He was content to live in squalor – in a damp, dark place with practically no possessions. He was content to live off whatever meager or disgusting food he could find or kill. He was content most of all to be alone, cut off from all companionship, spending his days talking to himself, slowly but surely becoming more and more distorted from his former self. He was content with all that misery because he was a miser. As long as he had that ring, his precious, he was content to be miserable.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s Gollum from The Lord of the Rings is one of the best images of avarice (and of many other sins). His possession of the fabled ring led, quickly and relentlessly, to his possession by the ring. He forfeited all other goods – family, friends, home, even bread and sunlight – to possess that one little object.
Avarice – greed or covetousness – is the immoderate love of possessing. Clearly, to possess something is not sinful, nor even is the desire to possess something. We have an obligation to provide for ourselves and for those entrusted to us. That obligation generates the right to possess what is necessary for life and for our state in life. Notice, however, that our possessions are to serve us and our needs; they are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. When we confuse the means and the ends…when we desire possessions for their own sake or for the delight of possessing itself, then we slip into avarice.
The rich man in our Lord’s parable (cf. Lk 12:16-21) does precisely this, twisting the rest of his life to serve his possessions rather than using his possessions to serve him. His own words reveal his confusion: “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’” He seeks to satisfy his soul with “ample goods” rather than subordinating material wealth to the spiritual. He has become so enamored of his possessions that he thinks they will satisfy his spiritual needs.
Avarice is primarily an interior disposition. So, as in Gollum’s case, one does not need many possessions in order to be greedy. Like all the other vices, it knows no socio-economic boundaries. One can have very little and still be possessed by this inordinate desire. And its roots in pride are quite clear. It is the desire, after all, to say “mine” and not “ours.”
Unlike the preceding vices, however, avarice does not remain interior. It looks outward, toward things (paving the way for gluttony and lust). Avarice produces in the mind the notion that material possessions can bring about spiritual fulfillment – and those material things can aggravate it even more. So, if the wealthy seem more susceptible to greed, it is because wealth, instead of quelling the desire to possess, tends to exacerbate it. The man in our Lord’s parable, wealthy though he was already, thought that more stuff would bring peace to his soul.
It requires little imagination to see how avarice leads to other sins: theft (in all its forms), lying, murder, etc. But most of us do not fall into those. No, for most of us, avarice has the effect of aggravating our already self-centered thinking. Not merely “I must have that” but “I must have that.” Possessing becomes the template for our thought. We begin to view reality in terms of having and possessing, of mine and not-mine (or not-yet-mine). We see ourselves in terms of what we possess. It likewise colors the way we treat people. Instead of loving persons and using things, we love things and use persons. We even become possessive of others, of our relationships.
Because avarice is primarily an interior disposition, we tell ourselves that we can live in the midst of abundance and not be affected by it. But rare is the man who can live like royalty with the soul of a pauper. We live in a consumer economy and greed forms the theme for most of the advertising all around us: You must have this! Wealthy or not, we need to look at where and how we have become attached to our possessions.
The weapons against avarice are simplicity of life and generosity. Men and women religious vow poverty. But all of us should live simplicity of life, a detachment from created goods. Some ways of working towards such detachment: a yearly cleaning out of junk that has accumulated (and that we have told ourselves we must keep)…a fast from shopping…and for many just a simple commitment not to spend beyond our means.
By generosity – by deliberate charitable giving – we carve off a part of our wealth and use it for others. There is no better way to cultivate detachment from our wealth than to give some of it away. Generosity is a way of subordinating material goods to the spiritual. We give to the Church not only because she needs material assistance in the work of the Gospel, but also because we have a need to part with our money.
If we are not attentive, deliberate and constant in this effort, our possessions – like Gollum’s ring – gradually and relentlessly wrap themselves around our hearts. Let us act prudently with our “dishonest wealth” (cf. Lk 16:9) so as to inherit eternal wealth.
This post is the sixth in an 8-part series on the Seven Deadly Sins.
By: Rev. Paul Scalia