The Book of Judges is one of the most depressing and troubling books in the Old Testament. It contains stories from the time between Joshua’s conquest of Cannan and the rise of the prophet Samuel. These stories follow a repeated pattern. The people of Israel fall under the power of their enemies; they then cry out to God, and God sends a judge to deliver them. The judge liberates the people and inaugurates a time of peace. The people again fall into idolatry, which yet again leads to their subjugation.
I think it is important to note that the people fell away from God during times of prosperity and returned to him only in adversity. God had been very generous to them, but they were ungrateful and forgot how much they owed to his goodness. We see an instance of this in Joshua 2:10-12:
When the rest of that generation were also gathered to their ancestors, and a later generation arose that did not know the Lord or the work he had done for Israel, the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. They served the Baals, and abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the one who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They followed other gods, the gods of the peoples around them, and bowed down to them, and provoked the Lord.
This lack of gratitude toward God was combined with a parallel lack of gratitude toward other people. After Gideon delivered the people from their oppressors, the tribe of Ephraim quarreled with him because he had not summoned them to the battle. Instead of rejoicing at their deliverance, they let self-importance and envy darken their hearts. This lack of gratitude among the people, combined with Gideon’s own fall into idolatry, eventually led to the destruction of Gideon’s family. Later in chapter 8, the writer comments that “The Israelites did not remember the Lord, their God, who had delivered them from the power of their enemies all around them. Nor were they loyal to the house of Gideon for all the good he had done for Israel. (Judges 8:34-35)
It isn’t explicitly stated in the book of Judges, but I think this may be where the temptation to idolatry enters the human soul. After we’ve forgotten all that God has done and is doing for us, we are left with a focus on what we haven’t got. Even amid abundance, our desires and wants are insatiable. In particular, as Aristotle wisely noted, there is no natural limit to the desire for money. Once we are relatively well off and yet still discontented, the worship of false gods can seem attractive. These evil gods of violence, lust, greed, and power lure us in with the false promise that they can provide what the Lord has not given. And so we are sucked into the terrible spiral of violence, subjugation, and destruction depicted by the Book of Judges.
It is very easy to fall into this habitual ingratitude. We all want lots of things from God, but we tend not to notice what he has already done for us. We forget about it, or just take it all for granted. We tend to feel that we are owed all that we have, and so don’t feel the need to offer thanks, but we are quick to complain when any little thing goes wrong. Similarly, we tend to take the people around us for granted, as if they were put on Earth only to serve us. We can easily come to ignore the beauties of Creation; the marvels of sight and sound, the power and majesty of the sky, the silent green presence of the trees, and the perfection of simple flowers.
Those of us who belong to the middle class in “developed” countries are in particular danger of becoming ungrateful. By historic standards, we are incredibly wealthy and comfortable. We have access to an abundance of food, and the diversity and richness of our diets would have amazed our ancestors. We tend to forget that tropical fruits such as bananas and pineapples were once rare and costly, and that many fruits and vegetables weren’t available in the winter. We take our large houses for granted, and have a hard time imagining how our recent ancestors managed with much less space. Our houses are heated and lit by the flip of a switch, and unlimited hot water flows out of our taps. Even something as commonplace as our drawers and closets full of clothing would impress people from the past; before mechanization, fabric was costly and clothing was valuable. And yet most of us don’t see ourselves as rich; we cast sideways glances at the billionaires, and conclude that we’re merely average, or even poor. Our culture has blinded us to our own wealth, making it almost impossible to be grateful, let alone truly detached. After all, the first step toward detachment is surely a realization of what we really have!
Voluntary poverty is the antidote to this spirit of ingratitude. It is closely connected with the practice of gratitude and thanksgiving. It consists in being content with a sufficiency of material goods, and avoiding superfluous consumption, while keeping in mind that no created good can satisfy our hungry souls. Rather, we should remain hungry at heart and reject the false gods who promise fullness; only if we remain empty can we be filled by the goodness of the Lord. This is the message of the Beatitudes; the followers of Christ must be free to love. Only those who are poor in spirit, those who mourn and hunger and are meek and clean of heart, can bring peace and mercy to those around them, even when they are persecuted. And only the poor in spirit can enter God’s kingdom of love.
Worshiping the false gods of consumption leads to bondage and misery. They turn us in upon ourselves, so that we are unable to see the glory of things as they truly are. Under their influence, we are unable to love God and neighbor; we are even unable to truly enjoy and appreciate the good things that God has made. Our world shrinks to a tiny point of discontent and frustration. By contrast, the Lord calls us to freedom and thanksgiving. He calls us to renounce our chains, leave the dark cave of our own desires, and join the joyful song of Creation. The Letter to the Hebrews instructs us to remain free from the love of money and be content with what we have, because we have here no lasting city, and our confidence is in the Lord. Rather, we should “continually offer God a sacrifice of praise.” (cf. Hebrews 13:5-15)
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Peter van Kampen, the author of Live Simply: So That Others Might Simply Live. They discuss the Gospel’s teaching on material wealth and why Christians shouldn’t live lives of luxury while others are starving. You can purchase his book here.
Peter is a cradle Catholic. In college, he become really struck with the Church’s teaching on the universal call to holiness. We are all called to be saints, and Peter wanted to put this calling into practice in his life. Of course, there are many components to striving for holiness; but Peter found that the definition “make love your aim” really sums up what holiness is all about.
As he tried to apply this motto to his life, he began to wonder about the way he spent his money. He was tithing his income, since that seemed to be a basic Christian principle; but after that, he felt free to spend his surplus money as he saw fit. At the same time, he knew that there were charitable organizations that could feed and cloth a child in Africa for a little over a dollar a day. And as Christians, we are called to love others as we love ourselves.
With this in mind, his spending started to seem selfish and inconsistent with his goal of making love his aim. He would find himself spending 15 dollars on an unnecessary restaurant meal or movie, or two dollars on a Coke—and then think about how he’d just wasted the money that could have provided for the basic needs of somebody else.
He eventually confided these concerns to his future wife, Catherine. She challenged him to stop just worrying about it and do something practical. So he decided to implement what he calls his “luxury budget”. He would continue to tithe and would pay for all his basic necessities. Beyond that, he would allow himself only $100 dollars a month for any unnecessary purchases, and the rest of his surplus money would go to charity.
This allowed him to give away more money, and he found that he actually enjoyed living a more simple lifestyle. But it also forced him to ask even more questions. Suddenly, every purchase had to be classified as a necessity or as a luxury—and if it was a luxury, it was going to eat away at that luxury budget.
On a mission trip to Kenya, he encountered real poverty for the first time. This encounter increased his determination to live within the luxury budget he had set—and in fact, he eventually reduced the monthly amount.
Initially, Peter had thought that this attempt to live simply was just a part of his personal spirituality. Eventually, however, while he and Catherine were preparing for a conference, they discovered that the Church actually teaches that wealth is spiritually dangerous and that our surplus money belongs to the poor as a matter of justice.
