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)
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.
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.
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine grinds on, there has been a global outpouring of support. Faced with the horrors of war, we feel called to do something to help or at least to show our solidarity. Voluntary poverty can serve both as an act of solidarity with those who are suffering and as a practical response to the effects of the war on the global economy.
While the destruction of Ukrainian cities gets more attention in the media, a crisis is developing in poorer countries around the globe. The world is facing a food, fuel, and fertilizer shortage. For most of us in the USA, this is likely to prove only a minor inconvenience. For those in the poorer countries of the Global South, it is life-threatening. By embracing voluntary poverty and cutting back our own consumption, we can free up supplies for those in need. Judicious donations can transfer our unused “purchasing power” to those who would otherwise be unable to afford basic necessities.
Together, Ukraine and Russia produce a third of the world’s wheat and barley exports, and more than two-thirds of the world’s sunflower seed oil. As the war disrupts farming and transport, and sanctions hamper shipping, these supplies are in danger of disappearing. This will have catastrophic effects on countries that depend on food imports, particularly in Africa and the Middle East.
At the same time, 26 million tons of grain are fed to livestock every year in the USA alone. This represents a massive waste of calories, since the resulting meat, eggs, and dairy products contain many fewer calories than the original grains. If we all reduced our consumption of animal products, this grain would be available to feed human beings. Such a reduction would bring our consumption more into line with the global average meat consumption. An average person in the USA consumes more than 250 pounds of meat a year, while the world average is closer to 75 pounds. Feeding less grain to livestock would also reduce the environmental impact of American farming and promote better living conditions for farm animals.
Our alcohol consumption also wastes a lot of grain. Every year, the USA grows two million acres of barley for producing beer and other alcoholic drinks. By reducing our alcohol consumption, we can free up some of that land for more productive uses.
Our appetite for alcohol, however, is dwarfed by that of our vehicles. Every year, 5 billion bushels of corn are turned into ethanol to fuel American vehicles. This is a terribly inefficient way to produce fuel since the amount of energy used in the production process is so large. It is notable that most other countries do not use grains in this way; ethanol production in the USA is the result of aggressive lobbying by agribusiness interests. It is not efficient enough to be profitable on its own.
Gasoline prices have also gone up around the world, since Russia is a major oil exporter. By limiting our travel, we can help to reduce these prices and keep poorer countries from being priced out of the market for transportation fuel.
Russia is the largest exporter of nitrogen fertilizer in the world, and also a key exporter of natural gas, which is critical for fertilizer manufacturing. As the prices of fertilizer skyrocket, small farmers are being pushed out of business by growing costs.
Americans “cultivate” 63,000 square miles of lawn! All that lawn uses a lot of fertilizer—around 90 million pounds of it! Now would be a good time to skip fertilizing useless, decorative lawns to save fertilizer for more important uses. This would help to lower food costs, which are being pushed higher by fertilizer prices.
It is said that the world is facing a food shortage. This isn’t really true. Despite the effects of the war, there is plenty of food to go around—but we Americans are feeding all the food to our cows and cars! Our “need” for cheap meat and travel is depriving other people of the food they need to survive, and contributing to the ongoing degradation of the environment that we all depend on for survival. Faced with this reality, the only Christian response is an embrace of voluntary poverty. In Gaudium et Spes the teaching of the Church on this matter is laid out very clearly:
God intended the earth with everything contained in it for the use of all human beings and peoples. Thus, under the leadership of justice and in the company of charity, created goods should be in abundance for all in like manner… In using them, therefore, man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others. On the other hand, the right of having a share of earthly goods sufficient for oneself and one’s family belongs to everyone. The Fathers and Doctors of the Church held this opinion, teaching that men are obliged to come to the relief of the poor and to do so not merely out of their superfluous goods…Since there are so many people prostrate with hunger in the world, this sacred council urges all, both individuals and governments, to remember the aphorism of the Fathers, “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you have not fed him, you have killed him”.
