The following quote is from William Penn, “Some Fruits of Solitude” (1693) in Collection of Works, Vol 1, p. 821. DQC. Quoted and sung in Timeless Quaker Wisdom in Plainsong by Paulette Meier.
“It would go a great way to caution and direct people in their use of the world if we understood more about the creation of it. For how could we find the confidence to abuse it, while we should see the Great Creator stare us in the face, in all and every part thereof?”
About five years after my spiritual opening, I found that I was often moved to tears of while shopping for groceries. Moving through the canyon-like isles full of goods lined up higher than my head, I grieved over what we humans have done.
Item after item, isle after isle. Filled with cookies, chips, soda, candy, high-fat, high-cholesterol, high-salt junk that satisfies taste buds and delivers little nutrition. I was reminded of the life-styles of feudal nobility, feasting on that which was rare – ice in the summer or hummingbird tongues.
Looking with my spiritual eyes, I could see the potential that had been squandered. Resources, time and money expended to make some money by catering to basic sensations. Beyond this, I could see God’s gifts, squandered.
Everything that surrounds us is from God. Things as basic as air, water and sunlight – all provided by a loving God. Our human potentials – intelligence, creativity, and love are among God’s greatest gifts.
And we put them to what use? Air is introduced to bread to make it appear larger. Sunlight is harnessed in plants producing sugar which is added to water and called a drink. Almost everything in the store was the result of manipulating some part of God’s creation.
Groceries are benign examples compared to toxic chemicals, weapons of mass destruction, exploitation, abuse and war. Yet they were the examples I was personally confronted with day after day. In that, they were a gift. What was I to learn, and then do, with this grief?
I had to take my own counsel. In this secular world where spirituality is not nurtured, there was no one for me to talk with. Who could I find to listen to questions about whether a box of cereal was in keeping with God’s intent?
I could find information about food that was organic, healthy and sustainable; but that wasn’t my focus. I needed to figure out what God wanted me to learn.
So I carried that burden in silence for months, and pondered. For the important question was: what is my part in this? I cannot change the world, I can only (if I work hard and am fortunate) change myself.
A counterbalance to the waste I saw in the grocery store is the suffering in much of the world. While I can choose between this frivolous purchase and that, thousands starve. Shining above that equation is the presence of God. What we in this first world choose to ignore is that God loves and is concerned for that mud-covered, starving, sick child in the same measure God loves and is concerned for me.
In God’s eyes, we are all equally important. It’s so easy to fall into the belief that I am more important. After all, I am educated, sophisticated, clean, wealthy, successful and so on and so forth. My existence, set against a young, helpless, hopeless life that will soon end is proof of my comparative importance.
It’s tempting to think that the money I get from the good job that resulted from the education I participated in grants me some rights. I earned this. I deserve the comforts, security and things that I enjoy.
Everything that I have is a gift from God. What I saw in the grocery store and then in the rest of my life was that I was immersed in the temptations of abundance. So immersed that I hadn’t realized it. I automatically felt that if I could buy something that would add to my convenience or pleasure, I should.
Yet when I do, I ignore the mystic’s grounding question, “What does God want?” Should I buy that ketchup? Looking deeply, questions multiply. Was this a good use of land? Who worked to produce the tomatoes, and under what conditions? How were they grown? Processed? Were there any negative consequences? Is this something that I should be putting in my body?
Another nagging question involved spending money. Sure, I could easily afford it. If I view the money in my pocket as mine and there by right, I can do whatever I wish. If that money is a gift from God, given to me to use rightly, a whole different set of issues arise.
What else could I – should I – do with $3.87? By itself, that amount wouldn’t accomplish much. Surely God would let me have some ketchup. Or not.
How am I supposed to know? Is the question even worth asking, or am I being silly?
My tears said otherwise. This was important, at least to me. I sought an answer in the only place I could – prayer. Not once or twice, not demanding, but sitting with the issue for months and years, with my limited mind ranging and soul resting with the One.
I came to no firm conclusions about what to buy in the grocery store. I resolved to be more deliberate in all purchases, focusing more on needs and less on wants. It also became clear that I should concentrate my donations to third world projects.
Do I buy ketchup? Yes, I do. I can justify it in part because I live in a family and my preferences shouldn’t prevail. I have also concluded that God is comfortable with my having some luxuries, particularly if I continue to recognize that they are luxuries and gifts.
And I carry a heightened awareness of the suffering in the world, and my part in contributing to it.