By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published February 20, 2014
When I was a child in Catholic school, the sisters taught us about the occasions of sin, which are the people, places and things that tempt us to do something we will later regret.
One big temptation for me was the refrigerator on meatless Fridays because the delectable pepperoni stashed within its chilly depths had a habit of calling my name. Many was the day when I surreptitiously pilfered a slice, devouring it quickly in the hopes that God wouldn’t see me if I hurried. Later, in college the occasions of sin multiplied at a fast clip. They included parties where friends were drinking in excess—and unfortunately, I didn’t have the self-control to rein myself in.
Today the occasions of sin have definitely changed. The refrigerator has been replaced by the mall where I’m often tempted to make frivolous purchases. Really, do I need handmade soap from Italy or a stapler decorated with rhinestones? What about another fluffy sweater to add to the herd in the closet?
In “The Illumined Heart,” Frederica Mathewes-Green writes about the spiritual disciplines of the early Christians, which included prayer, fasting—and giving alms. A quote from St. Ambrose is particularly telling: “There is your brother, naked and crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering.”
Well, St. Ambrose has me there, I have to admit. Just last week I was pondering how much to spend on an area rug for the back deck until my husband, frugal soul that he is, pointed out the obvious, which is that we don’t need one.
The temptations when it comes to money are plentiful indeed. It may be a new carpet or it may be a luxurious coat. Or it may just be a slow, endless trickling away of our money on endless bits and pieces of stuff.
At the gas station we can buy lottery tickets. At the grocery store we can purchase toys, gardening supplies, cosmetics and DVDs. With the click of a mouse, we can spend hundreds on Internet purchases without even leaving the house.
Believe me, as a writer who spends inordinate amounts of time staring at a computer screen, I can attest to how tempting online shopping really is. In the old days I had to fix my hair, put on make-up and get dressed to drive to the mall and shop. Now I can buy a new outfit in the comfort of my study while attired in fuzzy pig slippers and a bathrobe.
And then the collection basket comes around beseeching me to help my naked and crying brothers and sisters. Maybe the collection is for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, which serves the poor—or for Birthright, which helps women in crisis pregnancies. Or maybe the money I while away on frivolous things could go to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association where it’s possible to support three children overseas—that’s right, three of them—for just $1,008 a year.
Jesus was pretty clear about the poor. He said we would have them with us always. He also said that what we do for “the least of these,” we actually are doing for him. So if we refuse to help a hungry family or a desperate pregnant woman, the conclusion is hard to miss: We’ve turned our backs on the Lord.
When it comes to money, we must remain constantly vigilant because advertisers are quite skilled at convincing us we simply must have the latest stuff. Keep in mind that things widely hailed as today’s necessities—like heated car seats and top-of-the-line cell phones—were yesterday’s luxuries.
We hear so much about shopping therapy, and I’ll admit that when I am seriously gloomy, a stroll through a department store can be a mood lifter—but it’s only temporary. A deeper and longer-lasting cure is praying and attending Mass, which get to the heart of what is really troubling me.
So my pre-Lenten prayer is this: Dear Lord, please help me realize that the thrill of a new outfit pales in comparison to the deeper joy of helping the poor. And help me truly understand the words of Peter Maurin: “What we give to the poor for Christ’s sake is what we carry with us when we die.”