Once he realized this, he felt free to teach it to others. And he became struck by two things. He found this teaching on simplicity of life everywhere he looked; in official Church documents, in the New Testament, in the writings of the saints and the Fathers of the Church. At the same time, Catholics in the “developed world” simply weren’t talking about this teaching. Most of them had never heard of it, and even explicitly denied that the Church taught anything of the sort. This surprising disconnect is what led Peter to write his book, Live Simply: So That Others Might Simply Live.
During the podcast episode, Peter quoted the following section from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2445 Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use:
Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned, you have killed the righteous man; he does not resist you.237
2446 St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. the goods we possess are not ours, but theirs.”238 “The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity”:239
When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.
During the podcast, we talked about the important role of conscience in the Christian life. Each person has to discern what the Church’s teaching on the proper use of material goods means for his or her life. But the importance of conscience does not mean that anything goes! Rather, we each have a duty to form our own conscience properly and apply certain basic principles in each area of life. At the end of the podcast, Peter outlined three principles that should guide our use of material goods.
Every Christian is called to live simply and donate any surplus wealth to the poor.
This does not, however, mean that we must give away what we legitimately need. As Pope Leo XIII said in Rerum Novarum: No one is commanded to distribute to others that which is required for his own needs and those of his household; nor even to give away what is reasonably required to keep up becomingly his condition in life.
We need to be careful, however, that “living becomingly” does not slip into living luxuriously. And this leads to the third principle. St. Basil the Great said: “By a certain wily artifice of the devil, countless pretexts of expenditure are proposed to the rich.” We have to be alert and reject those “pretexts of expenditure”.
A Greater Understanding of Reality
One of the advantages of a simpler way of life is a greater understanding of reality. As inhabitants of the so-called “developed world”, we consume resources at an enormous rate, without being aware of how unusual this is. Historically speaking, even the wealthy consumed much less than we do. The rich at the time of Christ or in the Middle Ages would be amazed by the lifestyle of middle-class North Americans. Even a hundred years ago, people owned many fewer possessions, lived in smaller houses, and generally lived a more strenuous life.
Around the world today, this affluent lifestyle is still an anomaly. Most people have to get by on much less than the average Canadian or American. By embracing a simpler lifestyle, we will not only be able to help the poor; we will be able to recover a sense of gratitude as we realize how blessed we really are.
And we will be able to recover another kind of reality; a realization of our true obligations to God, who has given us everything we have. We are constantly told that we are supposed to be “stewards” of our possessions; such language makes little impression on us, because we don’t think about what the word really means. As stewards, we don’t own anything. Everything truly belongs to God; as the psalms tell us, “The Earth is the Lord’s”. That means we don’t get to decide how to use our possessions; we have a duty to use them for the glory of God and the service of our neighbor. We get annoyed when politicians use our money for their own enjoyment; we should feel the same way about a Christian who uses God’s money for personal enjoyment while other people are starving.
Featured Image: Houses in the Kibera Slum, Nairobi, Kenya; image by Colin Crowley, CC BY 2.0.
In this episode, Malcolm interviews Leia Smith from the Orange County Catholic Worker. They discuss the Catholic Worker way of life, the attractiveness of an authentic Christian life, the dangers of institutionalism, the importance of admitting one’s own weaknesses and limitations, and the need for a “Catholic Worker Third Order”.
At the beginning of this podcast, I asked for donations for the Simone Weil House. To donate or learn more about them, visit their website.
Leia wasn’t a practicing Catholic when she first encountered the Catholic Worker. When she was 5, her parents left the Catholic Church and started attending a Methodist Church instead. In 1993, however, she experienced a spiritual crisis, and stopped by the local Catholic church because it was the only church open that evening.
Shortly thereafter, she found a newsletter from the Orange County Catholic Worker; the paper advertised a regularly scheduled liturgy and potluck. She didn’t know what to expect, but showed up anyway. She was challenged and attracted by what she found; a communal way of life that only made sense in light of the Gospel. As Leia put it, this way of life had integrity; it was real. This introduction to Catholic practice gave her an unusual perspective on the Faith, leading her to see the sacramental and theological life of the Church from the perspective of radical hospitality and the communal sharing of life that she experienced at the Catholic Worker.
After a few years of participating in the life of the CW house as a volunteer, she and her husband Dwight were given the chance to take over the management of the house. They accepted, even though, as Leia put it, they had no idea what they were doing! They learned on the fly and have been running the house ever since.
Depending on God
The Catholic Worker lifestyle forces people to give up the pursuit of worldly security, which makes room for God to act. This can even be experienced in the small things of life. Leia described her chaotic attempt to cook her first community meal. At the last moment, she realized that she didn’t have any bread to serve—and just at that moment, a man showed up at the door with a bunch of bread to donate.
Part of this dependence on God is a realization that we have limits, that we don’t always know what to do, that we don’t always have what it takes and need help. And it is in those moments that God’s grace is poured out on us.
The Dangers of Imitation
One way to avoid this dependence on God is the attempt to imitate others. For instance, a Catholic Worker might try to imitate Dorothy Day. But each of us is called to be ourselves, with our own particularities; imitating others makes us artificial and keeps us from being truly authentic.
A key temptation of the modern world is seeking security by becoming an institution. We are obsessed with metrics and structures; many people feel that their attempts are worthless unless they are working on a grand scale. We want to have a “success story” that will justify our efforts. Ultimately, however, this is just another way of avoiding dependence on God. He does not need us to solve all the world’s problems; rather, he simply calls us to follow him and act lovingly in each individual situation.
The Catholic Worker Third Order
Leia talked about how the works of mercy can end up becoming “institutionalized” by being confined to those who are able to run a Catholic Worker House. For most Catholics, that’s not an option. In particular, it is not possible for those who have family obligations or who are disabled. But we are all called to live lives characterized by mercy, charity, voluntary poverty, and trust in God. Also, there is a danger that Catholic Workers will come to see themselves as the only “real” Christians and look down on those who aren’t living at a CW house.
To solve this problem, Leia suggested that what we need is something like a “Catholic Worker Third Order”. Many people would like to live more radically Christian lives, but they feel isolated and alone. They need a support network. Even more, they need to be given “permission” to live in this way; they need a framework that explains and validates their decision.
And this is consistent with the original vision of the Catholic Worker. In a sense, Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day were simply trying live out the Gospel in the modern world. They were trying to remind the world that the Gospel message is incompatible with material affluence and that the Gospel insists on personal charity toward the poor and marginalized. Their message is for every Christian, not just for Catholic Workers.
Sometimes, the Church’s call to embrace voluntary poverty and her emphasis on the poor and oppressed can seem counterproductive. After all, growing in virtue is an important part of the Christian life—and wealth would seem to be conducive to such an end. Or, if not wealth (since the wealthy are hardly exemplars of virtue) at least a moderate amount of affluence. With middle-class prosperity comes a certain respectability. By contrast, the lives of the poor are often chaotic and messy.
Part of this seeming paradox stems from a conflation of poverty and destitution. While the Church calls for poverty, she does not endorse destitution; destitution really does make a life of virtue more difficult to achieve. Similarly, even moderate poverty can be spiritually oppressive in today’s culture. Our society is focused on the accumulation of wealth, and so the poor are despised and marginalized. Those who can’t engage in conspicuous consumption are seen as inferior and even morally deficient. This is why we need “a poor Church for the poor”; the Church should be a society in which the poor are treated with respect and dignity. For more on this, see my recent essay on whether the poor are “busted” or “blessed”.
