Disposing of Luxuries




”For in a single hour such wealth has been destroyed.” Something we should consider before rushing to build more towers to the heavens

Experience informs us of the vicious consequences of luxury and the virtuous effects of thrift provided that the savings is put to their highest and best use. Spiritual leaders since time immemorial have urged a broader distribution of wealth. And they have prescribed the disposal of luxuries: we find a relatively recent example in Savonarola, who took over his town and had his flock bring their luxuries to the public square for destruction. That disposition served as a spur to yet another wave of perverse accumulation of obscene luxuries; and it has been well noted that the things destroyed in that exemplary bonfire of vanities were junk rather than previous things like silk and gold. But from whence does gold get its value besides its enduring glitter? John Maynard Keynes remarked, in support of the expansion of money supply to stimulate demand during economic depressions, that if gold coins with no intrinsic value were buried in the ground, people will break their backs digging them up.

As civilization progressed from human sacrifice, to sacrificing present consumption in order to accumulate wealth, excess production resulted not only in the waste of unjustly allotted material resources but also in the waste of spiritual resources, that is, the earned leisure time better invested in meditating and communing than pursuing and warring over material superfluities. Even when material excesses flow from the highest of spiritual motives, unsavory characters, who could be discoursing on Confucius, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, if not studying sacred scriptures, show up to make gross capital of them.

The highly productive unpaid-labor force of the frugal Cistercian monks and their lay brothers created a huge excess over their own consumption, contributing to an economic mini-boom in Europe. Greedy laymen moved in to purchase the leadership of the monasteries in order to turn a quick profit, which is anathema to the true Cistercian spirit. Abbots squabbled among themselves, leaving the ingeniously confederated order in disorder.

That old order of monks, the White Monks or Trappists, was one of the later branches of the Cistercian order founded in 1664 at La Trappe. The Cistercian monastic order, first called ‘Novum Monasterium’, was established at Citreaux in 1098 in reaction to the religious disorder resulting from priestly intimacy with worldly perversity and the general love of luxury that developed within the Benedictine order. The monkish Benedictine defectors longed to actually observe the Rule of St. Benedict, especially as it appertained to poverty and obedience and charity. And so did many others, not only humble folk but rich and noble persons as well. Persons eager for spiritual order instead of material disorder flocked to the remote site, causing the rapid growth of the Cistercians.

The nobleman Bernard joined up in 1112 along with 30 others of noble birth, including four of his brothers. St. Bernard was asked in 1125 to write an Apology for the alleged Cistercian slander of the Cluniacs, a group of Benedictines headquartered at Cluny, from which the Cistercians had defected. The Apology was a continuation of the growing polemic against the old institution: Amongst other things, Bernard had this to say about the edifices at Cluny:

“…There is no comparison here between bishops and monks. We know that the bishops, debtors to both the wise and unwise, use material beauty to arouse the devotion of a carnal people because they cannot do so by spiritual means. But we who have now come out of that people, we who have left the precious and lovely things of the world for Christ, we who, in order to win Christ, have reckoned all beautiful, sweet-smelling, fine-sounding, smooth-feeling, good-tasting things – in short, all bodily delights – as so much dung, what do we expect to get out of them? Admiration from the foolish? Offerings from the ignorant? Or, scattered as we are among the gentiles, are we learning their tricks and serving their idols?

“Is not greed, a form of idolatry, responsible for all this? Are we not seeking contributions rather than spiritual profit? ‘How?’ you ask. ‘In a strange and wonderful way,’ I answer. Money is scattered about in such a way that it will multiply. It is spent so that it will increase. Pouring it out produces more of it. Faced with expensive but marvelous vanities, people are inspired to contribute rather than to pray. Thus riches attract riches and money produces more money. I don’t know why, but the wealthier a place, the readier people are to contribute to it. Just feast their eyes on gold-covered relics and their purses will open. Just show them a beautiful picture of some saint. The brighter the colors, the saintlier he’ll appear to them. Men rush to kiss and are invited to contribute. There is more admiration for beauty than veneration for sanctity. Thus churches are decorated, not simply with jeweled crowns, but with jeweled wheels illuminated as much by their precious stones as by their lamps. We see candelabra like big bronze trees, marvelously wrought, their gems glowing no less than their flames. What do you think is the purpose of such things? To gain the contrition of penitents or the admiration of spectators?

