Coats, cold words, and chamberpots

I have always heard ascribed to Peter Maurin the dictum: "The coat that hangs in your closet belongs to the poor." The London Catholic Worker website echoes it: "Houses of hospitality are centers for learning to do the acts of love, so that the poor can receive what is, in justice, theirs, the second coat in our closet, the spare room in our home, a place at our table. Anything beyond what we immediately need belongs to those who go without."

But now I wonder whether Peter Maurin was echoing a paragraph of St. Basil the Great's homily on next Sunday's Gospel (Lk 12: 13-21);

you can find the paragraph in both Greek and English at

Basil represented a common view of the Fathers well summed up by the Venerable Bede: The reason the Lord reproved the man who tore down his barns in order to build bigger ones was not that he cultivated the earth and collected its fruits into his barns, but that he did not divide with the poor what went beyond his needs--in which case he wouldn't need larger barns--but instead built larger barns in which to keep them for himself. Here is Basil's paragraph:

Were you not naked when you came out of the womb? Will you not be naked when you return to the earth? Where did the things you now possess come from? If you say they just appeared spontaneously, then you are an atheist because you do not acknowledge the Creator and show no gratitude towards the one who gave them to you. But if you say they are from God, tell us the reason why you received them. Or is it that God is unjust because he unequally divides among us the things of this life? Why are you rich while that other man is poor? Is it not perhaps so that you might receive wages for kindheartedness and faithful stewardship and so that he may be honored with great prizes because of his endurance?

But, as for you, when you hoard all these things in the insatiable bosom of greed, do you suppose that you do nothing wrong in cheating so many people? Who is a greedy man? Someone who is not content with what is sufficient. Who is a cheater? Someone who takes what belongs to others. And are you not a greedy man, are you not a cheater, when you take the things you received for the sake of stewardship and make them your own? Anyone who takes a man who is clothed and renders him naked would be termed a robber; but does someone who fails to clothe the naked when he is able to do so deserve any other appellation? The bread you are holding back belongs to the hungry; the coat you keep in your closet belongs to the naked; the shoes moldering in your closet belong to the shoeless; the silver you hide in a safe place belongs to the needy. Thus, the more there are whom you could help, the more there are whom you are wronging.

Basil recognized the difficulty he had in persuading his congregation: "I make the same impression as I do when I am preaching to libertines against their unchastity." This did not prevent him or others of the great Fathers from frequently preaching against greed. For another sermon of Basil see and for an article with many citations from the Fathers:

No one was more frequent or stronger in his criticisms of the rich than St. John Chrysostom first as Bishop of Antioch and then as Bishop of Constantinople, in both of which cities there were plenty of wealthy Christians. In one of his sermons on the First Epistle to Timothy, he set out his views on the origin of wealth.

"This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation. For therefore we both labor and suffer reproach." Paul suffered reproach, and youre impatient? Paul had to labor, and you want to live luxuriously? If he had lived luxuriously, he would never have attained such great blessings. For if worldly goods, which are uncertain and perishable, are never gained by men without labor and pains, much less are spiritual. "Well," someone says, "some people inherit them." Yet even when inherited, they are not guarded and preserved without labor, and care, and trouble, no less than those have that first gained them. And I need not say that many who have toiled and endured hardships have been disappointed at the very entrance of the harbor, and an adverse wind has caused the wreck of their hopes, when they were upon the point of possession. But with us there is nothing like this. For it is God who promised, and that "hope maketh not ashamed." (Rm 5,5) You who are conversant with worldly affairs, don't you know how many men, after infinite toils, have not enjoyed the fruit of their labors, either because they were cut off by death, or overtaken by misfortune, or assailed by disease, or ruined by false accusers, or some other cause which, amidst the variety of human casualties has forced them to go with empty hands?

"But dont you see the lucky people," someone says, "who with little labor acquire the good things of life?" What good things? Money, houses, so many acres of land, trains of servants, heaps of gold and silver? Can you call these good things, and not hide your head for shame? One called to the pursuit of heavenly wisdom and yet gaping after worldly things and calling "goods" things of no value! If these things are good, then the possessors of them must be called good. For is not a person good who possesses what is good? But when the possessors of these things are guilty of fraud and rapine, shall we call them good? For if wealth is a good, but is increased by grasping, the more it is increased, the more will its possessor be considered to be good. Is the grasping man then good? But if wealth is good, and increases by grasping, the more a man grasps, the better he must be. Is not this plainly a contradiction?

