Catholicism: The Religion of “Stuff”

I’ll never forget the passage that I read in college which made me entirely rethink the religion I had grown up with. Turns out, I didn’t know much about my faith at all. 

Like many, I was under the impression that anything I could enjoy was inherently wrong. Drinking was bad, sex was bad, feasting, smoking, caffeine, taking leisure time, and the list goes on. Everyday objects and activities had nothing to do with my salvation, or so I thought. Never had I met someone in the Catholic Church who understood this world and all its pleasures rightly. This book began an unraveling of everything I thought I had known. 

The passage went like this, 

“G.K Chesterton insisted that Catholicism was about thick steaks, cigars, pubs, and laughter. Catholicism is more than that, of course. But it’s also that, and to miss that is to miss something crucial in the Catholic world. The Catholic world isn’t nervous about its legitimate pleasures. In fact, it’s a world in which those pleasures can be fully enjoyed, because they’re understood for what they really are–anticipations of the joy that awaits us in the Kingdom of God.”

–George Weigel, Letters to a Young Catholic

My ears instantly perked up. Never had a line been more perfectly suited for a person raised on a ranch in the western lifestyle. Catholicism can be represented by thick steaks? Beers? Cigars? Sign me up! 

Roll-your-own cigarettes: sweet, satisfying, and one of this earth’s legitimate pleasures.

Some of my fondest memories come from the scene after a post-branding meal. Each person is dusty from the day, stomachs are pleasantly full from a home cooked meal, many are sipping on cans of beer in the shade, a few are smoking roll-your-own cigarettes. The conversation drifts lazily from prairie fires to politics, from cattle prices to common sense. Laughter erupts whenever a pithy reply comes at the perfect time. In the Catholic understanding, these moments are sacred. They are reminders of the joys that are to come. 

Many of us know that constantly seeking out pleasures has the exact opposite effect of what we hope for. The third glass of wine will never taste as good as the first, and nor will the third cookie or third wife. Overindulging makes one miserable, not happy. So how do we find joy? 

It goes beyond discipline and that boring word, “moderation.” Don’t we appreciate much more the day that follows night? The spring that follows winter? The wedding night after waiting? The relief of pain after suffering? Perhaps the recipe of finding joy is the age-old model of “fasting before the feast” so to speak. 

During Lent, I fasted every day until 3 o’clock (except on Sundays), and I remember going to mass one Sunday, afterwards buying a donut. Biting into that delectable, chocolate-covered treat fasting for days was a glimpse into heavenly joy. Do donuts get a bad rap? Of course, but it is usually because they are misused, and the same goes for smoking cigars, drinking bourbon, and the list goes on. None of the commandments say that there is sin in pleasure. The sin comes from overuse of any earthly object, from the television to the liquor cabinet. For me at that moment, I could not think of anything more heavenly and holy than eating that long john. And isn’t that a marvelous new way to view the world? Stuff does matter. It is not the only thing that matters, but the beauty of the created world points to the Creator. 

The world will never truly satisfy us, and there will be plenty of suffering, to be sure. But if we know that joy is increased following suffering, it makes it all the more bearable. And if we use both our joys and our sufferings as offerings to God, we win on both sides of the coin. 

Meanwhile, we get these little glimpses of our future. If things like marital love, feasting on a holy day, horses, big breakfasts, and drinks and laughter with dear friends are but a fraction of the wonders we’ll experience in Heaven, then we are in for a life beyond our wildest dreams, friends. The whole point is to enjoy them rightly, which is to know the Source of all good things. 

A nip of brandy after suffering in a brutal wind warms the soul.

“Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.”

–G.K. Chesterton

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