“Oh vanity of vanities, yet no more vain than insane! The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked. The eyes of the rich are fed at the expense of the indigent. The curious find something to amuse them and the needy find nothing to sustain them…” (Translation by David Burr)

Nevertheless, after labor, obedience, poverty and incoming charity had made the Cistercians wealthy, the once abhorred laxity took hold. Unequal justice was done in the once equal ranks. The abundance siphoned off by merchants was not equitably distributed. Thus the good intention of the monks had results that finally fell far short of the higher aims of the human spirit. Thus have so many reforms lapsed back into the very conduct that evoked reform.

Alas that abundance does not mean just distribution, as was evident during the Great Depression, a more recent glaring case on point: food rotted in warehouses because selling it would have been unprofitable. President Hoover, the Commander in Chief, had the American military forces under Patton, MacArthur and Eisenhower attack hungry veteran families camping in Washington; just imagine gas bombs exploding, sabers flashing, bayonets stabbing – a child was stabbed in the leg for trying to save his pet rabbit – tanks clanking, women and children running and screaming, babies bawling, hospital filling up with casualties.

What more could this Great Nation of Ours ask for in terms of heroism, other than its own army attacking veterans because they were out of work and without a place to live? Such was the penurious charity of the Puritan ethic, which had helped inspire the boom in private wealth, after the boom went bust; Puritan thrift turned to selfishness made charity necessary. Then Hitler’s greed saved the United States from revolution at the price of millions of lives.

The Cistercian order was the perfect picture of practical economy at its material best. The monasteries were set up over streams to facilitate access to drinking water, milling of grain, bathing, and sewage disposal. But Cistercian Joachim of Flora had a more spiritual form of facility in mind. He conceived of a utopian, cruciform monastic system (New Jerusalem) to live out the Age of Love he envisioned before he died. Like a church, the cross-shaped monastery represented the Ideal Man, Jesus Christ; its functional structure corresponded to the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. For example, if I could stand the disciplining of my cultivated chaos and the tempering of my unruly insubordination at Joachim’s model monastery, I would prefer to attend to Joachim’s Oratory of St. Paul, the center of Learning symbolized by the Ear in the anthropomorphic scheme of things.

Joachim’s utopian vision was of a new world order of monks (ordomonachorum: Holy Spirit) praising God realized at a model monastery comprising, since the Trinity is indivisible, teaching clerics (ordoclericorum: Son), and married lay workers (ordoconjugatorum: Father). Everyone would naturally work, since Work is dignified by the Rule.

Joachim was eventually appointed Cistercian abbot of Corazzo against his will. He managed to obtain acceptance of his resignation, retiring to Flora to write his books. There he founded the Abbey of Flora, a center devoted to strict observance of discipline. He was an eloquent, famous man who dressed in rags. He unwittingly inspired a radical reform movement, first led by spirituals of the Franciscan order; it was taken up by other radicals who believed the pope was Antichrist and the Church had been rendered obsolete by the dawning of the Age of the Spirit, or Love, the Third Age of the Trinity. The First Age was of the Father, or Law, and the Second that of the Son, or Faith.

The reform movement inspired by St. Francis and Joachim became quite popular. One of the central legal battles of the time was whether Jesus and the disciples held property privately, or in common, or neither of the above. A pope, presumed to be the trustee for Christianity, and who was a fine lawyer, won the argument much to the Church’s capital advantage, justifying the piling up as much wealth as humanly possible.

Yet others who wanted to follow Christ were giving away their property to pass through the eye of the needle. Roving bands of Beghards were roundly condemned as scoundrels; Beguine communities of chaste women were likewise calumniated. Numerous wealthy men gave away their wealth to beguinages and joined the Beghards to lead lives of poverty.

