How Material Things Can Lead Us to God

Monstrance-225x300 How Material Things Can Lead Us to God

“the enjoyment of material things is not only good but can even be helpful toward reaching sanctification.”

A lady recently wrote me with a question about the role of material things in life. She was confounded by apparent contradictions between living a pious life while enjoying material things that are all around us.

She had read the stories of the saints and how they often scorned material things. Since we are all called to be saints, she reasoned, then eventually we must all adopt a life detached from the world like that of monks, nuns or priests. However, this is difficult to do because people derive joy from eating, buying things or enjoying beautiful music, for example, all of which are normal activities for those living in society.

The dilemma is compounded by the fact that the legitimate joys and desires of material things are not sinful in themselves yet seem to be harmful. Thus, many find themselves vacillating between the two extremes of “secular” and religious desires. The enjoyment of material things gives rise to guilt and blame. People are even encouraged to live a frugal and austere life surrounded by misery and ugliness as a means to become holy

RTO-mini2 How Material Things Can Lead Us to GodFree Book: Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go

The battle between material and spiritual, temporal and religious, has always triggered debate in the Church. On her part, the Church has always responded with balance and common sense. If some saints scorned material things, it was because they represented something good that could be given up, not something evil that must always be rejected.

The fundamental assumption of the question I was asked is that somehow the material universe is in contradiction with the spiritual world and, therefore, bad. Such was the position of the ancient Gnostics who viewed all matter as evil.

However, the question of the lady does not plumb those depths of the debate. She does not want to go into complex dialectics of spirit and matter. She only wants to know if she might enjoy food, music or any other material pleasure that she finds in her path. She wants to know if these are necessarily obstacles to sanctification.

The Nature of Material Goods

Material goods are hardly obstacles. God created the material universe for our good. He would not be a just God if creation was a constant temptation for our salvation. Thus, the first thing to be established is that there is no inherent contradiction between the spiritual world and material life. In fact, the enjoyment of material things is not only good but can even be helpful toward reaching sanctification.

Obviously, our fallen nature is such that we can abuse material things and develop exaggerated attachments to them. However, this can also happen to spiritual things. The balanced position is the practice of the virtue of temperance whereby man governs his natural appetites and passions in accordance with the norms prescribed by reason and faith. When we use things with temperance, they help us become holy.

Creation Reflects the Creator

And that is why created things are important. Creation speaks to us of the Creator. Since we cannot see God, we can only gain an idea of what God is like by analogy of what we see. We have a better idea of God’s grandeur, for example, by coming to know the majesty of the sea. We can have a glimpse of God’s might by coming to know a strong, grand oak tree. God’s infinite immensity is reflected in vast firmaments of the heavens at night.

Benozzo_Gozzoli_004a-273x300 How Material Things Can Lead Us to God

“The basis of such an affirmation can be found in Saint Thomas’ fourth way of proving the existence of God whereby we come to know God by his traits we see in creation.”

The basis of such an affirmation can be found in Saint Thomas’ fourth way of proving the existence of God whereby we come to know God by his traits we see in creation. This way asserts that God created a whole universe to reflect himself since no one creature could sufficiently mirror him. Each creature reflects something of the goodness, truth, and beauty that God is. When we contemplate this finite work of creation, we grasp better God’s infinite perfection and experience the great spiritual joy of understanding the order and meaning of things (Summa Contra Gentiles, II, 45; Summa Theologica, I, q. 47, a. 2).

That is to say, by seeking the excellence of material things, we can better come to know and love God. We better understand ourselves and the meaning of life.

The Teaching of Saint Bonaventure

The teaching of Saint Thomas is echoed by that of his medieval contemporary, Saint Bonaventure, the Franciscan theological giant. In his great work, The Mind’s Road to God, the saint goes one step further by calling the world “a ladder for ascending to God,” where we find “certain traces (of his hand),” and we are thus “led into the way of God.” In this case, material things are not just helpful aids but necessary steps that can take us to God.

What Does Saint Thomas Say About Immigration?

