THE magazine Viz once carried a cartoon about an argument between St Francis and St Nicholas. St Francis, having taken a vow of poverty, spurns possessions. St Nicholas, on the other hand, delivers presents to children every Christmas.
In the cartoon, St Nicholas devises ever more devious ways to give St Francis presents, while St Francis delights in giving them all away. Finally, St Francis dies, happy that, in spite of St Nicholas, he has fulfilled his vocation to poverty. Death will at last rid him of the attentions of this persistent present-giver. But what does he find waiting for him at the Pearly Gates? An enormous stack of presents!
This scenario usefully contrasts what are often positioned as the sacred and profane ends of the Christmas spectrum. At one end, we nice Franciscan Christians are busy lighting candles and knitting each other socks; at the other end, those dreadful secular Nicholas types have been swept up in an inexorable tide of consumerism that will leave them empty of pocket and empty of soul long before the last sprout. Our latent Puritanism recoils from this piling up of treasures on earth, and we look with despair on a despoiled and weary planet, wrung out to service the bottomless pit of human acquisitiveness.
And consumerism is an undeniably effective machine. As Daniel Bell, Jr, argues, capitalism has captured and perfected the technologies of desire, and we are all in thrall. Only the therapies of Christianity can restore us, although the remedy that he suggests is the refusal to cease suffering, as an act of hope, wagered on God’s redemptive power.
THERE is a prevailing instinct within Christianity to try to turn away from desire, to withstand its tractor beam somehow and push it back to its source. But I think it is misbegotten. It is not that we might apply Christian therapies such as sticking plaster to repair the wounds of desire, but that we must instead reclaim the basic theology of desire which has been colonised by consumerism. Like Einstein, we must leap upon its beam and go for a fast ride.
Threads of this theology run through the work of the church Fathers and the Christian mystics. Drawing them together, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams argues that “growing up” requires us to stop desiring the end of desire, and instead come to terms with the incurable character of our desire. Nothing on earth should satisfy us: we are designed to be restless until we find our rest in God; so we should embrace this yearning in our character. But how best to do that, in a world dedicated to selling us everything that we thought our hearts did desire?
Three wise men can help us piece together what this really means. First, St Gregory of Nyssa reckons that never to reach satiety is what seeing God really is: “One must look always through what it is possible to see towards the desire of seeing more, and be inflamed.”
Thomas Traherne also argues that, because God is so prone to give, “it is of the nobility of man’s soul that he is insatiable. . . The noble inclination whereby man thirsteth after riches and dominion is his highest virtue, when rightly guided.”
And, in his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius says: “I ought to desire and elect only the thing which is most conducive for us to the end for which I am created.” So, if we are stuck with desire as part of the human condition, our spiritual task is not to resist it, but to curve it away from materialism back to-
A present-day theologian, Peter Sedgwick, has beautifully pointed out, though, that the final triumph of consumerism is that it has become the ultimate search for self-identity. And removing desire from its theological context renders it morally empty. A secular narrative of consumerism makes even social action more about self-interest than about altruism, if it is undertaken hedonistically. Consumerism as a selfish search for identity quickly becomes vocational, and its very limitlessness has become dangerous, not only for our collective mental health but for the health of the planet as a whole.
SO, WHAT to do about your Christmas list, and about the presents that St Nicholas might well be storing up for you? Granted, poverty is a virtue, as are thrift and moderation.
But so, too, are generosity, solidarity, and gratefulness. Like St Francis, you can give everything away, and become like St Nicholas in so doing; and you can open up your home to everyone who needs your love and support this Christmas. You can also choose wisely where to spend any Christmas budget that you have, so that you serve God and humankind through your purchasing.
Perhaps, too, you could suffer to be grateful for some of the unwanted presents you do receive: they are designed to express love, even if this sometimes gets lost in translation.
Dr Eve Poole’s book Leadersmithing is published by Bloomsbury.