Avarice and Other UFOs
By Sr Rose Rolling o.p.
Our war of the mind continues on and we come now to our third thought and the last of the temptations against our physical nature encountered on the spiritual journey. What do you get when you combine the excess of gluttony with the objectification of lust? Avarice! That’s our thought for tonight.
For those of you who attended our first session, we introduced the Desert Father Evagrius, who could be considered the father of mental combat. Evagrius writes about “the inner thoughts that want to acquire riches and to consume the intellect with anxiety about them” Avarice is precisely this mental preoccupation with money and possessions and the dedication of oneself to their pursuit and protection. It is not so much defined by the love of possessions as such but by the love of possessing as an attitude of mind and heart.
How might this love of possessing incarnate itself? The psychotherapist Solomon Schimmel says that avarice can take the form of “the cutthroat competitor, the workaholic, the swindler, the miser, the gambler, and even the spendthrift”. What is striking is that what Schimmel lists above are states of being – being a workaholic or a spendthrift is a whole way
of relating to the world, The consequence of a distorted sense of being is a distorted sense of doing.
Here is where the Catechism of the Catholic Church names the results of avarice – sinful actions – which breach the spirit of the seventh commandment. The seventh commandment forbids unjustly taking or keeping the goods of one's neighbour and wronging him in any way with respect to his goods. Concretely, this prohibits actions such as:
- Direct theft
- Any form of unjustly taking and keeping the property of other, even if it does not contradict the civil law: thus, deliberate retention of goods lent or of objects lost
- Business fraud
- Paying unjust wages
- Forcing up prices by taking advantage of the ignorance or hardship of another
- Speculation in order to artificially manipulate the price of goods to the detriment of others
- Corruption in which one influences the judgment of those who must make decisions according to law
- Appropriation and use for private purposes of the common goods of an enterprise
- Work poorly done
- Tax evasion
- Forgery of checks and invoices
- Excessive expenses and waste
- Wilfully damaging private or public property
- Promises must be kept and contracts observed
- Restitution of stolen goods to their owner is necessary for the reparation of injustice
- Respecting the integrity of creation – we are stewards not slavedrivers.
- For the sake of the common good, it requires respect for the universal destination of goods and respect for the right to private property.
That sets out the basic issue of what avarice is as an attitude and what it leads to in the form of action. If we want to address the problem we need to get to the roots of it, we need to explore our distorted thoughts.
The Mental Roots of Avarice.
Let’s begin by exploring our motivations for pursuing wealth. There are many, such as:
- To provide for genuine needs. Human beings have basic material needs such as food, shelter, medical care, education and leisure, all of which are acquired through money.
- For altruistic purposes. As well as providing for our own legitimate needs, there is also a human desire to give gifts to our loved ones, and to give to others out of genuine altruism. Two decades ago, the Effective Altruism movement took off, which is a philosophy and community focused on maximising the good you can do through your career, projects, and donations. This includes strategies such as earning to give, which involves deliberately pursuing a high-earning career for the purpose of donating a significant portion of earned income to charity.
- As an instrument of power or control. “Money, Money, Money”! Before ABBA sang it, Karl Marx recognised that it is a rich man’s world. Money allows for the control of the environment and the things in it.
- From the thrill of chasing money as an end in itself. Money becomes an end itself when it gratifies a need for danger through the thrill of gambling or high-risk investment. Otherwise, it is found to be pleasurable by its acquisition – think of the contentment of the man in Parable of the Rich Fool in Luke’s Gospel who enjoys seeing and storing his abundant harvest for his own benefit. Both of these experiences of pleasure and danger become ends in themselves when they are used as a substance to fill the holes inside us.
- The desire for social participation drives us to acquire goods, services and resources so that we have a stake in society. This stake gives us a sense of security, agency and belonging in our lives.
- Competition is the hallmark of capitalist economies. Not only does competition interact in market forces but it influences our interpersonal engagement with others. Competition and comparison can sneak in – not only when we’re comparing the cost of energy suppliers but also when we look over the hedge at our neighbour. This comparison can either lead to or be a consequence of envy: is her house bigger, her clothes designer? We can seek money out of envy and because we seek to be the envy of others.