It should also be remarked that the virtues of the well-to-do are often an illusion. Pope Francis has often said that we should go out to the peripheries. We should go to aid the poor, certainly; but most of all, Pope Francis calls us to go to the peripheries to encounter the world as it really is. At the peripheries, we can escape the distorting smog of wealth and power. With sharpened vision, we will see defects and problems that we never noticed before.
What is true for society as a whole is also true for the individual. At the peripheries, we are more likely to see ourselves as we really are. Stripped of the finery provided by wealth, we will discover the true state of our spiritual muscles. For most of us, this unveiling will be an unpleasant and unsettling experience! It is easy to act virtuously when everything is going smoothly, but the real test of virtue comes when the going becomes rough. At the same time, the peripheries can also provide the setting for amazing acts of charity and trust that are called forward by the difficulties of daily life.
As I’ve explained elsewhere, wealth is the opposite of community. Wealth gives individuals power and makes them independent of others. They can choose their companions, choose their location, and have as much or as little company as they please. It is easy for them to retreat into personal pursuits or private rooms if they want to “get away from it all”.
By contrast, the poor need the support of a community, and can’t be as picky about who they interact with. Such unintentional community is going to be messy. Living in close quarters will generate friction. Tempers will be lost, and personal idiosyncrasies will grate on others. This might be mistaken for a lack of virtue when, in fact, it is the only way in which virtue can be developed. Community is a school of virtue in which development occurs through failure. If we don’t know our own faults, we won’t know where to focus our efforts. By making spiritual flaws apparent, a community can save individuals from falling into pride; the most serious spiritual disease is thinking that one is well. Jesus was gentle to sinners, but severe toward those who “were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”
It is important to remember that no amount of virtue will ultimately save us. Before God, we are all sinners, and we are all dependent on his mercy. At the same time, none of us can truly judge our own virtue, let alone that of others. C. S. Lewis writes:
Most of the man’s psychological make up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or the worst of this raw material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things we thought our own, but which were really due to a good digestion, will fall off some of us; all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. We shall then, for the first time, see every one as he really was. There will be surprises.—Mere Christianity
And I could add “all sorts of nice things that were the result of wealth and education will fall off of us; all sorts of nasty things that were the result of destitution or ignorance will fall off of others.” Certainly, there will be many surprises in store. We can, however, get some of those surprises out of the way now, while there is still time to change the results. By stripping away illusory virtues, poverty and community remind us of our inherent weaknesses. At the same time, such an unvarnished experience of reality will give us more insight into human nature. The experience of weakness in an authentic community is tempered by love. Having received the love of others even when we were at our worst, we will be able to adopt a merciful outlook toward the weaknesses of others. In a small way, we will be able to see with the mind of God, who “knows what is in man”, but whose love is nevertheless beyond our imagining.
(This essay was previously published in The Catholic Radical, a publication of the Maurin House. You can listen to our interview with Tyler Hambley from the Maurin House here.)
Contrary to popular belief, the Gospel calls us to embrace voluntary poverty. This external, material poverty is only valuable, however, insofar as it leads to or flows from the poverty of spirit that gives access to the Kingdom of God. (Mathew 5:3)
The “Little Way” of St. Therese can guide us as we seek true interior detachment. The poor in spirit are those who have surrendered themselves completely to God’s loving mercy. We are all totally dependent on God, whether we like it or not; but the poor in spirit have enthusiastically embraced their dependence. According to St. Therese, what God loves about us is precisely our weakness and littleness. If we let him, he can work in and through our weakness; by contrast, prideful insistence on our own strength will lead to failure.
Jesus said that the sick rather than the healthy need a physician’s care. This doesn’t mean that only some of us need God’s help; we are all weak and sinful before God. Instead, it means that God can only help those who realize that they are weak. In this way, the realization of one’s weakness can become a hidden strength, while those who see themselves as strong remain trapped in their own weakness.
In describing our dependence on God, St. Therese used the analogy of a parent who carries a child up a steep set of stairs. Our goal is to climb the “stairway of perfection”, but aren’t able to do so on our own. Striving for virtue is an integral part of the Christian life. Our focus, however, should be on God’s mercy rather than on our own efforts. A focus on our own efforts turns our religion into a contest of bourgeois respectability rather than an ardent relationship with God.
Dependence on the mercy of God also helps us to avoid the trap of scrupulosity and despair. Scrupulosity leads people to become overly focused on their personal spiritual struggles. They think they have to achieve sanctity through their own efforts; when they fail in this impossible quest, they become discouraged. This discouragement, in turn, makes further progress almost impossible. No amount of introspection can help those trapped in this situation; the problem can only be solved by turning outward in loving surrender.
The presumptuous, self-righteous Christian and the scrupulous Christian are actually examples of the same spiritual problem: excessive interest in personal salvation and a desire for control. The Little Way’s surrender of personal control highlights one of the many similarities between material voluntary poverty and spiritual detachment. The accumulation of material wealth is an attempt to achieve personal security in this life. The wealthy buy expensive insurance policies and build up saving accounts to protect themselves against future disasters.
The problem with such attempts is that no amount of money is sufficient; there’s always the possibility of an unforeseen event. Even more disastrously, this pursuit of personal security through wealth leads to social isolation. To the hoarder of personal wealth, connections are simply liabilities; they might lead to demands upon one’s precious and limited resources. The miser is a classical and extreme example of the isolating effects of wealth, but examples of this isolation can be seen everywhere in our affluent, lonely society.
By contrast, voluntary poverty moves the focus from our own personal security to the well-being of the wider community. Building up a strong community provides a different kind of security, one based on mutual self-giving.
Traditional communities have always practiced this sort of mutual “insurance” by caring for those who fall on hard times. Building on and expanding these traditional practices, the followers of Christ built up a community in which nobody was in need. (Acts 4:32-35) When everyone shares, no one is hungry.
In the spiritual life, poverty and surrender also have communal implications. Self-righteous Christians tend to pass harsh judgments on their neighbors, while the scrupulous are too obsessed with their own spiritual state to care about others. But when we truly put God first in the spiritual life, we can reach out in love to assist our brothers and sisters. We are called to “Seek first the kingdom of Heaven”—and the kingdom of Heaven is Christ himself, along with his mystical body, the Church. Casting aside worldly wealth makes room in our lives for others, and spiritual poverty cuts through the engulfing fog of our own concerns. It allows us to accept God’s mercy, and in turn to bestow on others the merciful love we have received.
Cover Image: photo of St. Therese from the public domain
I’ve been taking a bit of a summer break from blogging and podcasting. In the meantime, I’ve been creating an online course that draws on the work of Fr. Thomas Dubay to outline the practice and theory of voluntary poverty. In particular, I tried to highlight connections between voluntary poverty and other aspects of the Catholic Faith.
I’m also hoping that this course will help to build more community among the readers of this site. Participants in the course are encouraged to interact in the comment box under each lesson and in the associated group chat.
