The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), interspersed with art and some of his photographs.
One of the images of Lent is that of going into the desert or the wilderness, for so Jesus did for forty days, and the people of Israel for forty years. However, what comes with the image of the desert is a place of blistering austerity, of hard stones and discomfort, of unpleasantness. No wonder, then, that so many people dread or fear the rigours of Lent; it can appear almost masochistic!
But I think we need to look at Lent from God’s perspective. Today’s Collect prays for God to “look with compassion” on us, and to give us his “protection”. In the book of the Apocalypse, the Woman clothed with the Sun, who stands for the Church, is taken by God “into the wilderness” for her protection, to keep her safe from the Dragon (Apoc 12:14). And, the prophet Hosea says that God will “bring [his beloved people] into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” there (Hos 2:14). So, during Lent, God leads us, his beloved Church, into the wilderness for our protection, so that he can allure us and woo us, and show us his compassion. Hence in the reading we’ve heard from Isaiah, he says: “The Lord will always guide you, giving you relief in desert places” (58:11).
And how does the Lord show compassion? How does he give us relief? How does Lent protect us? In the same way, I think, that the Sabbath does. The latter part of Isaiah’s reading for today, the Saturday after Ash Wednesday concerns the Sabbath, which was given to Mankind as a gift from the Lord. All too often we can see it as an inconvenient commandment – that we are to keep the Sabbath holy – which, if we even remember it, gets in the way of work or shopping or other things we’d rather do than go to church. But as Jesus has said, “The Sabbath is made for man” (Mk 2:27). So, it’s not for God’s sake that we keep the Sabbath holy, or go to church, or cease from servile work – it’s for our sake.
Because, again and again people have come to me saying that they are stressed, over-worked, and feel enslaved to their desks and jobs. Like the dragon of the Apocalypse, our work and the demands of a competitive work culture, our deadlines and economic targets can threaten to consume us. But Life lived like this is imbalanced. So, the Sabbath is God’s way of ensuring a balance is kept in our life, that we not only work, which is vital for mankind’s dignity – there is something debilitating about unemployment as well as idleness – but that we also rest. For in the Sabbath rest we discover God who is a communion of persons, we discover the divine dignity that is fundamental to our humanity. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, thus explains that the Sabbath is the “still point in the turning world, the moment at which we renew our attachment to family and community… [It is] the one day in seven in which we live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured in the daily rush of events; the day in which we stop making a living and learn instead simply how to live”.
So, too, Lent is like an annual Sabbath. As Jesus called Levi away from his work in the tax office, so we are called to follow him into the wilderness each Lent. For God calls us into the desert to protect us; to speak tenderly and compassionately to us; to restore our spirits and strength, and recall us to “live out all those values that are in danger of being obscured”. So, during Lent, if we take up the opportunities it provides, we learn to re-discover community through almsgiving; we learn to re-balance our life and its priorities through fasting. And, most significantly, we learn “simply how to live”, indeed, how to love through prayer. For through prayer know that we are loved; through prayer Christ calls us away from the wild-ness of our world to follow him into the Lenten wilderness where we can rest in God’s love, where God can speak “tenderly” to Man.
The prayer Actiones nostras, which was prayed as the ‘Collect’ today, is an ancient prayer of the Roman church. In the Dominican rite, it was said just before Mass began for it is a prayer fittingly said at the beginning of any task or good work. So, as we embark on our Lenten journey, taking up our Cross with Christ and following Jesus, it is fitting that we begin this task of Lent, the good work of these 40 days, with this prayer.
A more literal rendering of this prayer might be: ”Prompt – or go before – our actions with your inspiration, we pray, O Lord, and further them – or continue them – with your constant help, that every one of our works – or our service – may always begin from you, and through you be brought to completion”.
The truth being expressed in this prayer is that God’s grace is necessary for every good work, every holy action. It is God’s grace that prompts Man to act, his grace that accompanies and sustains the good act, and his grace that brings it to completion. Hence, as we begin the season of Lent with God’s grace, we do well to pray that God will give us the grace to persevere over the next six weeks, and that all our actions, all the good resolutions we’ve made this Lent, will end well and be perfected by God’s grace. Thus, prayer, which teaches us to rely on God’s goodness and mercy, is a vital and foundational part of Lent.
As Pope Francis said yesterday: “Lent is a time of prayer, a more intense, more diligent prayer… In the face of so many wounds that hurt us and that could harden the heart, we are called to dive into the sea of prayer, which is the sea of God’s boundless love, to enjoy its tenderness”.
