Eugene McCarraher, in his new book The Enchantments of Mammon, makes the claim that the modern world, far from being a highly secularized and profane world devoid of spiritual “enchantments,” is in fact a world defined by the enchantment of pecuniary interests. Ours is indeed a post-Christian culture, but it is not, for all that, a culture devoid of a notion of the good, and somewhere along the way we simply replaced the God of Jesus Christ with the gods of Mammon and Moloch, with capitalism as our religion.
Furthermore, and to his credit, McCarraher’s text is not just another boilerplate Jeremiad against money as such, but rather a trenchant critique of the grave distortions and malformations of our culture caused by the near complete structuring of our society around the fetishization of wealth creation. It governs everything we do and is the source of our greatest misery, whether we realize it or not. Because there is no such thing as a “lesser god.” There are only simulacrums of the One God and what they bring are lies and illusions. Seen in this light, as McCarraher notes, it is not so much that we now have no more mystical enchantments, but rather that we have really, really bad ones.
I am confident that Dorothy Day would agree with this assessment and it is a big reason why she was a champion of voluntary poverty and of living a life of material simplicity characterized by what she called “precarity”. What she sought was a social revolution that would overturn the shiny-thing gods of what Tawney called “The acquisitive society.” But what ignited the fire of her conversion was the realization that a utopian vision devoid of a truly supernatural eschatological horizon is, in reality, a monstrous and grotesque parody that will bring a great degradation of human dignity in its wake.
But she also came to the conclusion that this supernatural eschatological vision has to have a strongly “realized” element and not just be a promissory note for a future glory. Therefore, the proper stance of the believer must be one of openness to the divine initiative in the here and now. In other words, the believer must inculcate a spiritual disposition that is the opposite of the spirit of acquisition, which is precisely why she thought modern capitalism was a rival god that brings death to the soul. The receptive and contemplative stance thus proper to the believer cannot happen so long as our treasure is still in worldly wealth. Thus do we all need a simplicity of life that eschews as far as is possible a life in pursuit of material security.
This is what she meant by “precarity”. It is indeed close to the word “precarious” but do not be fooled by this into thinking that she is advocating some kind of “risk taking” for the sake of a Pelagian adrenaline rush. This is not “living on the edge” Bohemianism. Rather, it is her term to designate the fact that all Christians are called to holiness and that this entails giving up our false, worldly securities in favor of embracing the often unsettling and decentering Divine call.
This is why Dorothy was deeply attracted to Benedictine spirituality and became herself a Benedictine oblate. She loved the deep prayer life of the monastic world and insisted, repeatedly, that her movement’s essence could not be understood outside of the context of the Catholic faith and its deep inner life of holiness. The Benedictine emphasis on simplicity, prayer, work, and hospitality seemed to her to be the very embodiment of the revolution she thought so necessary for us all. In other words, her devotion to the Benedictine way of life was not a romanticization of the “heroic monks” who pray for the world so that we don’t have to. Nor did she view them as “professional holy men and women” who had access to a form of spirituality that the rest of us can only dream of.
Her commitment to the Benedictine path was instead a commitment to a revolution in the laity who for too long have been allowed to wallow in the mud of worldly mediocrity on the pretense that such evangelical perfection is not their calling. As I have noted elsewhere, Dorothy Day’s deep insight in this regard is that if we are all indeed called to holiness, then this necessarily entails a reexamination of the uses to which the traditional distinction between the “way of the counsels” and the “way of the commandments” has been put. Poverty, chastity, and obedience cannot be so easily cordoned off from the Divine moral commandments since the former inform the latter and breathe fire into their equations. This is surely, among other things, what Jesus was making clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Unlike Moses, who came down from the mountain to give the people the decalogue, Jesus brings the people up the mountain with him in order to announce the in-breaking of a new regime of grace that calls them all to a higher place.
The “universal call to holiness” had, of course, always been a part of the Church’s tradition, as Vatican II reaffirmed. But as so often happens in the spiritual life of the Church the path of bourgeois compromise has a way of gradually blunting the force of this call. Indeed, even in the monasteries themselves, grown fat with power and wealth, the counsels were not always adhered to with any rigor. Which is why we now have “discalced this” and “discalced that” as well as a host of other orders that needed to develop branches of “the strict observance” because the original radicality of the founder’s charism had long since melted away in the fondue pot of “practicality”.