The course can be used in a self-guided manner, at your own pace. You can join and access all the course material on the Smart Catholics website at this link: https://members.smartcatholics.com/courses/7633351/about
For those who prefer in-person discussion, the lessons of the course will also be the basis for a series of discussion meetings offered in collaboration with the Living Communion Initiative. (The Living Communion Initiative is a project of the Simone Weil Catholic Worker House; check out our interview with them for more information on their work.)
The meetings will be held on Mondays at 8 p.m. (EDT) from September 12th to October 17th. See the full schedule below. Note that the meetings on September 12th and October 3rd will be combined meetings with the First Monday gatherings of the Living Communion Initiative, and so will have a slightly different format than the others. If you can’t make all the discussion meetings, feel free to attend these two as stand-alone events. The other meetings will go into greater depth with a smaller group.
Contact me if you’d like to participate in the meetings, and I will put you on an email list to receive the zoom links and meeting reminders. Feel free to participate in the discussion meetings even if you haven’t finished all the course material. I will highlight the most important material for each meeting in the reminder emails.
- September 12th (Living Communion Gathering): The Theory of Voluntary Poverty, the Call to Love God and Neighbor. This meeting will be an overview of the first half of the course, sections 1 and 2, with a particular focus on lesson 1. It will focus on the call to “universal radicality”: we are all called to be saints, and we can’t keep any aspect of our lives separate from this call. In particular, the love of neighbor to which Jesus calls us has concrete implications for how we live our lives.
- September 19th: This meeting will cover the rest of section one, lessons 2-4 in the course. They are grouped together as “problems and presuppositions”: the presuppositions of the world on one hand, and the presuppositions of the Gospel on the other.
- September 26th: This meeting will cover all of section two, lessons 5-8 in the course. They are grouped together because they are all about what voluntary poverty is (and is not) and why the Church values poverty.
- October 3rd (Living Communion Gathering): The Practice of Voluntary Poverty, An Economy of Community. This will be another stand-alone meeting previewing the second half of the course. In particular, we will be discussing: Father Dubay’s “levels of radicality”; what voluntary poverty looks like for the laity; and the “economy of communion”.
- October 10th: This meeting will cover section three, lessons 9-10 in the course. They are outlining what, concretely, voluntary poverty demands.
- October 17th: This meeting will cover Sections four and five, lessons 11 and 12 in the course. These lessons cover how voluntary poverty applies to different states in life, the joy that poverty brings, and a final wrap-up of the course. There will be an opportunity to discuss what each participant learned from the course, and a discussion of practical applications of Fr. Dubay’s insights in daily life.
A few weeks ago, Steve Skojec posted an essay to his substack that bore the provocative title “Busted Are the Poor”. The tagline encapsulates the message of his essay: “Christ said the poor are blessed, but poverty makes most of us miserable.” As the editor of a blog entitled “Happy Are You Poor”, I felt that this called for a response! Yet I don’t completely disagree with Skojec. In fact, I think he makes many valid and instructive points. It certainly is true that poverty makes many people miserable. As Skojec personally experienced, poverty can even have negative spiritual effects. It can make people selfish, discontented, angry, and depressed. How can it still be true that the poor are blessed?
A Confusion of Terms
Father Dubay, the author of the book Happy Are You Poor and the unofficial patron of this blog, can provide some insight. Addressing the disagreements that swirl around the concept of voluntary poverty, he cited the following quote from St. John Henry Newman: “Half the controversies in the world are verbal ones; and could they be brought to a plain issue, they would be brought to a prompt termination…When men understand each other’s meaning, they see, for the most part, that controversy is either superfluous or hopeless.”
In this case, I think there is a lot of superficial confusion that can be cleared up by a careful definition of terms. To begin with, the concept of “blessing” itself can be confusing. Christ says that the poor are blessed, but poverty is a mere negative. As such, it has no value in itself. It is only valuable insofar as it prepares the way for something else. Just as silence can be valuable if it leads to prayer, poverty can be valuable if it clears the way for discipleship. Fr. Dubay uses the example of readiness to read to illustrate this. By itself, such readiness is not valuable. A child who is ready to learn reading still can’t read, but such readiness is a prerequisite for eventual learning. Poverty is a prerequisite for true discipleship, but it does not necessarily lead to such discipleship. The poor merely possess a certain readiness for discipleship.
Further, this readiness can be negated by other factors. As Skojec points out, the material circumstances of the poor can hamper their spiritual development. And here it is important to draw another distinction. While poverty can be spiritually beneficial, destitution and a lack of security are generally harmful to a person’s spiritual life just as they are harmful to a person’s physical life. Skojec says that his family was not destitute while growing up, but it appears that he experienced destitution later in life: a lack of the basic necessities for a good human life. He writes:
During one particularly rough patch, when my wife was pregnant with our fifth child, I was working 50-60 hours a week in a state with no mandatory overtime pay and no benefits. It wasn’t enough to cover food, utilities, rent, and all of our other expenses. We couldn’t afford living room furniture, so we sat on an old air mattress that kept deflating on the hard tile floor. The front two tires on our van wound up blowing out because the rubber had worn paper thin. The generosity of a stranger who was reading my blog at the time and offered to loan me a couple thousand dollars is the only reason we got out of that situation. We broke our lease, moved across country into my parents’ cramped 1-bedroom basement apartment with all five of those kids, and stayed there for a year until I had saved up enough, with the help of a loan from one of my brothers, to put down on a house. The son my wife was pregnant with at the time is named Jude because a novena to St. Jude I was praying was answered. The petition I was praying for was that our food stamps would be renewed. My pregnant wife and small kids needed nutritious food, not borderline spoiled garbage from the “manager’s special” section of the ghetto grocer. My son Ivan was so excited the first time we were able to buy fresh fruit again that summer. I gave him a bag of oranges, and you’d have thought it was Christmas.
The Gospel’s call to embrace voluntary poverty is not a call to embrace destitution. A few saints do have a special calling to embrace destitution, usually as an act of solidarity with the destitute. In general, however, we are not called to embrace destitution; in fact, we are called to eliminate destitution through charitable giving.
It is true that destitution can make it harder to attain sanctity, or even a decent human life, in the here and now. There is yet another meaning to the term “blessed” that should be considered, however. God seems to favor society’s outcasts and rejects. It may well be the case that a homeless drug addict is nearer to the kingdom of God than many prosperous and devout Christians who seem to have everything together. In the Gospel, this can be seen in the stories of the Good Thief and the Samaritan Woman. They were social outcasts and sinners, yet they recognized Christ while the Pharisees failed to do so. Similarly, Lazarus was admitted to the company of Abraham, while the rich man burned in hell; Abraham explained that during their earthly life, Lazarus had received bad things, while the rich man had received good things. Now their roles were reversed.
This Gospel teaching does not mean that we should tolerate destitution, or that we should stop striving for virtue and discipline in all areas of life. It is merely a warning against judging solely from the standpoint of this life. Even spiritual successes can be dangerous if we put our trust in them. We’re all equally beggars before God; none of us merited our own creation, and none of us can merit our eventual salvation.
