Do we often find ourselves unhappy because we don’t have all the things that we think we should have or that we want to have? Do we find ourselves anxious, unfulfilled, worried, unable to sit still, or unable to feel completely satisfied with all the many gifts we have already been given in life?
In Luke 21:1-4, a poor widow gives her last penny to the temple treasury. Scripture scholars may debate the reason she chose to give her last penny. However, regardless of her motivation she has a freedom from possessiveness that many of us are quick to admire. After all, who among us are really ready to give our last penny? Wouldn’t we all feel the least bit tempted to savor that last penny of ours?
Possessiveness in its many forms naturally originates in our own fear of being without, our instinctive desire for self-preservation and survival. This instinct often leads us to experience a seemingly unquenchable desire more in the way of possessions that we have control over. The widow’s action to give the last bit of control she has therefore invites us to reflect on our own restless search for more.
The basis of Augustinian restlessness is the acknowledgment that no matter how much we accomplish in life, no matter how much money we make, no matter how many titles we gain, or how many things we accumulate, or how many friends we have, we will never feel fully satisfied. We will always want more. We will keep searching for that which we hope will bring us the fulfillment we are desiring.
This is the story Saint Augustine told throughout his Confessions. Through a reflection on his own life-long search for fulfillment, Augustine learned we are made for God alone. Therefore, anything short of God will fail to fully satisfy us.
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.Saint Augustine (Confessions, 1.1.1)
As people of faith, we are therefore called to a life-long project of continually redirecting our search for fulfillment in God alone. This involves a gradual redirection of our love for things other than God towards God alone. To use each day as an opportunity to ask ourselves what we are really searching for (God) and to acknowledge that what advertisers and other people promise through the things we are invited to possess is not the end to which we are ultimately seeking. What will ultimately make us happy is divine love and that love is always right in front of us.
Late have I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and yet so new, late have I loved you. You were always there inside me and I was running around outside. I was looking for you out there, and confused as I was, I threw myself upon those beautiful things that you had made. You were always in me, but I was not always in you. Created things kept me apart from you even though they themselves could only exist in you. You called and shouted and finally broke through my deafness. You blazed forth and shone brightly and finally broke through my blindness.Saint Augustine (Confessions 10.27.38)
Yet our instinct towards self-preservation and our own human weakness are so deep it is not always easy to see what it is we are really searching for. Are we searching for the love that only God can give in the way we search for money, titles, relationships with people, and possessions? Or are these things simply a means to another end, God alone? Due to human weakness, this reorientation of our love is ultimately a life-long endeavor.
In this life there are two loves in conflict: the love for this world and the love of God. Whichever wins out draws the lover like gravity in its direction. It is not through feet or wings but by desire that we come to God. And it is not by some physical bond or iron chain that we are bound to earth. We are bound simply by our desire for the things of earth.Saint Augustine (Sermon 344, 1)
We are not called to give up our last penny and live in abject poverty. Abject poverty is a violation of human dignity. However, freedom from possessiveness can lead us, as a human family, on the path to eliminate abject poverty. For if God is truly the end to which our hearts are directed, we can then seek, utilize, and share what we do possess in this life in a way that is directed towards God rather than our own need for possession. Perhaps this is the interior state which enabled the poor widow to truly be free of possessiveness.
Advent is a wonderful season for us to pause and reflect on what it is that we are really searching for. In the darkness of our divided world today many are searching for a peace, hope, love, understanding, meaning, power, and money. These searches have led to much division and conflict in our world. Meanwhile, this division and conflict has increased the suffering of the poorest among us who are primarily only looking for the sustenance to get through another day.
Is there an opportunity to unite around our common restlessness to discover together (with the poor widow) the freedom from our inclination towards possessiveness? A freedom that enables us to be more generous with that which has been given to us? For as Saint Augustine advises in Chapter I of the Rule, we can never have peace without unity, and we will never have unity and harmony when some enjoy a surplus of possessiveness while some of our human sisters and brothers go without even their basic needs being met.