[This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times 19 March 2009]
Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than a great fortune with anxiety. — Proverbs 15:16
There is a math joke that says that mathematicians are God’s way of turning coffee into theorems. Or in my case, tea into words. On sabbatical leave this spring, I’m spending many hours writing, a cup of tea always within reach. I seem to bring a new spoon up every time I make a fresh cup. On a good day of writing there might be more than a half-dozen spoons scattered across my desk.
“How many spoons do you have?” wondered a friend, slightly aghast, when I mentioned that you could track my scholarly productivity by the daily spoon count.
“At last count? A few dozen, maybe.” I responded sheepishly.
When I was in graduate school I knew exactly how many spoons I had — four. If I had more people than that for dinner, my guests had to bring their own silverware! Now I have spoons for more guests than my house could hold. Enough that I might not notice how many have migrated to various spots in the house for a week or more.
In his 1967 encyclical, Populorum Progressio, Pope Paul VI reminds us, “The pursuit of life’s necessities is quite legitimate; hence we are duty-bound to do the work which enables us to obtain them: ‘If anyone is unwilling to work, do not let him eat.’ But the acquisition of worldly goods can lead … to the unrelenting desire for more … Rich and poor alike — be they individuals, families or nations — can fall prey to avarice and soul stifling materialism.”
Do I really need all those spoons? Searching the house for spoons I had left lying about and loading them into the dishwasher, I contemplated this verse from Proverbs. I wondered if tending to my current surfeit of spoons — and other worldly goods — might be taking time and attention I would rather devote to other things, might indeed be stifling my soul.
Lent is a season of fast; we undertake to deprive ourselves of what is necessary. Fasting strips away the excess and invites us to reflect how much is enough — not only of food but also of all the material things in our lives. In calling the Church to a renewed sense of fasting this year, Pope Benedict quoted St. Gregory’s Lenten hymn Ex more docti mystico: “Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses.”
Haunted by a vision of a Dickensian chain of clanking spoons pursuing me through purgatory, I’m finding myself gradually more alert to the unnecessary things that have collected in my life that stifle my sense of God’s providence. I look to strip out the excess, not just during this short season of Lent but permanently.
In Lent, or outside of it, God alone is enough.
Nada te turbe, nada te espante, todo pasa;
Dios no se muda.
La paciencia todo lo alcanza;
Quien a Dios tiene, nada le falta;
Solo Dios basta.
Let nothing disturb you, nothing distress you. All things fade away.
God is unchanging.
Patience obtains everything.
Whoever has God lacks nothing.
God alone is enough.
— Found on a bookmark in St. Teresa of Avila’s breviary