The illusion of wealth

Chapter 2

If most people were asked what would really make them happy, they would say "If only I had more money". This would imply that their state of unease was due to a deficiency of material substance. There is no doubt that wealth brings in its wake an atmosphere of great security, and only a fool or a hypocrite would turn their nose up at it. Poverty cannot but produce unhappiness. On one level this denies the first of the monastic disciplines of poverty, chastity and obedience. Yet if one visits a religious community, particularly in our modern age, and in the more advanced European societies, one would neither expect nor find any evidence of great lack of material substance. Does this mean that the modern religious are failing in their basic calling, or indeed are frank hypocrites? The answer is most decidedly not - if indeed they were to follow this discipline to the letter, not only would their community suffer severely, but they also would fall victim to malnutrition, exposure to the elements and premature death. Therefore we can say at the beginning of this consideration that a total lack of concern with money is not the right way to happiness; on the contrary, such an attitude is bound to produce unhappiness as a consequence. This is not the end of the matter, because there is a type of poverty that leaves one free of personal responsibility, but in the end one cannot divorce oneself from the problems of other people and by extension of the whole world. The religious have sufficient means to be assured of survival and enough relaxation to achieve their allotted tasks well. So therefore poverty in itself is not a barrier to happiness provided one is doing one's work well and has no person to consider other than oneself. The essence of monastic poverty is in fact detachment from worldly things so that the mind may be concentrated on prayer.

If thou shouldn'st never see my face again, pray for my soul.
More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.
          (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King
            "The Passing of Arthur", lines 407-8)

Only when one is totally in God can one begin to know happiness.

But what can we say about wealth itself, having demonstrated that poverty is seldom to be recommended? Surely a large amount of money should make one happy? Speaking from personal experience I can say emphatically that I know few millionaires whom I would describe as happy people. A surprising number have health problems while an insufficiency of work allows such problems the opportunity of taking over much of the plutocrat's attention. Nearly all of them have in fact acquired their wealth through inheritance, which is not the best way of becoming rich: in a way, their money has been thrust on them. They have acquired their riches through following a pre-determined path of education and life which, particularly in our present age, is usually a far from elevating one. The crux of the matter is this, that money is no guide to either the good life or its enjoyment. The former statement might conceivably be true to the average reader, but the latter is clearly paradoxical. What is there in wealth that usually prevents one enjoying it?

Apart from the obvious responsibility of taking care of it (and not infrequently of one's own life as well, in the face of robbers, kidnappers, and even murderers), there is the more basic element of devoting one's life to a selfish and ultimately unfulfilling way of acquisition of substance; while no one who knows themself properly would deny the importance of substance, when it becomes the ruling passion of one's life, it assumes a dictatorial power and even determines the types of people whom it is favourable to know on an intimate level. Therefore the cost of wealth may be a distortion of the normal pattern of one's life, even if that "distortion" would be what many people would hanker after most happily. Money creates more money but it does not necessarily bring happiness with it. On the contrary, it adds responsibility and vulnerability and tends towards mixing predominantly with those who attain one's own social standing. It is very much a capitalist quality, and like all extreme capitalism it separates people into various strata of society. It is interesting at the moment that what was Communism in Eastern Europe has now been succeeded by a most grasping type of capitalism in which relatively few families possess most of the wealth of the country. Whether in the end this will bring with it greater freedom than existed under Communist tyranny will have to be seen; in my opinion, both are equally unsatisfactory forms of government, and the life that both produce becomes a personal prison. In Communism the walls of the prison are those of a particular ideology whereas in capitalism these walls are purely monetary. The one thing these conflicting ways of life have in common is their insubstantiality in as much as they both are liable to crumble at any time. Indeed, the recent collapse of European Communism is one of the marvels of our present age, though only a very naïve person could possibly rejoice at the present extreme capitalism which has now gripped some of these countries. The reason for this lack of present rejoicing is based on the divisive nature of capitalism, there being one law for the rich and another for the poor. All this goes to prove how very superficial the contentment based on wealth really shows itself when it is regarded as the summum bonum of the good life. It can certainly form part of its foundation, but one dwells very uneasily in its shadow.

