Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: I am the Lord your God, who teaches you for your own good, who leads you in the way you should go. O that you had paid attention to my commandments! Then your prosperity would have been like a river, and your success like the waves of the sea; your offspring would have been like the sand, and your descendants like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from before me. —Isaiah 48:17–19
In the book The Real Enjoyment of Living, Rabbi Hyman Schachtel coined the often-quoted phrase, “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have.” It’s a good reminder at this time of year when we never quite lose the childish tendency to want everything we see advertised, even if it’s just a momentary desire. People in the world of fiber often joke that money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy yarn, which is almost the same thing. But we’re all wise enough to know this isn’t really true. Advent is a good time to reflect on the many gifts we already have, and even on the many material things that make our lives more pleasant and less difficult.
But we don’t have to be very far along in the spiritual life to understand that having more isn’t going to fill an emptiness in our souls. Contentment is a great gift that we don’t always appreciate. It’s not as rare as we might think. Instead of asking whether we’re happy, perhaps we can get into the habit of asking how content we are. Contentment has in it an element of peace that’s greatly needed in our lives and in our world today. And the more content we are with what we possess, the more likely we are to hold those things lightly and to give to those whose needs are greater and more genuine than our passing desires.
Notice Isaiah speaks of prosperity and success being like a river or the waves of the sea: infinite but constantly in motion. We are to hold our treasures lightly, knowing that they come from God.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Today you might want to add a variation to our familiar breathing prayer. Take a short (or long) walk and let these words of Psalm 25 be the refrain that guides your steps: Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. (Psalm 25:4–5)
A SIMPLE GIFT
I have a deep respect for young parents I know who teach their children the invaluable lesson of giving to others. A few weeks before Christmas, they take the time to sort through old toys and give those that they’ve outgrown to thrift stores and other charitable giving organizations. Together as a family they select items for the parish giving tree. These children will grow into caring and giving adults because of these gentle lessons learned early and well. Make a special effort this year to give generously to those in need. It can be a side benefit of clearing away your own unneeded clutter or it can be an antidote to frenetic Christmas shopping.