Embracing the Virtue of Poverty in Your Own Life
The word “poverty” does not usually bring with it any good connotations. Sitting in our comfortable (even if modest and simple) homes in the industrialized world, we shudder to think of those who live in poverty. We think of poverty as a grave evil and perhaps even a death sentence. We picture those with life-threatening illnesses without access to adequate medical care, children without food to eat, ramshackle housing, and people dying in the streets. Poverty that looks like this is indeed a grave evil.
And yet, on a trip to Havana, Pope Francis told the crowd, “Love poverty as a mother.” How startling to the ear! He was addressing religious who have taken a vow of poverty, but that still begs the question: if abject material poverty is an evil condemned by Catholic Social Teaching, how then can Christ and his Church also uphold poverty as a virtue?
Distinctions to be Made
Several distinctions need to be made when it comes to what poverty is. As the Church sees it there three different (though often related) meanings to the word poverty: 1) material poverty – a lack of material goods; 2) spiritual poverty – a lack in spiritual goods; 3) poverty in spirit – a humble and proper detachment from the things of this world. The second two can get a little difficult to distinguish from each other in our limited English vocabulary. Being poor in spirit, poverty as a virtue, and a vow worth taking by those called to do so, can also simply be called detachment.
The Church teaches that material goods are real goods, but they are limited goods, and they are good to the extent that they are a participation in God’s creation and bring glory to Him. Because He made certain material goods necessary for us – food, water, clothes, and shelter – these material things are particularly good and are actually absolutely necessary for basic human functioning. The Church has never condemned having material goods, or indeed, having material surplus. She encourages and protects the right to private property. Material possessions are not intrinsically evil, nor is material poverty intrinsically good. The religious who take vows of poverty do not vow to live in the gutter with nothing to eat. Many orders do not strictly forbid the possession of a few private items. Rather, the vow of poverty has more to do with rejection of and detachment from superfluous material goods. In Story of a Soul, St. Therese records a very small instance of this vow. She had a very beautiful little jug in her cell for washing up, and at a certain point, this jug was removed from her room and replaced with a chipped, ugly jug. She rejoiced when this happened, because she could offer the “loss” of “her” beautiful jug as a small mortification. She was not unduly attached to having the beautiful jug over the ugly one. Material poverty can be chosen, such as in religious life or in families who choose to live on one modest income so a parent can stay home with the children, but it is distinct from abject material poverty. The Church works to bring people across the world out of abject material poverty, which is the lack of even the most necessary material goods for human life.
Mother Teresa is famous for speaking about a poverty that is even more pervasive and dehumanizing than material poverty – a poverty of love. She preached about the dangers of the poverty of love, especially in the industrialized West. Many do not know how to give or receive love. There are families who cannot speak to each other because of wounds incurred by alcoholism, physical and emotional abuse, sexual sin, and out-right rejection. Indeed, poverty of love is not the only poverty that insidiously wrecks the soul, the family, or society. In a society with surplus goods, there is not surplus love, piety, justice, fortitude, prudence, or temperance. Popular culture does not practice virtue, or encourage the practice of virtue. The values our grandparents and great-grandparents were raised with have slowly dissipated. Material poverty can be supplied with material goods, but spiritual poverty is harder to satiate. Spiritual poverty of this kind is always a grave evil because it prevents us from loving God and loving neighbor.
Poverty as a Virtue
Poverty as a virtue consists in the freedom to love God and others unhindered by the things of this world. As established, material goods are real goods. But does an improper attachment to these goods lurk in the heart? Is there a greater concern for material goods or spiritual goods? It is possible to have both material goods and spiritual goods. It is not one kind of good pitted against the other. Rather, the virtue of poverty in spirit lies in how the different goods are received, possessed, used, and the response if a good is taken away.