There is this sense in today’s Collect, too, of our every action being immersed in God’s love and goodness. There is no angst and gritted-teeth violence against our wills, but rather, we allow God’s grace to support and sustain our good actions; we turn to him and rely on his goodness, mercy, and love to bring our good works to completion. If we’re immersed in God’s love and mercy like this, then even our failures and falls are not fatal but are forgiven, and we can be picked up by God’s grace to continue on our Lenten journey.
At the same time, today’s First Reading reminds us that we do need to use our human freedom to choose the good, and to will it, to desire it. So, prayer helps form our choices, and stirs up in us a desire for that which is good and true so that we can freely choose life and blessing, as Moses says (cf Deut 30:19). For God’s grace will not do violence to the human will – there must be a graced co-operation between God and Man.
Hence, Jesus calls us to “take up [your] cross daily and follow me” (Lk 9:23). Because if we follow Christ; if we remain close to him through prayer as we carry our Cross each day – whether in Lent or throughout our lives – then we do not struggle alone. Lent, and indeed, the entire Christian path of discipleship is not a lonely journey, not simply a matter of my human will power. Rather we are called to walk with Christ, co-operating with his grace which goes before, sustains, and completes our good actions. Thus Jesus is with us, carrying our Cross with us. But it doesn’t end at Calvary. As the ‘Prayer over the People’ for today says, Jesus leads us along “the ways of eternal life” to God himself, who is “the unfading light”.
This afternoon the Holy Father went to the basilica of Santa Sabina, which has been the ‘headquarters’ of the Dominican Order since 1220, to celebrate Mass and mark the start of Lent. Since the earliest centuries the Pope has travelled from one church to another in the city of Rome celebrating the Liturgy in a different church of his diocese each day of Lent. And the church of the day is called the statio or ‘station’. The word is used in a 2nd-century Christian text to refer to a fast. Hence today is one of just two days of fast and abstinence left in the Western Church. Today we fast and keep our station.
But it’s still a rather strange use of this word. If we look further back, we find that the Latin word statio is derived from a Roman military use. It means to stand on post, or on guard. So, the Pope gathers in a church to stand guard with the Christian people, and the church itself became called a statio, a guard-post. Hence, in today’s Liturgy we also find military language being used in our prayers. A more literal rendering of our Collect would go like this: “Grant us, O Lord, to begin the station/guard-post of the Christian’s military campaign by taking on holy fasts, so that as we begin to take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of abstinence and self-restraint”. It’s a very striking prayer dating to before the time of Pope St Gregory the Great, and the basic idea is that we, as a Church, have paused to take up our station, to stand guard, during the holy season of Lent.
The weapons we take up as we stand guard are our fasts. As in a diet, or fitness regime, so, too, during Lent, we make a special effort to train and discipline our bodies by fasting – less food, less sleep, less beer and wine, perhaps. We also take up the weapons of prayer, and of charitable giving. Together with fasting, these are the three exercises of Lent that are mentioned in today’s Gospel. All three are essential and they go together. Indeed, I would suggest that without prayer, which focuses us on God who is the end and goal of all our good actions, the other two will fail or become ends in themselves. Otherwise, giving alms can become a way of making ourselves feel better rather than an act of justice and love, and fasting can become like a challenge of one’s own will power rather than a means of spiritual combat.
Which brings me to my final point. Who are we battling? It is true that we are all, in some sense, battling against our own sinful habits, weaknesses, addictions; training our spirit to be stronger and more full of faith, hope, and love. But no soldier simply battles against himself. Rather, each of us Christian soldiers are daily called to fight the Enemy. In Biblical Greek, the word for enemy or adversary is diabolos, or in Aramaic, satanas. The Enemy is not some vague notion of evil, or just our own weakness, or a psychological construct. Rather, the Devil – so Scripture and the Church teaches us – is a real creature whose will is fixed on evil and on thwarting God’s plan for our salvation by seducing us, tempting us, to choose sinful acts. And his most successful ploy is to get us to think he doesn’t exist!
Therefore, in Lent, we are summoned together to train and take up arms against the Devil. How? St Peter put it this way: “Be sober, be vigilant. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith” (1 Pt 5:8f). Again the language is military – we’re to be vigilant, keeping watch, keeping guard soberly and attentively, and we’re to put on the armour of our faith. This means that we’re to place our trust in God, relying always on his goodness, mercy and love. With such firm faith in God as our armour, we can then take up our weapons of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. So that we know who our fellow soldiers are in this military campaign, we can look to the sign of the ashen Cross on the forehead; a sign of Christ’s victory over death and sin. So, my fellow Christian soldiers, let us take up our battle station – this, our Lenten fast. And let us shame the Devil and, with Christ’s grace, help, and strength, defeat sin and the Evil One.