The saint claims that “all creatures of this sensible world lead the mind of the one contemplating and attaining wisdom to the eternal God.” He continues: “The invisible things of God are clearly seen, from the creation of the world, being understood by the things that are made; so that those who are unwilling to give heed to them and to know God in them all, to bless him and to love him are inexcusable.”

Clearly, temporal goods are means, not obstacles to sanctification. The saint claims they can be like wings that help us take flight to heavenly considerations.

Choosing the Right Things to Sanctify Oneself

Thus temporal goods are not the problem. It is our attitude toward them that is important. We must look upon temporal goods according to their nature. Thus, we are called to love those things most like unto God. We are called to seek after excellence and proportion in things because these qualities will direct us to God. At the same time, it is logical that we must reject those ugly and disproportional things that speak to us of disorder and sin. We must also never be satisfied with mediocre things that turn our minds away from God.

These criteria for what to seek is well expressed by the words of Saint Paul in Holy Scriptures that call upon us to look to high ideals when he says, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

Splendor of Christian Civilization

That is not to say that we must own all the things of excellence that we admire. Nor can we be attached to these things as an end rather than a means. Rather it is to have a soul turned toward the excellence these things represent. It calls upon us to appreciate the beauty, excellence and good that God puts in our path so that we might know and love him better. It asks us to employ these criteria so that when we make or do something beautiful, we help ourselves, and others reflect God better.

SamuelProutMarketDay-copy-236x300 How Material Things Can Lead Us to God

“Christian civilization has always striven to instill splendor and beauty into the The Amazing Power of Assimilation of Christian Civilizationcommon lives of men.”

That is why Christian civilization has always striven to instill splendor and beauty into the common lives of men. The arts and crafts flourished in Christendom. Whether it be cuisine, music, liturgy or architecture, they all developed and moved toward perfection under the guiding hand of the Church. The culture belonged to everyone united as they were in the quest to know God. All these marvelous things were accessible to everyone, however humble since all could appreciate them and make them in some way a part of their quest for God.

The problem with modern civilization is that things have no meaning or common purpose in society outside of personal gratification. There is no final end that we seek to know. Thus, things are no longer means toward God but selfish ends. Moreover, our fallen nature tends to make us distort excellence and create a civilization that moves us away from the good, true, and beautiful. It creates a civilization that exalts the false, sinful, and ugly.

Answering the Question

Thus, we find the answer to the question. Yes, one can and should enjoy and delight in material things (even cuisine) since they are not obstacles that keep us away from God unless we make them so. They can become essential means towards our sanctification. Enjoyed with temperance, material things exist for us to know and love God more, and we err if we fail to do so.

For as Saint Bonaventure says: “He who is not illumined by such great splendor of created things is blind; he who is not awakened by such great clamor is deaf; he who does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; he who does not note the First Principle from such great signs is foolish. Open your eyes, therefore, prick up your spiritual ears, open your lips, and apply your heart, that you may see your God in all creatures, may hear him, praise him, love and adore him, magnify and honor him, lest the whole world rise against you.”

  • Sarah Abraham

    The virtues are an angelic cluster of angels that look after material things Charity, Obedience, Penance Chasity and Detachment are all spiritual gifts to keep us from possessing the material world while enjoying its splendour

    • Betty Muldowney

      I really enjoyed reading your reply, Sarah. Goods should be used/acquired only if they serve a purpose, are used, and do not lead us away from God. Does a person need to collect cars for example when one can only drive 1 at a time? Should they have a collection of 20 just because they have the money to do so? If the person has money for 20 cars, does enjoy riding all of them from time to time and is giving alot of their wealth to the poor and other needy groups that God would endourse, then is it wrong to have such an expensive hobby (collecting cars) –> perhaps or perhaps not. Only God knows our Hearts and our intensions and all that a person is doing. Of course, as someone also pointed out in these other replies, the Bible does say that it is harder for a wealthy person to get to heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle… so wealth does make it hard…to whom much is given, much is expected. Do not spend your wealth, those with wealth, on funding abortion or other evils. Last comment: consider spending some of your hard earned money going on religious retreats, especially Jerusalem, Lourdes, France, Fatima, Portugal, or others in your own immediate area. They are PRICELESS! Especially if they are pilgrimages with a group and best case scenario with a religious Priest/Sister.
      PS I always told my students, “The Best Things In Life Are Living Things… and Humans are the most important.” So based on that logic, a prized trip with those you love to an outdoor park or beautiful waterfall, etc is better than any new outfit or material thing because it is TIME and MEMORIES… Time well spent and Memories that will last a LIFETIME! God Bless You ALL!

