Five short but very poignant and moving reflections on the use of property and our relationship with our finances in particular. Each one a true encounter with someone Tom met which gave rise to deep pondering and timeless insight for anyone trying to live out the Christian gospel in real life.
Sept 2010 918 words
I was for a time on one Oxfam council. At my third meeting we, a dozen or so, were sitting waiting for the chairman. A man came in – a large, quietly focussed Quaker called Leslie Kirkley – he came in and before sitting down said ‘Listen to this…’ - he read from a small piece of paper he was holding -
‘But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him?’ It is well known how strong where the words used by the Fathers of the Church to describe the proper attitude of persons who possess anything towards persons in need. To quote Saint Ambrose, ‘You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his. For what has been given in common for the use of all, you have arrogated to yourself. The world is given to all, and not only to the rich’. That is, private property does not constitute for anyone an absolute and unconditioned right. No one is justified in keeping for his exclusive use what he does not need, when others lack necessities. In a word, ‘according to the traditional doctrine as found in the Fathers of the Church and the great theologians, the right to property must never be exercised to the detriment of the common good’.
He looked round at all of us and said, ‘If this is true, and we live it, we would not need Oxfam.’ He sat down silently and then someone said, ‘Where did that come from?’ ‘Oh, I’m sorry, it came from the pope’s recent encyclical’. (And I remember a blush welling up in me – I was meant to be a Catholic presence on the council, and I hadn’t even heard, yet, of Populorum Progressio, Pius XII’s great letter on social justice.
* * *
In the early stages of discussion about the Ampleforth community giving birth to a rather more basic D.I.Y monastic house, Abbot Basil asked me to talk things through with Fr Kerstigern and produce a brief report on the proposal. At one stage in our discussions Kerstigern asked ‘How are you going to support yourselves financially? Will bookbinding suffice?’ I replied, ‘Well, we thought we’d try living what we have in mind and if it doesn’t add up financially we’ll have to think again.’
He pondered, then said, ‘Remember, Thomas, if you keep giving it away, you’ll always have enough.’
A prophetic word that has been with us for three decades, even if we have not quite lived it. (All the more powerful coming from the parish priest of a large Warrington parish).
* * *
He was found trudging wearily by our local canal. Taken to the sisters in the nursing home nearby. Welcomed on condition he stayed long enough for them to feed him up. And so he came to visit Ince Benet.
Andrew had grown up in a strong pious Catholic family in Poland. Had abandoned all to embrace communism. Had become a lecturer in the university.
Then one night he had a strange visitation from the Lord and knew again the radical truth of Christ, his justice, his love. What to do next?
He started walking. And for five years had visited most of Europe, depending on people he met for food and shelter. It was a privilege to get to know him and pray with him.
On one occasion I asked: ‘where did you find the most immediate hospitality?’ ‘In Romania’ he said, ‘because they are still poor enough to need each other.’
And what did he experience elsewhere? ‘I felt that people are increasingly withdrawing into their own security zones. Prosperity seems to generate fear of strangers and tightening of private property.’
(Andrew has called a number of times over the years. He is a Benedictine monk now, soon to be ordained priest).
* * *
A couple in the U.S. decided they could no longer support the enormous sums their government spent on armaments. They knew their response had to start with themselves.
He was in middle management. He negotiated with his firm to pay him a salary just below the tax-paying threshold. And they would pay the difference to various named charities.
It meant a radical change of lifestyle, changing their car, moving house, growing much of their own food.
(So easy to protest, speak out, even join Justice & Peace groups – all as an evasion from it starting with ourselves).
* * *
Another family who decided to simplify their lifestyle and cheerfully resist persuasions to get the latest – they had a monthly meeting with their children and their cheque book to decide which charities their excess funds would go to.
It meant the children had to face teasing at school for not having the latest nice or slickest watch. But that itself was a profound maturing for them.
In the New Testament we do not have much evidence of how Jesus, the Twelve and rest, managed their economic affairs.
They were not from the poorest, as is sometimes said. Four at least were from quite a fishing business, one was a tax collector, and others were?
They had a common purse and presumably depended on donations from varied sources and handed on anything in excess.
The immediate response after Pentecost, the Good News, was for believers to move from private ownership to shared goods. Were they imitating what Jesus & his disciples had done?