"O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you?" Jesus asks. It’s quite surprising to hear Jesus speak like this, with such exasperation. And then he adds: "How long am I to bear with you?" (Mk 9:19).
How long? The response I think of is the one which two despondent and confused disciples give Jesus at the end of a long walk to Emmaus on Easter Sunday. In St Luke’s Gospel, the risen Lord is just as exasperated with his disciples; he calls them “foolish men, and slow of heart to believe” (Lk 24:25). And yet when these two respond and say: “Stay with us [Lord] for it is toward evening”, he does (cf Lk 24:29).
Because we are slow to believe, and have so little faith, we need him to stay with us. For it is evening and the light of faith is dim. And so, we need him to stay with us. And because Jesus loves us, because he knows our need, he does; he stays. He stays with us – he is here with us – in the Eucharist. And the Eucharist is called the mysterium fidei, the mystery of faith, because we need faith to recognize that here, in the Most Blessed Sacrament, our request has been granted, that our prayer has been heard: Jesus, our God, is here with us.
But do we really know this? Do we truly believe that Jesus is here, waiting for us in the tabernacle, waiting for us, this faithless generation, to come to believe, and so, to come and adore him? As St Josemaria Escriva said: “When you approach the tabernacle remember that he has been waiting for you for twenty centuries.” I think, in honesty, the only response we can give is that of the man in today’s Gospel. He says: Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief” (Mk 9:24).
Hence, when we approach the Eucharist, we ask Our Lord to help our unbelief, to give us still more faith so that we can believe that he is truly present here – Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity – and so we kneel, bow, and adore this sacrament. Indeed, we approach him in this sacrament with “prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29). For as Jesus tells his disciples this casts out certain spirits. As we pray to the Lord in the Eucharist, speaking to him who stays with us here, we cast out the spirits of doubt and unbelief. Jesus is here! And as we fast before we approach the Eucharist, preparing ourselves to receive him in Holy Communion, we cast out the spirits of irreverence and casualness before so great a mystery. Our God is here! This is the Mystery of Faith, that Our Lord is here at our request: “stay with us, Lord; help our unbelief”. And so he does. Jesus stays with us, under the appearances of bread and wine, waiting here in our tabernacles.
Thus, through this Sacrament of his Body and Blood, Jesus teaches us to trust his Word, to have faith in him, to believe. He says to us, as he did to St Thomas the apostle: “Put your finger here… and put out your hand…; do not be faithless, but believing” (Jn 20:27). Then, let us come let us adore this great sacrament, and respond as St Thomas did: “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28).
As Solomon marvelled that the Lord should condescend to dwell in the Temple he built (1 Kg 8:27), so today we marvel at the Temple which God built for himself: the Immaculate Virgin Mary. For through grace God prepared Our Lady from the moment of her conception to be his dwelling place, his living Temple on earth. At his Incarnation, God assumed our humanity and took flesh in Our Lady’s womb so that, as a medieval English carol put it, Mary contained “heaven and earth in little space: res miranda”. So, too, we marvel that God should dwell among us, building for himself a Temple, namely the Immaculate Virgin Mother.
Beginning on this day in 1858, St Bernadette Soubirous was privileged to receive a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the small town of Lourdes nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees. And they culminated fittingly on 25 March 1858, the feast of the Annunciation when God was made Man in Our Lady’s womb, as Our Lady revealed to St Bernadette: “I am the Immaculate Conception”.
So, as Solomon says of the Temple, “this house [is] the place of which [God has] said, ‘My name shall be there’” (1 Kg 8:29), so, in giving her name to St Bernadette, Mary reveals that she is the house, the place, where the divine Name, Jesus, shall be. As such, just as many turned to the Temple and offered prayers to God, confident that he would hear them, so now many rightly turn to the Blessed Virgin Mary and ask for her intercession, praying to God through her, with confidence that he will hear us.