      • Betty Muldowney

        BTW, I meant to and should have included that when spending time, with loved ones, with loved ones you don’t even know yet, or by yourself, always include discussion and prayer. It will ENRICH that already nice time to even greater heights! I often take a ride around a lake a mile from where I live with my brother who has a serious disease. We grab a cheap ice cream, sometimes stop at a park and look at the water, not always getting out because it is getting difficult for him to walk, even with leg braces, and talk about God, our day, our loved ones and just be still. Being STILL and KNOW THAT I AM GOD! Finding God in our simplest of times is better than ANYTHING I can buy for nothing satisfies us or ever will the way GOD can (He knows what will satisfy us because he created us). Often on our drive home or closer to home, my brother falls asleep in the car. I realize his illness tires him out. But he is no less with me than when we are talking. It is this time that I thank GOD for having the Blessing of being with him at this very time for I know that time will some day be gone on earth. I Thank GOD for time with the Almighty and for all that I am seeing, learning at that very moment, and for HIM, for my FAITH… for I know that in time I hope to be even closer to HIM in Heaven. These are the things that truly bring ENJOYMENT! Sorry for the length of these replies. Happy Day 2U!

      • robert

        What about a person whose been blessed with wealth from God, and they look for ways to distribute some of it, without depleting the principle? If they invest the principle, wisely, they can give and give for years to come. If they give away the principle, they are then in need of financial help from others. Doesn’t sound too smart. If one has some wealth and they preserve the principle and give some of the excess to the truly poor, then that, is true wisdom, as in the Wisdom of Solomon. Most people aren’t aaware of this, but a savvy person who purchases the right collectible cars, has an investment that goes up all the time…His principle increases, as does his profit. Like the man with the talents…God expects us to bring back some interest, not just give it all away or hide it…He wants us to use it wisely. As for the cars….were you aware that in 1968 you could buy a Ford Mustang Shelby 350 for around $3,500, and if he put it away, stored it and took care of it, it would, today, be worth around $139,000 to the right buyer? Many people, many women, are not aware of investments, other than say, a 401K or the like…..classic cars are, today, one of the best investments one can make…a righteous man can not only preserve his principle, but increase it greatly. Many pius sounding scenarios, may help a few, but the truly wise one, will plan wisely to help many without depleting his wealth….money is not sin….the love of it is.

  • Patricia Ford

    Anything carried to excess is suspect. Needs to be evaluated. Enjoy a sailboat. But do you need such a big yacht ?

    • robert

      One does not even “need” a sailboat. So apply the need that you impose on the big yacht to the sailboat. If it applies to the yacht, then it applies to the sailboat. Does it? No, it does not, therefore, your your statement and question are flawed logically.

      • garedawg

        My brother had a modest sailboat, and it made for many wonderful times with his family while his boys were growing up. Not only were they able to enjoy God’s nature without straining their budget, but his sons learned attention and discipline while learning to sail, and the exercise involved contributed to healthy bodies. Tragically, he had to sell it when his wife became disabled from illness. In his case, the sailboat was certainly edifying and perhaps contributed something to the salvation of him and his family members.

        • robert

          Yes….possibly (a great many things are possible)…..and yet, in the final analysis, your brother still did not “need” the sailboat. We all “need” food. We do not “need”a sailboat. This was/is my point to Patricia and her logic.

    • diane

      If you are rich, a yacht may be just the thing for you! If buying a yacht is a financial strain or impossibility, maybe it violates wisdom. Either get a better job, or enjoy the sailboat !

  • Cathie Butler

    I am passing away and I am material, so why should I long for other material things?

