Why Poverty?

There's actually great wisdom in seeking to have less money.

There’s actually great wisdom in seeking to have less money.

Before we enter into a potentially lengthy and superfluous discussion about how one should live a life of poverty, it would seem appropriate to make clear why one would even want to be poor in the first place.  Given that it is pretty much the antithesis of what most in the modern western world would consider to be a worthwhile life pursuit, it’s a fair question. Why would one want to spend their life trying to be poor? I believe that there are at least four reasons for each and every Christian to consider.

1. Jesus was poor

As we prepare for Christmas in this season of Advent, we recall that Jesus became flesh not in a castle but in a dirty manger; we recall that the first people to visit him were the shepherds, the ritually and materially “unclean” outcasts of society. Jesus coming in this way is an example of how he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” As Christians, those who follow Christ, we wish to be like Jesus by imitating his simplicity and humility; as Franciscans, those who follow Christ in a very literal sense, we wish to be like Jesus by imitating his material situation as well. While the next post will discuss how we do that (because in some ways it might actually be inappropriate to adopt a literal approach) the point remains: Jesus was poor and we want to be like Jesus.

2. Jesus called his followers to be poor, for the poor

That being said, there are a number of things that Jesus did that we’re probably not all called to imitate, e.g. die on a cross. Because of that, we must look to his words and exhortations. When Jesus called his disciples to follow him, “They left everything and followed him” (Lk 5:11, 5:28, 12:33, 14:33, 18:22; Mk 1:16-20; Mt 4:18-22). Leaving their nets, money, family ties, prestige, and occupations behind, the disciples became poor in order to follow him. When he sent them out, he told them to go without walking stick, sack, food, money, or second tunic (Lk 9:2, Mt 10:9, Mk 6:8).

And what did he preach to the people? “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours” (Lk 6:20). Given the religious climate of the Pharisaical purity laws, it would have been revolutionary enough to say that the poor were more than worthless afterthoughts of God. To say that they were blessed, that there was something particularly special about their situation, was something so cataclysmic to our fallen nature that I believe it has yet to be fully realized in the Church. The poor are special, not in their relation to our charity, but in the very fact that they are poor.

3. We seek justice against a corrupt system.

Because of that, there is an important distinction that needs to be made in order for us to live Gospel poverty appropriately and to relate to the poor compassionately: poverty that promotes virtue, which should be imitated, and poverty that demoralizes and dehumanizes, which should be eradicated. An excellent reason to remain poor is to take a stance against unjust systems that do not allow authentic human development and to stand in solidarity with those affected.

What sorts of stances does this entail? According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in their 1986 letter, Economic Justice for All, this includes anything and everything that could adversely affect the poor:

Decisions must be judged in light of what they do for the poor, what they do to the poor, and what they enable the poor to do for themselves. The fundamental moral criterion for all economic decisions, policies, and institutions is this: they must be at the service of all people, especially the poor. (no. 24)

The way we eat, save, spend vote, travel, reside, and shop all have an impact on the poor. Do we ever stop to wonder how the way we live is possible? How else could our t-shirts be so cheap if it weren’t for child labor? How else could our fast food so cheap if it weren’t for dehumanizing wages?  The list goes on and on. Unless we curve our insatiable need for “stuff” and change our lifestyle, these atrocities will continue to happen to the poorest in society.

As St. John Chrysostom writes, “Not to share one’s wealth with the poor is to steal from them and to take away their livelihood. It is not our own goods which we hold, but theirs.” I believe very strongly that the extra coat one has in one’s closet belongs to the poor; to keep it unused in one’s closet rather than giving it to the poor is a grave sin.

So pervasive are these issues that they in fact take on a structural nature. As Pope Francis writes in his latest papal encyclical Evangelii Gaudiam, reiterating years of papal teaching, these structures need to be challenged.

Some continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been supported by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the economic system. (no. 54)

4. Wealth too easily becomes a false god.

Which brings us to the fourth and final reason to live a life of poverty: you cannot serve both God and mammon. The reason that our economic system in the west is so detrimental to the poor is because it has replaces God with money, a transition that is easy to make and difficult to break.

On the one hand there are those who have made it their life’s pursuit to acquire money, equating wealth with happiness. This is a sad state of affairs. Many people fail to recognize that money cannot satisfy such an insatiable appetite, leading some to resort to morally reprehensible things to obtain or maintain wealth.

The answer, however, is not to become a miser, refusing to spend one’s money on anything. Ironically enough, this is also a form of idolatry because it takes an exorbitant amount of time and energy away from things that actually matter.

***

It is because of all of this that I choose a life of poverty. I choose to imitate Jesus as closely as I can; to obey his word; to reject any system that may inhibit the authentic human development of my brothers and sisters; and to do all that I can do keep the Trinitarian God as my one and true God. I choose to live a life that is simple, without the distractions of useless possessions and futile pursuits. I choose to live a life that focuses entirely on a life with Jesus. That is why I choose to life a life of poverty. Now how do I do that? The next post will attempt to answer jus that.

My Struggle With Poverty

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Sometimes we find ourselves intending to worship one God, but acting like we worship another. I struggle with this discrepancy in my life, especially as a vowed religious.

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:

What Can’t I Live Without

Solidarity With The Poor

Seeking Insecurity

Seeking Insecurity

CoinPoverty 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.

Solidarity With the Poor

As I was completing the assigned readings for class the other day, I came across a line in Maurice Carmody’s book The Franciscan Story that I found particularly helpful as a point of reflection.  Within a section chronicling the first days of the movement, Carmody has this to say about the earliest brothers’ need for a simply lifestyle:

At the heart of their brotherhood lay the conviction that they were called to live in solidarity with the poor, to work alongside them or, if necessary, to join them in begging.  If they had given up work, it is hard to see how their way of life, which did not correspond with the traditional forms of religious living at the time, could have survived.  Solidarity without work was impossible and begging would have been nothing more than a selfish intrusion into the world of the poor.