Heaven forbid, spiritual tracts were being drafted in the vernacular instead of Latin. Marguerite Porete was burned for elevating Love over Reason and for calling learned university theologians braying asses; historians believe that she was a peace offering to the pope in recompense for the destruction of the Templars. Her writings were secreted by the nuns and handed down through the ensuing centuries. All this presented a serious challenge to the Church’s bureaucratic system of luxurious leisure at public expense.

The early radical reformation movement became so popular that, if it had persevered, today’s Christians would be called Franciscans instead of Christians. Saint Francis himself was believed to be the expected advent of the Son of God.

Radicals went so far as to say that the spirit had gone out of both Testaments and into Joachim’s three books, which they dubbed ‘The Eternal Gospel.’ The actual teachings of the conservative mystic, especially his core theory of history, were distorted by his enthusiastic admirers. Joachim did not intend to foment a revolution against the Church. He submitted his writings to the Church for approval in 1200; he died prior to the 1215 condemnation of his teachings by the Lateran Council. He is presently in good standing with the Church.

Of course history, given human nature, is replete with many examples of social problems or evils presented by the accumulation of great wealth, a form of power which tends to relatively few expropriating hands, and the efforts to resolve those problems by the regulation of greed through involuntary distribution of abundance, voluntary self-sacrifice or loving charity.

Polynesians resorted to potlatch events, where persons of great wealth competed to give it all away in order to be deemed great persons. So great is the almost instinctive need to dispose of private luxury for the social good that men are periodically pressed into militant service against one another with the result that capital and the human resources creating it are destroyed. Great civilizations obsessed by economic motives are leveled and new ones are founded on the rubble.

If no Savonarola calls upon people to pile up their wealth in the center of town and burn it in order to rejuvenate the spirit impoverished by objective idolatry and commodity fetish, people will pile up towers to the heavens; and then, upon command of their political leaders, bomb them into rubble. If the competition for material wealth becomes democratic enough to include all in the invidious war of all against all called the pursuit of happiness, identical twin towers are eventually set up as relative idols, having no value except their relativity; 1=1: the choice is consumer or consume. Radicals will invariably destroy the symbol equalizing good and evil, and set up a tower beyond good and evil in order to gain entrance into Paradise.

A great drama ensues. The logjam of ambiguity and ambivalence is broken into waves of violence and destruction arguably necessary for evolutionary progress. Disgruntled, frustrated idealists or god-possessed enthusiasts seldom engage in a virtual, unspectacular fight for universal good or love. They would rather witness real destruction, murder and mayhem in a dramatic effort to annihilate the relative evils of each other, each thinking he or she is on the good side.

Moreover, the moral stagnation and spiritual impoverishment cultivated by the competitive, pursuit of so-called happiness in the form of material property is so contrary to the preservation of the human race that, in the absence of attack by foreign enemies, the demoralized population sinks into depression; Our Great Nation then requires some internal stimulation, some New Deal; if that new deal is just another deal, only a violent remedy will do, a Revolution or a War. The Evil must be radically extirpated.

The radical reformations may serve us well until they revert to the very principles they originally opposed. There is a tendency to eventually become the enemy radicals once originally waged war upon. There is little visible difference between a tank decorated with a swastika and one decorated with the Star of David rolling over corpse-strewn rubble. We see democratic republics acting like totalitarian fascists while accusing some nation that wants a viable alternative of totalitarianism. We hear huge corporations extolling the virtues of free markets and individualism. We note frugal puritans, now capitalist hoarders, advocating faith-based charities that the poor may be beholden to and even worship the power responsible for its poverty.

We might finally arrive at the conclusion that evil always wins because man is originally evil. Well, if there is such a thing as Progress, that what we call Progress may be a vicious cycle, a progression from evil to evil.

It is true that good must always proceed from evil, otherwise no good would be called for, but evil shall not win until our race is dead. There is always some hope for real progress in the interims providing that we carefully examine the lessons about ourselves revealed by our history instead of inconsiderately rushing ahead to build more towers to idolize until they are destroyed by yet another iconoclastic cataclysm. We should resort to more spiritual dispositions so that Jerusalem may be everywhere. We should retreat from the insane “objectivism” of “modern” civilization. One most important course we should all regularly take for our mutual good is ‘Disposing of Luxuries.’


2001 Honolulu


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