This confidence in Our Lady’s intercession and motherly care is most evident in the Sanctuary of Lourdes, that holy shrine where she, God’s Temple appeared. And so, millions go in pilgrimage every year to pray, to wash in the miraculous waters, and to cry out to God for strength and healing grace. In Lourdes, the sick and suffering have central place so that what is true for the whole Church, but is often unseen, is there made visible and tangible. For we are a people gathered around the Cross, gathered in love and care for one another. This is what it truly means to be Church, and Lourdes makes this evident because in Lourdes we gather around those – the sick, both in mind and body, and the disabled – who suffer with our crucified Lord.
But those who suffer with Christ, we believe shall also rise with him in glory. This Christian hope is alive in Lourdes, burning brightly like the countless flames that flicker there, as so many gather there in prayer and praise. We go there to be with Mary, who is a witness to Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Thus Pope Francis said in his message for today, the World Day of the Sick, “She is the Mother of the crucified and risen Christ: she stands beside our crosses and she accompanies us on the journey towards the resurrection and the fullness of life”.
So, today, we pray for our sick, asking the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes, to intercede for us. And we do so with the confidence of Solomon who said: “When they pray toward this place, [O God], hear in heaven your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive” (1 Kg 8:30); have mercy, and save us!
Today’s Gospel passage contains what many scholars agree is the most difficult part of St Mark’s Gospel. How are we to understand these verses: “And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven” (Mk 4:12f).
What this seems to suggest is that Jesus spoke in parables, or indeed, riddles (because that’s what the word parabolos could mean) in order to exclude; in order that some may remain “outside”, and so not be forgiven. But is this really what Jesus means?
To begin with, Jesus is citing Isaiah 6:9-10 which, in its original context, was about the prophet Isaiah’s foreseeing of the failure of his mission to convert the people of Judah because of their hardness of heart. In the New Testament, this text is referred to here in Mark’s Gospel, and also in John’s Gospel and St Paul’s letter to the Romans to explain why the Gospel of Christ is not universally accepted. It is not that Jesus intends to obscure God’s will from us through riddles; after all, elsewhere the Evangelists say that Jesus taught in parables precisely so that he might be more readily understood. Rather, this difficult passage is, as in Isaiah, a foretelling of the fact that not all will turn to God to be forgiven. For sin blinds us to God’s grace, and hardens our wills so that we are stubbornly unreceptive to God’s grace. So, the tragedy is that, despite the preaching of God’s mercy and grace, some will persist in their sin and so, choose to be excluded from “the kingdom of God”. We see this even today in the Media’s commentary on Pope Francis’ preaching of mercy, compassion and grace. So blind are some to the reality of sin that they think that the Holy Father’s emphasis on God’s forgiveness means that there is no longer any such thing as sin. But mercy presupposes sin!
Hence, the parable of the Sower which precedes this passage points out that God’s Word is preached generously; his grace is given to all. However not all will accept this grace and so, not all will be saved. This mystery of our salvation is rooted in the awesome gift of human freedom – we can choose to accept or reject God’s gifts, to follow the teachings of Christ and his Church or not. This mystery of our human freedom is alluded to right in the heart of the Mass. When, in the words of Consecration, Jesus says that his blood is shed “for you and for many”, this is not to say that Jesus did not die for all humanity. He did. But these words (taken from St Mark’s Gospel) also point out that not all will necessarily be receptive to God’s grace and accept the gift of salvation through the shedding of Christ’s blood.
Hence, today’s readings prompt us to pray that our hearts will not be hardened by sin but softened by Christ’s precious blood before Which we say ‘Amen’. Let that ‘Amen’ be the ‘yes’ of our wills to all that following Christ entails, so that we will not “fall away” from him but be fruitful in God’s grace. So, let me end by praying an ancient prayer said at the end of a Homily: “God our Saviour… we implore you for this people: send upon them the Holy Spirit; may the Lord Jesus come to visit them, speak to the minds of all, dispose their hearts to faith and lead our souls to you, O God of mercies”. Amen.
St Mark’s Gospel has opened with a very full day’s work for the Lord. Right after calling his first disciples, he enters a synagogue and teaches, and then he casts out demons, and “immediately” after, he heals Simon’s mother-in-law. All this has happened in one day, it seems, and at last we’ve come to the evening and still “the whole city” comes, and Jesus heals many and casts out demons from many. But after all this activity, Mark lets us into a precious glimpse of Jesus’ life.