And so it goes, with the call to holiness degenerating into a game-preserve for the few lonely wackos willing to sit on the Stylite of the Gospel. These were the dangerous fools who needed to be domesticated through canonization and holy card portraits with the requisite novenas attached. Which is why Dorothy Day once said she did not want to be called a saint since she did not want to be dismissed so easily. (Please note: I am not saying, nor was she, that canonizations, holy cards, and novenas are bad. What she was rejecting was the domestication of holiness in saccharine forms of piety.)
What drew Dorothy to develop further her notion of precarity as the necessary prerequisite for living the life of the counsels was the realization that living in the modern world presents us with the constant temptation to the idolatry of comfort and security. An idolatry that Berdyaev called “the culture of well-being”. Dorothy’s writings focus extensively on the multifarious ways in which we rationalize away the call to holiness in a thousand paper-cuts of caveats and Rube Goldberg-like, casuistical dodges. Therefore, she viewed the translation of Benedictine spirituality into the register of the laity as a matter of urgent concern which was in no way secondary to her other pursuits in service to the poor.
Indeed, she viewed her own voluntary poverty as the necessary prerequisite to live that other aspect of Benedictine spirituality that was so central to her vision: greeting all strangers you meet as if they were Christ in a spirit of hospitality. It is only in a life of true material simplicity that this can happen with consistency since a life lived for Mammon has an internal spiritual logic that almost always necessitates entanglement in a web of social relations which require an appeasement with Moloch and Mammon. And make no mistake, in order to maintain the ordo of Mammon one needs the even darker ordo of Moloch. Which is why Dorothy Day also opposed modern war-making as at root an act of jealous acquisition, a view very similar to that of René Girard, who asserted that violence is the result mimetic rivalry. In such an ordo there is no possibility of seeing Christ in the stranger. In fact, in such an ordo, everyone is not only a stranger, but an enemy.
The key, therefore, to understanding Dorothy’s insistence on the universal call to live the evangelical counsels, even by the laity, is in her insistence that we not overthink the issue at hand and blunt the force of Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount. When it comes to wealth and material comfort what Jesus is saying is that in order to be fit for the Kingdom you have to place God in first place. You have to have a singleness of vision and purpose. You must be without guile or subterfuge, saying “yes” when you mean “yes” and “no” when you mean “no.” You must put your hand to the plow and not look back, wistfully, at what you are “missing out on” by focusing intently on the demands of his Kingdom. Your heart, as Jesus points out, follows your treasure, whatever that worldly treasure might be. And unless that treasure is the Kingdom you are guilty of an idolatry of some sort and in varying degrees of severity. The essence of all sin is just such idolatrous counterfeiting of the good with some drab and hideous imposters, all of which promise us happiness if we will but reject the tears of the saints in favor of the laughter of the sinners.
But this is to speak in generalities, whereas Jesus was quite specific in his denunciation of wealth in particular. Why? Dorothy Day held that it is because he understood that the marriage of wealth and power is a particularly virulent opiate that infiltrates our soul with a spiritual dopamine rush that few can resist. As Jesus noted, it is possible for the camel to pass through the eye of the needle—but only with God’s help. But the path whereby such divine help can be accessed is the narrow path to the narrow gate and few there are that take it. And this is why Dorothy was adamant that her path of prayer, material simplicity, and hospitality to the stranger can only happen, for the vast majority of people, if one lives the life of precarity—in other words, a life lived in the spirit of Abraham who divested himself of all of the world’s pseudo-securities in order to remain open to the promptings of God.
Finally, what is truly difficult about this path of precarity is that when one adopts it, as in Ignatian spirituality, a proper spirit of indifference to outcomes is created, and then one discovers, in a renewed clarity of soul, shockingly, that what God asks of us often seems absurd. “Taking up one’s cross” as a cipher for “death to the old self” is not strong enough, nor sufficient, to describe the agonistic anomie created by the absurdity of the Divine call. All true death is terrorizing. And blathering on and on about “dying to self” while staying strictly in the zone of comfort is actually no death at all and may in fact may be an illusory conceit masking my complete lack of any death at all to the old self.
Thus, Dorothy Day’s deep insight, her lasting and most important spiritual legacy beyond all of the various “issues” for which she was famous, is precisely this notion of precarity as an acid that dissolves the illusion of false securities in and through a true and real death to the false self of acquisition. Only in and through such a death can we bear to live in God’s “absurd” Kingdom.
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