Essay / Culture

Economic Asceticism?

Today is Ash Wednesday. I’m sitting here with ashes on my forehead and the words ringing in my ears, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s a fact that none of us can escape. Of course, Lent is that liturgical season when we certainly are to acknowledge our sins for what they truly are — offenses against the Holy God — and perhaps adopt some form asceticism (i.e., the infamous “No sweets for Lent” rule). As an Anglican, I confess, especially during Lent, that I have not loved God with my whole heart, mind and strength nor have I loved my neighbor as myself. I have not forgiven others as I have been forgiven. I am to confess that I have been prideful, hypocritical, impatient, self-indulgent, willing to exploit others, angry, envious, dishonest, negligent in prayer and worship and that I have failed to commend the faith of Jesus Christ to others. The one that really stood out to me tonight, however, was when I confessed my “intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts.”

Wow, that one really hurts for some reason. Perhaps it’s because my bookshelves can no longer hold all the books that I bought and continue to buy. Perhaps it’s because my wife and I gave each other our first Christmas gift in three years — a 32″ flat-screen, digital TV. (Heroes has never looked so good!) Perhaps it’s the realization that we are in one whopper of a recession (Washington finally started acknowledging that it’s a recession, right?). I mean, for all the bad business practices of the corporate folks in New York City, Detroit and elsewhere, combined with an oftentimes corrupt government (what else is “pork” if not corruption), there is still the demand that we lay some of the blame for the recession on ourselves. Honestly, did mortgage companies hold weapons to the heads of unknowing middle-class citizens, demanding that they buy homes with bad mortgage terms and rates? Did the banks send subliminal messages across the airwaves suggesting that it was wise to “keep up with the Joneses?” Did Toyota dealerships across the country advise buyers who came to look at a fuel-efficient Yaris that they would be happier in a gas-guzzling Lincoln Navigator? If so, where was I? How did I miss the opportunity to extend myself beyond my means? Am I not a good enough American to have the opportunity to demand that the government bail me out of my poor decisions?

It’s true that I do, in fact, sometimes (always?) have an “intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts.” This I confess, begging God’s forgiveness. Which, now that I think about it, is what all Americans ought to be doing these days. My solution to the recession — a good dose of asceticism for everyone! As most of my friends, family and students know, I love to study and talk about monasticism. Anything that has to do with a monk or a nun and I’m there, ready to share my two cents. One of the things that characterizes the monastic lifestyle is some form of asceticism. Asceticism for the ancient desert fathers in Egypt looked more like some form of self-torture. They rarely ate and when they did, it was basically bread and water. They rarely slept and when they did, it was sometimes in a standing position. They rarely talked with others and when they did, it was to the point. Of course, they didn’t enjoy the comforts of family, such as a spouse or children, nor did they often enjoy the most basic comforts of life. Yet, they flocked to the desert by the thousands. Church historians and authors from the third and fourth centuries tell us that some monasteries in Egypt had 4,000 monks living in them!

Even if this is an exaggeration (and it surely is) there was likely still a quarter of this number in many monasteries. 1,000 monks times 100 monasteries (a conservative number) equals 100,000 monks. That’s a lot of hungry, tired and silent people living in close quarters! Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should adopt this harsh a form of asceticism nor am I suggesting that we adopt the highly mitigated form of asceticism that we find in monasteries today. Rather, what if we all just became more ascetic when it comes to the so-called “American dream,” which is turning into a nightmare for so many. What if we ate out less and put that money towards our high interest credit card debt or interest-only mortgage payment? What if we all bought smaller cars, using less fuel, thus relying less on fuel imports? What if we tried to buy “Made in USA” products, knowing that we were directly supporting an American with our dollars and cents? Even crazier, what if we actually stopped importing as much as we do and started manufacturing more of our own goods? Why shouldn’t we raise more of our own food, make more of our own clothing and just in general buy more of good, old homemade America?

Now, I’m no economist (thanks be to God) but it’s time we Americans acknowledge our “intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts,” especially the ones that we could never afford to begin with! Therefore, I hereby propose that we, as a nation, observe Lent — confessing our sin of materialism and being more ascetic. And what better day to start than Ash Wednesday?

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