On Emperors and Beanie Babies

Almost everyone knows of the fabled emperor that paraded the streets in his undergarments, believing he was adorned in the finest of cloth that only the foolish could not see.  Lest he admit being a fool, he feigned witnessing the imaginary fabric and played the biggest fool of all.  The crowd, also fearing revelation of their own ignorant-induced blindness, participated in the charade.  It was not until a child, lacking guile and pretentiousness, announced that the Emperor was clad only in his royal skivvies, that everyone acknowledged the obvious truth.

This tale of the ages is a lesson that audiences always assume is for others.  We are not so shallow as to get swept up in such a sham. Right?  Perhaps.

Recently, I stumbled onto a couple of old Beanie Baby magazines with advice for investors on discerning a Beanie’s value. A once-upon-a-time “must” for multitudes of savvy collectors, these bean-stuffed animals netted hundreds and thousands of dollars apiece, promising gold at the end of the rainbow.  The company, Ty Inc., occasionally retired lines, creating a frenzied, bull market that drove prices to dizzying heights.

But that was the nineties. By the end of the decade, someone had announced that the Emperor had no clothes, and these bean-filled sacks which people had paid a king’s—or should I say emperor’s—ransom for, ended up on rummage sale tables for as little as a quarter apiece.

When the market went bust, the Beanies’ prices crashed. A cartoon in the New Yorker showed one guy, slumped over a bar remarking to another fellow, “I lost everything in the Beanie Baby crash of 1999.”   Today, our own family has quite a collection of twenty-five cent Beanie “has-beens.”

It would be easy for me to smugly wonder where people are storing their thousand dollar Beanies these days, but I’d be a hypocrite for doing so.  No, I did not invest in a single Beanie, but I can’t claim a greater vision, only an emptier pocketbook.

With a houseful of young children commanding my time and money, spending all night outside department stores to push through doors alongside hawkers grabbing the latest limited edition Beanie was never an option for me.  I recall seeing a man with Beanies under both arms announcing to a television news reporter that these were going to pay for his kids’ college educations.  I can laugh now, but I may have winced a bit back then, feeling something big was passing me by.

In the end, whether it’s invisible fabric, worthless Beanies, or some current “gotta have it” investment, as Christians, we all know that it even if it does not turn to dust before our very eyes, in the end, all earthly treasures do. Ultimately, we know that chasing after worldly treasures makes us fools because only the spiritual enters eternity with us.

And yet, how do most of us balance our quest for material vs. spiritual treasures?  For me, I find it a most important yet challenging issue. I am a warrior, not a conqueror, in the quest to transcend the material world.

Happy Are the Poor

Fr. Thomas Dubay’s book Happy Are You Poor was one I did not want to read when I watched him interviewed on EWTN’s Bookmark program.  Easy enough; I did not order it.  I knew that his lessons on Gospel poverty, encouraging us all to live in the world and not of the world, might push me farther than I wanted to go.

God has his ways, of course, so when a friend mentioned she knew Fr. Dubay personally and would be happy to lend me the book, I was trapped.  I knew I needed the book, so I relented.  As I expected, the truth of the Gospels regarding embracing poverty makes me squirm.  But there it is—the next step we are all invited to take—the one away from this world and closer to God.

Fr. Dubay points out that the way most of us donate to charity is to decide what we can afford to give without actually giving anything up.  But the Gospel story of the widow’s mite exemplified that the greatest giving comes from our need and not our want.

To truly give means doing without and not just sharing the excess.  Jesus also told us that if we had two coats we were to give one away.  It would be easier if he had said three or four coats, but he said two.

Jesus taught us that by taking the minimal for ourselves we maximize Christ in our lives. When the rich man reported to Jesus that he obeyed all the Commandments and inquired as to what he should do next, Jesus did not instruct him to cast off a few possessions.  He told him to give it all to the poor and then come follow him.

And here is where most of us enter into the gray area. The black-and-white of wealth is obvious; extreme materialism lacking any charity is black and a total abandonment to poverty is white.

But the majority of us have neither the desire nor ability for either camp.  Instead, we must venture along the gray road, weighing our wants and our needs against the promise of spiritual treasures.

Reading any of the lives of the saints, it’s clear that total abandonment to God releases one from all material attachment.  Yet raising a family and living in this world requires an element of material goods.  We can’t set up house in a cave and drape our family in black robes in spite of the obvious attractions.  (Ease of shopping and less laundry quickly comes to mind.)

The religious in their habits who take vows of poverty, epitomize dying to self and living only for God, but what about us secular folk?  How much is too much or too little?

