Let’s be honest right off the bat: who am I to talk about poverty? I am the product of a lower middle class household that has always made ends meet, I attended an expensive university that lacked diversity of social class as much as it lacked diversity of race, and now I am a part of a province known for its affluence within the comfort of one of the Church’s largest institutions. My house has a cook, all of my basic expenses are paid for, and on top of that, I’m given a modest stipend to spend on “extra” things each month. I have had the horrifying and humiliating experience on more than one occasion of showing friends and family around one of our houses and receiving the response, “Wow. So this is how the friars live.” For many, myself included, we as friars do not always appear to be the people we say we are and want to be.
And yet, I continue to write despite the apparent lack of credentials on the matter. I write in this case not to give answers, but to allow others into my life and to share in my struggle.
I have not had an authentic experience of poverty in my life but I choose to live poorly, I want to live poorly. My attraction to this life as a friar was to be like the poor, with the poor, and for the poor. For both good and bad reasons, with personal and structural factors, I have not yet lived the ideals I hold. That does not mean that I don’t have them, nor does it mean that I am not working to live them more fully. This is what I would like to share.
With a topic as controversial and sensitive as this one, it is important to remember the words of our brother Francis: “I warn and exhort them, not to despise or judge men, whom they see clothed with soft and colored clothes, using dainty food and drink, but rather let each one judge and despise his very self.” The fact that my brothers and I do not live up to my ideals, that the institution may at times be a hindrance to poverty by its very nature, is a fact of life. To point out ways in which we fall short, then, is is not intended to be a judgement, but rather an encouraging exhortation. As a brotherhood of friars and a community of Christians, I believe that it is our right, dare I say responsibility, to invite our neighbors to a more authentic example of Gospel living.
If you agree, and believe that a desire to live Gospel poverty is credibility enough to speak about it, I invite you to join me over the next few posts in a discussion about living Gospel poverty in a more authentic way. The topics I wish to discuss will focus primarily on my struggles so far as a friar, but will no doubt be universal enough for any Christian wishing to follow Jesus more closely in the 21st century.
In the meantime, I offer you the following articles previously posted related to poverty as a further introduction:
Casey. . . thank you for this thoughtful post. I’ve been thinking & praying a lot about poverty in the past year, thanks in part to that holy man, Pope Francis. I have some disjointed thoughts that I will share. I hope you will erase if you feel the need!
1. Your struggle as a Franciscan seems to me to be as much an institutional issue as a personal one. You are simply professed and a student, so there’s not a lot you can do right now to make any institutional changes.
2. I love the New English Bible’s translation of the first beatitude (Matt 5/3): “How blest are those who know their need of God. . .” The NABRE presents the same verse more traditionally: “Blessed are the poor in spirit. . .” For me, the NEB version of this verse is a more spiritual translation. It gives me a personal definition of poverty that applies across the board in my life. My need and hunger for God makes me always poor because, here in this life, my actions don’t acknowledge my need of God. Instead, I most often live my life as a self–sufficient, self–guiding individual. Every time I rely on my own devices, I deny the reality of my need for God, and I make myself more impoverished as a result.
3. Recently, I was doing a crossword puzzle. I knew the answer to a clue was “eremetic,” but I kept spelling it wrong, so I went to Google to find the correct spelling (as I had to do again just now). I clicked on a link, which led me to another link, etc., and not only did I find the correct spelling, but I also came upon the story of a hermit who lived, I believe, in the time of St. Anthony of the Desert. This holy hermit, whose name I forget but who has been canonized) loved apples. His circumstances didn’t allow him to have any apples, however. His mind played tricks on him, though, and he constantly detected the odor of an apple. The spectral odor tormented him. He wrote that after a while he grew to love the perceived apple odor because it was in this lack of apples that he finally found God. He lived away from everybody and everything. He was living his vow of poverty. But the one thing he missed, the one deprivation that hurt, was the thing that made him poor, because it was the only, or the last, thing he wanted but couldn’t have. As a truly poor man, then, he faced God, and, he wrote, God filled the huge void in his life that he only came to recognize through his lack of an apple. God, he wrote, comes to us in our lack of the things we love most.
4. Related to the story of the hermit is the following beautiful text from the Holy Father’s Evangelii Gaudium: “I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to” (EG 7). People who are materially poor seem (to me, anyway, and apparently also to the Holy Father) to be especially blessed because they have had to face and accept their need of God. Having accepted that grace, their lives become richer and their joy is fuller.
5. Since my teen years, I have wanted a certain type of human relationship. I’ve prayed for it, I’ve arranged my life to make it happen, and I even went to a shrink to try to eliminate any psychological barriers to the achievement of that relationship. I didn’t get it. I’m now almost 67 years old, and only in the last year have I understood what has happened. God gave me a life with a wife (of 36 years) and four beautiful daughters. A suburban life, I always called it disdainfully and ungratefully. Living in the midst of abundant love, I complained to anyone who would listen, “I’m living someone else’s life, not the life I was born to live.” I have come to realize that I am wrong. The lack of the kind of relationship I always wanted—and “want” is too weak a word here—is my great poverty. My constant sense of emptiness and unfulfillment is a gift from God. God gave me the want. God gave me my reality. The huge void between the two is where God lives in my life. God wanted me to be able to say, “You have made me for Yourself, O Lord, and My heart is restless until it rests in you.” For me, there can never be a poverty—a lack—as great as this in my life. Like the hermit and his apples, though, I praise God for the lack and the room it has made for the Lord in my life.
6. So, young Casey, I believe poverty isn’t so much about iPhones and laptops. It’s about the basic loneliness and incompleteness that God has given everybody, and the struggle to open that loneliness and incompleteness and letting God fill it, as only God can.
Thanks, little brother, for inspiring me to get this all down in one place!
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I was born in a catholic family but never identified myself as a catholic or even a christian. It took a long time to discover that a person can be that and an intelligent and honest thinker at the same time. Even now I’m surprised by that, that’s what I felt as I read your posts. I found them also kind and courageous. How on earth did you end up in a catholic order and how is it that I can’t find anyone like that on the church? It’s hard having to look for god anywhere but in your own religious tradition…