As you read this article, I will be bicycling with three buddies on the roller coaster hills of the annual, “Hilly Hundred,” just outside Bloomington, Indiana. I signed up for this weekend of huffing and puffing as a substitute for the annual ride I missed this summer when I chaperoned my thirteen-year-old and two of her friends on a leadership retreat.
For five solid days, Annalise, her companions, and I, participated in activities designed to make us better stewards of the earth. When the workshop concluded on Friday, we boarded a passenger train that took us physically, and ideologically far, far away from our retreat. In the morning, we were strolling the wooded pathways and rural hills of Garrison, New York. In the afternoon, we were part of an amoebic mass of humanity that populated New York City’s frenzied streets and sidewalks.
It didn’t take long for me to have my, “Toto, I guess we’re not in Kansas anymore,” moment. We had just polished off two good-sized deli sandwiches when the check arrived. I had to stifle the impulse to inform Annalise, “Sorry honey, we just ate your college tuition.”
But nothing could have prepared me for the afternoon itinerary of window-shopping in and around Time’s Square. My daughter, her two friends, and their mother introduced me to the world of adolescent haute couture in various little shops of horror. In one store, the girls tried on sunglasses that regularly sold for $300. They were now on sale for the low, low price of $175.00. I watched as my daughter and her friends admired handbags worth more than my car. At one point, I noticed an attractive blouse hanging on a sale rack. “A souvenir opportunity for Lisa!” I thought to myself. I opened the inside flap to expose the price. As if adjusting the dial on a set of binoculars, the long string of numbers forced me to place my eyes on a wider-angled setting. As I counted four digits to the west of the decimal point, the throbbing music from Psycho (1960, Hitchcock) suddenly began to blare in my ears. I backed away slowly, hoping that I had left no tell-tale fingerprints, or DNA. Surely something this expensive was meant to hang in a museum, never to be touched by the likes of me.
For a solid week, we had been reflecting upon concepts of sustainable living. Together we analyzed the interlocking systems that can lead to either further degradation of the world, or to its renewal. Here at week’s end, I stood surrounded by the products of a system agnostic to beliefs and concepts of sustainable living.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Mark introduced us to a blind beggar who sat by the side of the road. Back in the day, it was believed that the misfortune of congenital blindness must have had something to do with a family lineage of sin. As if to dispel this myth, Mark’s Gospel recorded the name for this man, “Bartimaeus,” translated, “Son of honor.” In other places in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus demanded that his identity as Messiah be kept secret until after his death and resurrection. In this selection, the blind and poor “Son of Honor” was allowed to name Jesus “Son of David,” for all the world to hear.
A couple of Sundays ago, we met a rich young man incapable of parting with his wealth to follow Christ. Unlike that man, when Jesus called Bartimaeus over, he threw off his cloak. A cloak for a poor man of his day would have served as a coat, a sleeping bag, and perhaps a tent. In other words, this poor, blind man was held up as an example for all of the rest of us to follow.
It seems to me, that in all four Gospels, it was the poor who seem to most clearly see Christ for who he was. Those with the tangible possessions of wealth, or the intangible possessions of power, frequently ended up being the blind ones sitting in the dark.
As I walked through the cathedrals of consumerism last summer, I was conscious of the voices of Catholic mentors who had been changed by Gospel stories like the one this week. I heard the voice of Pope Paul VI proclaiming that no one has the right to own what they don’t need when so many go without the necessities of life. I heard Dorothy Day, the co-foundress of the Catholic Worker Movement reminding me, that for society to be remade in the image and likeness of Christ, we needed to see things through the eyes of the poor. I listened, once again, to Father John Kavanagh, a local Jesuit, asking me to be compassionate toward those who attempt to buy their self-esteem in stores. In the economy of the Gospel, they are truly the ones who are destitute.
As far as I know, our Catholic tradition has never said that possessions or power prohibited a person from entering the Kingdom of God. They too have their proper place. They are gifts meant to build up the Kingdom of God by building up the human community. From our Catholic point of view, any systemic analysis of things like health care, or other systems of distribution must always include the good of the most poor and most vulnerable among us.