I knew one man who did unexpectedly inherit a large amount of money and, from being a nobody, became a celebrity overnight. Not being in any way groomed for this change in fortune, he lived in a ridiculously extravagant way, as did his wife and family also. At last they could mix with the really important people around them! The thought of charity - giving rather than receiving, as St Paul would say, "It is more blessed to give than to receive" (Acts 20:35) - came very slowly to this man; in fact, he began to see the real significance of wealth only when a great deal of his inheritance fell away from him through mismanagement and the dishonesty of some of his employees. In the darkness of his gloom (even then he was far richer than he had been before the legacy had come to him), he began to glimpse what wealth really meant and even more important why this sudden partial reversal of his fortune had to be experienced. Before then the idea of charity in the usual sense of giving money to deserving people and causes had never fully entered his head. This was not so much due to hard-heartedness as to a complete lack of awareness of how the rest of the world lived. It came to him with the same staggering illumination that struck St Paul on the road to Damascus when the risen Christ suddenly appeared to him. At once he began to investigate the whole question of charity and to find out what part he could play in relieving the want of those less fortunate than he was. He actually started to give money in his relatively impoverished state, and at once an enormous load fell from him; at last he could become aware of something else rather than his own disappointment. He gave to and patronized deserving causes, and as happens so frequently, his own investments such as were still available began to grow in wealth. Within about ten years he had recovered his loss completely, but then he was much more detached from his own misfortune and equally much more attached to the misfortunes of other people. His marriage, which was beginning to founder on the rocks of infidelity, weathered the storm, and he began to appreciate the individual beauty of his previously neglected wife, who before then had been more of a showpiece than a companion. In the end, he attained national prominence with a title, but he had now gained sufficient independence from the opinions of other people that he could order his own life according to what his growing conscience told him.

"It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" (Matthew 19:24).

Wealth that could lead to happiness

It is evident from what has already been said that there is an intrinsic ambivalence in wealth - in itself it neither leads to happiness nor does its deficiency invariably result in unhappiness, even if the tendency is obvious. What, then, can lead to happiness in the life that is blessed with riches? I would think that the really important factor is how the riches have been acquired. Inherited wealth, as we have already said, tends if anything to a subtle type of incarceration. On the other hand, if the wealth has accrued from a very modest base, it could be the basis of a satisfying life.

Consider, for instance, the case of a person who was born in decidedly poor circumstances and when they had attained adult life had to work extremely hard to make ends meet. Through great effort they were able to acquire secondary education, perhaps a university degree, and some sort of career was then open to them. It might, for instance, have been setting up a small business or else entering the professional field of medicine, law or accountancy. By dint of hard work and relatively honest endeavour (no life other than that of Christ could possibly be perfect on a moral level), this person could maintain their position in the society in which they lived; they may have married and had children and as the years rolled by and their family grew up, their savings might have accrued from a modest income. It would never have been particularly great in the early years for obvious reasons, and indeed much of this might well have been a severe material struggle. But in the end, as later middle age drew near, and the family attained its own maturity, they could relax and to their amazement they might find that they were quite well off. This, of course, apart from rare instances of innovative genius, would be the result of intelligent investment of capital allied to a sensible style of living. The money had been laid by primarily for emergencies but later with retirement it was available for relaxation and travel as well.

If one were naïve, one might believe that the happiness was confined to the latter part of this hypothetical person's life, but I dare say that when the end was drawing near that same person would begin to acknowledge that their whole adult life had had its own satisfaction; they were as happy as struggling young people as they were when financially independent at the latter part of their existence. If one considers this case even more deeply, it is evident how secondary the financial aspect really proved in the happiness of the family; it certainly was an important foundation of the happiness but it did not really contribute very much to its overall fulfilment.

This small example illustrates two aspects of wealth in relation to happiness: its use in relieving want and its radiance when it is used for the benefit of other people and charitable work in general. As soon as it emerges in triumph, either through insecurity or pride, it becomes ugly and grasping. If it does no other harm, it tends to exalt the rich person above their true station in the community, and when it departs at the moment of death, the soul (assuming that there is survival of death in this way) can have nothing of it. What it has gained is the life experience of the individual when they were incarnate, and those who are wise recognize that this is the supreme value of all human life; all possessions are by their very nature transient, either perishing with time or else being bequeathed to those who follow on when the person dies. Such is the way of life; it combines with it elements of tragedy and comedy, the latter being most grotesque when the individual lays particularly great stress upon material possessions.

It seems that the value of the things on this earth, which I have included under the conception of substance, is that they teach us both responsibility and the transient nature of the very things that we value most. This does not mean for one moment that worldly affairs are trivial, but it does show that their importance is of limited duration. Our lives have two important ends in view, personal growth and caring for others, who include not only human beings but all life in the world which we inhabit; if we are stupid enough to appropriate even a molecule of this for our own possession, we will soon find that it has disappeared from our grasp, and this is as it should be; St Paul puts it thus: "For the earth is the Lord's and all that is in it" (1 Corinthians 10:26). He alone has control of the universe in its vastness and also in its minuteness, and we are mere ciphers in a tremendous interplay of cosmic life. We are at our most important when we are silent and do the work appropriate for us in quietness and efficiency. These qualities do not mix well with possessiveness and pride.

