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee, it is not at all surprising to see this concern. The great “right-setting” in Israel is seen precisely in the cancelation of debt, the setting free of those who are in bondage, and a redistribution (to a certain extent) of the wealth of the land. The only difference in the New Testament is that we see this “right-setting” raised to a cosmic level and equated with the coming of the Kingdom of God. The right-setting of the Jubilee has now become the pattern for every day and all times and should be interiorized as well. In the teaching of Christ, the “blessed” are those who are poor in spirit, weak, in mourning and marginalized. The practice of right-setting (“righteousness”) is the primary measure for our moral action. We are to lend without expecting in return (let alone charging interest). We are to be merciful and kind even to those who do not deserve it. We are to forgive our enemies – those who precisely “owe” us something.

These things, however, are not the mark of the middle-class life that we equate with the American Dream: they are its antithesis. We do not think in such a manner: it is foreign to us. It is for this reason that we will only enter the Kingdom of God with difficulty – an impossible entrance made possible only by mercy.

The world-view of modernity is merit-based, or, at least, maintains the fiction that the world is rightly ordered along the lines of merit. The modern narrative tells us that hard work and good choices are the keys to success – and refuses to acknowledge that class structures now strangle the culture. Modernity holds that class-structures and hierarchies were abolished in the establishment of the American experiment. Of course, the unacknowledged reality of our American aristocracy makes it difficult to address or treat it responsibly. 1

But it is not simply an aristocracy that represents the “rich” in the modern world. The nature of the middle-class is, in many ways, found in its mimicry of the mind of the rich regardless of its economic status.

I grew up in a small suburban neighborhood, built in the post-World War. Houses had two and three bedrooms and a single bath. They were built for the families of returning GI’s who were discovering the joy of owning property. The neighborhood was near an Air Force base and was largely filled with military families. Pay was low, but so were prices. The values of the neighborhood were largely middle-class, despite being “lower middle-class.” When I was 10, the base closed. The neighborhood changed in the course of a single year. It became a rental area, and thus fell off its middle-class rung of the ladder. My neighbors were no longer property owners: they were debtors.

It was a very personal education for me. I could not have articulated the change, except that I no longer found the neighborhood’s children desirable as friends and playmates. Fights became more common, as did domestic disputes carried out in public spaces. Crime increased. The culture shock going on around me was the experience of American class distinctions. Its lessons have never disappeared from my mind.

It is difficult to explain to the non-poor how different the world looks for them. The myriad of hidden rules that constitute middle-class behavior seem opaque. They do not know how to “behave.” Today’s loss of many societal norms has not actually altered this reality. It has, if anything, made it harder for the young, who have failed to master the opaque world of behavior, to get a job, much less a “position.”

It is, however, equally difficult for those in the middle-class to understand the reason Christ would have pointed to the poor (with their seeming lack of virtue) so approvingly. Why should the entrance into the Kingdom be easier for them? The question has certainly dogged me for many years. My conclusion is fairly straightforward: their virtue is their lack of virtue.

My mind goes to the speech of the drunkard, Marmeladov, in Crime and Punishment. He is a sad character whose daughter has been driven into prostitution to support the family that his alcoholic addiction has failed. He describes his vision of the end of the world, and declares that he knows that Christ will forgive his daughter’s sins. He adds:

And He [Christ] will judge and forgive all, the good and the wicked, the wise and the humble … And when He has finished with everyone, then He will say unto us, too, ‘You, too, come forth!’ He will say. ‘Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!’ And we will all come forth, without being ashamed, and stand there. And He will say, ‘Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal; but come, you, too!’ And the wise and the reasonable will say unto Him, ‘Lord, why do you receive such as these?’ And He will say, ‘I receive them, my wise and reasonable ones, forasmuch as not one of them considered himself worthy of this thing …’ And He will stretch out His arms to us, and we will fall at His feet … and weep … and understand everything!

There are echoes in his speech of the Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom read in every parish across the world on the night of Pascha.

