Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series by Br. John Mark on the Church’s response to poverty. The first installment can be found here.
la prière seule justifie notre existence; qui ne croit pas
à la prière ne peut nous tenir que pour des imposteurs
ou des parasites. Si la croyance en Dieu est universelle,
ne faut-il pas qu’il en soit autant de la prière?
One could paraphrase the words of Mme. de Croissy in Dialogues of the Carmelites like so: “If society does not believe in the power of prayer, we are viewed as charlatans or parasites. But if they do believe in God, then how is our vocation insignificant?” The mother superior brilliantly exposes an apparent conundrum of Christianity: believers, especially those living a vow of poverty, appear pointless to the world. . . apart from faith in God. The teachings of Jesus lead them to the status of delusional beggars, despicable pretenders, or patient investors who see something most people want to pass by. Here we seek to show how the final and (we believe) true characterization is accurate. This can only be done fully through understanding and acquiring the virtue of poverty.
The first of Jesus’ Beatitudes makes the confounding statement: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Poverty is at first sight an ugly calcification and it is easy to doubt that this “shell” holds anything of worth clamped inside. But quite apart from the tragedy of material destitution and the Christian response, Jesus uses the image of the poor person here primarily to teach us about a necessary spiritual attitude.
According to the renowned scholar and master of the spiritual life Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., the virtue of poverty comes in two stages: First, it detaches us from what threatens to pin down the human spirit. Second, it brings us into healthy relation with those things which truly were meant to fulfill us. In this latter stage we discover the hidden “pearl” of poverty and the richness produced by this (at first glance) unseemly virtue.
The first part, detachment, is usually painful for us. But this step starts as early as Baptism! In that first sacrament of initiation, Christians experience and then proceed to imitate something of the self-emptying love of Christ, who was obedient to his Father’s plan even to the point of offering his life on the Cross. Immersion in the baptismal font symbolizes and initiates a life given to continual purification from the non-essential. The commitment made here entails “death to the old man”– a becoming spiritually “poor”– so as to be made a “new creation” in God. (cf. Rom 6:1-11; 2 Cor 5:17). Physical poverty leads a person not to be tied down by material things. In a similar way, says Garrigou-Lagrange, spiritual poverty prevents a person from being obsessed or controlled by the “possessions” of clever intellect, emotional satisfaction, and even spiritual elation. Instead, spiritual detachment trains us in a surrender of mind, heart, and spirit to God’s providential plan that opens us up to love ourselves and others for their own sake instead of for temporary gain.
The second part of the virtue of poverty is an experience of spiritual re-alignment. That is, the relation of people’s minds, hearts, and souls both internally and amongst each other is set aright. St. Jerome says that the poor in spirit become poor so that they can be filled with things that truly fill! Becoming spiritually poor creates the room to be authentically interested in others and capable of acting unselfishly for their good. In short, spiritual poverty frees people to love. And doing this automatically opens the human heart to God and his guidance because God is love (1 Jn 4:8). When we re-order priorities and welcome the love that has God as its source, life changes. We experience something of the joy of God’s Kingdom. Here we appreciate self and neighbor in the divine perspective and without neglecting anything that deserves our honor and respect.
The Carmelite nuns of Compiegne were martyred at the guillotine for refusing to forsake their other-worldly priorities. The austerity of their religious observance signified the first step in their pursuit of the joy and harmony that only God’s Kingdom brings. Their vow of poverty — shared by other Christians pursuing consecrated and religious life — has been a perennial and (in countless cases) successful attempt to heed the words of Jesus: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Mt. 19:21).
Image: Diego Salgado, Cementerio General Monjas