Detachment is the key. Are we attached to the material things we have, or do we entrust our riches totally to the Lord, knowing that He gives and He takes away? Practicing virtue requires hard work and sacrifice. Practicing poverty as a virtue does not necessarily mean ridding ourselves of everything we own of which we're fond, but it does require a deep inward dive to ask an honest question: how would I respond if this phone, cherished book, painting from a child, picture of a deceased loved one, treasured necklace, workshop, car, house, etc. were taken away? We might think the Lord would only ask us to spare the things we have in surplus – clothes, books, toys, the extra-full pantry – but He often asks us to give or let go of that which is precious. This is a serious check for me. I have many beloved objects that I would cry over should there be a fire in my home, or a burglar, or if they were broken. But on the last day, these goods, even the really good goods like the crucifix that was on my dad’s casket, the reliquaries crafted by my husband, the rosaries gifted to me by friends, these goods will not endure. I won’t be able to hand them over to Christ. I will only be able to give him all deeds I did or did not do, the virtues I did or did not practice, the love I gave or I retained. Oh, how I need to practice the virtue of poverty all the more!
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states punchily and straightforwardly, “The precept of detachment from riches is obligatory for entrance into the Kingdom of heaven” (CCC 2544). Obligatory. Detachment is not an option. If we want to make it into the Kingdom, we must practice this virtue.
Christ, the Poor, & the Kingdom
Christ makes his teaching on the poor in spirit very clear from the beginning. In Luke 4, Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads from the Prophet Isaiah about good news being preached to the poor, release to the captives, the blind will recover their sight, and the oppressed will be liberated. He makes it clear that this reading is fulfilled by Him. It does not go over well, but He has made it known He has come to preach the coming of the kingdom. In the Gospel of Matthew, after returning from the desert, Christ begins to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). When the crowds begin to come to Him in the countryside, His very first recorded words from the Sermon on the Mount are, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3). I imagine that this was a bit of a shock to the people gathered to listen to him. Though repentance was called for, were these people prepared to hear that in order to gain entrance to the kingdom, they had to become poor in spirit when so many of them were already materially poor? It is not enough to be materially poor. Jesus asks us to be poor in spirit as well: to remain humble and detached.
Later in the Sermon on the Mount Christ makes this call even clearer by stating, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (6:19-21), and “You cannot serve God and mammon” (6:24). He rejects storing up material wealth to the exclusion of storing up spiritual wealth, especially when money begins to take the place of God. The spiritual endures. The material does not. Jesus also encourages us, “do not be anxious about your life…is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (6:25). As people who live in the world, it is extremely difficult to not worry about having the necessary material goods, but he dispels our anxiety. He asks us to trust him with what we do and do not have.
Living Poverty – St. Josemaria Escriva’s Wisdom
How to live this challenging virtue of poverty? In an interview published in Conversations with Saint Josemaria Escriva, St. Josemaria shares some wisdom about the practice of the virtue of poverty particularly for lay people (with a special care for mothers). I encourage you to look it up and read it in its entirety, but here we will conclude with a few pearls of wisdom.
“We live poverty by filling the hours of the day usefully, doing everything as well as we can, and living little details of order, punctuality, and good humor. In a word, it means finding opportunities for serving others and finding time for oneself.”
I love this because he’s so practical. Virtuous poverty means using our time, effort, and energies well, but not exclusively for others. He acknowledges time for self as well. In this age of “treat yourself” though, it might mean not being unduly attached to the time set aside for yourself.
He continues, “It is love that gives meaning to sacrifice….We must live thinking of others and using things in such a way that there will be something to offer to others. All these are dimensions of poverty which guarantee an effective detachment. It is not enough for a mother to live in this way. She should also teach her children to do so.”
Here he talks about mothers as an example of how to spend life serving others, which we are all called to do no matter our situation in life. Thinking of and acting for others will help us grow in proper detachment.
He goes on, “We have to learn to live it, otherwise it will be reduced to an ideal about which much is written but which no one seriously puts into practice. We have to make people see that poverty is an invitation which our Lord issues to each Christian, and that it is therefore a definite call that should shape every human life.”
A fitting conclusion! Let the virtue of poverty not become a shadowy ideal. It is an invitation from the Lord to become more attached to Him.