You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober and you heedless, honor the day. Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast. The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously. The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, echoed in Chrysostom’s homily, it is the older brother, the well-behaved and faithful son, who refuses to come to the feast. He thought his brother unworthy.

This is the eye of the needle: our competency and excellence. We are doing fairly well, on the whole, managing our lives in a responsible manner. If we are not worthy of the Kingdom of God, at least we are worthy of something, perhaps the American Dream.

The disciplines of the Christian life are not meant to make us “better persons.” The better persons will barely enter the Kingdom. A truly good discipline will reveal us as failures and without hope. In the Liturgy, Jesus is addressed as the “Hope of the hopeless.” But only the hopeless would know that.

And this is why our salvation is so truly difficult.

Footnotes for this article

  1. This article and this discuss something of this problem.

39 comments:

  1. Thank God for Mercy, for I am a sinner and the first among them. This is a particularly difficult posting in our culture. We , as a society, are built on injustice. When you wrote on the Sins of a Nation, this is one of the myriads of sins, we, as a culture, imbibe in. I truly see the dilemma that faces our middle class. They feel strapped and circle the wagons to protect themselves as we, as a nation and as a people, are on the brink of bankruptcy. Most of us live paycheck to paycheck and one family emergency is all it takes to lead to financial ruin. We know this deep inside and wall up our hearts and wallets as a result. I know this because I have to struggle against this very thing.

  2. Fathet,
    Your experience as a child is very similar to mine. The other change for me, along with going from comfortable “middle class” to poor, was a deep, unending, profound sense of shame for being who I was. I have never rid myself of that sense if shame, despite all the material and societal “success” I have acheived in my life.

  3. Paul, the shame experienced in that transition is an inherent part of a middle-class consciousness. It is a cultural ethic that functions primarily through shame. It’s the “shame” signals that the poor are often unable to read because they have not be enculturated to it. Many of the same shame signals rule out much of traditional American black culture as shameful as well. When people spoke of our last president’s acceptability, they meant, to a large extent, that he was culturally “white,” or shared the cultural norms of white, middle-class culture. Of course, there’s lots of nuances about all of this – that’s the nature of shame.

    When I was in high school, there was a strong split between the middle to upper-middle-class kids and the poor. There were lots of hidden rules for those who were well-off. There were no rules for the poor. It really didn’t matter what you wore at all if you didn’t want to pass for middle-class (or didn’t know how to). I got around my poverty in some later years by taking advantage of the counter-culture (hippie) norms. You could dress poor and cheap and still be seen as middle-class (if you knew how) because nothing was more middle-class than the counter-culture movement. The poor are inherently counter-cultural (without knowing it).

    It is a proper spiritual goal, I think, to acquire an “understanding of the poor,” that is, to see the world as they do and ourselves as well.

    There are many things that can be substituted for the middle-class virtues. The “rules” within our Orthodox faith can be used to establish a sort of “rectitude” that functions in much the same manner. When I am exposed to that side of things, I am mostly aware of the rules, and that I do not fit (and that someone is trying to shame me), but not at all particularly aware of Jesus or the Kingdom of God.

    We do not need “rectitude.” We need “right-putting” – that is – true righteousness. This is found in self-emptying.