    • David Bangs

      There is a difference between “longing” for something and enjoying it. We should long for union with God, but it is good to enjoy the gifts of his creation. It is when our desire is for the material world and not for God, or when our “enjoyment” becomes excessive or obsessive that it becomes a problem.

    • robert

      Perhaps a good place to start in answering your question, would be for you to define what you mean by “long for material things”.

    • robert

      You may wish to review the heresy of Manicheanism again. Briefly stated it goes like this, similar to what you stated….
      A major dualistic religion stating that good and evil are equally powerful, and that material things are evil.
      The scriptures teach that God created all things and when He had finished, He, Himself, said, “It is good.” You may be passing away, but, I’m afraid you are stuck with your material body, which you will have around for just over an eternity.

  • PC

    So in the western world of rampant capitalism, yet bringing the good of jobs and dignity, should I spend to strengthen the economy?

    • Ingo Breuer

      I don’t spend to strengthen the economy. Saving money also helps strenghtening the economy. Without savings nobody can invest. That’s why there is not much small business anymore. People have spent their resources on pleasure, divorce and medical bills. If I do spend, then I make sure it is made in the USA or other western country because I don’t want to strengthen the communist Chinese economy. US consumer spending has largely fiinanced China’s weapon systems and military awakening.

  • Elizabeth

    This reminds me of a movie that a theology professor showed us years ago, “Babette’s Feast.” If I remember right, some of the characters believe that life needs to be bare, minimal, joyless. Babette introduces them to the joys of wonderful food. I think our professor was using it as an analogy of the Catholic Church in all of its richness (sacraments, art, etc)

  • Using things with temperance is a sign of holiness; it does not make us holy. This is not an idle difference. Temperance is a fruit of the Spirit. It results from unconditional trust in Christ. Then we can apply temperance to our external circumstances and environment; otherwise, we will attempt to be temperent on our own strength.

    2Peter 1:4 speaks of “having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust”. Lust is our unhealthy attachment to the things of the world. This is what our corruption is all about. Changing the location of where we live, or physically removing something from our lives does not change our level of lust. With temperance, we can enjoy a good dinner without guilt. Sanctification enables this.

  • mark yanga

    Brothers and sisters, if you truly seek sanctification, you need not look further. Jesus Christ our Lord has made it very plain and simple… Matthew 19:16-21

  • Thomas Croce

    It is the “love” of material things that impede us (camel through the eye of a needle). All material things are blessings from God and God enjoys seeing his children having fun through HIS divine creation. Can you look at a face of a child who runs up to a Christmas tree on Christmas morning- in sheer joy- as they look at all the presents and call this evil?

  • Aint So

    The one and only real difficulty of the human condition is one of the surrendered ability of our race in recognition of our actual and immediate personal proximity to God. From our earliest days Christians are advised that “God is everywhere”. Few believers are actually aware that this is not even actually a statement of the proximity of God to his creation but an assertion of permeation by Him and therein for most of us lies the greatest rub with our convictions. The human condition we acknowledge as Sin did not change our “nearness” to God, it impeded and corrupted our ability to recognize His permeating presence within us and within our surroundings. It is the vision of God, enabled by our personal surrender to Him which compels us each personally. not only in recognition of our consummate “nearness” to Him but which enables within each of us both consummate communion with Him and our ability and eagerness in the practice of genuine obedience to Him. These are not even possible without that vision of Him. The vision of God is enabled within each of us the result of our undertaking a consummate personal surrender to Him. Our being compelled into communion with God is the result of that communion. Communion with God in turn results in our entry into genuine sanctity and virtue, and virtuous behavior rises from these. We often foolishly conclude that our pursuit of good behavior will result in our entry into sanctity. This is nonsense since without the vision of God, we are incapable intellectually or spiritually of being imparted true and complete knowledge of what good behavior actually is as understood by our Creator, much less being compelled into the pursuit of it. We should rather quietly and passionately seek the face of our God who we claim to believe will in Himself instill within each of us such passion for Him that we will desire without qualification the ability to spend all of eternity with Him desiring only adoration and worship of Him for love of Him alone.

