(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