Three decades ago I recall reading a story in the State newspaper about the wife of a billionaire mining magnate, living in opulence who among other of her daily rituals insisted that in order to keep her skin youthful would bathe daily in cow’s milk.

If one assumes that an average bathtub contains 302 litres of water – to fill her tub, for her daily bath would have required 151 two litre bottles of milk. Being unqualified in the field of beauty therapy, and the effect of cow’s milk on human skin, I can only comment that her daily bath ritual involved the taking away from the food table of others, annually, of thousands of bottles of milk. At around the same time as this interview appeared in the newspaper, I recall my mother walking to the local butcher to purchase meat for our evening dinner and being bustled aside by a woman, lap dog under here arm, insisting to the butcher that her dog only deserved the best cuts of meat, and following through on her desire, leaving all those customers behind her and their families whatever cuts of meat that remained.

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In truth our consumer purchases be they great or small indicate a good deal about what we value as most important in our lives. These purchases, after we die, leave a silhouette image for others to ponder on, as to who we were as individuals. By the time we are in our mid-thirties, most of us have experienced sifting through the belongings of our deceased relatives and friends, looking for new homes for these items, or taking a trailer load of such items to the charity shop, or rubbish tip. It would seem that like magpies – humans are attracted to things that shine, which we then place in our nests – not knowing why we are attracted to them, and not knowing what to do with them, other than that we now own them, and they are now ours. Like peacocks we unfurl our expensive new cars like feathers – impressing prospective mates, or warding off our rivals because of our beauty.

St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae, discussing as to the best course to happiness, opens up a polemic as to where human happiness cannot be found. One of these ‘dead-end’ pathways, is according to Aquinas in the search for wealth. Aquinas is careful however not to posit the total condemnation of wealth, for without some degree of monetary fortune, we die – and no one can live in the proverbial castle in the air. Aquinas writes: “It is impossible for man’s happiness to consist in wealth. For wealth is twofold, as the Philosopher says, viz. natural and artificial. Natural wealth is that which serves man as a remedy for his natural wants, such as food, drink, clothing, cars, dwellings, and such like, while artificial wealth is that which is not a direct help to nature, as money, but is invented by the art of man for the convenience of exchange and as a measure of things saleable. Now it is evident that man’s happiness cannot consist in natural wealth. For wealth of this kind is sought for the sake of something else, viz. as a support of human nature; consequently it cannot be man’s last end, rather is it ordained to man as to its end. Wherefore in the order of nature, all such things are below man and made for him, according to Psalm 8:8: Thou hast subjected all things under his feet. And as to artificial wealth, it is not sought save for the sake of natural wealth, since man would not seek it except because by its means he procures for himself the necessaries of life.” (Kreeft, Peter. Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas (2014), p. 140. Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition)

In the modern Australian context, this would mean: sufficient food, housing, clothes, transport, health education etc., in order not only to exist, but to use one’s talents to function as an active citizen – not only in providing for oneself and one’s own – but to function to the point of improving society through one’s civic duties.

Note carefully how Aquinas clearly distinguishes that we need to provide for ourselves and others by working in order to have the natural wealth in order to survive in the world – to satisfy our needs to physically live. In the modern Australian context, this would mean: sufficient food, housing, clothes, transport, health education etc., in order not only to exist, but to use one’s talents to function as an active citizen – not only in providing for oneself and one’s own – but to function to the point of improving society through one’s civic duties. What purpose is it, if the individual purges one’s material existence, if by so doing, they die? Aquinas’ definition speaks about the moral virtue of Prudence, that we acquire wealth – but own it and use it, with Christian wisdom, and not be owned by wealth or used by it; as if wealth became the master and we the slave. Living the life of a Christian in the world is distinct from living a life in the world – but being of the world. All of us as Christians walk a moral tightrope exercising prudence in order not to become so overwhelmed by material goods that we become blind to the reality of having a spirit and a spiritual life, that exists with us from this short life in this world and then on into eternity in the next.