“And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed” (Mk 1:35). For prayer grounds all the work that Jesus does; it’s not a luxury but a necessity. We see this, too, in the lives of the saints. For example, one of today’s saints, Francis de Capillas, who was a Dominican missionary to China and the first martyr of China, was well-known for being tireless in preaching the Gospel and for his many apostolic works. But even when he was imprisoned before his execution in 1648, he spoke of the necessity of prayer to ground the preaching he did in prison. He said: “I am here with other prisoners and we have developed a fellowship. They ask me about the Gospel of the Lord… They do not let me stay up at night to pray, so I pray in bed before dawn. I live here in great joy without any worry, knowing that I am here because of Jesus Christ”.
This testimony is striking because it reminds us of Christ himself who was kept up the whole evening ministering to the “whole city” who’d come to him. So, he had to rise hours before dawn and find solitude to be with the Father in prayer. And these details from St Mark suggest that silence is vital for prayer. Likewise, the Lord spoke to Samuel in the silence, many hours before dawn. For it is only in the silence that one can hear and listen.
For anyone who wishes to do God’s work and to serve him needs to listen; to do as Samuel says: “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears” (1 Sam 3:10). Very often when we come before God in prayer, our mind is busy with distractions and worries, or we may have so much we want to tell the Lord. And so, we should bring these concerns to God. However, it is vital, too, to quieten our hearts and minds so as to listen, and to allow for an intimate solitude with God in which he can speak. Thus Pope Francis said in Evangelii Gaudium that “Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur” (§171).
As with any relationship, learning to listen to the other takes time and patience. Do we make that time for God, for prayer? And what the Holy Father has in mind is listening to God through a meditative, prayerful reading of the Scriptures. In particular, he points to the Liturgy. He says: “God’s word, listened to and celebrated, above all in the Eucharist, nourishes and inwardly strengthens Christians, enabling them to offer an authentic witness to the Gospel in daily life” (§174).
So, this year, let us make an effort to make time to be with God in silence, and to be patient with him and with ourselves, too, as we pray and listen for his voice. Let us come away from the busy activities of each day, or at the end of our work to listen to God’s Word in the Mass; to find an intimate solitude with our Father, and to spend time with our Lord present in the Eucharist. Here Jesus is present to love us, to heal us, and to silence all that disturbs us. Let us come before him, then, and say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant hears”.
St Albert the Great said in his volume De Animalia, ‘On Animals’ , that the eagle “is a high flyer and has a vision so sharp that it can gaze into the orb of the sun”. So, the medievals came to regard the eagle as a symbol of the life of grace. For Moses was told that God is so transcendent and holy that no one can see the face of God and live (cf Ex 33:20) Likewise, no one can look at the sun. And yet, human beings long to gaze on God’s face - we long for truth, for the good, for beauty, and above all, for love. But because of Christ’s incarnation, we are given his grace, the grace of divine Sonship so that we can partake of Christ’s divinity, and so, at last, we can come to see God face to face in heaven, and indeed, live eternally as one with God.
Thus, we say that at Christmas God became Man so that Man can become God; so that we can be held by Love’s gaze for ever and be completely satisfied and happy. This is what we mean by heaven. So, the grace of Jesus Christ gives us wings so that we can soar like eagles to the heavens and gaze into the sun. This is one way of reading Isaiah’s vision.
But Isaiah’s vision also speaks about the life of prayer. He says: “they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (40:31). The word translated as ‘wait’, like in Spanish, for example, also carries the sense of ‘hope’. For prayer is an act of hope in God’s mercy and love; an act of child-like trust. Prayer, in which we entrust our worries and needs to Jesus Christ, is allowing him to shoulder the yoke of our daily burdens with us (cf Mt 11:29f).
The medievals also thought that the eagle gained its strength from the energy of the sun. So, prayer lightens our burdens by giving us wings to rise from the cares that hold us down, and to soar to God and into his loving embrace. This is what we do whenever we come here to the Lord and we adore him in the Eucharist. The Eucharist is placed in a monstrance with rays like a sun, and we become like eagles looking into the sun and gaining strength, new vigour and life from It. For when we look at the Lord, present here for us, we know that we are loved and held in God’s goodness and mercy, and we know, as St Paul says, that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39).
So, this Advent, let us look to the Lord in prayer, and deepen our life of prayer so that we can “run and not be weary”; continue to “walk and not faint” (Isa 40:31) in our Christian life journeys. Our destination is high; we expect to not only walk and run but to fly to the heavens. And we can do this with God’s grace given to us in the sacraments; with the strength that we receive from Jesus Christ here and now. Thus he says to us today: “Come to me” (Mt 11:28).