- Social pressure and cultural attitudes. We can be driven to acquire or dispose of money because of the expectations of others. For example, guests are expected to donate generously on attending a Chinese funeral, or the bride’s family in India are expected to spend extravagant amounts on their daughter’s wedding, or the British tendency towards ‘keeping up appearances’ even on a shoestring budget. Vanity may creep in here as we want to be ‘seen’ and judged well.
- Lasty and perhaps surprisingly, from religious motives. The Protestant work ethic is a social theory which argues that the emphasis on values such as diligence, thrift, and efficiencyand outcomes such as financial reward are part of one’s calling in the world. Taken to an extreme, there is also the Prosperity Gospel advocated by Protestant, generally Pentecostal or evangelical preachers, that equates Christian faith with material and financial success.
Most of our desires are a mixture of the good and the shady material, psychological and spiritual motivations inside us. In this respect, avarice is like any other vice that afflicts the human being.
However, Desert Father and disciple of Evagrius John Cassian, in his book The Institutes, says that what makes avarice a uniquely difficult vice is how foreign it is to the way God actually created us. Avarice is the alien abductor of our true self.
While vices such as gluttony or lust distort the good things (like food or procreation) which God has given us, Cassian understands avarice as something different than this. Rather than it being a distortion of something innate and given by God for our benefit, avarice is external to us. There is no legitimate function for it in our nature; it is an invasion, rather than a distortion. The love of money, he insists, takes hold “without any antecedent natural impulse but by the decision of a corrupt and evil will alone” (VII.5). The good news is that because it is not a distortion of something inherent to our nature, it ought to be easier to identify and resist. For example, numerous studies have shown that children have an inbuilt sense of fairness and justice – they intuitively recognise imbalances in distributive justice and are vocal about saying so, the cry ‘it’s not fair’ is heard on the lips of children everywhere.
Perhaps part of the defensiveness that accompanies avarice – defence of my property, my ideas, my own behaviour over accumulation, comes precisely because deep our conscience alerts us when we are acting contrary to our basic human impulses. We are made to be more like Santa than Scrooge.
Not only is it contrary to our basic nature, but in our list of the Eight Evil Thoughts, avarice is named as the most all-encompassing thought. It is all-encompassing because it is all-consuming: it can affect any area of our life and even life as a whole. It can be a general desire – just more of anything, or limited to a specific focus, such as more money, more shoes, more Facebook friends. While the concern to accumulate wealth and possessions are the obvious example, avarice also applies to our desires for immaterial things such as acquiring high status, or accolades etc. In this sense, avarice can be likened to a black hole: it is so strong that it sucks everything else into it. It is the paragon of total consumption.
This is where its danger lies. Since avarice is unnatural to us, if allowed to take hold it will distort our view of God, of self, and of reality. John Cassian points out that “this disease should not appear insignificant and contemptible to anyone. Just as it can be very easily rejected, so, if it possesses anyone, it lets him attain the means of health only with difficulty. For it is a catchall of the vices and a root of all evils, and it becomes the shoot of an inextricable wickedness.
Perhaps this is why of all the vices, our social acceptance of avarice as just a part of everyday life and lifestyle is the one to be most concerned about. We may still get tetchy about the Prime Minister’s affairs, or get a kick out of fat-shaming celebrities, but we openly admire or secretly desire to imitate the wealth and possessions of the rich. While we may have judgement contests on those we deem to lack the body beautiful in terms of diet and exercise, or be ‘a player’ on the romantic scene, we are nurtured to cultivate the traits of ambition, success and economic self-sufficiency as positive ‘CV’ virtues. None of these necessarily indicate greed but they can certainly leave an open door to such a mentality when not balanced by the virtues of temperance, solidarity and justice.