This is a matter, not of charity, but of justice. It is unjust to consume more than our fair share of the world’s resources, particularly during a time of crisis. If we consume more, some other person will have to consume less. While we don’t know these invisible “others”, God knows them, and Christ identifies himself with them. When we stand before Christ, will he say to us “I was hungry, and you fed me”, or will he say “I was hungry, but my food was wasted because of your greed”?
We all struggle with attachments. Such attachments can transform perfectly harmless or even commendable relationships and activities into spiritual hazards. That is why Christians are called to be detached. Without the freedom that detachment brings, we will be unable to follow Christ in a sacrificial way.
In a way, the modern world is very detached. The average American moves frequently, leaving behind family, friends, and neighborhood to start fresh in a new location. Friendships tend to last only during a particular phase of life; college friends are likely to drift apart as life goes on. We’ve become much less likely to make long term commitments of any sort.
Such rootlessness undermines the possibility of authentic community. The absence of community, in turn, makes a fully Christian life impossible. In this way, the rootlessness of the modern world erodes Christian practice. This leads to a seeming contradiction. The rootedness of community is a direct challenge to the rootless detachment of the modern world—and yet detachment is essential to the Christian life. Should Christians value the ties to particular people and places that are formed in community? If so, how are such ties compatible with Christian detachment?
The Identities Shaped by Love
Thinking about the nature of love and identity can help us to answer these questions. Our true identities are shaped by what we love. Casual acquaintances might know my name, and my hair color, and where I live; but they don’t really know “who” I am. To know “who” I am, they would need to know about my loves: my attachment to particular persons and places, my religious and social commitments, and even my hobbies and interests. All of these relationships represent different kinds of love.
Love is an inherently risky thing that is almost always accompanied by suffering. We suffer when those we love are harmed or threatened, because we’ve given our hearts to them. We are also willing to undergo suffering for the sake of love. “Compassion” literally means “suffering with”. Being near a suffering person is uncomfortable, since their suffering tends to “rub off” on us. Those who lack love tend to move away when another is suffering, while those who love draw nearer in solidarity.
Our relationship with Christ is the ultimate source of our identity as Christians. Christ isn’t content to take second place in our lives; rather, he demands our whole heart and soul. We can’t wall this relationship off into a tidy category labeled “religion”, side by side with other categories labeled “work”, “politics”, “family”, and “sports”.
Given the all-embracing nature of the Christian identity, it might seem that we shouldn’t have any other loves or identities in our lives. It might seem that we shouldn’t give our hearts to anyone else, or at least that such gifts of love should be seen as merely an indirect way of loving Christ. For example, parents might participate in some game or other activity merely to show love for their children. They might privately think the game is boring and interminable, but go through the motions to please the children. Similarly, we might see human relationships as mere ways to please Jesus. He has told us that whatever is done for others will be taken as done for him. Obviously, we need to act in a generous and charitable manner toward all. But should we let our hearts become entangled in the messiness of mundane reality?
While some Christian thinkers have indeed disparaged natural human relationships, such disdain is not part of the authentic Christian tradition. Instead, we are called to truly love others. In doing so, we are imitating God himself. He loves creatures so fully and so intensely that they are maintained in being by his loving glance. There is no need for him to create; but he freely gives his love. In Jesus Christ, God even experienced the suffering that love so often entails. Out of compassion, he suffered in solidarity with his creatures.
Of course, we can love creatures inordinately; such inordinate love becomes an obstacle to the love of God. Our loves need to be properly ordered. But the heart has an infinite capacity for love. Just because we love created beings does not mean that we have less love “left over” for God.
Christian detachment does not oppose an excess of love; rather, it opposes a lack of love. The miser, for instance, is attached to his money; he hoards it carefully and refuses to give it away. The spendthrift, by contrast, is detached from his money; he scatters it about in a prodigal manner. We are supposed to be prodigal with our love. We should throw it about recklessly, just as God did when he created the universe.
Of course, such reckless love entails suffering—which is why we are tempted to avoid it! Giving our hearts to another is dangerous! Instead, we tend to give our hearts to others with a string attached. We try to drag hosts of other creatures about on such strings in a possessive manner, to inflate our egos and make ourselves seem bigger. By doing so, we avoid the risks and sacrifices that come with true self-giving. Such consumptive and possessive attitudes, however, have nothing to do with true love. It is this counterfeit love from which we are called to be detached. Detachment breaks the string and allows us to give love freely, without counting the cost or demanding a return.