"But suppose the wealth is not gained wrongfully." And how is that possible? So destructive a passion is avarice that to grow rich without injustice is impossible. This Christ declared, saying, "Make to yourselves friends of the Mammon of unrighteousness." (Lk 16,19) "But what if he succeeded to his father's inheritance?" Then he received what had been gathered by injustice. For his ancestor did not inherit riches from Adam; some one of his many ancestors must probably have unjustly taken and enjoyed the goods of others....Tell me, then, what is the source of your wealth? From whom did you receive it, and from whom the one who transmitted it to you? "From his father and his grandfather." But can you go back through the many generations and show the acquisition just? It cannot be. The root and origin of it must have been injustice. Why? Because God in the beginning did not make one man rich and another poor. Nor did he later show one treasures of gold and deny the other the right of to search for it. He left the earth free to all alike. Why then, if it is common, do you have so many acres of land, while your neighbor has no portion of it?....N

ote how wisely God has arranged things. That He might put mankind to shame, He has made certain things common, as the sun, air, earth, and water, the sky, the sea, the light, the stars; whose benefits are dispensed equally to all as brethren. We are all formed with the same eyes, the same body, the same soul, the same structure in all respects, all things from the earth, all men from one man, and all in the same habitation. But these are not enough to shame us. Other things also He has made common, as baths, cities, market-places, walks. And observe that there is no contention with regard to concerning things that are common, but all is peaceable. But when someone attempts to possess himself of anything, to make it his own, then contention is introduced, as if nature herself were indignant, that when God brings us together in every way, we are eager to divide and separate ourselves by appropriating things and by using those cold words "mine and thine." Then there is contention and uneasiness.....

But as I said, how can he, who is rich, be a good man? When he distributes his riches, he is good, so that he is good when he has ceased to have it, when he gives it to others; but while he keeps it himself, he is not good. How then is that a good which being retained renders men evil, being parted with makes them good? Not therefore to have wealth, but to have it not, makes one appear to be good. Wealth therefore is not a good. (Chrysostom, Homily 12 on 1 Timothy)

Chrysostom's "state of nature," before those cold words were heard, might be contrasted with the one concocted by John Locke or Thomas Hobbes. C.B. McPherson in his great book The Theory of Possessive Individualism showed how the people who inhabited their "state of nature" already were using those cold words "mine and thine," behaving like perfect 17th-century proto-capitalists. Chrysostom's state of nature is probably no less mythical, but at least it has this for itself: it runs counter to contemporary culture.

I do not know whether the socialist William Morris was thinking of Chrysostom's "cold words mine and thine" when he wrote his translation of a medieval Flemish poem and entitled it "Mine and Thine," but there is a website that correlates the ancient sermon and the poem:

Chrysostom received particular criticism from the grandes dames of Constantinople when he became too specific in his criticisms of the extravagances of wealthy women who, not content with silver jars, pitchers, and scent bottles, had taken also to silver chamberpots. Admitting to some embarrassment at taking up the subject, he wondered if it was not the makers of such things that ought to be ashamed. He sputtered to find a proper word for this excess:

When Christ is famishing, do you revel in such luxury, act so foolishly? What punishment shall these people not suffer? And do you ask why there are robbers? why murderers? why such evils? when the devil has thus made you ridiculous. Simply having silver dishes is not in keeping with a soul devoted to wisdom but is altogether a piece of luxury; but making unclean vessels also of silver, is this then luxury? I will not call it luxury, but senselessness; no, its madness, worse than madness....

In truth, to be wealthy does make people senseless and mad. Did their power reached that far, they would have the earth too of gold, and walls of gold, perchaps the sky too and the air of gold. What a madness is this, what an iniquity, what a burning fever! Another, made after the image of God, is perishing of cold; and you're furnishing yourself with such things as these? O the senseless pride! What more would a madman have done? Do you pay such honor to your excrements as to receive them in silver? I know you're shocked at hearing this; but its the women who make such things who ought to be shocked and the husbands that minister to such distempers. For this is wantonness, and savageness, and inhumanity, and brutishness, and lasciviousness. (Homily 7 on Colossians)

The bishop half-apologized in his next sermon:

Forgive me, forgive! I have no wish to violate decency by speaking about such things, but I am compelled to do so. I dont say these things for the sake of the sorrows of the poor but for your salvation, because those who have not fed Christ will perish, will perish! What if you feed some poor man? As long as you live that voluptuously and luxuriously, its all in vain. It is not required that you give much, but that you not give too little, given the property you own, for that's just playing at it. (Homily 8 on Colossians)

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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