Security, Good and Bad
The lack of security that so often accompanies poverty is a complicated issue. Like destitution, a lack of security can be spiritually corrosive, particularly for children. Some people say that a lack of security is a good thing; according to them, it leads to greater trust in God. Should we really put our security in anything other than God? There’s a certain truth to this, but I think such people are missing a crucial point. Steve Skojec writes:
Jamie was more successful than I was early on, but we kept having kids every two years like good Catholics do, and she’d have to stop working to take care of babies or risk leaving them in the care of others. This situation made me upset every time we found out we were expecting again, which took a toll on our relationship. We frequently couldn’t cover all our bills, and were constantly floating late payments…So while yes, being poor makes people more dependent on God — you’ll rarely pray harder than when you’re about to be evicted or don’t have enough to eat — I’m just not sure that’s the best way to experience religion. One of the most important things I had to learn was to do for myself, and that meant not expecting God to do it for me. I believe I’ve written about this before, but the notion that we “can do nothing without God” needlessly debilitates people, sometimes keeping them from recognizing their own ability to help themselves. Praying for a raise isn’t the same thing as asking your boss for one. Novenas for a good job aren’t the same thing as building the skillset you need to land the position. And resigning yourself to poverty because you don’t want to be overly attached to money or material possessions means you’ll always be mired in mediocrity. If you don’t have the ambition you need to properly provide for yourself and the ones you love, how is that a virtue? How is the mentality that you’re blessed because you’re poor not just an excuse not to do your best?
Skojec is right to criticize the platitudes about trusting in God; it can all come across as very patronizing to the poor. In reaction to this, he advocates a certain kind of self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Both positions miss a fundamental point. Jesus didn’t come to give humanity a code of ethics that individuals could adopt at will; rather, he came to found the community of the Church. Within that community, we’re supposed to be as tightly joined to one another as the members of a physical body. For an isolated individual or family, poverty entails a damaging lack of security. The only way to attain security as an individual is through the accumulation of wealth.
The pursuit of such individual security is harshly condemned by the Gospel. What is often missed, however, is that Christians are called to replace the individual security based on accumulating wealth with the security that comes from being part of a loving community. The rich fool with his barns was condemned, while the first Christian communities described in Acts shared their goods to such an extent that “there was no needy person among them”. (Acts 4:34) If we’re going to tell the poor to trust in God, then we have to get busy and ensure that their trust is not in vain. We have to act as the agents of God’s providence; otherwise, as St. James tells us, our faith is dead. (James 2:14-17)
A friend told me that when he was growing up in a “Little Italy” of tenement dwellers on the East Coast his family and friends were all poor, but nobody was ever allowed to go hungry; the community looked after its own. Currently, the Church is failing to even live up to the standards set by merely human communities. The call to embrace poverty goes hand in hand with the call to build radical Christian community. (It is also notable that this is a “pro-life” issue. Steve and Jamie Skojec choose to have a large family. Such generosity is commendable, but too often the parents of large families end up burnt out by the strain. Today, individual families are on their own; in more traditional cultures nuclear families were supported by networks of extended family and local community.)
At the same time, a commitment to voluntary poverty does not prevent individuals from striving for excellence in their professions. In fact, voluntary poverty does not even rule out making a lot of money! Let’s imagine a hypothetical businessman who runs his company in accordance with Catholic principles. He pays all his workers a generous living wage and offers family-friendly benefits, his products are of high quality and are sustainably produced, he avoids undercutting his competitors, and he reinvests surplus wealth in his company’s local community. Even though his high principles put him at a disadvantage against unscrupulous competitors who off-shore jobs and pillage local communities, his commitment to honesty has paid off and his company is making a huge profit. So far, our businessman is an exemplar of Christian virtue.
Now he is able to pay himself a large salary. Everything depends on what he does with this income. If he uses it to amuse himself or live in luxury, he is not living a truly Christian life. But if he provides for his family’s modest needs and then gives the rest of his income to charity, he would be living a life of voluntary poverty in accordance with the Gospel. In any discussion of voluntary poverty, the stress should be on the word voluntary.
Still, it should be noted that many people will not achieve such success, no matter how hard they work. Skojec says “When you believe in abundance, and that there’s more out there for the taking if you just go out and get it, suddenly the stuff you have isn’t such a big deal anymore. Suddenly, you don’t feel like you need to cling to it for dear life.” Believing in abundance will only get one so far. For one thing, our hypothetical businessman is rather rare today; our whole economy is stacked against those who bring their Faith into their business dealings. For another, many people struggle with some kind of disability or handicap. The Christian community exists to make sure that the weak are not crushed by the burden of life, burdens that they might not be able to carry by themselves.
You Can not Worship God and Mammon
The idol of the USA is Mammon: the individualistic pursuit of wealth, power, and status. In such a society, the poor are outcasts. They are not able to worship at the sacred shrine, and so lack a sense of self-worth and dignity. Skojec recounts his experience of being rejected as a child:
I’m the oldest, but I rarely got new clothes, and when I did, they were usually from a clearance bin. Most of my apparel was of the hand-me-down variety, and it usually arrived in large black trash bags, the collected cast-offs from my more well-to-do older cousins. I got made fun of a lot in school because of my clothes, or the fact that I wore whatever generic sneakers my mom could grab for cheap from K-Mart instead of Nikes or Reeboks. It was the age of Air Jordans and Reebok pumps, after all. None of this Spaulding crap. So I started picking up jobs as early as I could. Babysitting at 14 turned into mowing the parish cemetery at 15 and then working at the local hardware store at 16. I quit football after my freshman year so I could work. The wages were garbage, but I worked as much as they’d let me, and it felt good to go the mall and buy my own clothes, my own shoes, and my own video games. I could even go to the movies, or go out to eat at the Chinese buffet. I had to go alone most of the time, but at least I got to go.
Whatever else that school may have been teaching, it was effectively training new acolytes for the worship of Mammon. Jesus said that the poor are blessed, but he also said that no one can serve both God and Mammon. In the USA, most of us are subconsciously trying to serve both. Not surprisingly, such divided loyalties come with quite a bit of mental anguish. As the young Steve Skojec found, Mammon is a hard master, and its servants mercilessly persecute those who can’t or won’t serve their god. There was no logical reason for Steve to have been ashamed of his generic sneakers; in some societies, he would have been seen as fortunate for having shoes at all! And it isn’t as if the name brands are that much better at protecting one’s feet. Rather, he suffered embarrassment and rejection simply because he was not able to afford a meaningless status symbol.
Whether our poverty is voluntary or involuntary, few of us can resist the societal pressure to worship Mammon. We all tend to give the well-to-do more respect. Nor is this a recent problem. In his Letter, St. James warns the early Christian communities to beware of making distinctions based on wealth and fashionable clothing. He directs them to honor the poor members of the community. Without such a truly counter-cultural community, the poor will indeed tend to become mentally and spiritually “busted” by their interactions with the worshipers of Mammon.