Voluntary Poverty, Love, and the Christian Community
In fact, without detachment we are unable to love. Attachments are not solely an obstacle to loving God; they prevent us from freely loving anything. St. Francis of Assisi is the greatest Christian example of voluntary poverty. He gave away everything he had, so that he could freely follow Christ. For that very reason, he was able to love everything around him with a boundless exuberance. He was able to rejoice in things simply being themselves, without plotting ways to achieve dominance and mastery over them.
This highlights the difference between modern rootlessness and Christian detachment. Modern detachment is actually an attachment to the power and freedom of the self. The modern world tells us to carefully remain detached from anything that would hamper our individual freedom of choice. The modern world opposes commitments and roots in favor of self-seeking and so-called “self-realization”. For this reason, our society promotes “freedom” from connections to family and community, and even from religious and marital ties, to protect the free choice of the individual from any exterior constraints. Christian detachment, by contrast, is all about giving oneself to others. We’re called to be detached from our possessions so that we can give them to the poor. We’re called to be detached from our own will for the good of others. Both in religious life and in Christian matrimony, detachment is paradoxically expressed by binding oneself.
We can see how different these two attitudes really are by looking at the differing results. As we’ve already noted, Christian detachment leads to monasticism, life-long marriage, and care for the poor. It promotes care for creation because it leads individuals to see the natural world as something inherently worthy of respect, rather than as something merely intended to serve individual desires. It leads to thriving local communities because Christian detachment promotes unselfish love and cooperation. At the same time, it also leads individuals to leave their own communities and families to bring the good news of the Gospel to the poor.
By contrast, the modern kind of “detachment” leads to a breakdown both of the family and of monastic life. It creates a mass of isolated and disconnected individuals, each pursuing individual goals and personal satisfaction. Family breakdown leads to the warehousing of the elderly in “old folk’s homes”. A lack of care and love for the gifts God has given ends up covering the landscape with landfills. Local communities wither away and can no longer support individuals through times of crisis and need.
Love in the Christian Community
Christ didn’t come to teach ethical principles, but rather to found a community: the Church. In the Gospels, he uses the analogies of a vine with branches and a head with members to portray this community. We’re supposed to be as tightly joined to Christ and to one another as the members of a living organism are bound to one another. Obviously, we wouldn’t want the members of our bodies to be “detached”! Rather, we want the members of our bodies to work together for the good of the whole. The New Testament also uses the analogy of a building to describe our unity with one another. If the elements of a building are detached from one another, the structure falls into ruin. In the concrete reality of a local Christian community, we can practice detachment from our own egos so that, like living stones, we can become attached to one another in the spiritual temple of God. (cf 1 Peter 2:5)
Moving van picture by amy gizienski, CC BY 2.0
A Theology of History by Hans Urs von Balthasar contains the following passage about Christ’s relationship to time and his foreknowledge of future events:
It is not the case that Christ before his Passion was only appearing to live in time…What tells us more than anything else that Jesus’ mode of time is indeed real is the fact that he does not anticipate the will of the Father. He does not do the precise thing which we try to do when we sin, which is to break out of time, within which are contained God’s dispositions for us, in order to arrogate to ourselves a sort of eternity, to “take the long view” and “make sure of things”. Both Irenaeus and Clement consider that original sin consisted in anticipation of this kind; and indeed, at the close of Revelation the reward which the Son bestows upon the victor is that fruit of Paradise which the sinner had to his own hurt stolen in anticipation. (Rev 2:7) God intended man to have all good, but in his, God’s, time; and therefore all disobedience, all sin, consists essentially in breaking out of time…Hence the importance of patience in the New Testament, which becomes the basic constituent of Christianity, more central even than humility…This may be seen from Jesus’s relation to “his hour”, which is the Father’s hour. Essentially, it is the hour that is coming, which, in its coming, is always there and therefore determines everything that happens before it and leads up to it, but still has this determinative character as something that is to come, something that can not be summoned…The concept he has of it—and this kind of knowledge he does have—has for its measure that which the Father reveals of it to him. One can therefore say in general (since “his hour” is the epitome of his mission) that his knowledge as God-man is measured by his mission. The knowledge is not itself the measure, but that which is measured; whereas his mission is the measure that measures all else. His perfection is his obedience, which does not anticipate. The use of his capacities has to be adapted to this standard. To regard Christ’s knowledge as though he carried out his actions in time from some vantage point of eternity—rather like a chess-player of genius who quickly foresees the whole course of the game, and simply moves his men through a game which for him is already over—would be to do away entirely with his temporality and so with his obedience, his patience, the merit of his redemptive existence; he would no longer be the model of a Christain existence and of Christian faith.