Yet we don’t start off engulfed in a black hole – avarice gradually reels us into its orbit. It begins in the neurochemistry of the brain, specifically in the neurotransmitter called dopamine. The higher the dopamine levels in the brain, the more pleasure we experience. When we are either thinking about buying something or actually purchasing an item, dopamine increases in the brain and floods our reward system, creating a feeling of pleasure. By using magnetic resonance imaging studies, the Harvard researcher Hans Breiter and his colleagues have found that the craving for money activates the same regions of the brain as the craving for cocaine, or sex, or any other instant and intense pleasure. This sets us on a slippery slope as our desire for a stronger, harder, more frequent hit increases and our feedback loop is created – the path to addiction starts here.
And why do we seek these pleasures in the first place? There is a legitimate place, a holy place, for enjoyment and satisfaction in the world’s delights, whether it is pretty things, or food, or leisure. This is a mindset which delights in God’s good gifts and can be thankful for them. A healthy appreciation of pleasure is proportionate, temperate, integrated and directed to the ultimate end which is our satisfaction in God.
Material attachments should be kept in check by a sense of perspective and proportion. The question of proportion, however, requires some attention. Avarice is perhaps the vice most liable to be open to the defence of relativism – all wealth is relative, so how much is too much? The answer to that is found in the Gospels: all Christian are called to a love-filled sharing frugality, an evangelical simplicity in their relationship to things. There should be some kind of noticeable difference between what we have and how we live compared with our non-Christian neighbours.
The good things aside, when we’re talking about using things to give us the dopamine hit we’re craving, we’re into different territory. Then we are using stuff to manage, numb or try to heal pain, to meet our unmet needs. Here acquiring, overspending or hoarding is a form of self-soothing or compensation for a persistent thinking, feeling and attitude of lack, emptiness, scarcity and inadequacy, which people then attempt to correct through accumulation of money and/or things. Psychologists have found that these behaviours are often also linked with unprocessed loss – the object incarnate for us the real or prospective losses we find ourselves with. We hold onto our possessions like we hold onto our grief. But actually, we’re only laying ourselves open to more prospective grief and increased anxiety in the long-term, for as Jesus warned us, moth and rust comes to eat up all we possess. Christianity has the ultimate answer to this pain: we have the hope of the Resurrection, we mourn but only for a short time, our faith can allow us to let go.
This letting go is key because avarice is also deeply rooted in misplaced attachment, the basis of which is generally fear. We grasp and hold tight when we feel insecure. Christian spirituality has a rich tradition of writings about detachment, with the Carmelite friar St John of the Cross the so-named ‘doctor of detachment’. This emphasis on detachment risks becoming unhuman or unbalanced if not complemented with the understanding that we detach from worldly goods for the sake of holy attachment to God. When we fall back into the arms of our Father, our deep need for secure attachment is fulfilled and we find our place of safety and rest. Inordinate material attachment, in contrast, puts our minds into a state of fear and anxiety which rouses a defence response – fight or flight. Through fear, we are gripped by a scarcity mindset – there’s not enough, I need to take care of number one, etc. To find freedom and inner peace, we need to instead foster a sufficiency mindset – as 1 Timothy 6:8 says: if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content for today.
If we don’t get a grip on these drives of fear, insecurity and inordinate attachment, they have a snowball effect – it starts small, and it grows until it becomes something significant, able to do some damage. Evagrius talked about the ‘consuming pain of wealth’, the mental anguish it carries when we grasp and brood and crave and save up material things. We worry about not having enough – enough money, enough friends, enough things, enough experiences, and we come down automatically on the side of deficit. The sad thing is that we do end up becoming deficient – but deficient in the things of God. Our focus on Him is hijacked and we only fret over nothing ever being enough. At its most destructive, we internalise this thought and what we really come to mean by it is that I am not, and never will be, enough.
This brings us to the ultimate consequences of this avarice. Oscillating between the experience of our own lack and the never-ending innovations available to try and meet it can lead us down the matrix of addiction, mental or physical. What happens when the addiction is no longer enough or we can no longer feed it?