A Community that Builds One Another Up
As Skojec points out, not all of the poor end up busted. Almost miraculously, some of them are supernaturally generous and unselfish:
It must be acknowledged, though, that there is another group of people: the truly, inexplicably generous…Poor folk who give freely and without reserve. People who will give you the coat off their back on an icy day, or the last bowl of soup in the pot even though they don’t know where the next meal will come from. They exist, and they are mysterious. Almost inexplicable, humanly speaking. These people are truly next level. They’re the ones I really admire. They’re the truly blessed poor. The ones whose wisdom we could all stand to benefit from, if we can only understand how it works.
I think that such generosity truly is a mystery; a mystery of God’s grace. Such people represent the Christian ideal. Most of us, however, are not able to achieve this ideal without assistance. That is the purpose of the Church. As Christians, we are called to “build one another up in Christ”. Through a personal experience of God’s love mediated by the Christian community, we can grow in the trust necessary to embrace voluntary poverty. No one can give what they do not have. To pour ourselves out in love of God and neighbor, we must first receive this love through those around us.
In this episode, Malcolm and Peter interview Robert and Erin Lockridge. They are self-described “parish farmers” and the founders of Moriah Pie, a pay-as-you-can restaurant in Norwood, OH. (During the episode, they mentioned The Moriah Pie Cookbook; you can find it here.)
As parish farmers, Robert and Erin maintain a network of vegetable gardens in Norwood. They grow food to share with their neighbors and consider their work to be a form of prayer. While they are both Orthodox Christians, their work is not a formal church ministry as such. Rather, it is a personal way of inviting others into a Christ-like attitude.
Too often, we tend to confine our religion to what happens in church, or to a personal relationship with God; the rest of life gets left out. In this way, we can become “Gnostic” without realizing it. Gnosticism was an early heresy that denied the goodness of the physical world. Instead, Gnostics focused on an intellectual pursuit of truth and on attaining a purely spiritual salvation through acquiring secret knowledge.
Robert experienced this disconnect while he was studying theology in Vancouver. He had done a lot of gardening while growing up. As his Faith life deepened, however, he begin to feel that the physical world and material concerns were irrelevant to the important mission of saving souls.
Yet his theological studies didn’t seem relevant to the lives of people in his rough neighborhood. He felt that he needed a way to integrate all the sorrow that he felt and that he needed a way to pray with his body. In this spirit, he began gardening again. He found the process of tending the soil, planting seeds, and receiving the gifts of God through the bounty of nature to be deeply healing and nourishing.
He also found that his gardens allowed him to exercise a pastoral ministry that didn’t require being stuck in an office. He was able to work outside, tending the land, and receiving gifts from God through the people that he met.
In part through reflecting on this experience, Robert came to realize how limited his earlier perspective had been. As he studied theology, he came to realize that every aspect of the Faith is based on the Incarnation of Christ. In Jesus Christ, God came in the flesh. By doing so, he consecrated the material world.
As man, God became fully dependent on this created world to reveal who he is, and to reveal what it is to be fully human and made in the image of God. We’re called to love God with everything we have, and that includes the body.
In one sense, the world was created for us. But in another sense, we were created for the world. God placed us here to tend and care for it so that it might flourish. We were made in the image and likeness of God, and so we are supposed to initiate his act of creation.
This is raised to a new level in Christ. At the very heart of the Gospel is the giving of life so that life might exist and flourish. As those made in the image of God, we get to participate in this self-giving love. In the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we see the true image of God that we are called to imitate.
The way of the world is that either life is taken so that life might exist, or life is given so that life might exist. The temptation is to take life to protect our own. But as Christians, we are learning to be free of the fear of death so that we can imitate Christ in laying down our lives for the life of the world. We’re called to serve, rather than to strive for domination.
Peter noted that we experience the undying eternal reality through the physical reality. This is the meaning of the sacraments, and in one sense all of the created world is sacramental.
In this way, tending the earth is a good metaphor for the cultivation of our souls. And this interior cultivation becomes a reality through our interaction with the physical reality. We can’t cultivate our souls through thought processes alone, or in isolation. To do so we need community and the physical reality.
A beautiful story that Erin told exemplifies this sacramental understanding. She explained that by washing her children’s feet, she was able to learn how to initiate Jesus—and Jesus washed his disciples’ feet to show us the reality of God’s love.
Feeding Hungry Bodies and Souls
Part of imitating Jesus is feeding the hungry. Even if we can’t do it in the same miraculous way that he did, we can do so by giving our time and resources and participating in the everyday miracle of creation.
While Erin and Robert were on their honeymoon, they were inspired by a waitress in Maine. She seemed to know all the patrons at her cafe and was able to exercise an almost pastoral ministry toward them. They were going to be living over a vacant space that had once been a coffee shop. And so, sitting in that cafe in Maine, they begin to envision what would eventually become Moriah Pie.
The year before, they had run a pay-as-you-can CSA in the neighborhood. Neighbors could buy shares of vegetables from their garden, but there was no set price. In fact, Robert and Erin committed to remaining blind to what people were or were not paying. It was a good project, but it didn’t make as much sense as it could have made to the people of the neighborhood. Many of them weren’t used to using various types of fresh produce, or didn’t want to cook with it; it didn’t fit into the patterns of life in that particular place.
And so Robert and Erin envisioned a pizza restaurant that would allow them to transform their garden produce into something more meaningful. They decided to open it only one evening a week so that they could spend the rest of their time growing the food. And like the CSA, it would be run on a pay-as-you-can basis. It would look just like a regular restaurant, but at the end of the meal, customers would receive an envelope instead of a bill. They could put whatever they wanted into it, and then the envelope would be dumped without anyone looking to see how much any particular customer had paid.
They chose the name Moriah Pie because they wanted to reference the place in Scripture where Abraham names God as the God who provides. Moriah Pie was an invitation to trust in the providence of God.
Robert said that in the modern world we tend to live as practical atheists. We live in a culture and economy that is deeply disconnected from all the relationships on which it depends. We are far removed from all the people and creatures and the land that goes into our provisioning. This disconnection produces a deep form of poverty that leaves us vulnerable to practical atheism.
Moriah Pie allowed those involved to directly experience God’s providing care. Such experiences can produce a truly Eucharistic perspective in which gratitude becomes the foundation of life and every action becomes a way of communing with God.
We are called to work for God, so we shouldn’t worry so much about protecting ourselves. We have to have trust in God, and therefore be willing to go out on a limb. It is important to recognize our needs, but also to be able to receive, both from God and from others. We have to resist the American ethos that says “I can do this all on my own”.
Moriah Pie invited this kind of mutual dependence on one another; many different people gave generously of themselves to make the project a reality.
Erin and Robert explained that while their piazza was not “expensive”, it wasn’t “free”. Some people started to see Moriah Pie as a place to get “free pizza”—but nothing is free in this world. And seeing something as “free” can actually cheapen it.
Certainly, somebody could eat the pizza and walk away without paying anything. This was the expected outcome of a pay-as-you-can restaurant; the food was not priced. It was not expensive, because some people can’t afford expensive food.