Of course, von Balthasar is not denying that Jesus was God, and as God knew all things. There are many passages in the Gospels that show Jesus predicting the future. He is God! And yet he is also fully human. He did not let his status as God obliterate his humanity. As St. Paul says, Jesus “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7) During the temptation in the desert, Jesus rejected the suggestion to grasp at glory on his own terms. He would indeed rule over all nations and peoples, but only by following the will of the Father that led him to the cross. As von Balthasar points out, Christ showed this humility and obedience by living in the moment. As a man, he could learn and grow. (Luke 2:52) As a man, he could be surprised. (Matthew 8:10, Mark 6:6)
The humility of Christ stems from his love. He loves us so much that he was willing to stoop down to reach us. Even more amazingly, he wishes to raise us to his own level. By incorporation in the Mystical Body, we are being integrated into the very life of the Trinity. This communal reality of the Mystical Body should be the basis of any community building attempt. In particular, I think that reflecting on Christ’s relationship to time and to knowledge can help us avoid certain spiritual errors that are common among those building community.
The Bad World and the Good Community?
Devout Christians often misunderstand the true nature of temptation. We are tempted to obtain good things in the wrong way. That means that we need to be on our guard against spiritual pride and the other vices that can slip in under cover of apparent devotion. Instead, too many Christians are focused on the evils of the world “out there”. They correctly understand that such things as abortion and sexual perversions are contrary to the Gospel; but focusing on these issues can lead to a certain blindness regarding the more subtle forms of evil. This is particularly the case when Christian community is seen as a fortress or ark to hold at bay the evil of the outside world. Such a focus on other people’s sins is spiritually dangerous. It can promote the formation of a comfortable little “shire”, where all kinds of horrible spiritual sins can flourish under the cover of beautiful liturgies and seemingly devout families. Such spiritual pride goes before a fall. Eventually, God will allow the facade to crumble. Like the showy mushrooms that signal the presence of hidden decay, all the more blatant forms of evil will eventually crop up within the community itself.
The Desire for Control
As von Balthasar explains, the desire for control is the most fundamental temptation. The attitude of human beings toward God should be one of humble trust, surrender, and thanksgiving. Instead, we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness. We come to fear that he does not truly care for us, and so we set out to take care of ourselves. This was the temptation in the Garden of Eden: the suggestion that God was untrustworthy.
This desire for control can be seen in the individualism of the modern world. We are told that we need to “go it alone”, to control our own destinies. To do this, we break family and community ties. I recently came across an interesting example of this on social media. A commenter was arguing that young people should not live with their parents. Instead, he urged them to seek independence no matter what the cost. He said that he had moved away from home to live with five roommates and work several different jobs just to make ends meet, but independence was “worth it”. This is obviously absurd. Can anyone be truly independent? Why is sharing the cost of living with five unknown roommates more virtuous than sharing the cost of living with one’s parents?
The deeper, darker reality behind such views is that sharing an apartment with roommates is seen as superior precisely because of the lack of pre-existing ties. Family bonds are not chosen; they are simply given, received as a gift. Roommates, on the other hand, are chosen. They can be left behind when one no longer needs them. Our culture glorifies personal choice and individual freedom, but this leads to a deep unhappiness just as it did in the Garden of Eden.
