Why Poverty? Some reasonable questions
What is poverty? I pondered this as I worked with the poor in New York City in the company of Franciscan friars for one year after college. In working with the American poor, I discovered that poverty is not merely the lack of stuff: it’s the lack of any safety nets. If you are poor, you are living from one moment to the next, with nothing to rely upon in the future. There is no bank account, no relations to call upon for help, no government programs, no friends for comfort, if you are truly poor. Day to day life is a struggle, and any trial or suffering can cause a collapse, since there are no resources to draw on.
In America, as Mother Teresa observed, our poor are not those who lack material needs, but those who are lonely. This was definitely true of the poor in the American cities, whose problem was not that they lacked food but that they lacked family and friends. The plight of the single mothers and their neglected children was often the absence of a husband. The first wealth that any of us has is love: spouse, children, mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, extended family. Lack of that is a poverty. Lack of love is a poverty.
Why should we ask for poverty? Do we want to be unloved by family and friends?
Poverty means having no safety net. Poverty means being ineligible for the government program, not qualifying for medical intervention, being overlooked by the professional charity. It means having just the wrong sort of problems that put you between the buckets.
Why should we ask for poverty? Do we want to be deprived of resources and help?
Poverty means not knowing where to turn. It means having the inexplicable illness, the symptoms no one can understand, the addiction that does not respond to treatment, the disease no one can cure. It means being subject to death and loss and desolation.
Why would we ask for something like that? Do we want to be alone with only ourselves and our problems?
Here is why we would:
All safety nets are illusions. In the end, they are not what saves us. The love of a family can’t cure cancer. The government program can’t save your soul. A loving spouse or the best new medication or the most perfect diet can’t cure a self-destructive impulse. There is only one who saves us in the end, and His name is the One Who Saves.
THAT is poverty: the recognition that all our resources, both monetary and human, in the end, can’t buy us happiness or peace of mind. Everything and everyone will fall short. Recognizing that is the first step towards being poor in spirit and being free from everything that would hold us back from Him.
So why should poverty be the foundation for home economy?
v To free us from fear of poverty and make us aware of the real enemy. Loss of money, home, and even the love of our children are not as terrible as the loss of our soul. Recognize the real enemy: ourselves. A follower of St. Francis whose name escapes me—St. Giles, I think—startled me by his observation that we spend so much time fearing starvation, kidnapping, terrorism, earthquakes, robbers, and various other things—but none of these things can harm our souls. However, we ourselves can send ourselves to Hell by hatred, greed, and addictions, and yet we are quite comfortable with ourselves and don’t spend much time putting ourselves on guard against ourselves. Why is that? He advises: fear the real enemy, “the one who can cast you into Hell,” and forget these little fears, for nothing else can separate us from the love of God.
v To make our hearts truly simple. If Love is our goal, even the most complicated of family obligations and daily routines will eventually help to simplify our hearts. And nothing, neither Legos nor American Girl Doll catalogs nor holiday menu planning nor overgrown August gardens nor wedding guest lists nor dust mites can separate us from the love of God.
v To free us from enslavement to our goods, from having to care for them, guard them, worry about them. Modern life conspires towards making productive people exhausted: why spend mental energy worrying about the material excessively? Material things can work a spell upon us which we are subject to, on account of our fallen nature. So potent is this spell that Buddha imagined that freeing oneself from it would enable one to ascend to Nirvana. Material things were made for our use, but too often we are used by them. This must not be.
v To make us daringly generous and courageous. We are afraid to be generous, afraid to give when it hurts. We fear those who are poor and fear how they might abuse our charity. Fear of what tomorrow might bring keeps us from sharing when we see a need. Poverty can help us give freely away, even from what we legitimately need and could hold onto. It is the courage to say, “My true treasure is the Lord,” and give away fully, like the widow in the temple praised by Christ. She had legitimate reasons to hold onto those two coins, but in her bravery and generosity, she was able to give the Lord her all.
v To help bring about a good and just society. Our economic system does need reform: so much waste is generated and so many people are left behind. Often, we do not have the margin to be habitually generous, and fear of losing our resources causes us to hold onto things we might be called upon to surrender for some great good we don’t yet see. The wealth of ancient Egypt might have seemed to be in the Nile or in the Egyptian people, but it was also in their gold mines. When the gold mines ran out, their civilization collapsed. Should American civilization also run out, what might come about in its wake? Can we look beyond the moment of our own homes and children and grandchildren to the future of our culture, should we face actual poverty? What foundation can we best build upon for the future of Christ’s Church? I have no utopian dreams, but I do see an injustice we can help to rebalance by putting our own house in order and entrusting the rest to the Holy Spirit to work out.
To live in freedom, in joy and with generosity: using goods, not being used by them: this is my goal. So, I want to begin this work on home economy by a foundation of poverty. Because it is poetic and can be practical, and may help us make a good beginning, and a better ending.