I am drawn especially to the last line and the dilemma that all who wish to live in solidarity with the poor have to face: how poor does one have to be “to be in solidarity with the poor?” Does solidarity simply mean being conscious of their troubles and working so as not to worsen them? Does it mean renouncing all of one’s worth, power, and status so as to live side-by-side with the homeless, begging for food to make a living?

What I take from this passage (and others) is twofold: No one can be in solidarity with the poor without experiencing true poverty for oneself, and that poverty is not something to be romanticized as an end in itself.

In order to be in solidarity with the poor, he wanted to know the poor by experiencing what they experienced.  He lived where they lived, ate what they ate, and wore what they wore. In doing so, he not only experienced the physical struggles of their poor conditions, but also the psychological ones, like the stress of living without a safety net.

Francis was also conscious of the effect this would have and asked, does it help the poor if we are all just as poor? I’m reminded of a scene from a popular movie: witnessing a woman trapped in a bear exhibit at a zoo, the only four men around that notice her life-threatening situation decide to jump into the pit with her rather than get help.  At that point, they were of course in solidarity with the trapped woman; on the other hand, they made her situation worse because there was now no one to help, and if help ever came they would need to help five people instead of just one. The same is true with Francis: had he attempted live at same level of poverty as those incapable of helping themselves, begging when he was capable of working, he would have simply made the life of the poor harder, and at what gain?

As a friar in the modern world, I will be faced with many difficult questions that require compromise and critical thinking so as to live as best I can withand for the poor. With very little way of answering any of them now, here are a few things I’ve been wondering:

  • Is it better to buy higher quality products, i.e. cars, appliances, that will last longer and will certainly cost less in the long wrong, or to only purchase what the poor are capable of buying and deal with the same frustrations of lower quality products?
  • Taking this question to the extreme (but still and important question), should we even own cars, washing and drying machines, and computers, or should we be forced to use public transit, laundry mats, and libraries for these needs like the poor are?
  • Is it better to buy more expensive organic foods, products that are better for the environment, the workers, and our health, all things that friars should be conscious of, or do we resort to buying the cheapest foods we can find and distribute the savings to the poor?
  • Is it better to become vegetarians, recognizing that meat is expensive, bad for the environment (in the amount it is currently consumed), and not always readily available for the poor, or do we simply try to provide more adequate nutrition to all?

I don’t think that there is a universally correct answer to questions like these, but I do think we can always strive for more nuanced ways to both be in solidarity with the poor and to serve them better.  Ultimately, its helpful to remember that Jesus was not the poorest person in history, and so our imitation of him does not require us to be either. There is such a thing as dehumanizing poverty, poverty that strips a person of dignity and defaces God’s creation.  In understanding this, we who seek to live in solidarity with the poor should never cross this line ourselves, foolishly and selfishly accepting less than human conditions.  What good is it for the poor for us to jump into the bear pit? I think there are better ways to do justice to our neighbor than to take on their pain just to see how it feels. Then again, I speak from ideals and theories; let’s see what a few more years and some real life experience brings, shall we?

The “Root” of Our Charism

Manual labor and brothers: the Franciscan way.

After a few long days of packing, traveling, and unpacking, all seventeen postulants and both directors have settled into their new home here at Saint Bonaventure University. Starting Monday, we’ll be in full campus swing, taking classes, attending communal prayers, hitting the books, and of course, spending quality time with our brothers.

But that’s not until Monday and we’ve been here since Tuesday/Wednesday. So what have we been doing to fill the time, you ask?

If you guessed weeding carrots at an organic farm, you’re right! As a way to get in touch with the original Franciscans that worked with their hands each day and took for wage only enough food for the day, we rolled up our sleeves and put in an honest day’s (three hours) work. We left dirty, sweaty, and exhausted two days in a row, but not without a sense of accomplishment for a job “well” done (by which I mean, “well, it’s done,” and not to indicate any quality in our work, as none of us appeared to be called to this line of work…)

That being said, as much as this type of labor would not fulfill me as a full-time ministry, there is something to be said about our ability as friars to do the “dirty work” ourselves rather than leaving it to someone else. Sure, I understand that it may be more efficient or even more cost effective to have outsiders take care of tasks around the house (i.e. cooking, cleaning, maintenance) so that we can focus entirely on our work for others in our parishes and schools. But is this the sort of trade-off we want to make? Just as Francis told Anthony he could teach theology as long as he didn’t “extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion,” we should not wish to approach our ministry with the risk of extinguishing our Spirit of poverty and humility.

By that I do not mean to romanticize manual labor or in any way to say that it is more fruitful to our charism than intellectual labor is. Rather, what I mean to say is that a friar or friar community that refuses to engage in any form of manual labor or “dirty jobs” for the sake of others, runs the risk of becoming lazy, developing a feeling of entitlement, and ultimately losing the sense of poverty and humility that is at the root of our Franciscan charism. I would much rather clean a toilet, cook a mediocre dinner, cut the grass in the hot sun, or clean a hundred dishes, than allow myself to feel that I deserve these things to be done for me because the community needs me in some way.

My hope, as always, is that this reflection will be taken simply as that: a reflection of what I feel to be an ideal for my life. In no way do I mean this as a criticism to those who do have cooks, cleaners, landscapers or anyone else serve them on a regular basis, whether one is a friar or not, as there are always different circumstances that call for different solutions.