As people become more and more aware of this fundamental lack in our society, community building starts to look more attractive. The danger is that community will become just another strategy for control. If we enter into a community with our culture’s individualistic mindset, we will fail. Community will be seen as a way to escape the dangers and problems of life, as a way of walling out conflicting ideas. Parents will see community as a way to gain control over children, leaders will see community as a path to power.
In reality, however, community building is about relinquishing individual choice and receiving others as a gift. Any healthy community will contain differing perspectives and temperaments. Such differences will inevitably lead to tension. The Christian way is to accept such difficulties, instead of striking out on an individual search for fulfillment or attempting to coerce community into artificial uniformity.
The Problem with Blueprints
In one sense, “building community” is deeply paradoxical. How can we build something which must be organic? How can we plan for something that depends on the unpredictable nature of human relationships? Von Balthasar’s description of Christ’s knowledge and his relationship to time can help us to navigate this seeming contradiction.
In one sense, Christ foresaw the future. He understood his mission, and that mission required a certain vision of things yet to come. Similarly, as Christians we have a mission. In fact, our mission is a participation in the mission of Christ: showing the love of the Father to the world. Community is a key part of this mission; the pagans in the ancient world saw the love of the Christian community and were attracted by it. To fulfill this mission, we need to think about the future. As Pope Francis says, we need to “dream” of a better world. We need to have a vision of Christian community, or we will remain stuck in the status quo.
Christ’s knowledge, however, did not keep him from truly living in time. He did not attempt to control events by drawing on an eternal perspective. Rather, he was docile to the will of the Father and the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the moment. Similarly, we need to live in the moment and be open to the voice of God. Discernment is essential, and discernment is ultimately a communal process. This means that our initial vision will probably be modified by the people and events we encounter along our path.
To maintain this flexibility, we need to fight the temptation to “grab” for power and control over events. We can’t let the initial vision degenerate into a mere “blueprint” of a future project. Living in the moment can keep this degeneration at bay. Having a meal with friends is a good and beautiful thing. It should be valued for what it is, not as a stepping stone to something in the future. It should not be seen as an opportunity to “build social capital” that can later be “invested” in some project.
Of course, such actions and activities may end up laying the foundation upon which a more intentional community is built. They can only become such a foundation, however, if we value them for what they are. We are to “seek first the kingdom of God”, and “all these things” will be given to us. The “kingdom of God” that we are to seek is “among us” in the here and now, not in some distant future.
And when the future becomes the present, we may be surprised to find that what God has built upon our foundation was not what we had envisioned, but something much better. We will be able to say, like the steward in St. John’s Gospel, “You have kept the good wine until now”.
Perhaps the greatest teaching of the Second Vatican Council is the universal call to holiness. It is, at least, the key to properly understanding the Council, according to Fr. Gaitley’s book The One Thing is Three. What does following this call look like in the modern world? Is it really possible to be a saint in suburbia?
The Little Way of the Morning Offering
Holiness does not consist in grand gestures or extraordinary deeds. Instead, for most of us holiness consists in quiet fidelity to the duties of our state in life. We are called to follow what St. Therese called her “little way”: doing small things with great love. Feeding one’s children, the performance of daily tasks, and casual interactions with others can all become transformed if we do them through, in, with, and for Christ. This is the meaning of the Offertory of the Mass. We offer ourselves along with the bread and wine, to become transformed through God’s grace. In popular Christian piety, this is reflected in the beautiful practice of the Morning Offering prayer.
Concentration Camps, Arms Manufacturing, and the Local Grocery Store
What if one’s daily duties, however, were totally incompatible with the Christian life? As a friend of mine put it, what if one worked as a guard for a Nazi concentration camp? Obviously, it would be absurd to attempt the consecration of such a life by offering it to God.
None of us are engaged in such blatant evil. And yet, there is good reason to wonder if our daily lives can truly be consecrated to the honor of God. What if one works for Northrop Grumman or Lockheed Martin building drones and missiles that our military will use in ways that contradict Catholic Just War theory? What if one works for an insurance company that provides coverage for abortions, or a government agency that advocates for abortion? What if one works for a credit card company or bank that lends money at usurious interest? What if one works for a fossil fuel company that contributes to climate change and the flooding of villages on the other side of the world? Or a so-called “Green” energy company whose lithium and cobalt mines are destroying lives in the Global South?