  4. Fr. Stephen,
    Our walls, sometimes real, sometimes only in the mind, do divide us. In some parts of the country I’ve entered into Walmart and the store seems almost middle class. Not so here in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of CA. Even many of the workers here look poor themselves; some missing half their teeth, some heavily tatooed on their face, others with listless eyes. And the customers, as many as three fourths poor, judging by their clothes and appearance.
    Victor Davis Hanson, the historian from the Valley, has written of our poverty. The coastal cities are wealthy and hold power. Whereas inner CA. can look more like the very poor South. Unemployment in some counties still hovers close to 10%. Fresno, a city of over half a million, has 40% of its city designated as living in poverty. Our daughters live in north Fresno and Clovis. There are children from these neighborhoods who have never been to the poorer south of the city.
    I recall something the Mexican director of our language school told us when we were in Guadalajara. She was middle class. She had lived until her 20’s in Mexico. Then she went to study in the US for a few years. She noted that upon her return to Mexico the poverty of the country overwhelmed her. She said that having grown up surrounded by poverty it took leaving it and returning for her to see it, and the poor, for the first time.
    So with us. Some may ignore the poor on purpose, but others just do not see them ( except for the beggar on a street corner). As we can not hear sounds in certain languages with our English ear, I am sure that some, unwittingly, do not see the poor.
    It is different for me and others, especially for those who have lived in the third world. We know how much of the world lives and we do see the poor.
    While living in Mexico we visited a poor Christian family in a barrio of town. The husband was blind. The floor of the shack was dirt. She sold candies and sodas from the front of their home to eek out a meager income. But they were so kind and sweet. As we were leaving the wife insisted we take some of their dinner soup with us. She said she was including her favorite part. When we got home we poured the contents into our own pot. The favorite part of the pig which she had included…the sow’s ear! I’ll always cherish her generosity.
    Now for me to do something is the crux of the issue. This is where your emphasis over the years on alms-giving comes center stage.
    Thank you for your pointed words, Father. We give from our plenty, the poor from their lack.

  5. Wonderful commentary and wonderful comments. In my earlier life I worked in religious non-profit work and often went without pay because the money did not come in. Working with high school kids, I tried to maintain a socially acceptable lifestyle in dress and behavior – but often failed because I could not afford it. Later in life I had financial success working in business. I enjoyed sharing my wealth with others, often those in non-profits. Now today, I am retired and nearly broke. My wife of 63 years recently died of dementia and we spent nearly 2/3’s of my retirement savings on keeping her in our own home during her illness with 24/7 care required. She died in her own bed surrounded by her kids, grand kids and great grand kids – peacefully and painlessly. Now, retired, I’m trying to figure out how to make some more money to finish out my days on this earth. God does provide, and with my earlier experiences of living with less, I am prepared for whatever happens. Thanks be to God for His Glory. Lord have mercy on us all.

  6. My favorite icon is Jesus saving a sinking Peter. It shows my life. No matter how much I think I am in control and smart and sufficient, I sink. I cannot swim. Money won’t help really.

  7. This topic has often come to mind, at least in part because I tend to define to define richness in concrete, rather than relative terms.

    I came to the US from Romania when I was 17. I came from a roughly 600 sq. ft. apartment that included two bedrooms, a living room, and 1.5 baths to a 600 sq. ft. “efficiency apartment.” It felt extravagant. Over 20 years later it still does. I have never gotten over viewing that childhood apartment as normal and I am thankful for that because it makes me conscious of the fact that I am the rich man and I can only be saved because with God all things are possible. Our 2500 sq.ft. home, even with child #6 coming in the next couple of months, still gives us twice the square footage per person that I had growing up.

    No, I am not rich in comparison to those commonly considered rich, but I think comparisons are part of our problem, at least when the subject of the comparison is not the one who said “be holy as I am holy.” And so I am rich, regardless of where I fall on the earnings curve. That means that I have to soften my heart and reinforce my trust in God, so that I may be able to give, because I know that I am only rich now through the gifts I received which were freely given by so many people… but there is a lot of work left to be done on that heart of mine.

  8. “He has shown you, O man, and what does the LORD require of you, but to act justly, to show mercy and to walk humbly before the LORD your God?”
    Micah 6:8

  9. Father Stephen,
    The words “shame signals” struck me. Thank you for bringing out this perspective. You say it is part of the middle class consciousness. Yet it seems these signals have become so ingrained so as to have become unconscious. The signals seem to be reinforcers.
    How true it is that when confronted by a standard of “rules” without the compassion of Jesus, especially His words about spiritual poverty, one becomes shamed, as if “put in his place”, unfit for the middle class, and unable to conform to the rules. Ironically, this rejection is actually the path to living in the Kingdom. And our opportunity, really, our calling, is to embrace those who are dejected, as we too are in need of spiritual poverty. We actually need the poor, as you have said many times, for our way to salvation. A very upside down reality of the Kingdom.
    As Father Peter said, there is a lot of work left to be done on this heart of mine.

