Catholics believe that everything that exists that is not God—that is, all creatures—are not the source of their own existence. The entirety of what a creature is has been given by another, thereby justifying the claim that everything we have, including ourselves, is a gift. And as a gift, it is meant to eventually be freely and joyfully given away. The spiritual lesson to glean from this teaching is that everything must be had with a mixture of detachment and attachment, for while God gives us everything freely, all is meant to be received with reference to God, the Giver, and given back to him. Created in his image, we are called to be like him as givers, never clinging to what we possess. But how often we forget this! Thankfully, God sends us reminders (signs) every now and then—sometimes through the weather.
Texas likes to boast of its exceptionality, and its weather fits that boast. But recently, Texas faced an unprecedented winter storm and freeze, which precipitated a statewide disaster. Because the electricity supply suffered a major hit, millions of people were left without electricity and heat—and then no water or contaminated water—for many days. Residential and commercial buildings were ill-equipped for the long cold, particularly the water pipes; despite the many precautions people took to prevent freezing, pipes still froze and then burst. I was one of these people who awoke one morning to learn that our shower and toilet did not work. I felt like Damocles with a sword hanging above me by a single hair.
Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, I am used to the cold. And my wife is from frigid north Poland, so we’re no weather greenhorns. While we were surprised by just how unprepared Texans were, we were not worried about enduring the chilling cold. What worried me most was the prospect of bursting pipes. The picture of a flooded apartment was frightening.
On Thursday, when the temperature rose just above 32°F, pipes in our apartment complex and throughout the neighborhood began to burst. An apartment across from me started flooding. Apparently, some residents fled Texas during the storm and forgot to run the faucets or at least turn off the water. On a walk through the neighborhood, I saw many people standing outside as water cascaded from their homes. It was a total mess, and it sharpened my own sense of anxiety: Would my own pipes burst? All I could do was wait and see, which is not easy for me. I was worried about the damage the water would cause to my possessions.
Anyone who visits my home knows that I am an avaricious book collector and that my wife loves all things Polish. The thought of our cherished stuff being destroyed kind of terrified me, and the assurance of my neighbor that insurance would cover the damage was no consolation—I simply could not replace this stuff as if it was furniture from IKEA. For me, it is irreplaceable. This was not a scene out of Fight Club after the narrator’s IKEA-stuffed apartment blows up. And yet, despite the differences, Tyler Durden’s words sank in: “The things you own end up owning you.”
If my possessions owned me, my anxiety did too. I stood vigilantly by the water valve in case of a burst. But nothing happened.
Within days things were, for the most part, back to normal. With a sense of relief, my wife and I went to Mass, which was providential because the words of the Lenten Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer spoke directly to me, unthawing my frozen heart, which was still stuck to my possessions. Part of the prayer reads:
For you have given your children a sacred time for the renewing and purifying of their hearts, that, freed from disordered affections, they may so deal with the things of this passing world as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure.
This prayer is not a swipe at the goodness of creation. Our possessions are not bad. But the deeper point is that their goodness lies in the fact that they are gifts meant to be had without ever occluding their reference to the Giver “from whom are all things, through whom are all things, and in whom are all things” (Rom. 11:36). The gift of creation is, in a way, good in itself but as the gift from the Good itself. St. Augustine thinks about creation along these lines.
In his De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine), Augustine distinguishes between things that are meant to be enjoyed, things that are meant to be used, and things that are meant to be used and enjoyed. God alone is the true object of enjoyment, since enjoyment “consists in clinging to something lovingly for its own sake.” He writes, “Among all the things there are, therefore, these alone are to be enjoyed which we have noted as being eternal and unchanging, while the rest are to be used, in order that we may come at last to the enjoyment of the former sort.”
The ironic thing is that the books I was most afraid of losing were about God and yet I was clinging to them more than I was to God. My love was disordered; I was placing the creature above God. The Lenten preface as Mass helped me realize that the tools I should be using for the sake of enjoying God were becoming ends in themselves—hence my panic at the thought of their destruction. But I also realized that their inherent value would increase when seen as vehicles for the enjoyment of God. Making them ends in themselves actually devalued them. If God destroyed these goods through a secondary cause (a flood), that would be for the sake of another good: the healing of my disordered affections.
My epiphany at Mass inspired a wellspring of thanksgiving to God for all he has given me. The prayer made me more aware of my need for detachment, and the Texan winter freeze helped me see the frozen quality of my own heart that needed to be melted in the warmth and light of God’s eternal love (shining on me in the Son), like the melting of the ice and snow in the Texan sun.
In Texas, they say that even the weathermen and women cannot predict the weather. Man’s attempt to control nature and the fate of his possessions have limits. All I know is that there’s a high chance that the weather will one day find a way to destroy my worldly goods. Better that I prepare myself now so that when that day comes I joyfully offer them back to the Lord. This is the freedom from possessions all Christians should possess. And Texans like freedom. Thank goodness I have the Texan weather to help me with that.