Smashing Our Idols
“Smash the television set, turn out the lights, build a fire in the fireplace, move the family into the living room, put a pot on to boil some tea and toddy and have an experiment in merriment…The hearth, like good soil, does its work invisibly, in secret, and slowly. After a long time beneath the earth of a quiet family life, green shoots of vigorous poverty appear; you have become, in a small way, poor” (John Senior).
Simplicity and Focus. So many of our problems today stem from one thing: our priorities are jumbled up. Christ shows us another life, a happy life, in which all of life becomes a quiet focus on the Kingdom.
“No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:24).
Christ points out a very important principle: you cannot have God and the world. One has to give way to the other. At our core, we are liturgical beings. What we see in Mass on Sunday is a mirror of our entire life. Everything in the room points to the altar. Every moment and action revolves around our worship. Our lifestyle is the same. The heart has to worship. If our deepest worship is not God, it will quickly become money, career, comfort, entertainment, children, or anything under the sun. Our lifestyle is the indicator of our true worship. With the most natural ease, we build our priorities around the altar of our heart.
Evelyn De Morgan portrayed this in a colorful painting in 1909, called “The Worship of Mammon.” A woman clings to the knees of a larger than life idol, carved in stone like a Greek god of old, strong and robust, clenching a bag of gold. The woman’s face is especially telling. She looks at the god with love, a frantic, self-interested, and idolatrous love. This is the essence of a life not given up to God.
The Aramaic word, māmōnā, is the name of a Syrian demon, the spirit of riches, sometimes synonymous to Beelzebub. But it would be a far cry to assume mammon refers merely to money. A better translation might be “idolatrous possession.” Everything that has become the drive in our life has become our Mammon.
Christ now offers the most beautiful and baffling teachings in the gospels:
“Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on” (Matthew 6:35).
In a religion without monasticism, it would be easy to think Christ’s words are simply poetic. The truth is, many of our saints took this passage quite literally. St. Francis took off all of his clothes at the beginning of his conversion and walked out the doors into the forest, bare and naked. That is probably not the best solution for most of us. He is not unique, however. Many in the past and in our modern times, have taken complete vows of poverty. They live literally like the birds in the air and the lilies in the field, never knowing whether they will have food or a roof over their heads, and they do not care. They live solely in the present moment. The irony of it: these voluntarily impoverished saints are usually the healthiest and happiest among us.
The rest of us have a harder life. We are called to live in the world, with the things of the world, without getting attached.
“Take no thought for your life” is the King James rendition of: “μὴ μεριμνᾶτε τῇ ψυχῇ ὑμῶν.” The root of the verb μεριμνᾶτε, means “to worry,” “to be pulled apart.” An athonite monk, in a lecture about our modern life, “a culture of organized distractions,” suggests that we have become like “‘dull, predatory flies buzzing on the chamber window,’ desperate to consume all the futility of the world” (Fr. Maximos Constas). This is what it means to “take thought for your life.” It is actually rather thoughtless. It means getting tossed back and forth about this thing and that thing, craving after new pleasures, discontent and troubled with every bump on the road.
God wants us to enjoy our life. He wants us to be thankful and to cherish the good things around us. Yet, through all of it, we have to strive to become detached. We have to learn to be like earth — dirt. The sun can shine. The rain can poor. The earth never protests. Take what life gives you and praise God.
How can we do this?
Christ is telling us. It is a matter of priorities. Is God first…really?
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” (Matthew 6:33-34).
Are we seeking the Kingdom of God first?
This is extreme. It genuinely means changing our life. We have to look at this passage honestly, the way the saints looked at it.
The Romans did not ask that much from the Christians. They had no problem with worshipping Jesus. All they asked was that the Christians burn a little incense to the emperor — just one pinch. The Christians refused. Even a tiny gesture of worship directed away from Christ compromises everything. They refused, and sang their hymns of praise while burning at the stake. Christ will have it all.
"Thou shalt have no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3).
We cannot all live like monks. But we can all learn from the monks. We can resemble them a little, by applying the principles of detachment to our ordinary lives.
I started off with a quote by John Senior, a professor and philosopher. He proposes we smash our televisions and spend more time as families around a fireplace, reading books, and drinking tea. Should we take his advice literally? Probably. More importantly, his goal is to get people to start re-prioritizing. One habit at a time. What parts of our daily life — the liturgy of our life — are making us more noble? How much time do we waist? How much spiritual junk food?
“The hearth, like good soil, does its work invisibly, in secret, and slowly. After a long time beneath the earth of a quiet family life, green shoots of vigorous poverty appear; you have become, in a small way, poor.”
The quiet things — the beautiful things —the little pleasures of slow, simple, life in the present. This is the path all the saints discovered. In their poverty, they became the richest men on earth.
“Take no thought for your life…Seek ye first the kingdom of God.”
May God teach us how to live.