Working in various forms of entrepreneurship over the last 15 years in the American landscape the message that dominates the headlines, books and success stories are largely about finding "your passion", the next product that can make you wealthy and/or liberate you from work. There are plenty of products and services today that provide little or no value to society, but thankfully they tend to fizzle in time unless they have a limitless amount of marketing dollars to keep the facade propped up.
But this idea of amassing wealth has always been one I’ve wrestled with. We need money in a cash based society to exchange goods and services. It's a means. I get it. But it's the question of what is enough and to what end that has always pinged around in my mind. On one hand, we see our Lord, who we are called to emulate, live a life of extreme poverty and instruct his followers, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.... If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, give it to the poor and come, follow me.... No one can be my disciple unless he renounces all things”. In addition, the vast majority of saints who the Church has elevated over the centuries also embraced poverty and detachment of earthly possessions. Saint Anthony Mary Claret, our patron, confessor to the Queen of Spain and Archbishop of Santiago Cuba in the 1800s “ had nothing, wanted nothing, refused everything. [He] was content with the clothes [he] had on and the food that was set before [him]. [He] carried all [he] had in a bandanna. The contents of [his] luggage were a full-year breviary, a sheaf of sermons, a pair of socks, and an extra shirt--nothing more.” 1
On the other hand, we argue laymen of the 21st Century have different material responsibilities and needs than a celibate priest of the later 17th Century - right? We are called to be fruitful and multiply and protect and provide the necessities of life for our family - but to what degree? Do my family and I need smartphones, name brand clothing and a bedroom for each child? Am I depriving them or myself of moral goods by not giving them “every opportunity” society declares to be good. It seems prudence must be used in many of the hazy areas as each family situation has some nuance to it but as Catholic fathers - should our end not be the same?
In sharing my intellectual wrestling on work, wealth and family life, a good friend of mine invited our family over to their house for a burger & beer brewing event. I am not a brewer nor a beer connoisseur by any means, but I can certainly appreciate a good beer. As the mash was set to boil - he went inside and came out with two chilled beers, both devoid of a label other than the inscription of “XII” on the cap.
Apparently the beer came across the pond from the Belgium Trappist monks of Westvleteren. The beer was good, but upon learning more ( and consuming more of the 10.2% ABV), the story only got better. These monks produce, year-over-year, the highest rated beer Worldwide by beer connoisseurs. What got my attention though, was the monks literally only brewed enough beer to cover their expenses to live - and then they would stop. Something unthinkable by the modern entrepreneur - to have the highest rated product in the world, and only sell enough to cover your needs - they must be madmen! It turns American Capitalism (and for that matter all the other economic -isms) on their head and orientates the end of the business venture arguably to its proper end. Father Abbott is quoted frequently when pressed to increase production, “We are not monks who brew beer. We brew beer to afford being monks”. It seems to me, this orientation, of placing profit as a servant to their life as monks in prayer and contemplation is a model for even the layman today. While we may not have the same quantity of time each day to dedicate to prayer as a monk, we can still “inscribe this first law of christian economics on our hearts [that] the purpose of work is not profit - but prayer.” 2
1 St Anthony Mary Claret Autobiography - St. Anthony Mary Claret
2 Restoration of Christian Culture - John Senior
3 Image courtesy of Eduard Grützner