To this point, our Eastern Church father among the Saints, John Chrysostom, spoke to his listeners in Archeparchy of Constantinople, with these words: “Some people see the houses in which they live as their kingdom; and although in their minds they know that death will one day force them to leave, in their hearts they feel they will stay forever. They take pride in the size of their houses and the fine materials with which they are built. They take pleasure in decorating their houses with bright colors, and in obtaining the best and most solid furniture to fill the rooms. They imagine that they can find peace and security by owning a house whose walls and roof will last for many generations. We, by contrast, know that we are only temporary guests on earth. We recognize that the houses in which we live serve only as hostels on the road to eternal life. We do not seek peace or security from the material walls around us or the roof above our heads. Rather, we want to surround ourselves with a wall of divine grace; and we look upward to heaven as our roof. And the furniture of our lives should be good works, performed in a spirit of love.” (On Living Simply: The Golden Voice of John Chrysostom, Liguori Publications. (Homily 11) Kindle Edition)

They imagine that they can find peace and security by owning a house whose walls and roof will last for many generations. We, by contrast, know that we are only temporary guests on earth.

The reader should not take Chrysostom’s words to mean that we should be in such a rush to enter the next world that we do our best to live materially destitute in this world. Our physical nature, we are reminded by St. Paul is the temple of the Holy Spirit. So by living destitute, or not taking care of ourselves we do neither ourselves nor our neighbour any favour. Chrysostom wishes, as Aquinas, that we acquire Prudence in how we interact with wealth; that we live within means, that we not be overcome by a desire to spend and become greedy or profligate, as if for instance the love of our spouse is more ardent, the more expensive his marriage ring to us, or that our lives will pass by slower on a more expensive time piece. We need as Christians to attain ‘field-independence’, that is a degree of confidence and self-awareness, that we believe in a certain way, because our lives are seeking a certain irrefutable goal, irrespective of how the multitude may be living quite differently. The fact that the wife of a billionaire has the financial capacity to bathe during the course of a year in thousands of bottles of milk- does not make her action any the more conscionable when one considers that this is a food product – in a society where people go hungry, and the sole purpose for her doing so, is in the illusion that her act, will make her skin seem more youthful and by so doing fool others that she is not decaying. By all means look after your body – be clean, care for your skin, but not to the extent that the care of self is disproportionate to the universal destination of goods; the just access of natural wealth to others.

We need as Christians to attain ‘field-independence’, that is a degree of confidence and self-awareness, that we believe in a certain way, because our lives are seeking a certain irrefutable goal, irrespective of how the multitude may be living quite differently.

On this point St. Thomas Aquinas adds that: “The desire for natural riches is not infinite, because they suffice for nature . . . But the desire for artificial wealth is infinite, for it is the servant of disordered concupiscence, which is not curbed. . . . . . . [T]he more perfectly the sovereign good is possessed, the more it is loved . . . whereas in the desire for wealth . . . the contrary is the case; for when we already possess them, we despise them and seek others . . . Hence it is written (Sir 24:29): They that eat me shall yet hunger . . . which is the sense of Our Lord’s words (Jn 4:13): Whosoever drinketh of this water, by which temporal goods are signified, shall thirst again. The reason of this is that we realize more their insufficiency when we possess them; and this very fact shows that they are imperfect and that the sovereign good does not consist therein (I-II,2,1). (Kreeft, Peter. Practical Theology: Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas (2014), pp. 140-141, Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition)

To explain: when we seek the ‘sovereign good’, which is God – we will be surfeited, as God speaks to our truest nature – are highest self – He is eternal; but when we seek as our end artificial wealth, we will always be disappointed, as the animate is subject to decay. The car for example will rust – get scratched, will have a dead battery, a blown tyre, will require fuel, insurance; the children will stain the seats, you will lose your keys, or break the suspension on yet another speed bump – ad nauseum. The same goes for any object one acquires. Herein lies the essence of buyer’s remorse – nothing finite can ever fully satisfy that which is infinite. Even our billionaire’s wife, had to be very careful to shower the milk off after her bath in order to prevent herself during the day from smelling of yoghurt; something also for her to consider on this dry continent of ours.

By Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania

This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper

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