Tuesday, March 08, 2005


Joe has a very interesting post on the vow of poverty and I think he hits all the right notes and makes a ton of sense.

The "virtue" of poverty seems to work better as an idea than as a lived virtue. It is hard to put your finger on the what exactly poverty is. Coming from the prosperity Pentecostal tradition, I am one of those who believes that neither poverty nor opulence makes you a better Christian, they both have their strengths and weaknesses, but I think God would rather we be well off that poor.

Years ago, when I was considering the priesthood, like Joe, I also had noble thoughts about poverty, sandals, toughing it out, asceticism, etc. I was particularly moved by the ascetic lifestyle by virtue of scripture and reading the early church hermits and monks. But there's always been the uber-pragmatic part of me that asks, "to what end?"

The truth is that Catholic religious orders would be hard pressed to argue that they live poverty. Many orders have very sufficient funds, members have access to what they need, there is no fear associated with the lack of a safety net, it is a very comfortable and safe "poverty." Basically, the institutional Church will always find a way to take care of its own.

When I had considered the Jesuits, I was speaking with some of them and basically, the way it worked with them was that in addition to the quite comfortable lifestyle of a New York Jesuit, you got a weekly or monthly stipend depending on your needs. Some would get golf clubs, others guitars, etc. I did not find this the least bit offensive. I had gone from wanting to be a bread-making Trappist to wanting to be a lavish triple PhD Jesuit, via the Carmelites and Franciscans, and at this point, the spiritual fit was more important than the lifestyle.

However, it was at a retreat with a Jesuit on Long Island that the poverty thing made sense for me. One thing that was plain among the Jesuits and those of us interested was that you were dealing with very ambitious and talented people. And I remember this Jesuit talking about how he was in charge of a retreat house and all the work he would put into it and never got any recognition. He noted that that was poverty to him. (I should note that running this retreat house was a significant operation to a certain extent). It then cast the poverty issue in terms of opportunity cost. I realized that just about everyone in that province could have gone on to a high powered secular jobs and earned mega bucks for the same effort presently being expended. That made sense to me. Poverty, for me, since that moment, defined itself primarily in terms of sacrifice. We see this in the story of the rich young man, you was unwilling to make a sacrifice for Christ.

I'm aware that this is not the primary or sole understanding of poverty, but for me, it is the way I wrap my head around the issue.

As for "Blessed are the poor." That is less a blessing associated with being poor, but rather a recognition that the poor have borne the wrong end of the crap shoot in this life and God will make it up to them in the world to come. But this promise is also available to all who chose to be "poor in spirit" even if well off in earthly goods.

By the way, the Marxist in me won't let the previous paragraph be the last word. Marx fumed that religion killed the hopes of the poor in that they became complacent in their oppression as they looked for a better world in death. Liberation theology is about subverting the domination of the oppressors and seeking liberation here on earth. Poverty is not a good thing and we need to fight it. The mistake Marx and his liberartion theology buddies make is that they choose not to realize that there is really a heaven and a heavenly reward in which every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low, the crooked made straight and the rough places made plain, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. It's just that this hope of heaven needn't stop us for fighting for justice here on earth. The desire to fight injustice here on earth needn't be rooted in crushing the idea of a heavenly reward.

So yes! Blessed are the poor.


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