Quite apart from the dubious nature of so many jobs in the modern world, what if one’s daily routine includes buying produce harvested by exploited migrant workers? Their cries reach the Lord of Hosts, as St. James tells us. What if the clothes one buys cost the life of a sweatshop worker in Bangladesh?
Indeed, all of our work, all of our lives are to some extent destructive. I’m just as much trapped in this as anyone else. I work in graphic design, producing periodicals that make a quick journey from printing press to landfill. What a trivial and irresponsible use of the world’s finite resources, when so many people are going hungry! I contribute to the “great symbol drain”: the over-utilization and consequent misuse of religious imagery. Try as I might, I can’t always avoid funding evil through my purchases. What are we to do with our terribly flawed lives?
The Kingdom of God in our Daily Lives
For most of us, the answer is not to drop everything and “flee to the fields” or “head for the hills”. We have families and commitments that we can not break. We are trapped: in a certain sense, we are prisoners of the systems of evil we can’t escape. And yet we can’t give way to complacency. We can’t surrender to the systems which have imprisoned us. I think the answer must be threefold.
If we feel trapped, we can offer that up for all the other people who are trapped in worse positions. We shouldn’t fall into the mistake of thinking that just because we are trapped we are somehow unable to follow Christ. Christ himself was “trapped” in unjust situations throughout his life. Our situation does not absolve us from doing the small things with great love. The Morning Offering is still relevant, along with all the works of unpretentious virtue that it implies. We should see our offering not as a consecration of the social evil in our lives, but rather as a share in the sorrow of Christ weeping over the evil and ruin of his city.
As Father Simon Tugwell writes in The Beatitudes:
That is often the way it is in life. Life in this world is a trap. Over and over again we find ourselves in situations which constrain us, and there is no true escape. We daydream of ideal choices, but we have to live with and in the trap. We are trapped in working conditions or personal relationships which bring out the worst in us, we are trapped in the consequences of our own or others’ past misdeeds or follies, we are trapped in the social and economic systems in which we live. We have only the mammon of unrighteousness with which to invest for eternal life.
The resulting sense of powerlessness is one of the major psychological pains of our time, and it can easily lead us to despair.
The answer that the Gospel gives is an austere one … It is not by fretting and flapping, but by bearing the cross of our helplessness and frustration, in union with Christ bearing his cross, that we shall find any genuine power for a more satisfying life.
To offer our situation up in solidarity with others who are oppressed by modernity, we need to stay aware of what is happening and not shrink back. It can be more comfortable to ignore the evil in our world, but we can’t give in to that temptation. If this is our cross to bear, as Father Tugwell says, we should experience the pain of it. We have to think about the sweatshop workers, the migrant laborers, the peasants starving after their crops were destroyed by climate change, and the victims of our unjust wars. We should spend time in prayer for and with the suffering and oppressed of the world.
Part of this remembering can consist in small but concrete practices that put us in solidarity with others. Voluntary poverty can play a part in this. So can practices such as refusing to buy items made in China or other countries that lack labor protections. To the extent possible, such practices should be used to distance ourselves from the benefits of oppression. Our “101 Ways to Change Your Life” list provides a range of suggestions for such small changes in lifestyle.
Such small changes and such awareness will help to keep the longing for a better world alive in our hearts. Faithfulness in small things will pave the way for the ability to be faithful in greater things if God wills it so. Ultimately, we long for the coming of Christ, but also for the coming of his reign of peace in the here and now. We need to keep such longing alive so that when the chance comes, we are ready to change our lives to better reflect the Gospel.
Such chances revolve around the power of community. An isolated family is only able to do so much. But if we gather with others who share similar longings, we can begin to escape the reign of sin in our modern world. Together, we can start taking concrete steps toward establishing the reign of Christ in our lives.
Image of downtown Denver by R0uge; CC BY-SA 4.0