My [Continued] Struggle With Poverty

With the conclusion of this four part series on poverty, I would like to begin right where I left off because I believe that my motivation for writing these posts over the past few weeks is encapsulated in this paragraph:

But at the same time, it’s easy to see that there are clear limitations to what one can do and still consider oneself “poor.” At some point, using that word is an insult to those whose lives in no way resemble ours. As one friar put it, “the poor can always smell a rat.” I think that’s true, and I think that’s why our first step must always be to listen to and imitate the poor, erring on the side of going too far. Until we are able to do that, to put our health, safety, and dignity on the line, how can we ever begin to be compared to those who do it everyday without any choice in the matter? Our poverty is voluntary, and we will never be able to fully rid ourselves of the safety nets around us, but at some point we need to dive in and live poverty the way the real poor people do.

When I look at my life and the life of this Order, I struggle to see “poverty” in any real sense. Who, honestly, would confuse me for a poor person? This is a great disappointment of mine and a struggle I know that I will face for the rest of my life.

Being Institutionalized

As someone in formation, there is an overriding and unavoidable nature to the way we live: within an institution. Unlike the majority of our friars, friars in formation tend to live in large houses. (My postulancy house was 10, novitiate was 21, and now post-novitiate is 25.) With that many people, and without the skilled brothers we once had, it is both necessary and fiscally responsible to obtain external help cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the structure of the house. It is necessary and fiscally responsible to buy things in bulk and to have many options at hand at all times. It is necessary and fiscally responsible to have a fleet of cars, each assigned to an individual so as to keep it well maintained and organized.

There are, however, unintended consequences to these “necessary” and “fiscally responsible” measures. For one, there is a lost sense of cost in our houses. Laundry detergent magically appears in pallet-sized quantities; food shows up on our table without work or sacrifice; and satisfying the desires of only a few individuals still leaves us with 6 different soda options, 4 types of snacks, and an endless supply of ice cream. While it’s probably true that we live more cheaply per person than a house of four does, there is not such a thing as an unfulfilled need here. Sure, we may not have our first choice, but boy do we have a lot of choices and an endless supply!

The other problem I see with this is that it is very easy to slip from “external help cooking, cleaning, and maintaining the structure of the house” to “my personal chef, maid, and handyman.” With a house this size, I don’t see a problem with filling in the gaps with a professional, but I begin to feel uncomfortable when outside help replaces our own work. Yes, I’m in school, and don’t exactly want to come home after a long day and cook dinner and clean out the gutters, but I’m sure that the poor do, and I know for sure that students of other religious orders have to do that. For me, it’s not the idea of having employees that bother me; it’s the amount of work we allow them to do that I believe strips us of poverty and minority.

Rationalizing or Redefining Poverty

Another struggle I face each is the inability to come to consensus on what poverty is in our lives. This is not to blame my brothers, as I know my opinion is just one opinion, and I do not expect others to assent to it. It just makes it difficult to decide how to live if we are all working from different starting points.

That’s not to say that I think all opinions are created equal, as there are two “rationalizations” that really annoy me (and yet I find myself doing both of them!) The first is making poverty a purely spiritual matter. “It’s not really about what you have, it’s about how attached to it you are. I could very easily give up my flatscreen TV if I needed to.” Right. But you haven’t. While spiritual poverty is what I believe material poverty is leading us to, a freedom from desire and dependence on God, I don’t see how it can be separated from actual, material poverty. Knowing that one could go without something is quite different from actually going without it.

The other problem I see is more prevalent: allowing ministry to reign supreme. We all love the people of God and have committed ourselves to building up God’s kingdom. That’s no in question. But all too often we make compromises to our way of life for our work of life. Eating meals out rather than cooking at home; each friar having their own car instead of carpooling or using public transit; the newest and latest gadgets for “productivity” and convenience; and employees taking care of our house so that we can take care of others. Ultimately, especially for priests, we may decide that our work is so highly specialized and in such high demand that we must do anything we can to do as much ministry as we can. That’s very selfless for sure. But we are more than ministry machines. Let us not be shortsighted in sacrificing what gives our ministry such high quality, our poverty, minority, and fraternity, in order to provide a greater quantity.

Caught in a Safety Net

The last struggle that I must face comes with the reality that I may never be able to free myself from it. Ironic and insulting to most Americans, the burden I must face in this life is know that I will always have local and provincial safety nets to protect me. This means having medical insurance, retirement facilities (and brothers who will care for me financially and fraternally), and the comfort of never being too far away from a “transfer” if things get too bad. Sure, I will care about the success of ministries and people we serve, but I know that, even in the worst case scenario, I will never starve, never be alone, or be without sufficient aid.

On a day to day basis, I find the presence of an overarching structure to be a subtle challenge to my spiritual poverty and that of my brothers because of the ability to say these simple words: “The house will pay for that.” In most of our houses, we are given a stipend for personal expenses and the ability to charge to the house any necessary expenses, e.g. gas, oil change, and books, outside of that original stipend. Again, how do we define necessary? For me, even though the house will pay for lunch if we’re at school, I would have never spent money like that before becoming a friar: pack a lunch or don’t eat. Like the employee with the company credit card, however, the abstract entity that is the “province” or the “house” becomes the ever-flowing well that can always be pumped, and without malice or ill intent, we allow ourselves to rest, spend more, and care less about how we live because the safety net will provide. When I’m running behind, there is a temptation not to pack a lunch because, “the house will pay for it,” so there’s no need to go through the extra trouble. This is a seed, a seed that I do not want to plant. It is the seed of safety and complacency.

True and Perfect Joy

As so I conclude this post, but my struggle is just beginning. On the one hand, I must live within a system that is not ideal with people that vary from apathetic to fanatical on the subject. I must accept that we as a community will never meet the ideals I wish to achieve. In a very positive way, I have accepted that struggling on this issue together is more important to me than succeeding alone. Our charism recognizes that love is messy, that the world is not filled with easy answers, and that God is found in the struggle.

On the other hand, I know that I am given a tremendous amount of freedom when it comes to my personal decisions related to poverty. In some ways I succeed: I don’t have to eat everything that is placed before me, nor do I have to spend everything that is given to me, and so I often avoid meat and return part of my stipend or donate it. In some ways I struggle to do better: I could probably use public transit more often, go without some of my possessions, or offer to do more work where needed.

With that, I will close this belabored series and winded post with the story of St. Francis called “True and Perfect Joy” and an insight from my formator and guardian, Fr. Joseph Nangle, ofm. In this story, Francis teaches that true and perfect joy is not felt from great successes, incredible miracles, or powerful skills, but rather in showing up to a friary, cold and wet, and after being turned away by a fellow friar because the friar believes him to be a “rascal” trying to fool the friar, he accepts these insults and maltreatment with patience, that is perfect joy. Fr. Joe, in his book Engaged Spirituality, writes this:

Francis felt that being treated as a poor person, being mistaken for one, even by a fellow friar, was “perfect joy.” He had reached such a sublime point in his own conversion process where his option for the poor showed itself when others saw and treated him as a poor person.

My reading of this story before had always been focused on Francis’ patience and humility, but how true is this sentiment to me today? Given what I’ve said in the last four posts, and the struggles I will undoubtedly face in my future as a friar, I cannot think of a more perfect joy than to be truly mistaken as a poor person. To live a life so authentically like the poor, with the poor, and for the poor that I become poor enough myself to mistake my own brother is the life I wish to live.

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