Confession of an Accidental Materialist: My Response to Laudato Si

Pope Francis recently released his second encyclical Laudato si’, on man’s relationship and responsibility to God’s earth.

Wondering just what is a papal encyclical? See my thoughts below.*

After reading through the majority of Pope Francis’s 183 page encyclical, Laudato si’, I empathized with the pontiff’s closing description of the “lengthy reflection which has been both joyful and troubling.”  Isn’t that the Gospel altogether – wonderfully inspiring, yet revealing of something truly awful about ourselves?

Below is not a summary of Laudato si’rather a personal reflection.

It begins in England fifteen years ago…

 Toast Parties

Pope Francis on Christian Spirituality Alternative

I lived in England for several months when I was twenty, in a lovely Tudor building in the countryside of Nuneaton. The place had been a boys’ boarding school, now occupied by religious twenty-somethings from around the globe; there to find meaning, discuss theology over pints at the local pub, and make sense of who God was and what that meant for us. There is a great deal I miss about those days there – great friends, great conversation, hot tea on misty mornings, roasted lamb and potatoes with mint sauce, and a funny little thing that really was not British at all – the occasional, simple, yet very special…toast party.

Yes… “toast party.”

Our big beautiful school with original woodwork, and large drafty windows looking over the patchwork rolling hills, had outdated wiring, restricting the use of toasters in rooms and common areas. Consequently, we could have a piece of bread in the morning with butter and jam, but never toast. However, a few male students lived in a small building in the back that was updated, and could accommodate toasters. So from time to time, the boys would ask a few of us girls over and we would have “toast parties.” If we were lucky, there would be Nutella.

Now I am back on U.S. soil with my own personal oven, and microwave, and toaster, and daily access to not just bread, but sourdough, marbled rye, cinnamon raisin, spelt, gluten free, fat free, honey oat, and the cheap, nutrient-free white bread that is the quintessential choice for a bologna, cheese and mayonnaise sandwich. Yet, somehow I find myself pining after these so-called “toast parties” of my youth. What I miss, and this is important, is how I appreciated that toast. That toast, as difficult as it may seem to believe, was an anticipated experience, a luxury, it was special.

Now there is nothing special about toast.

Now toast is just toast.

Americans have been so inundated with excess and overloaded with choice, that our appetites have been dulled and we are neither grateful for luxuries nor essentials. Where the poor in developing countries work for clean water, one pair of decent shoes, and ration their meat to a few times a month, our American middle class complains when they have to wait six months longer than their neighbor to upgrade to the latest smart phone. And perhaps nothing has desensitized us more than all our stuff, our excess, our piles of perfectly functional but only used twice a year items.

Have I become materialistic and not realized it?

If so, what are the psychological, environmental and spiritual repercussions?

Pope Francis began his critique of the consumer centered life in the beautifully challenging Evangelii Gaudium, which was started by his successor Pope Benedict XVI. In the exhortation Francis warns,

… a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us…

He is absolutely right.

In my twenties, with little but a suitcase of belongings, my heart bled for the poor. My time and money reflected those feelings. Now my mind is consumed with mortgage and car payments, 401k’s, how to afford ballet lessons for my kids.

Are those things worthy?

I suppose.

But are they more worthy than the survival of a four-year-old Iraqi refugee?

No.

The answer is no.

Until we accept that truth…we are deadened to the call of Christ to serve the poor and deny ourselves for the sake of the Gospel.

Let us not deceive ourselves.

Being unable to afford Disneyland is not poverty.

Watching your child weakened by starvation is.

“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?  Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”  – 1 John 3:17&18 

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