    Father Peter,
    I really appreciate your comments here. Please continue to share your thoughts.

  10. Some of what you have written confuses me, because you are speaking of modern American norms which I don’t think are historical. My mother frequently said that growing up (in the Depression, a child of immigrants), “we were poor, but so was everybody else.” My grandparents were survivors of genocide in a historically oppressed community. They were lucky to have their skins. But being poor did not mean they had no rules to follow. It did not mean that fights with neighbors were okay. It did not mean their children could be undisciplined, quite the opposite. ” Virtue” was important. Where they came from, reflecting poorly on the community meant everybody would have a price to pay. They placed an extraordinary value on education. “Lazy” was the worst thing someone could call you in my family. They had a concept of who they were in which poverty did not figure as self-defining except insofar as to waste was a kind of sin. (Literally if a crumb of bread dropped to the floor, one made the sign of the cross with it and put it by an icon.) Being poor did not mean you had no self-respect or honor. They had strong community — that is, they *made* community which was part of tradition. To me that is possibly the heart of Christianity, where so much depends on what your interior contains and the initiative you take in upholding what was “good” (I am thinking of the Good Samaritan here). The “modern” shame of poverty is something weird IMO. It’s not limited to the US either, nor of nominally capitalist countries only in my experience. I agree with Fr Peter above who wrote that comparisons are part of the problem.

  11. PS Perhaps I simply misunderstand or am ignorant about the things you are writing about. But also in my experience being poor does not prevent people from all the sins of greed and selfishness one may associate with upper classes. I often think, also, that wealth can be an extraordinary handicap in many ways and crippling to its children.

    We often blame our economic system for problems, But the only place I’ve ever seen a poor person willing to complain of lack of service is McDonald’s. At least in that level of standardization people know what they may expect. The poor will always need protection from predators, of that I have no doubt.

  12. And He who said “Be holy as I am holy” also said he had no place to lay his head…

    It’s interesting how even American transit systems tend to sort and minimize exposure from rich to poor. This is a good reason to walk places, or use buses if they go where we want to go. I find that even riding my bicycle is often too fast for me to engage with the poor whom I pass on my way to work, though at least when stopped at a light you can have conversation or give something more easily than in a car. And it seems that oppression of the poor is a major factor in God’s weighing the fate of nations… Lord, have mercy!

  13. Father,
    speaking of entering the Kingdom of God easily or difficultly, I often thought of the merciful thief, who after living his entire life doing harm, so “easily” and quickly entered the Kingdom, hand in hand with our Lord.

    Is it correct that he was the first human soul to enter the Kingdom after Adam and Eve?
    What a great privilege, isn’t it?
    A spotlight conceded by God in one of the moments of highest visibility for Christianity, the crucification of His beloved Son.

    A fact to be carefully looked after by many self-sufficient middle-class Christians (or not) who lose sight of the fact that what God mostly valued in this thief was his mercy towards the other in a moment of excruciating pain.
    And, after a life of rebelliousness and, possibly no virtue, he was able to surrender and whole-heartedly accept the Godliness of Jesus.

    To variable degrees, we are all thieves, experiencing some sort of crucification. Regardless of your status, your wealth.
    Obviously, to God, it matters a lot what you do with your pain.

  14. Janine,
    I believe when Father states that the poor “didn’t follow rules” it is from the perspective of middle class values, not from the perspective of the poor. The poor and the rich have a different approach to life, different reasons for giving thanks. Each see their purpose through a different lens. The rich do not “see” the poor. They are unfit to be seen, to be recognized as “one of them” since they do not conform to the rules. The poor are a threat to their justification of wealth. Thus, the rules are unspoken and direct confrontation easily avoided, and rather communicated by things such as facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, that serve to alienate (and shame) rather than edify their presence.
    You are correct in saying the poor follow rules. They absolutely do. But they do not follow them according to middle class standards such as are spoken about in this post. I believe Father is making a general statement to help us see the division that stems from different value systems. What you rightfully mention here, in the particulars, is I believe what Father calls the nuances of the matter.

