God and the orange Range Rover

June 17, 2013 § 1 Comment

A few years ago I realized I had a fancy for an orange Range Rover. I don’t recall precisely when this realization materialized, but one day I saw one on the freeway and was hooked.

That, I thought, is one sweet ride.

I’m not sure why I was so taken. Although my dad has always had a suitably male appreciation for cool cars, I’ve never considered myself a “car guy,” still less a car guy attracted to gaudy orange Range Rovers. I don’t even wear orange shirts. Perhaps it’s the result of my inner Kanye, the fallout of watching too many episodes of MTV’s “Cribs.” Or perhaps it’s my inner Shaq, as I spent a lot of my childhood around professional athletes (the result of my father’s profession as a team physician). Regardless, from time to time I will see an orange Range Rover like the one below and turn a touch envious, wondering how circumstances might enable me to buy one.

My interest in the orange Range Rover, however, does not settle peacefully. Putting aside, for the moment, its magnificent unaffordability (Range Rovers start at $60,000 and climb north from there), whenever I imagine purchasing one, I feel interrogated: is it okay to want one? Is that allowed? As a Catholic man and Ignatian educator, is it ethical, or spiritually appropriate, to consider driving a $75,000 car?

A must-have for the Ignatian educator in your life.

The matter of the orange Range Rover relates to an issue in the life of a Christian, especially among students. After a few years of Jesuit education, students want to know: Can I desire expensive things? Many of them come from privileged families. As they imagine their futures, they hope to live in similar homes and drive similar cars. They want the American dream.

But at their Jesuit schools, they hear teachers talk about poverty, and they participate in immersion trips that stress solidarity with the sick and the homeless and the ignored. This, of course, is a natural result of our Christian identity: Christ, after all, encourages us to be with the least of our brothers and sisters and warned often about the dangers of accumulating wealth.

Our students, in various ways and to varying degrees, encounter what the late Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley called “downward mobility.” Downward mobility is a concept that, in effect, asks us to reconfigure how we search for security and happiness. Rather than orienting ourselves toward upward mobility, which often centers around consumption and an ever-increasing emphasis on wealth and domination, the notion of downward mobility says (in part) that people of Christ should choose to simplify, to move away from the pursuit of material goods as a source of happiness. Instead of the metaphor of the corporate ladder, it’s the metaphor of open table fellowship. Don’t seek to climb; seek to be with.

When it comes to answering our students’ questions, I think it’s tempting to try to translate “downward mobility” into charts and percentages, into specific measures. But ultimately this is difficult and arbitrary. How much is too much for a family of four? For a family of five? For a family of two? Should second homes be banned? How do we decide what to apportion for retirement and healthcare?

While these questions can lead to healthy discussions, they involve us in a level of micromanagement too oppressive and inefficient for our large and complex society, especially one that is devoted to a significant degree of freedom. But more than that, they center around conditions external to the soul.

The ultimate goal is to transform our heart, not our garage. The road to that transformation might start with an emptying (as the rich young man learns in the Gospel), but discipleship cannot be measured by the number of possessions or net worth. Rich people can be generous and holy; poor people can be mean and conniving. Great acts of renunciation can be made for selfish reasons. While Christ admonished us about worldly treasures, he did not do so because those things are evil; it’s the evil effect those goods can have when we permit them a decisive, supervising role in our life. Human history is clear: the more money we make and the more goods we acquire, the more we lose the freedom and flexibility, and the impulses to charity, that discipleship requires.

So where do we stand with our appreciation for the finer things? The best advice on the matter that I have received comes from a Jesuit who once told me this:

Return all of it to God in prayer. Meaning, talk to God about your desires. All of them. Talk to Him about your interest in a car, a lifestyle, a person, a behavior, or a certain career. Talk to Him about what you most fear, what you most feel guilty for, what you most desire. Be completely transparent.

Instead of saying, “No, I shouldn’t want this,” or “Yes, I should seek this without reservation,” give it all up to God and say: “Lord what do you want me to do with this desire? How can this desire serve you? What are you trying to reveal or teach me about myself or your will? Is this something I should pursue or is it something I should put aside?”

Bringing these questions to God frees us from devising an arbitrary framework for the possession of material goods. It also recognizes that nothing can or should be hidden from God. I am tempted to shoo away the interest in the Range Rover, worrying it’s way too shallow. But that is a bad strategy. We shouldn’t pray as if God does not know what we secretly think about or long for. We should give our thoughts to Him to be confirmed, purified, or transformed, even the ones we think are trivial.

Like my desire for the orange Range Rover, which God can refashion into something holy and profound, water into wine.

Posted by Matt Emerson.

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§ One Response to God and the orange Range Rover

  • JET says:

    Matt,

    You reminded of ND professor Fr. Dan Groody’s work on Globalization, Spirituality and Justice…

    “Spiritual poverty is about a radical openness to the will of God, a radical faith in a provident God, and a radical trust in a loving God. It is also known as spiritual childhood, from which flows the renunciation of material goods. Relinguishing possessions comes from a desire to be more possessed by God alone and to love and serve God more completely. Spiritual poverty does not infer that there is something bad about material possessions, or even that poverty in itself is good, or a path to holiness. Rather, Spiritual poverty refers to becoming more open to God’s revelation, action and guidance in our lives and humbly recognizing our place in the universe as children of God. The experience of spiritual poverty will lead each Christian and the Christian community to want to live voluntary poverty in some way.”

    The three degrees of humility were the most challenging and fruitful prayers of the Exercises for me. Thanks for the reflection.

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