My sister Colleen and I once had an unlikely theological debate on the value or harm in wearing nice clothes, make-up, and washing away our gray.  Where did vanity begin and end, we wondered.

“Well, I heard a speaker once explain that women should try to look attractive for their husbands,” Colleen ventured.  “So it’s good for us to take care of our appearance.”

“Of course,” I agreed but then hesitated. “Only Mark does not care about make-up or gray hair.”

“Oh,” she said as we pondered anew.

But then I brightened. “Of course we want to make a good impression on others so they are attracted to our Catholic message rather than judging us negatively due to our appearance.”

“You’re right,” Colleen agreed.  We smiled, content with our theological loophole.

But then, another thought surfaced. “Of course, Mother Theresa never attracted people through her appearance.  It was her message and example people were drawn to.” Mother Teresa proved that the power of the Holy Spirit is not beholden to Madison Avenue.

Less is More

Still, where do we draw the line in the material world?  It is surely a question we must all sort out in conversation with God. I know that God always puts the next step in front of us; the one we have to push ourselves up on to get closer to him. So wherever we are on the spectrum now, it’s probably not where we should stay.

I know that whatever choices we make, they must be done cheerfully with neither a jealous eye on the comforts of others or a prideful heart for choosing less. After all, St. Thomas Moore lived as a man of comfort on the outside, but underneath his fine clothing, he wore a hair shirt and willingly died a martyr’s death for his faith.  So all that meets the eye is not always what it seems anyways.  And besides, this is not a matter between others and us but between God and us.

Years ago, I read the about the life of Blessed Anna Maria Taiga, a mystic who was a contemporary of Napoleon Bonaparte.  As a housewife and mother of seven, she worked hard, prayed always, and needed to trust in God to stretch the family’s meager budget.  Like all saints, when her intercessions resulted in miracles, she refused any gifts or payment from the thankful recipients.  One reaction to such an offer gave me pause.  A man offered one of her grown sons a job, which would have improved his financial standing.  “No thank you,” Anna Maria responded.  “It is better for him not to rise above the level he has been born into.”

Now there’s a thought. We’ve been programmed to want our kids to do better than us, but here was a woman far more spiritually advanced than most of us will ever be, who knew that in the spiritual realm, her son would be harmed, not helped, with a fleshier income.

Follow-up studies on lottery players who were big winners show that most people discover that money did not bring them happiness.  Instead, after the initial thrill, most become downright miserable and their lives a mess.  That does not deter people from buying lottery tickets believing that they could handle the money and not let it destroy them.

Many of us like to imagine being rich stating:  “Think of all the good we could do for others!”   For those of us who have never had the opportunity to see how we fare against a large sum of money, we content ourselves with stories of unhappy rich people since the morale is that we are better off without it.

But regardless of how much or little we have, the challenge upon us is still the same.  After all, recall that the widow had little and, still, she donated a penny.

It’s not so much how much we give, but how much we are willing to let go. The widow was willing to let it all go in order to “let God.”

Here is one last story to consider told in the memoirs of Maria von Trapp, the mother of the von Trapp Family Singers of Sound of Music movie fame.  She actually rejoiced when her family lost everything.  The Nazi German government had invaded their country of Austria and froze their sizable bank account.   Maria had once planned on being a nun but ended up marrying Captain Von Trapp, a wealthy sea captain, widower, and the father of seven children.

“Now instead of relying on ourselves, we shall have to rely on God,” she announced joyfully upon hearing of their financial collapse. Her faith and abandonment to God was truly remarkable. And he did not let her down.  The family escaped to the United States and became world famous for their singing.

Ultimately, I know that we should be willing to give it all to God even if we need to use some of the stuff for a time as we tread this earth.  The goal is to be able to walk away from it all without a backward glance just as Jesus invited the rich man to do.

The Gospel message is clear:  the less attachment we have to this world the better we are able to follow Jesus.  So, with that in mind, it’s probably a good time to do some spring cleaning and count how many coats I actually own.  I’m pretty sure it’s more than two.

Copyright © 2013, Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong

Patti Maguire Armstrong and her husband have ten children. She currently works as a communications specialist with Teresa Tomeo Communications and worked in the fields of social work and public administration before staying home. Patti is an award-winning writer, speaker and was managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’s Amazing Grace Series. She has appeared on EWTN, and Catholic TV as well as radio stations across the country. Her latest books, Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families (Scepter Publishers) and Dear God I Don’t Get It (for children from Liguori Publications), will be released in Spring 2013. To read more visit Patti’s blog and website. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook at her author page.

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