  15. Being “Middle Class” is a form of “Cultural Capital,” and it facilitates our ability to be “successful ” in this society. Even though it is associated with a certain income bracket, it really is separate from the money itself. As you say, Father Stephen, it is more about how we behave and what we consider to be proper behavior. Just as people who come from “old wealth” can easily recognize people who acquired their wealth recently. They just act different. In spite of the fact that I have found myself homeless more than once for long periods of time, I have never stopped seeing myself as “Middle Class.” And it was really hard for me to access to the services offered by our local Catholic Charities homeless center because the majority of those who do are clearly not from “Middle Class” backgrounds, judging by their behavior. Like the Pharisee, it is all to easy for me to look at them and say, “Thank you God that I am not one of them.” Embarrassingly sad, but true. Neither being an Orthodox Christian, nor experiencing homelessness myself, has healed me of my inclination to judge “the poor” for being poor – even though I am just as poor as they are! How insane is that? I am aware of this, but your post has helped me to unpack the complexity of it and understand it better. My desire is to look at every human being as a representative of Christ Himself with a heart full of love. Please pray for me.

  16. My experience is somewhat different. I grew up knowing people of diverse backgrounds who had become wealthy but lived their earlier lives in real poverty. My church had a diversity oif poor, weslthy, and in between. In my life I’ve lived on the edge of Harlem and knew deep culture, the neglect of the city, but also lost children to the street, little kids with nowhere to go but a gang. It’s just not a simple divide to me. And crime is another subject of its own. What we have now is not “normal.” Before WW2 nobody locked their doors in Harlem. I’ve seen poor neighborhoods in Greece transform from very safe to hazardous because of an unchecked influx of criminals. The poor are vulnerable, when family breaks down it’s their last refuge gone.

  17. Just a couple of quick observations.
    My father never made more than minimum wage. Most of his working years were spent as a fork lift driver in a fruit packing plant. Though we were solidly a working class family, as I look back I can see that at a younger age class distinctions were not as well defined. I had a friend whose father was the city attorney. On several occasions I was invited to go to their mountain cabin and spend a night with them. We were buddies until about 8th or 9th grade. I had other friends who were solidly middle class, perhaps even upper middle class for our small town. And of course I had friends from working class families and even a couple of very poor Mexican friends. Yet as noted above all this started to change around the junior high years. The dividing lines between classes grew more marked. In high school most of my buddies were from working class homes. Those in a higher class would say hello but friendships fell off. I realize now that I did the same thing to my poorer friends. I did not want to be seen associating with them. I am not a sociologist but I imagine that this associational change is quite common.
    Of the 3 Orthodox churches I have been a part of all are, in the main, middle class. One of the 3 is much more welcoming to the poor. Not sure what dynamics are at work (besides class). My eyes are bleary. Can’t write more. Any thoughts on our Church and the poor here in the US?

