I hope this isn’t a surprise to anyone, but the current social and cultural atmosphere of the west is dealing with a storm front of sentimentality. By invoking the word sentimentality, I mean, a moment of our history being consumed by affectivity. Actions and intentions are no longer seen via lens of goodness, truthfulness and beauty but now through the lens of feelings. If an action, idea, concept, etc. doesn’t make you or the other person feel good then the action, idea, concept, etc. is a transgression (a buzz word for secular sin) that cannot be tolerated. I believe we are seeing the fallout from sentimentality, in a variety of ways. The way I wish to focus on for this post is around people who we label as “the poor”.
Sentimentality: A Prison Around the Heart
One of the dangers of the reign of sentimentality is the structure it imposes upon a person. The inner cell of that structure is now the appeasement of one’s feeling of happiness. A happiness merely founded upon affectivity. The desire for happiness is a powerful force spoken about by the saints for ages, a desire rooted in God. Now, those roots are not connected to God. Instead, for the modern/postmodern person, the roots of happiness are still within their heart, but are nourished only by the psyche of that person. Thus, making sentimentality the structural prison around this desire for happiness. The self-made prison being the structure that provides the necessary conformity for experiences to provide the heart the satisfaction it desires. This prison exploits the good that is known, for example, via acts of tenderness. How? By only allowing them to take certain self-serving exit and entry doorways into the heart. Acts of tenderness when they move through these prison doorways of our sentiments now have as their primary focus the satisfaction of heart, not the need of the other. If this above-mentioned structure seems insidious that’s because it is.
Within traditional Catholic morality three things give a means to understand the goodness or the wickedness of a choice: circumstance, the act itself, and the intent. When a person gives food to a hungry person, they fulfilled a need and a right within the hungry person, I believe we can all acknowledge that act as good. If the food is given over to the hungry person freely and not at gun point, we can acknowledge that the act was free revealing the goodness of it. Finally, if the intent to give the food was out of an acknowledgement that the person is hungry the act reveals a bit more deeply that it is good. In this scenario we have a fulfilled trifecta of all three aspects. The choice to feed a hungry person is seen and understood as good. The primary problem I see within our sentimentally infused atmosphere revolves around intent.
If our intent is to care for the poor among us because it offers a feeling of satisfaction for happiness within our hearts our relationship with the poor is now exploitative. The act of charity and the circumstances of it may still be good, but our heart becomes a bit more distant from those we see, call, or label as “the poor”. With a sentimental heart a person who acts in charity is now within a place of seeing not the poor one before them as one in need, but as a means of gratification. Consequently, helping the poor is no longer good within itself but is a means of satiation. The other person may never know or perceive the desires of the giver’s heart, but the spiritual sight of the giver has changed. Traditionally, the act of giving charity is an acknowledgment. An acknowledgment that the giver and receiver is not different via power dynamics but equal in dignity, revealed through the act of charity. Of course, that traditionally spiritual insight held that God was the focal point of charity and not the person. For in God, human equality is revealed, because within his light we all see that we need him.
Envious of God
Yet, within this new social and cultural milieu of sentimentality that equality is never possible. Why? Because, the giver that gives from a heart seeking satisfaction within itself now takes upon themselves the focal point of God. It is in this shift in focus that a sentimental heart begins to grow within itself the cancer of envy. Where there is envy there is no equality, because envy keeps one from rejoicing for the blessings received by another. Envy cultivates a sense of inequality because the other has something the envious heart does not have. Thus, the wisdom of the Prophet Isaiah sheds a light on this envy via his reminder to us that God is the refuge for the poor (Is. 25: 4-5). Though all need God and thus are equal in relationship to that need, salvation history has revealed that God has a special relationship with the poor. In that special relationship between God and the poor, the sin of envy has found its target for preserving its life. Even though the sentimental heart makes a judgement of superiority over the poor, the idol of serving the poor for its own satisfaction, has placed the sentimental heart in an inferior position. That idol like all idols demands life, and the envy of a sentimental heart will gain its life through sowing the seeds of covetousness. Thus, the sentimental heart is envious towards God because it covets the poor, seeking from the poor that relationship that God offers to them. This message of envy may take on an expression like this “how can I be the savior of these people when they still have their God before them?”
St. Matthew offers a remedy for the sentimental heart “What you do for the least among you, you do for me” (Mt. 25:40). Remember, the sentimental heart focuses on its own satisfaction making everything secondary to that desire. This parable is bitter medicine because the heart’s orientation is flipped. The poor are not a means for an individual’s gratification, but instead a revelation of the reality that we are all in need of God. Any attempt to reify, deify, fetishize, or exploit “the poor” for one’s own satisfaction will always leave one isolated, imprisoned, and hungry within their heart. In a way, we can understand that state of the sentimental heart as hell. A hell that a person creates for themselves out of seeking their own satisfaction. The poor are not some faceless mob that one can exploit. The poor are persons who by their lot in life, whether forced upon them or brought about via their own actions, whom God has chosen to care for intimately. God invites all of us into his charitable gaze offered to the poor. It is through that gaze that God reveals ‘the poverty of spirit’. For it is the poor in spirit who the kingdom of heaven is made for. A sentimental heart, as I have described, can never accept this poverty of spirit, because it seeks only its satisfaction. By keeping itself turned away from God in envy, sadly, it keeps itself from the very Being who desires and offers fulfillment of the heart’s desire.
Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved. ~ St. John of the Cross (Sayings of Light and Love #115)