Finding God and Community in Simple Dwellings

While Jewish newspaper columnists are not the most likely resources for breaking open the New Testament, a recent column in The New York Times by David Brooks can shed light on scripture.

Brooks describes taking a safari in East Africa with his family during which they stayed in various camps, some of which had no running water or electricity, whereas others were rather luxurious. At the simple camps, Brooks and his family got to know the other guests and found that the staff created a warm, family-like atmosphere.

The nicer places felt colder. Rather than getting to know the other guests through communal dinners and the staff through informal encounters, they sat at separate tables and were served by waiters who kept their distance.

Brooks uses the Yiddish word "haimish" to describe what it was the simpler camps had but the luxurious ones did not, a word that "suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality."

When we plan a vacation, Brooks writes, we often focus on the Where or the What -- the sandy beaches, the famous sights, or a hotel's amenities -- but when we come back home, we generally savor memories of Who -- the people we met along the way and the relationships we formed.

Recently, I led a group of university students on a pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Spain. For two and a half weeks, we slept on the floor, took cold showers and rarely had access to the internet. And we could not have been happier. While we are able to see some wonderful places, these students now rarely mention the physical locations but continue to talk about the friendships that they formed with students from all over the world and the deeper relationship they developed with God. The significance of this trip for them was the Who, not so much the What or Where.

Likewise in the gospel, true happiness, true blessedness, is not about stuff or places but about Who.

The Gospel of Luke states, "Blessed are the poor." Blessed are the hungry, the weeping, and the hated, according to the gospels.

Rather than being a glorification of economic poverty or pain, which can be deeply dehumanizing, Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, offers this reading: "How lucky you are if you are not addicted to material things." In interpreting blessed are you who are now weeping, Barron offers, "How lucky you are if you are not addicted to good feelings." Brooks, analyzing studies on self-reported happiness, concludes that moving farther away from a city for a bigger house and lawn, especially when we then spend more time commuting and less time with loved ones, does not actually make people happy, whereas relationships and interpersonal interactions are what really bring us joy.

Privacy, space, and refinement are not bad things and we tend to choose them when we can and work in order to purchase more of them, though in the process, we may end up spending less time in environments with haimish and not experience the warm interactions with others that tend to happen in those places. In the search for more stuff, we may spend less time with our loved ones and the ultimate loved One who fulfills us.

We of course know in theory that money does not buy happiness; we know on a deep level that filling our lives with stuff will not ultimately satisfy. At least for me, however, sometimes it takes cold showers and sleeping on a floor -- or even reading a New York Times columnist -- to internalize what the gospel already tells us.