We see in public health studies that there is positive association between economic recession and increased suicide rates following the onset of recession, when people are faced with loss of employment or reversals of financial fortune. The first meaning of Latin word miser is ‘a wretched person’, miser coming from the same root as ‘misery’ – from the statistics it’s no wonder avarice is associated with being miserable when our sense of being is so distorted and dependent. Could the lowered self-esteem and depression be partly the result of a loss of status and earning / spending capacity which is so often a major part of how we craft our identity? Are these things part of our authentic identity or rather a form of idolatry? Idolatry is a form of self-abasement or self-annihilation – if property loss causes us to want to end our life, perhaps we need to build on a firmer foundation – and not a material one at that.
It doesn’t just make us miserable either: avarice is perhaps one of the vices which has the most noticeable social implications. Indeed, the Church’s social doctrine is founded on the implications of the seventh commandment and as the antidote to avarice. We see the effects of greed through poverty, exploitation, the loss of public trust, conspicuous consumption, crime and wastefulness, the endemic sicknesses of our society.
How then do we prevent or change these negative thought patterns, how do we heal? I’m going to give a list of some of the traditional Christian practises used to counteract avarice.
- Almsgiving is recognised as one of the ‘three eminent good works’ of the Christian life, so-named because they rank above other actions for their fruitfulness. In Evagrius’ writings on avarice, one of the things he repeatedly warns us about are the thoughts that prohibit us from giving to the poor, or make us regretful for fearful for ourselves when we do give. We are called to show a preferential option for the poor, a genuine love and care for the poor.
- Sharing (ref Acts 4:32 & the koinonia) . While almsgiving is a good deed given to anyone, sharing implies a relationship. We’re now well into the spring, so perhaps a ‘spring clean’ of our houses and possessions is in order! Could you give some things away? How could we better practise stewardship of our resources? Who can I find to share with today? If material things are like extensions of ourselves then they should be extensions of love, and true love seeks to share itself.
- Evangelical poverty. Those Christians called to Religious life are bound by the three evangelical counsels, one of which is poverty. Religious are called to live poverty in actual fact by not owning anything personally. However, all Christians are called to integrate the spirit of evangelical poverty into their life.
The degree of integration will depend on one’s state of life – a mother of five children will live the spirit of poverty differently to the single professional. To cultivate the mentality of evangelical poverty, we should begin by examining our attitudes towards money and possessions. Can we make do with what we have? Can we mend? Can we discern between our needs and wants? Can we deny ourselves sometimes? Where are my attachments?
Just as with fasting and chastity as part of the battle against gluttony and lust, so simple living can reveal our deeper desires and our true selves. Instead of masking the heart’s longings with owning more stuff, leave space and rent it to God.
- The Divine Mercy devotion is a good remedy for avarice because at the heart of the devotion is the invocation to trust and to showing mercy. Avarice is the opposite of trust – it is about providing for myself, while trust is about putting everything into the hands of God. Avarice can make one self-sufficient and with it, hard-heartened – mercy calls us to the cry of our neighbour’s need, materially or spiritually. It also calls us to generosity in practising the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and praying for others.
- Learning contentment through detachment and gratitude. We live in a restless society – there is always something better, somewhere else to be. Avarice feeds off and fuels this restlessness for the ‘next thing’. Intentionally embracing our current situation and finding the beauty in it, in all its imperfection, is a strong antidote to the roaming impulse for more or for better.
- Be a creator and not just a consumer. God has endowed man with the dignity of being a co-operator. Be creative through making art, DIY, cooking, writing and more. Appreciate natural beauty and creation – a landscape, a smile – value it, notice it, don’t covet it.
- Evagrius ultimately names the best remedy for avarice – and for all the vices – as the reading of Scripture, which is the fountain of truth and vessel of promises for us. Scripture is our prime means of conversion.
 Concerning Love of Money (41).
 Researchers Shed Light on Gambling and the Brain. Source: Massachusetts General Hospital. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/05/010524062100.htm
 Happy Are You Poor by Thomas Dubay.
 Understanding Theft, Overspending and Hoarding. 2012. Addiction Professional. Available at: https://www.hmpgloballearningnetwork.com/site/addiction/article/understanding-theft-overspending-and-hoarding
 Concerning Love of Money (21).
 Fairlie 134