  18. Dean – My church is on the outskirts of town and really requires a vehicle to get there, and most truly poor people cannot afford the expense of a vehicle. I was fortunate in my own homelessness because I was living in a van paid for by my mother, and my church helped me with mainenance costs like new tired when needed. We have another parishioner who lives in a homeless shelter which is within walking distance to my Church, so he is there on a fairly regular basis. But there was a time when he had to live in nearby town and could only attend if someone went and picked him up and brought him and took him home which usually only happened on special feast days. Another formerly homeless woman who is not Orthodox comes regularly to services thanks to a parishioner who gives her a ride. She was homeless for 3 years until her section 8 voucher came through and went theough a livining hell that was so bad she won’t even talk about it. Could my church have done more for her at the time so she did not have to live on the streets? I want to say “yes,” but apparently we couldn’t for whatever reason. No one was able to take me in when I was homeless because I had an overly protective German Shepherd who didn’t like other people, but this woman did not have that impediment. In order for me to have a place to live, I was forced to euthanize my dog, and then it was not a parishioner that offered to take me in, but one of our local monasteries that had an extra room. When you bring someone into your home, it changes the dynamics big time and many people are just not willing to do that even if they have an extra room available. I’m not saying I would be any different if it was me who was financially well off. We “Middle Class” Americans really like our personal space and sacrificing that to help a brother or sister in need is apparently too much for most of us. My parish does participate in the “Angels Unawares” homeless shelter in which we host 30 homeless people from the community once a month. We also support a room in one of the local homeless shelters. But both of those charitable activities still keep homeless people at a relative distance from our personal lives. I remember many years ago reading about a couple in Los Angeles who took a homeless man who was dying of AIDS off the street and cared for him in their own small apartment until he died. He was homeless because his family had rejected him because he was homosexual. This couple who took him in and cared for him didn’t know him prior to meeting him on the street and yet they did exactly what Christ asks all of us to do. That story has stayed with me for all these years because the humanity of their actions is so rare and unusually to witness. Most of us seem incapable of that kind of self-offering. And the better our lives are materially, the less likely we are to do something like that. This couple was not at all well off and the man lived on their livingroom couch. How many of us would be willing to open our homes to a complete stranger dying of AIDS and not just provide him with shelter, but care for his bodily needs as well?

  19. Dean,
    Goodness, thanks for your comment!
    When I express myself in concluding thoughts, they may seem a bit trite, with sharp divisions, but that is actually my brain trying to figure things out, and the challenge of expressing myself on a blog! I understand there are many variables that contribute to, and “make” who we are. Your description of the way things were in the past really helps tie my thoughts together. It is an experience that many of us at our age have had.
    Yes, my father too made “peanuts” for a wage. Worked in a factory, and if I remember correctly started out making seven (!) dollars a week. I can still see him now, walking up the street every day, with a brown sack lunch in his hand, going to work. Why drive when he could walk?! Eventually he began to supplement his income using his musical talent, forming a band. He loved his work. We lived on a block that had every nationality (not hard to find in New York!) and every level of income…and we all were close knit, true neighbors. The family next door we were especially close with. Their father worked in finance on Wall Street…my father in a factory (moms stayed home and raised the family) and in music…and yet we loved each other like family. Our lives were truly shared. And then Dean, just as you say, things began to change. Our love for each other remained, as to this day the two families stay in touch. But soon each of us left that block and moved on. The unraveling of a closely knit life had begun. What we’ve experienced as a microcosm, was happening at the macro level. Although there were poor neighborhoods back in our youth, as we grew into adulthood there had developed a world more fractured and even more strongly divided, based on class (economic) lines. This is where we find ourselves now. It is very clear in hindsight.
    I can not comment on my experience in Orthodox churches (plural), as I have only been in one. But my experience in all the churches I’ve been in is that they cater to the economic level of most of the congregation. Churches with a majority lower income folks attract lower income people. Similarly, at higher income churches you’ll find the well-to-do. When the poorer show up at the higher, they are welcomed, but not as warmly as when the higher show up at the poorer churches. Yes Dean, James 2;2, indeed! The “poorer” do not seem to notice the differences.
    Thanks again for your comment Dean. I always do appreciate your take on the matters we discuss here!

  20. Esmee and Paula and all,
    So good we can share our thoughts and hearts here, some small part of our lives. Not face to face but better in many ways than small talk at coffee hour. As with my wife, a feminine slant on life is always welcome. 🙂

  21. Thank you for another thought-provoking article, Fr. Stephen.
    When I first saw the title, my first thought was how the American middle class would look extremely wealthy to many people throughout the world. Obviously, it goes a lot deeper, as you point out, with an entire value system that many of us have adopted which runs counter to the Gospel.
    I came away thinking about how many middle-class Christians I know (myself included at times) envy the upper class and resent the lower class.