I often return to this passage of Romans. St Paul describes the interior struggle with sin which I think we all experience and know intimately. We are attracted to God, and we know the Gospel to be true and good; we want to love Christ. But we are pulled in another direction by sinful habits and addictions. This inclination to sin, which we all have due to the wound of original sin, is called concupiscence (cf CCC 405). And so, there is a struggle in the Christian moral life, an ongoing spiritual struggle in which we learn to master our sinful inclinations by becoming more open to grace, and more attracted by divine Love. The Second Vatican Council thus said: “Finding himself in the midst of the battlefield [of life] man has to struggle to do what is right, and it is at great cost to himself, and aided by God’s grace, that he succeeds in achieving his own inner integrity” (Gaudium et spes, 37).
Sometimes, this struggle, this spiritual battle, can just seem exhausting. But St Paul exclaims that there is deliverance, there is help from Christ. The struggle is tiring when it is waged alone, but doesn’t Jesus say to us: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest” (Mt 12:28)? For it is when we experience our weakness and our helplessness against sin, that we need to turn to God for mercy and for strength. We need his grace.
In a way, Jesus’ frustration in the Gospel can be related to this. We see the storm and scorching heat of sin and temptation coming, and yet we do not know what to do, and we think we can withstand its onslaught alone. What we must do is turn to God, and seek his refuge and help. Few of us do this, I think, but it is precisely in the heat of our temptations and as we are falling that we need to pray to Jesus, who alone is our Saviour and Deliverer, who is the Mercy and Love of God.
And the prayer that I think of in particular is this ancient one, from the ‘Sayings of the Desert Fathers’. A certain monk of the Egyptian desert in 5th century, struggling with sin, prayed: “Lord, whether I want it or not, save me, because, dust and ashes that I am, I love sin; but you are God almighty, so stop me yourself. If you have pity on the just, that is not much, nor if you save the pure, because they are worthy of your mercy. Show the full splendour of your mercy in me, reveal in me your love for men, because the poor man has no other refuge but you”.
The economist, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay in the 1930s that predicted that because of technological advances, society would produce more, so it would need to work less and less to satisfy its needs, such that by 2030 we would only work 15 hours a week but spend the rest of our time on leisure activities.
By leisure, he meant not idleness but something vital to human life and culture. Leisure, as Kant put it was “purposiveness without purpose”. For the Greeks, it was the philosophical life, with time to ponder the mysteries of being and the universe. For the medievals, it was contemplation, which meant delighting in God and the mysteries of divine truth. Leisure meant time for art, music, friendship and science without any necessary financial reward, but purely to enjoy beauty and truth. I suppose, we might say, leisure was for hobbies. But these days, even one’s hobbies or ‘talents’ can be monetized and auctioned off, or add value to one’s C.V..
As we know, Keynes’ theory is a failure because, despite all our gadgets and machinery, the average working week has increased over time and leisure has become like work. Thanks to the smart phone and the internet, the addiction for doing-something-useful haunts us everywhere we go, even when we’re seated in a room, travelling on the bus, or at the dinner table with other people. We’re connected but not connecting to those around us. And so, the greatest leisure activity of all, contemplative prayer, connecting with God, is neglected as well.
But how did Keynes get it so wrong? A recent book, How Much is Enough?, points out that “Keynes believed that people had a finite quantity of material needs which might one day be fully satisfied. He believed this because he failed to distinguish wants from needs; in fact he used the two terms interchangeably in his essay”. And this was a crucial error. Had he read today’s Gospel perhaps he would have known otherwise. “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness” (Lk 12:15).
Because covetousness – greed – fuels our desire to consume more and more. It is what drives our capitalist economy, and it is so successful because it taps into our insatiable essential human wants. As the authors of How Much is Enough?, Robert and Edward Skidelsky, say: “Needs – the objective requirements of a good and comfortable life – are finite in quantity, but wants, being purely psychic, are infinitely expandable, as to both quantity and quality. This means that economic growth has no natural tendency to stop. If it comes to a halt, it will be because people choose not to want more than they need”.
"Wants… are infinitely expandable". Because what the human heart wants, ultimately, is infinite. As St Augustine said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you". Humanity, therefore, longs for love, and all our cravings will only be satisfied when we are filled with God. For "a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Lk 12:15) but in the abundance of life and of love. Thus Christ said: "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn 10:10b). To receive this abundance, we just need to open our hands in the ancient gesture of prayer and have the leisure of contemplating God. Then, all we want will finally be ours.