It is a fundamental rule of life that comparisons are odious; even the poisonous snake and the spider have uses in the creative order which even the most brilliant human mind might not fathom. When one knows this, far from feeling inferior or at any rate a failure, an immense burden of assumed responsibility drops from one, and one can participate more joyfully with all creation in the present moment. This fact interestingly enough has little to do with wealth; indeed, the poor who have never expected very much for themselves are nearer this state of "self-abandonment to Divine providence" (the title of a spiritual classic by Jean-Pierre de Caussade) than the wealthy. The latter are frequently so much immersed in their own possessions that they have little time to see beyond them. It must be very daunting to own a great deal (something few of us are liable to experience in our life), for one's attention is inevitably fixed on one's possessions while the glorious flow of life itself often passes before our gaze unacknowledged. It is this that makes me particularly sceptical about the overall desirability of great wealth. Once it gets in the way of living in the present, it becomes increasingly burdensome until one's whole life is bound up with its maintenance.

Another interesting observation about affluence is that often the more one has, the less meaning it has for one. This applies particularly to the children of rich parents. While some may conceivably inherit the drive of their parents, many more will tend to loiter in its results. They may well enter a drug culture or occasionally even set up a business based on a non-existent foundation. In the lifestyle of our present age it would often appear that basic moral values are sedulously ignored, and the perceived pleasure of the moment is the only thing that gives satisfaction. An increasing number of children who hail from rich, distinguished families end up in disgrace, whether moral or financial. As the well-known saying has it, "The devil always has work in plenty for idle hands to do". If our minds are not concentrated on constructive activities, they will soon wander off through trivialities to indecency, crime and destructiveness. Our century has shown this in no uncertain way.

A fundamental aspect of money is that it is usually a spur to useful activity, but until society moves beyond assessing people's worth according to their means, there will be unhappiness in the world and a general discontent. I have in my own experience known that I am at my happiest when I am doing work without payment. I am thinking here particularly of such activities as exorcism, healing and counselling. When I started this work, some 35 years ago, I made a vow at its inception never to charge anybody anything for my services. This obviously took up a considerable amount of my time, for it was my intention not to cut short any period of interview under an hour. In the end I became very ill, but I cannot in all truth equate my recent illness with the previous work I had been doing, and in any case I would have done it again with much greater illness than I have had to bear. To me the greatest happiness has always lain in bringing happiness to other people. On its own such a statement could well apply to Job before his terrible smash, but in fact it was not so in my case; I did this because of the great sympathy I had for many others like myself, who suffered from abysmally low self-esteem. I knew very well that many people had a completely different view of my abilities, but I was only too aware of the insignificance of these plaudits.

The greatest joy that I have known is to have been able to play even a small part in the restoration of someone else from the darkness of suffering to the light of full life. When I started this work I did not know what I was doing; at a certain point in my life I was introduced to the healing ministry, which in turn entailed priesthood and serving others in a way that I have previously described. This has been the crowning satisfaction of my life and, if anything, I have been confused when people have spoken well of me, because in my heart of hearts I am still amazed, almost to the point of incredulity. Had it been otherwise, I could never have done any good work at all, for I would always have been comparing myself with others in the same field of endeavour. In addition, there would have been an exciting financial incentive. I thank God that these two not inconsiderable temptations were denied me at the very beginning, and now as an elderly man I can at least look back on this period of my life with neither regret nor shame.

Yet, while I was living in a natural austerity, comparable in its way to that of someone in monastic orders, my basic capital increased through sound investment. Now crippled, at least temporarily, by an obscure illness that I have already described, I can afford carers and a life-style which is quite adequate to my needs. As one gets older it is obvious that one's needs increase; that is why it is not inappropriate that death should dominate this stage in a person's life. But the wealth that really matters is the experience of life that one has attained during its flow. The fruits of that work are the happiness that other people have attained through it and the growth that one has manifested unknown to oneself at the same time. This is in fact the real wages of work done without price to other people.

I have to say through experience, however, that one cannot even begin to do this sort of work until one is inwardly strong, for otherwise people would quite involuntarily and unconsciously lean on one. This is undesirable for two reasons; first, one is drained of one's own inner resources, and second, the other person, in their leaning, fails to grow strong in their own experience. This, of course, is seen physiologically and psychologically in the lives of all of us during the period of childhood and less so in adolescence. The last thing anyone involved in this work should look for is acknowledgement; the work of Jesus and his attitude to it are crowning examples. Otherwise one would end in a state of angry disillusionment with the whole world!

When everyone in our world has achieved the patience and dedication to follow this way of life, we will all be on the way to becoming full human beings, even sanctification, if one thinks in those terms. Our lives, though individually private, cease to be cut off from the main flow of people, but are instead shared with many others in our common journey to fulfilment as children of God. At that point there will be no need of saints but rather ordinary people who do their allotted task well and with consideration and joy for the world at large. Money attains its greatest contribution for good when it ceases to be a private possession and becomes a universal gift. Then it is a true blessing for the whole world.

Chapter 3
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