  22. Michael, et al
    Yes, the point really isn’t about money, but about a mindset. There is a mindset that is associated with success in our culture, just normal middle-class success. It is extremely benign. However, it does run counter to the gospel in some of the ways that I’ve described. If I wanted to go deeper, it would be to examine how, in our culture, the gospel is changed to elevate this mentality rather than the scandal of the gospel. I think it’s entirely possible to live a life that is not uncomfortable, and to be truly open to the gospel. It’s hard. What is difficult, particularly, is our love of success, being above average, being responsible, and not having failure and incompetence. It is, in large part, our avoidance of shame. Christ entered into the depths of our shame – that will be quite evident in the gospel events in Holy Week. He is waiting to meet us there. And so, St. Paul learned to “boast in his weakness.” Fools for Christ bear this in a very deep manner. We don’t want to be anybody’s fool – not even Christ’s.

  23. One thing has always struck me, that there are “poor” in every gathering. Currency can be anything. In a gathering of drug users or partiers, the person with the most drugs might be the one with the most currency. It might be the person who has the coolest clothes in a particular circle of high school kids. Within a family all kinds of dynamics are possible. Whatever the group (and income), there is some kind of currency, and there are always poor among us, as Christ has said. I think that remembering the poor also involves reaching out to those who are left out or neglected so they are included, at least keeping them included by reaching out as part of the group. Unfortunately many churches in my experience favor the wealthy and successful materially ( to say the least), but it is up to us the parishioners to pay attention to those who aren’t “important figures” — even to greet someone kindly is a signal of inclusion IMO. Setting up normal personal boundaries is not necessarily something that counts as a barrier I think.

  24. Thanks Fr. Stephen. I wrote my last comment before I saw your reply. That makes a great deal of sense and hits home as truth to me. I would even say that we aren’t psychologically “mature” (if we want to think of spiritual growth and psychology working hand in hand) until we can accept it. I know that in my own life I seemingly have had to repeat this over and over again as experience on different personal levels — failure, shame, humiliation (for some of us it just takes longer I guess). It really is a part of self-emptying it seems, at least speaking for myself. And yes, I do clearly see the correlation with “wrong thinking” in terms of the “success only” model. Flies in the face of the saints too.

  25. [… oh and lest I sound like I think I have this down, no unfortunately I do NOT think God is done with me in this department. (sigh) possibly never] Please pray for me as I will for all of us, God bless, peace and grace as we look to Resurrection!

  26. I was hoping you’d comment, Father. Thank you!
    Rather than being about the love of money, your point is our mindset leads to a distorted definition of success, out of line with the gospel. Correct?
    If so, then it follows that the scandal of the gospel is that it calls those who are “last” first, those who are poor in spirit, who are weak in and of themselves, who are sinners, publicans, harlots, beggars, sick in body and mind, blind, deaf, mute, lame, who hunger, who in shame do not even raise their eyes to look upon another, but can only beg for mercy; the ones who are seen as a blot, a disgrace to our quest for the American dream. The height of the scandal is that we are to come down from the heights and recognize our own poorness of spirit, ourselves as blind, deaf, mute, lame. But how could we ever do this apart from suffering? How can we repent if we do not experience the pain of great loss, mostly of “loosing face”, of humiliation? We as a nation just will not tolerate such a thought. Such words are not spoken for the victorious, but only for so called losers. Our freedom for the pursuit of happiness is fiercely defended at a great cost, the loss of our soul.
    Father, do I exaggerate here? Sometimes I accuse myself of being way to pessimistic. I suspect the reason is that I’d rather accept the “easy” words of Christ and tidy up the more difficult ones. Yet you reminds us repeatedly it is in the way of Christ in emptying ourselves, and nothing less, that lends to our healing. It is hard, Father. It is good, and it is hard.

    Thank you again, and all who share in these comments. A very blessed Holy Week to all. Indeed, there is joy to be found in this Feast of Feasts!

