Poverty as a virtue is a difficult concept to define, and an even more difficult concept to get a group of friars to agree on. My concept of poverty is different from Br. X’s whose concept of poverty is different from Br. Y’s. Do we imitate the poor, or do we attempt to eradicate poverty? Is the cheapest option the best, or should we seek the longer lasting and human-conscious options that are more expensive? I present these conflicts not to trivialize or relativize the issue (as I plan on giving my own answers to these questions at some point), but to point out that “poverty” as a goal is very vague, is difficult to define, and is easily spiritualized until actions are no longer virtuous at all. In order to remain faithful to Gospel and the spirit of St. Francis, I think that additional language is necessary to focus our efforts.
One of these words that I have written about before is sufficiency. While the post itself focuses primarily on being content with the present moment, This Moment is Sufficient was stirred by a desire to have only what I needed, spiritually and physically, without any excess. Over the past year, this has been a much more helpful word in terms of evaluating my life as a friar than the word poverty. “Do I have more than I need?” is a much easier question to answer than “Is this keeping with ‘poverty?’” Asking myself this on a regular basis has helped me to live more simply, and to remove any and all things from my life that I do not need.
But with my reflections around kenosis throughout this past year, I found that an ethic of sufficiency needs additional direction in order to live a Gospel life. To be sufficient, is by definition, to have enough. To have this as a goal, while it does limit the possibility of living with excess, is to also never experience deprivation of any kind, to never feel worry or doubt about one’s livelihood, and to never relate to those who do not have enough. On it’s own, it can allow us to be too safe. Even if we live within our means and without extravagance, when we have “enough”, especially when “enough” is accompanied by security and predictability, we are allowed to live a life that is comfortable, and worst of all, complacent. When this happens, we begin to fail Gospel poverty and our communities will inevitably fail with it. With high security and predictability, there is no room for trusting God or looking to God to provide because we become the rulers and suppliers of our own wellbeing; there is no need for a sense of urgency in our work or in our communities because the status quo does not bother us; there is no opportunity for solidarity with the poor (or even with middle class) because we can no longer relate to the anxiety of not being able to make ends meet.
Our natural response, however, is to do the complete opposite. Not only do we not seek the fruits of insecurity, we do everything in our power to rid every ounce of danger from our lives, often times going to great lengths to acquire it: we work too much, we attack others as a way to defend ourselves, we store up treasures that cannot save. We believe that our youth, skills, health, possessions, and social bonds, will last forever, that they will keep us happy and safe from all harm. This is a façade. It is the acceptance of the lie that the gift is more important than the One who gives that gift. It is the acceptance of the lie that we are capable of controlling our own fate, that all that we have acquired is somehow our own to possess, and that we received it based on our own merit. It is the acceptance of the lie that we our own saviors.
So what does “seeking insecurity” look like? First of all, it does not look like being irresponsible, frivolous, or lazy. When we seek insecurity, we’re not making bad decisions to squander away the gifts we’ve been given. One does not strengthen their relationship with the Gifter by misusing his gifts. The real virtue lies in simply accepting that insecurity is all around us. When we accept the poverty that we have absolutely no control over our fate, that all we have is freely-given, unmerited favor from God, we begin to relate to our possessions, to others, and to God in a completely different way. With this realization, all is gift, and God is the only one worth relying on. In times of great favor, we give glory to God; in times of trouble, God is the first we seek for help; at all times, we are unwilling to waste our lives acquiring, maintaining, and protecting possessions that fade at the expense of relationships that last.
Obviously, there are just as many holes in this ethic as there are with an ethic of sufficiency, but I think together they offer greater grounding in Gospel poverty than “poverty” alone. They force us to look at the issue outside of dollars and cents alone, and focus the discussion on the purpose for the virtue in the first place: relationship with God. In the end, I think that we are only truly free when we accept that we are not in control and choose to seek the One who is. That’s true insecurity worth seeking.