Would You Clean a Leper’s Sore for a Million Dollars?

This week we will give a consideration of what consecrated life teaches about poverty, chastity and obedience how all can live these no matter their vocation.

By: Rev. Paul Scalia

Francis of Assisi is the saint most commonly associated with poverty. But his poverty, and the counsel of poverty itself, is often misunderstood. Some see the little poor man of Assisi embracing poverty as a rebellion against all possessions or as a way of “getting back to nature.”  In fact, for Francis, poverty served a far more important purpose. The abandonment of property was a necessary element in the greater task of abandoning one’s own will and standing radically unprotected before God.

The first step in the spiritual life is poverty. “Blessed are the poor in spirit” is the first Beatitude.  And it is a difficult thing to be poor in spirit if we are rich in wallet. What we own — or even desire to own — tends to slowly and silently wrap itself around our hearts such that our concerns and our desires become less and less about the spiritual life and heaven and more and more about advancement and wealth in this world. We cannot begin to store up treasure in heaven until and unless we free ourselves from worldly wealth.

For those in consecrated life, poverty takes the form of allowing someone else to determine their possessions for them. They vow poverty as a way of concretely and definitively relinquishing control over possessions. There is no religious order that does not require such poverty to one degree or another. Consecrated men and women are to “possess poverty,” as Saint Dominic put it. Indeed, poverty is often the first thing people notice of religious (and even more so when it is not lived authentically).

Such poverty serves, first of all, the good of the person’s soul. By giving up the right to possess things, religious men and women abandon themselves more and more to God’s providence.  Poverty is first of all an act of trust that God will provide. For that reason, it is also evangelical because it proclaims that God is trustworthy. Most importantly, it announces the poverty of Christ Himself, Who perfectly renounced all things out of trust in His Father.

Thus, the ultimate reason for poverty (as for every counsel) is our Lord Himself. From first to last His life was one of poverty: He was born in a cave and buried in a cave. He Himself testified, “the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head” (Mt 8:20). This material poverty was merely a sign of a deeper, more important poverty: the self-emptying that won for us salvation. He emptied Himself, made Himself poor for our sake — so that we might become rich (cf. Phil 2:7; 2 Cor 8:9). His poverty enriches. Which leads to another purpose.

Poverty frees up consecrated men and woman for service. The story is told of a man watching Mother Teresa cleaning the sores of a leper. “I wouldn’t do that for a million dollars,” he blurted out. “Neither would I,” she calmly replied. Her freedom from concern about worldly reward made her more available to serve. Her poverty freed her from the worldly considerations that often make us hesitate and hold back. Her poverty enriched others.

We are meant to do more than admire the poverty of a Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Calcutta.  We are meant to approximate that poverty by our own simplicity of life. Most of us are called, not to the radical poverty of a Poor Clare nun or Carthusian monk, but to simplicity of life. This means cultivating — by deliberate acts of self-denial — the ability to go without certain goods.  Evangelical poverty means foregoing not what we cannot afford (that’s just common sense), but even what we can afford. It means periodically ridding ourselves of the possessions that have accumulated. It means carving off part of our wealth, giving it to the poor, and growing in faith that God will provide for us.

And it should be learned first in the family. Parents have the understandable and laudable desire to provide for their children. But that good instinct is easily distorted. Children do not need to have everything. In fact, it is not good for them to have everything. A greater gift to children is the capacity to sacrifice — the ability not to have what the world says they must have — the power to possess things without being possessed by them. Which means that parents have to live this simplicity first. Do children see in their parents the capacity for self-denial, sacrifice, and the ability to go without? Or are they taught that to be an adult means to get whatever we want and to have fancier toys?

Poverty is not squalor, but it has nothing to do with the world’s luxury. Poverty is not hatred of wealth, but it certainly has a sense of wealth’s danger. Poverty is not a protest, but it is a sign of contradiction. It is an acknowledgement that one way we keep God at a distance is to amass wealth and possessions. By way of them, we dupe ourselves into thinking that we are in control.  A child’s first word is often — and unfortunately — not “Momma” or “Daddy” but “Mine!” That gives expression to a primordial wound and a tendency deep within us — the tendency to assert ourselves by way of our possessions. Poverty seeks to break us from these false securities and proclaim that God alone is in control.

Tomorrow on Encourage and Teach, we consider what the consecrated life teaches about chastity. 

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