  27. Paula,
    Just my two, inflation devalued cents. I think a lot of the suffering involved in realizing our own weakness, poverty, and fallenness is a matter of the ego. It is, of course, easier said than done, but if we can set that aside, the burden is indeed light. The parish I serve is St. John the Baptist and so I often have reason to think of his words: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” Leaving aside for now my failures to live up to it, I tend to look at that phrase as being key to a true life.
    On a slightly different note, I also wonder how much our discomfort regarding shame and poverty prevents us from entering into our neighbor’s suffering. I wonder how much shame and the fear that the priest would see people as other than the image they want to project prevents them from coming to the place that is supposed to take away the fear and the shame – the sacrament of confession. I wonder how much the idea of presenting an image of normalcy by ‘society-approved’ standards affects the life of parishes or, indeed, the archdiocese in which I serve (GOA) and its haste to make everything seem back to normal following the financial problems which have been uncovered. I wonder if the pursuit of happiness has been replaced by the pursuit of the appearance of happiness…
    Finally, because it is late and I have written too much, I was thinking about the pursuit of happiness, psalm 1, and how the Greek makarios and the Romanian fericit have multiple nuances. Makarios is usually translated blessed, while I usually think of fericit as happy. So, through a three-language process that would likely make my wife shake her head at me, I tend to think of the pursuit of happiness as that which would make one makarios. May we all be blessed at this most holy time.

  28. “Only those who decline to scramble up the career ladder are interesting as human beings. Nothing is more boring than a man with a career.” ― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

  29. Dear Father Peter,
    Your “two, inflation devalued cents” are priceless to me. Thank you kindly.
    My Father/Confessor made the same observation about the ego. He basically said that striving for acceptance due to unhealthy guilt and shame is a sign of self-pity. I am painfully aware of that truth. He then said, on one hand we are to accept that we are chief of sinners, and on the other hand, in repentance, accept God’s mercy and forgiveness, and called it “bright sadness”.
    I know I need to set aside this undue focus on my weaknesses ( I think of Mt:11:28ff), the pessimism and negativity it spawns.
    It is a comfort that you refer to the words of St. John the Baptist “He must increase, but I must decrease.” as a key to a true life. I happen to pray that verse daily as well. Now, in addition, I shall remember your counsel.
    About confession. Fr. Stephen recommended a wonderful book from Mull Monestary on that topic. Fr. Seraphim highly suggests that we confess to our Priest the most shameful, secret, never-spoken-before sin(s). I tried that. My words came out with a lot of fits and starts. Not easy, but wise advice, as it did lift the burden. The harder part is continuing to move forward. But that is beside the point you made about a Priest wanting the parish to have an appearance of normalcy/happiness when its condition is clearly not normal. Very sad to see an entire parish suffer like that. It is similar to Fr. Stephen’s point about repentance in the post “The Sins of a Nation”, to recognize the sins, repent, and repair.
    Finally (for me too, as I comment entirely too much), I like your take on the words makarios
    and fericit, to pursue happiness for blessedness!
    Thank you Father Peter. Do remember me in your prayers.
    Very blessed Holy Week to all.

  30. … What about the main thing in life, all its riddles? If you want, I’ll spell it out for you right now. Do not pursue what is illusionary -property and position: all that is gained at the expense of your nerves decade after decade, and is confiscated in one fell night. Live with a steady superiority over life -don’t be afraid of misfortune, and do not yearn for happiness; it is, after all, all the same: the bitter doesn’t last forever, and the sweet never fills the cup to overflowing. It is enough if you don’t freeze in the cold and if thirst and hunger don’t claw at your insides. If your back isn’t broken, if your feet can walk, if both arms can bend, if both eyes can see, if both ears hear, then whom should you envy? And why? Our envy of others devours us most of all. Rub your eyes and purify your heart -and prize above all else in the world those who love you and who wish you well. Do not hurt them or scold them, and never part from any of them in anger; after all, you simply do not know: it may be your last act before your arrest, and that will be how you are imprinted on their memory.
    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,

  31. Struggling with pride of late, a certain anger as well. Upon reading St. John Cassian’s On the Eight Vices, I found only this to help: All of our holy fathers…with one accord teach that perfection in holiness can be achieved only through humility. Humility, in its turn, can be achieved only through faith, fear of God, gentleness and the shedding of all possessions.

    And I have just bought three items, only one for which I can claim to have any need! Lord have mercy.

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