Fr. Dubay’s book Happy Are You Poor is a masterful exposition of the Gospel teaching on material wealth. It presents a compelling, through argument proving that every Christian is called to some level of material poverty, while clearly explaining what this poverty is and why it is important, and dispelling common confusions about this topic. Along the way, Fr. Dubay presents important frameworks for making decisions and examining one’s underlying presuppositions. The book provides thought provoking questions for individual questions, including a complete examen. In the final chapter, the author concludes that it truly is the poor who possess authentic joy.
First Section: The Conceptual Framework
In the first section, Fr. Dubay explains that he wrote this book for all who wish to take up the radical challenge of the Gospel. There are many confusions and misconceptions, ranging from the conceptual to the practical, around the topic of poverty, and the second chapter lays these out. They include:
- the meaning of poverty,
- the relation of poverty to destitution,
- the relation of poverty to detachment,
- the relation of poverty to moderation,
- the relation of poverty to availability,
- whether poverty is comparable with admiration of Creation,
- how political and economic orders relate to Gospel poverty,
- and the practical problems of living poverty within a marriage, community, or society.
The author temporarily sets aside these questions, and lays down primary and secondary criteria for the book’s discussion. These criteria include:
- Basic criteria
- the rejection of relativism
- New Testament revelation
- Church teaching
- The witness of the saints
- Secondary Criteria
- sociological research on our world
- philosophic reflections on the meaning of ownership
- lived experience
- clear, logical argument
The fourth chapter lays down a set of basic premises that underpin the rest of the book:
- that our destiny is eternal;
- that joy is found in the Holy Spirit, not in material things’
- that we are to be totally in love with God;
- that asceticism is integral to the Gospel;
- that no one can serve God and Mammon;
- that Christians are called to totality of pursuit;
- that we ought to have a consuming concern for the kingdom;
- that we are all strangers on the earth;
- that we are all sisters and brothers;
- and that understanding Gospel poverty requires complete conversion of heart.
Second Section: What is Gospel Poverty?
The second section explains with what Gospel poverty is not: e.g., laziness, destitution, miserliness, mere detachment, availability, insensitivity, or sentimentalism. Following this clarification is a series of four chapters in which the premises from the preceding section are used to explain the primary values of poverty:
- An emptiness that readies one for the kingdom by freeing one from the values of the world and predisposing towards humility;
- A personal frugality that gives one the ability to share material goods with others even from our own need;
- A radicality which gives one credibility as an apostle before the world;
- The ability to treat life as a pilgrimage, and give a pilgrim’s witness to to others.
Third Section: The levels of Radicality
The Third section lays out the three levels of radicality.
- All Christians are called to the first level. It comprises correct motivation in the use of goods, working for one’s living, sharing to equality with the poor, avoiding superfluities, contentment with simplicity of life, and avoidance of vanity in dress.
- Many Christians are called to the second level. It comprises giving up necessities for others, directly serving the poor, and poverty just short of destitution.
- Some are given a special call to a third level, which is an embrace of actual destitution as an identification with the suffering and a particular way of following Christ.
The book then explains the difference between superfluities and necessities. Necessities are things which are essential to survival, health, spiritual well-being, and the fulfillment of our human functions in society. Fr. Dubay then goes on to point out that less pressing needs must give way to more pressing needs. If we love our neighbor as ourselves, his pressing need will obligate us to “give from our need.”
The author goes on to lay out the harm done by a focus on superfluities: the dulling of the mind, the loss of taste for prayer, the depriving our our neighbor of what he needs, and the loss of delight in God.
The section concludes with an examen on superfluous use of material goods.
Fourth Section: The States of Life
The fourth section covers poverty in relation to the different states of life. The author stresses that the New Testament calls all to voluntary poverty; there is no dispensation for the married, although it may look different in the lives of the married than in the lives of monks and nuns.
He gives six suggestions for living frugality in the married state:
- correct motivation;
- maintaining one’s state in life (not neglecting duties to children and spouse);
- being aware of “secular signs” (i.e. even secular writers and thinkers realize that living with moderation is healthier);
- providing a witness by a way of life which challenges worldly values;
- focusing on genuine, spiritual beauty instead of world vanity;
- and saintly radicality (some married couples are called to more radical levels of poverty).
He then discusses poverty as it applies to religious. Celibacy calls for poverty, because it would be unnatural to give up a relationship with a person merely to fill that space with things. Religious can express love through a total lack of individual possessions in a communal setting;
The last chapter in the section explains how poverty applies to the clerical state. The clergy to be totally, radically in love with God alone and free of the burden of material goods, so that they can give an authentic witness to their flock.
All chapters in this section contain examples from the lives of saints in the relevant states of life.
Conclusion: Happy Are You Poor
The final section consists of a discussion of the joy of poverty. First, Fr. Dubay refutes the arguments of an imagined opponent. To the cynical modern, this talk of joy in poverty seems like nonsense; this is because of several basic mistakes made by such a critic. The first is dismissal of the Gospel; no mere human being announced that the poor are happy, but rather God in the flesh. The second mistake is the old confusion between poverty, which is called for, and destitution, which is not. The third is a kind of worldly superficiality which equates happiness with comfort and pleasure. Contrary to this position, joy is a spiritual, lasting, inward reality, while pleasure is merely a transitory physical condition. Outward pleasure, while good, tends to lead to excess and boredom, while joy is capable of continual growth and expansion. The saints who embrace poverty, both material and spiritual, can access and achieve this joy, while the worldly can not. This is because poverty empties us, removing the distractions that prevent God from filling us with joy.
The book concludes with a detailed examination of conscience on the use of material goods.