From Homily 36 on the Gospels (591)

My friends, I would like to advise you to leave all earthly goods, but I do not wish to sound presumptuous. So if you cannot abandon everything that the world offers, then at least hold the things of this world in such a way that you are not held by them. Earthly goods must be possessed; do not let them possess you. The things that you own must be under the control of your mind. Otherwise, if your mind is dominated by the love of earthly things, you will become possessed by your own possessions.

Let temporal possessions be what we use, eternal things what we desire. Let temporal goods be for use on the way, eternal goods be desired for when we arrive at our journey’s end. As regards the business of this world, we should view it obliquely, with a detachment. But the eyes of our minds gaze straight ahead of us, their attention focused on the destination for which we are bound. Our faults must be torn up by the roots, eradicated not simply from our own behavior, but also from the meditation of our hearts. The pleasures of the flesh, the anxieties of life, the fever of ambition must not be allowed to hold us back from the great supper of the Lord. We must even practice a holy indifference with regard to those honorable things which we do in the world, so that the earthly things which delight us may always serve our body and not distract our heart.

My brothers and sisters, I do not presume to tell you to give up everything. Instead I am suggesting that even while retaining your possessions, you can if you wish, let go of them, by so handling temporal matters that you continue to strive with the whole of your mind after eternal aims.

Is not this what the Apostle Paul says, “Time is short; from now on, let those who have a wife be as if they did not have one; those who cry, as if they were not crying; those who rejoice, as if they do not rejoice; those who buy, as if they did not possess; finally, those who use this world as if they did not use it; for it passes, the figure of this world”(1 Cor 7: 29-31).

He has a wife as if he did not have one, who strives to please his wife without displeasing his Creator. He weeps, but as if he were not crying, he who, when afflicted by temporal misfortunes, still keeps in his soul the comforting thought of eternal goods. He rejoices, but as if he were not rejoicing, who finds joy in transitory goods without ever losing sight of the eternal torments, and who, when joy arouses his spirit, moderates by exercising himself. to fear continually the punishment that he knows in advance. He buys, but as if he did not possess, who does not dispose of the use of earthly goods except by foreseeing with prudence that he will soon have to abandon them. Finally, he uses this world, but as if he did not use it, he who, making all the things necessary to the maintenance of his bodily life, do not let them dominate his mind, and who submits them so well that they serve him outside without ever breaking the impetus of his soul towards the summits.

Those who act in this way have earthly things for their use but not as objects of their desires. They use whatever they need but the sin of avarice is not in them. So let there be nothing to hold back the desire of your mind; and do not let the delights of this world ensnare you.

St. Gregory the Great (ca. 540-604) served as Bishop of Rome from 586-604, during a series of invasions and political turmoils. He was a skilled administrator and diplomat, as well as a gifted preacher and writer on the spiritual life. He preached Homily 36 in Rome at the end of the harvest season in 591. His feast is celebrated on March 12. The text has been adapted for contemporary readers.