The Word: Godliness with contentment

Published 1:14 pm Saturday, December 16, 2023

Christmas 1819 did not shape up to be a very relaxing or celebratory feast day for Sister Philippine Duchesne. She was a plucky French nun who had founded a convent on the Missouri frontier, and Dec. 24 of that year found her not trimming the tree and baking a ham, but rather struggling to follow pig tracks in the snow to find her way in that primitive country. Her hands were numb with cold, and she arrived so late at her convent that she had to begin preparations straight-away for the holy ceremonies of Christmas in a bitterly cold, unplastered room. Yet, Sr. Philippine and her companions attended Christmas Mass with cheerful spirits and joyous Christmas hymns. In 1988 she would be canonized as a saint of the Catholic Church.

Of course, Christ chose similar poverty to enter into this world. If He doesn’t ask us to live in such abject deprivation ourselves, what is He trying to show us? Perhaps, in part, He wants us to understand the spirit of poverty and to rise above the materialism that might be subconsciously ruling our attitude and suffocating our spiritual relations with God. 

It’s not so much things that God desires us to give up, it is rather an attitude of detachment from them that He requires. He asks that material goods don’t define our happiness, and that we have the ability, like St. Philippine Duchesne, to “bless his holy name,” even if everything is taken from us (Ps. 102:1). “For the desire of money is the root of all evils,” St. Paul wrote (1 Timothy 6:10): not money itself, but rather the desire or coveting of it. St. Paul recommends a “godliness with contentment,” reminding us that we can take nothing with us from this world, “but having food, and wherewith to be covered, with these we are content” (1 Timothy, 6:6 & 8). It is this contentment with what we have, this peace that comes from desiring only what God chooses for us, even if it’s less than we want, that is a practical way to be detached from material things. Maybe Costco is out of ham… or we get sick and can’t attend the festivities on Christmas… or our spouse didn’t seem to care enough to find out what we really wanted for Christmas. These are the “slings and arrows” that often make us downcast, but which Christ is asking us to offer to Him.

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A writer of the last century, Ronald Knox, observed how Jesus’ mother, Mary, would have made the best of a very difficult situation on Christmas. She would have commented what a splendid cradle the manger made, he writes. That, in a way, is what God wants of us: not the gritting of our teeth against a cruel fate, but a gratitude for what He chooses for us (however painful), and the love in our hearts to be content with what He provides.

Br. Maximilian Watner is on the staff at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Buckingham County. He can be reached at webmaster@stas.org.