At the same time, the pizza was not “free”. As a matter of fact, it was very “costly”, perhaps more so than pizza that could be bought elsewhere. “Cost” is at the center of everything that is valuable; our Faith is a very costly gift. All food comes with a cost, a cost to the bodies and lives of those who grow it, a cost to the community, and even a cost to the soil.
Robert and Erin were OK with the fact that people sometimes walked away without paying anything, but they did ask all the guests to consider the cost, to think about all the effort of growing and cooking the food and running the restaurant. And they asked those who ate at the restaurant to consider giving back in some way, whether through volunteering or in some other way.
Some of the most meaningful gifts were very small. For instance, a homeless man drew a picture for them and left it along with a few pennies. As Erin said, if all that you can offer is three pennies, that might be costly for you!
Bearing the Burdens
Our economic system is premised on hidden, externalized costs. These costs are borne by underpaid workers, and by damaged ecosystems and communities far away. When we buy cheap goods, we don’t see the real cost and its effect on others.
Rather than shunting costs onto other people, we should try to bear the costs ourselves. We should try to keep the costs close to home, where we can attend to them. Robert explained that they’ve chosen ways of life that involve more vulnerability, less control, fewer material goods, and more work; in all these ways, they are trying to avoid displacing the cost onto others, but instead learn to bear the cost well themselves.
By keeping the cost local, we can all become more like Christ. By bearing the costs with one another as a community, the culture of a place can change. St. Paul tells us to bear burdens for one another so that the weak are not crushed by them.
Inefficient for What?
Robert and Erin worked primarily with hand tools. In a world where so many people don’t know how to pray with their bodies, a world that lacks “good work”, using less technology is a sort of witness. To become skilled with one’s hands is something deeply empowering.
Of course, working by hand is seen as inefficient. But we always have to ask: inefficient for what? When Peter Land visited Moriah Pie, he helped to shell black walnuts by hand. It was a rather inefficient process; after hours of work, he only had a small pile of shelled nuts. Yet during that time, he and the other workers enjoyed great conversations and time with one another. A method of work that is inefficient at producing a large volume of food quickly might be the most efficient way to cultivate human relationships. Shared work and food are essential to community life; our modern fragmentation of life is partly a result of an “efficient” economy that values quantity above everything else.
Moriah Pie did not solve all the problems of the world, or even of the neighborhood. Yet it helped those involved to “rest in God”. This is the core task of the Christian life. We have to learn to die so that we might live. We have to learn to trust and rest in Christ, like the Apostle John at the Last Supper. In building community, we have to be careful to be so wrapped up in achieving something that we missed the value of the present moment and what God is offering us.
More about Robert and Erin:
After the closure of Moriah Pie, the Lockridges are now running a breakfast cafe on the same pay-as-you-can model while continuing their work as parish farmers. To support their work, consider purchasing their Moriah Pie Cookbook, which can be found here. It tells the story of Moriah Pie through beautiful illustrations, photos, and reflections, and contains a collection of unique recipes.
Cover image courtesy of Erin Tuttle Lockridge
The call to embrace voluntary poverty is one of the hardest teachings in the Gospel. It is widely rejected by otherwise devout Christians. In part, such rejection stems from mere misunderstanding. Gospel poverty is often equated with destitution, but it does not entail a lack of basic necessities. In fact, Gospel poverty calls us to aid the destitute by sharing generously with them.
Other objections have more of a basis in actual fact. One of the main concerns people have about embracing poverty is that poverty seems to entail a lack of security. Wealth is fundamentally oriented to security; savings accounts and insurance policies are designed to protect us from unforeseen disasters. In particular, parents desire security and stability for their children, and wealth seems to be the only way to attain this goal.
Some would respond to this concern by claiming that such a lack of security is a good thing. They would say that our security should be found in God alone and that putting our trust in created things is inimical to putting our trust in God. After all, we will have to give up any created security at the end of our lives when we will be called to surrender ourselves completely to the mercy of God. If we haven’t practiced such surrender during our lives, how will we achieve it at death?
There is some truth to this position; however, it ignores several critical points. Some people are called to embrace destitution and a total lack of security for the sake of God. But for most of us, and particularly for children, material security is important.
Today, most of us seek our security through what I will call the “individual method”, which is based on wealth. We are advised to make investments, build up savings, purchase insurance, gain marketable skills, and even choose a house based on the likely resale value. This personal accumulation of wealth is supposed to provide for the upbringing of children, support us during retirement, and protect us in the case of disasters and misfortune.
“Prepping” is a good example of this pursuit of individual security. Preppers store up vast amounts of food, weapons, and other supplies to ensure that they will survive any disasters in the future. This may seem extreme, but prepping can serve to highlight certain fundamental tendencies in our society. The American Dream is based on achieving individual wealth and then enjoying a comfortable and secure suburban life, isolated from the problems of other people. While the prepper seeks security and isolation in a bunker full of food, the suburbanite seeks it in a house with a two-car garage, insulated from neighbors by lawns and winding drives and paid for by a well-stocked bank account.
In fact, our society is so oriented toward this kind of individual security that even Christians have come to see pursuing it as praiseworthy and virtuous. Given our social conditions, such a mistake is understandable. But it is undeniable that this individual search for security is harshly condemned by the Gospels. Perhaps the clearest example of this condemnation is the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21. He built bigger barns to store his vast wealth; this wealth, he thought, would make him secure and comfortable for many years. But God responded to these thoughts of his, saying “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”
Christians should avoid such hoarding of wealth not merely because it is spiritually dangerous, but because it signals a lack of charity. Effective hoarding depends on protecting wealth from others. If we save up wealth for a future that may never come, we can’t use it now to help those who are in need. Why should the hypothetical needs of our future be considered more important than their real needs in the present?
There is, however, another way of attaining security: what I will call “the communal method.” This method of achieving security is common in more traditional cultures, and is actually recommended by the Gospel. It is based on giving generously in the present while trusting in the goodness of the community to provide for the future.
The Amish, for instance, condemn the practice of insurance. They feel that it displays a lack of trust in God. And due to their cohesive communities, they don’t need insurance. When disaster strikes, the community comes together to help those who are affected. If a house or barn burns down, the community has the skills and ability to rebuild it.
This kind of tightly-knit community used to be much more common. A friend of mine told me about his experience growing up in an ethnic neighborhood community on the East Coast. He said that while they were all poor tenement dwellers, nobody would have ever been allowed to go hungry in his neighborhood.
The Early Church provided this sort of community-based security. The Acts of the Apostles describes how the wealthy members sold their property to provide for the needs of all, and local churches sent aid to areas that were suffering from famine. Monastic orders have continued this practice of communal security.
Depending on a community for security is not opposed to trusting in God. God works through secondary causes. In fact, the Christian community is supposed to show the world the love that God has for each one of us. As the Mystical Body of Christ, when we care for one another we are participating in God’s work of creation and redemption.
Of course, this security strategy depends on having a community! St. James condemns the Christian who would ignore a brother or sister who was in need of food or clothing. But today, we don’t know who among us might be in need. We hardly know our neighbors and our fellow parishioners. For all we know, the family in the next pew over has just had their power shut off or is struggling to buy groceries.