    One continuing error in our convictions is amply illustrated in the text above. When I encounter this false conviction as routinely held within our Church and by so many of the faithful as I do, it make me shake my head with incredulity.
    The statement is made that “Obviously, our fallen nature is such that we can abuse material things and develop exaggerated attachments to them.” The cause made reference to in this statement does not actually exist therefore the effects are not really all that obvious at all. Illustrated within this sentence is the single most devious impediment in our common belief to individual understanding our actual proximate nearness to God and the immediate availability to each of us of an immensely compelling personal communion with Him. In contrast to this statement, it is actually our true nature, the one originally imparted to us by God, which remains uncorrupted within us and which most surely drives us away from sin and sinful behavior and into the arms of God if we will allow. In short, it was not our “nature” which was made corrupt by original sin but our ability to recognize God’s fully permeating presence within each of us and within our surroundings which our nature imparts. It is our ability in recognition of the immediate presence of God with us and within us which has now become corrupt as a result of that sin, not our nature itself as we so often state. The foolish notion that it is human nature that has become corrupt belies one of the most basic understandings of our faith that our existence with God is one of utterly compelling nature because of the nature of His person. Our God, just by this means of who He is and His insatiable desire for our company, has always had the inherent capability to drive us by mere recognition of Him nearly unimpeded, into His arms. This eagerness on His part was well illustrated in the case of St. Paul, the apostles, the early Christians and the mystics, even of today.. If any one of us is confronted, as we are all actually capable, of a recognition of God in the same beatific vision into which we will all be compelled in Heaven, he or she will not only recognize themselves as having been imparted immediate immersion into the one and only desire of their heart, but will be compelled instantly into consummate and prostrate love and adoration of the Divine Presence. This effect, although almost entirely unexpected by almost all Catholics and Christians of today, is the certain and immediate effect upon each one of us which will continue to
    be found upon genuine recognition of our true proximity to God. Quite frankly, If it was our nature which had actually become corrupt by original sin as we so often suppose, our response to the vision of God would be one of our utter contempt for Him, not one of being compelled in love and adoration of Him.
    The condition of being compelled in contempt for God, to be sure, is not unheard of in history or even today but will only arise in cases of extreme demon possession and among a class of individuals not found commonly found among believers or even unbelievers for that matter. Our nature remains entirely that of our God and is the same now as it was at the time of the creation before the original sin of our race and will be so for eternity in Heaven except in the most dire of spiritual circumstances. Our nature remains fully and entirely that of our Creator and continues to this day to be the uncorrupt manifestation of God within each of us, without respect for the effects of original sin. When we finally cease our self centered efforts to “restore” our nature and begin to rely upon our true nature as being that of our Creator and Benefactor, we will soon find ourselves compelled, not by our version of virtuosity, but by God’s consummate personal generosity to us and His determination never for a moment to be unrecognized or separated from us.

  • Diane

    Everything we have comes from God. He owns it. We must be good stewards of what we have been given and give to others and to the Church, if we can afford it. This too means that we can enjoy material things, reasonably.

  • Ernest Geroge

    Virtually all of us are already extremely wealthy compared
    to a couple of billion people in the world. We don’t usually see it that way
    because all things are relative, and we tend to perceive wealth as having a few
    mansions, yachts, and Maserati’s. So just because we have more cars in the
    driveway than residents in the house, big screen TVs in every room and the
    latest cells phones, we don’t see ourselves as wealthy. But being wealthy is
    not necessarily bad. In the Book of Sirach we read that God can easily make a
    man wealthy, so that can be a good thing. In the Book of Job, we read that Job
    was the richest man around. But he loved God more than anything and therefore
    had God’s favor. So it’s what we do with our money that counts. If we spend it
    on food to the point that we are morbidly obese, then we sin. If we spend it on
    alcohol to excess then we sin. If we don’t give to the poor, if we don’t leave
    the server a nice tip on the table, if we don’t give to the church, if we gamble
    excessively, or spend our money on what cannot be described as modest living, then
    we sin. If we lie to ourselves about how generous we are or how we spend our
    money in order to justify our sinful living then we sin , for man sees the
    appearance but God sees the heart. And God cannot be fooled.