Some years ago, I met a five-year-old girl named Mary who had just, only a few days earlier, been presented with a brand new red toy wagon. She never tired of giving her dog Sheppy rides in it. Little Mary smiled at me and whispered: “You know what? I have a secret to tell you.” When I got down to her eye level, she said very solemnly, as only a five-year-old can: “You know, when I pull my wagon from the front, it goes where I want it to go. But when I push it from behind, I never know where it will take me.”
The more I ponder this sage statement, the more certain I am that little Mary was on to something. Little Mary’s wagon is not unlike our material possessions. When we give material things secondary importance in our lives, they become our servants. But when our possessions become our number one priority, our lives will go out of control. Notice, I’m not saying that material possessions are bad in and of themselves. If, however, we are not careful, they can run our lives. Like spoiled children, they are always demanding our attention. They clamor: “We need maintenance, repairs, and upgrades. It’s time to accessorize. Collect the whole set. Invest in sweat equity. Preserve us for future generations.”
The question is this: If our material possessions are like little Mary’s red wagon, how do we get out in front of them and assert our dominion over them? The answer is quite simple. Every now and then, we must give some of them away. And this giving must hurt a little, so I’m not talking about getting rid of merely surplus wealth. That’s right. Just as we assert our mastery over food through fasting and abstinence, we claim dominion over the things of this world by giving some of them away.
Now when we give things away, we obviously bestow benefits on the recipients. If you give your coat to me, it’s easy to see that I am the one who is warmer. Yet here are just three personal advantages to the voluntary giving away of some of the things we own.
First, whenever we give things away, we are more likely to discover our own hidden treasures and talents. Father Michael had been ordained almost a whole decade when, in the midst of downsizing, he came across a small cardboard box hidden in the back of his bureau. Upon opening the box, he found a brand-new pair of gloves. I remember these, he thought to himself. These were given to me at the time of my ordination. I recall writing a thank-you note. I could use a pair of gloves now. Let’s see if they fit. Imagine Father’s amazement when, inserting his right hand into the right-hand glove, he discovered a twenty-dollar bill rolled up in each finger! The left-hand glove held the same amount of money. Father Michael had had $200 in cash for almost ten years, and he didn’t even know it. (As a result, I now make it a policy never to give away anything I have received until I have inserted my hand in it, turned it inside out, or given it a good shake!) The point is that Father Michael found his stash of cash only when he began giving away some of his possessions. It is the same with us. When we begin divesting ourselves of the material possessions we don’t really need, who knows what we’ll discover?
Second, whenever we give things away, we make room for God. In the bygone days when lamps were fueled by whale oil, a whaling ship would typically leave its New England port with its hold full of ballast—stones, broken bricks, even barrels of seawater—anything to keep the ship upright. But once the whales were caught and killed and their blubber rendered into whale oil, the oil could be stowed away in the hold of the ship only if some of the ballast were first jettisoned. In the same way, when we give up some of our material possessions—the very possessions on which we rightly relied to keep us afloat in life—we open ourselves up to receiving the oil of the Holy Spirit. Saint Augustine puts it simply: “God gives where He finds empty hands.”
Third, when we start letting go of our material goods, we begin to better prepare ourselves for death. Twice a year at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, PA, the novice master rings a loud bell at a random moment. The Jesuit novices know well the meaning of this semiannual tolling of the bell. They must vacate the cells they have been occupying for the past six months, and they are assigned new cells. The material goods they are allowed to keep are only those they can carry with them. The novices soon learn that it doesn’t pay to be attached to a lot of stuff. The more they have, the harder it is to pick up and leave when the time comes. This is true of us when it comes to death. The more possessions to which we cling in this world, the harder it will be for us to leave them behind at death. Thus Jesus says (Mark 10:23): “With what difficulty will they who have riches enter the kingdom of God!” But when we begin to divest ourselves of the possessions we don’t really need, we actually engage in a kind of dress rehearsal for death. Then, when the Angel of Death calls our name, we’ll be ready, as the old Negro spiritual says, to “put on our walkin’ shoes.” So let us live in this world as though we were Jesuit novices. Let us live prepared for death:
Endless life on earth’s a lie.
Mortal man is bound to die.
Embrace thy death. Heed the bell.
Only then shalt thou live well.
Here’s a practical suggestion: I know a young man named Kyle who, every day during Lent, either gives something away, throws something away, returns something, or recycles something. Each and every day of Lent, Kyle either gives something away that he no longer needs, throws something away that is no good to anyone, returns some item that he’s borrowed, or recycles something that could be used in another form. After a whole Lent of doing this, you can bet that Kyle is ready for Easter. Why not give it a try? Take it from me. It works.
To sum up, we need to gain control of our material possessions. Otherwise, they will control us. The best way to get out in front of the things we own is to start giving some of them away—until it hurts a little. If we do this, we will: (1) discover some of the hidden treasures and talents we don’t even know we possess, (2) make room for the spiritual gifts of God, and (3) better prepare ourselves for death.
Remember, red toy wagons are best pulled from in front rather than pushed from behind. If they are not weighed down with a lot of stuff, they will go rolling along just fine.