In this way, Gospel poverty and intentional community are the flip sides of the same coin. Poverty makes community desirable. If we are individually wealthy, we may come to feel that we don’t need others. By contrast, in poorer countries, community is still valued. An acquaintance recently told me that in Honduras the people tend to look out for one another, despite all their other problems. As he put it, in Honduras they have “small houses and large plazas”; the public sphere is emphasized. By contrast, here in the USA, we have large houses while in many places the public square is non-existent.
At the same time, community makes voluntary poverty survivable. We can achieve a certain simplicity of life by ourselves. It is fairly easy to cut back on unnecessary travel, avoid buying luxury goodsn and switch to buying second-hand clothing. But to follow this teaching fully we need a supportive community. We can’t escape our dependency on insurance and individual wealth without assistance.
All the Gospel precepts were given to a community rather than to disconnected individuals. Christ came to found a Church, not to provide a list of ethical statements. Without a community, we are unable to fully live out the Christian life. For this reason, rebuilding community needs to be a priority for Christians going forward. This rebuilding doesn’t need to come in the form of grandiose projects. Rather, it should start simply. Get to know fellow parishioners. Invite them over to talk, eat, and pray. Spend time with one another. While such gatherings may seem futile in the face of the challenges facing us today, Christ promised that where two or three are gathered in his name, he would be in the midst of them. Only by gathering together with Christ will we find true security, both in this life and in the next.
In this episode, Malcolm and Peter start discussing the second chapter of Let Us Dream, by Pope Francis. This is the fifth part of a series of episodes. The first episode is here, the second episode is here, the third here, and the fourth here. The following are some of the points we discussed.
Individual Discernment and the Community
In the first chapter, Pope Francis talked about the importance of seeing clearly so that we are aware of the reality of the world around us. In the second chapter, he talks about the importance of discernment. We need reflection, silent prayer, and study to discern; but we also need a community.
How are individual discernment and the private conscience of the individual related to the communal teaching of the Church? It might seem like these things are opposed. In reality, however, the guidance of the community is there to keep individual discernment from going off the rails. It provides accountability and helps us to see beyond ourselves. We also need authority to keep private interpretations from producing division. This is why the Church has the final say on any private revelation.
Growth as a human person always includes a history, a tradition that we’ve inherited, and feedback from others. Even Jesus himself built on the Jewish tradition that he inherited as a man. As Catholics, we have the community of the saints and the rich tradition of Catholic thought and practice. None of us can claim to have formed our own ideas of religion and morality for ourselves; we’ve all been shaped by others.
Learning in community is much more than just coming to understand concepts. Concepts are presented to us by fellow members of our community, but they are not learned primarily through intellectual thought. We learn by doing, being part of a community that has certain kinds of practice, through the witness of others. As St. Paul said, imitate me, as I imitate Christ.
The tradition grows like a tree in the living tradition of the community. If concepts become isolated from their lived surroundings, they can become idolized. When that happens, we are left with these dead concepts and no way to grow. Unless concepts are enfleshed, they are of no use.
Values and Unity
Pope Francis says that all values are non-negotiable. Division occurs when values that should be together end up separated. A good example of this is the Protestant/Catholic split, in which one side represents the importance of the personal and the other side represents the importance of the institutional. That’s why we can learn from those on both sides of these historic splits; we can learn from what they do well, and learn to correct what we might do poorly.
Currently, the Church is undergoing a split between progressives and reactionaries. Those in both of these camps tend to appeal to their own personal judgment and discernment and use this personal discernment against the Church. Progressives appealed to conscience against Humanae Vitae, and reactionaries are currently appealing to their own understanding of Church teaching to reject Pope Francis. Such moves further division and destroy the chance for authentic dialogue. To keep this from happening, we need to give our own vision to the Church; that way, our vision can enrich the Church, instead of tearing it apart. That is why Pope Francis is calling for a synodal process of listening to one another during these difficult times.
As Pope Francis says, all values are non-negotiable. Dialogue is not about deciding which values to drop; rather, dialogue is about coming to a deeper appreciation of the values that we share.
If we cling to our own personal understanding of a particular value without taking the views of others into account, our understanding will be stunted.
We can learn about our own values from other people, who may practice them better than we do.
St. Augustine said that we can never exhaust the meaning of scripture because scripture is the word of God, and thus infinite. This being so, the truth is always beyond us. Too often, we think of truth as something we possess, all tacked down and finalized. Those holding such a view fear dialogue. It is seen as necessarily involving a surrender of some aspect of the truth. Instead, if we realize that we can always learn more, we will see dialogue as a quest for more truth.
A Refuge from the Tyranny of the Urgent
As well as dialogue, however, contemplation is needed for authentic discernment. Pope Francis says that we need a “refuge from the tyranny of the urgent”. The tyranny of the urgent can lead us to see all events merely through the lens of our own projects, our own interests. We need to be attentive to current realities, but we also need a healthy degree of separation, the ability to step back. Paradoxically, this will give us a better perspective on the events themselves.
This stepping back and achieving interior silence is not opposed to dialogue; in fact, it too can be a communal project. In the practice of Lectio Divina, we pull away from the tyranny of the urgent as a group, so that we can listen to the Word of God.
The Beatitudes as Values for our Time
Pope Francis presents the Beatitudes as the key set of values for our time. They are central to the Christian Faith and are expanded on by Catholic Social Teaching. It is important to realize just how radical the beatitudes are. They cut against the grain of all human striving. They are extremely different from any set of merely human values.
There’s a temptation to see the beatitudes as “very nice ideals”, but to look elsewhere for guides to practical action. Pope Francis, however, is telling us that they should guide our actions in the current moment.
Our model is a crucified Savior, who was a “failure” in a worldly sense, and yet redeemed the world. In a similar way, the saints actually did more in the long run for the world than the practical people. Where are the worldly-wise now? What lasting values did they really achieve? We aim for a different kind of success. Even if we seem to fail, God is pouring graces on the world through us!
To make Catholic Social Teaching and the Beatitudes come to life, we need to start practicing them. We need to be a community of and for the poor. We need to always put the weakest members first. What would such a community look like? If we took the principles seriously, they would radically reorder our lives.
It is easy to say that we should put the poor first. In practice, however, it is often a different matter. It is hard enough to sacrifice money for the poor—even harder to sacrifice our convenience and the way we order our lives. Too often, we’re merely giving from our excess, both financially and otherwise. We offer services for the poor, but we don’t offer to bring the poor into our lives. And of course, there are many different kinds of poor. The lonely, the sick, the disabled, and the marginalized are all “poor” in their own ways. Malcolm and Peter shared some stories of how this isn’t being done, and how bureaucracy and convenience are leading to a rejection of Christ in the poor.
By contrast, the Catholic Worker communities we’ve interviewed bring the poor into their hearts and homes. And many Catholics would be ready to do something similar if they were presented with the opportunity. Peter told a story of how he was attacked by a vicious dog while he was on a walking pilgrimage, and how some Catholic parishioners took him in and took care of him until he was well enough to continue traveling.
St. Peter’s Basilica by Vitold Muratov, CC BY-SA 4.0; Let Us Dream Cover image, Fair Use