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.
An interview with Aaron Pott from Denver’s “House of Welcome and Mission.”
Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Peter Land interview Aaron Pott, who lives in a small Denver-area Christian intentional community, Casa Karibu Sze-Ming. Aaron talks about the origin, history, mission, spirituality, and structure of his community; the “home liturgies” that help glue the community together; the ups and downs of community life; raising children in a community setting; sharing burdens with others; the financial benefits of community; ecumenism; the other communities he has experienced; the balance between consensus and leadership; the dangers of idealism and overly-high expectations; not expecting a community to meet all of one’s needs; staying connected to a wider community; and the importance of hospitality. Peter Land is able to talk about his experience staying at Casa Karibu as a pilgrim traveling through Denver.
(Image shows some of the CKS members in 2019. Courtesy of Aaron Pott)
A Spirituality of Trust
In podcast 6, Peter Land and Malcolm Schluenderfritz discuss the Fr. Gaitley’s book Consoling the Heart of Jesus and the spirituality that underlies it: the great love that Jesus has for each of us, despite our sins and failings, and the great importance of absolute trust in his mercy. We also discuss The Little Way of St. Therese of Lisieux and Pope Francis’ call to go to the peripheries. Other topics mentioned include: scrupulosity; an outward focus; pride; “performance orientation;” Pelagianism; the Good Thief; St. Paul; attachments and addictions; the danger of self-sufficiency; the danger of agendas; the Prodigal Son; C. S. Lewis; detachment; A.A.; St. Faustina; St. Margaret Mary; Eucharistic Adoration; Pharisees; Jansenism; and St. Benedict Joseph Labre.
(All transcripts edited for clarity and readability.)
“If I ascend to heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.”Psalm 139:8
Suburbia has many structural flaws, as we discussed in the last podcast; but no matter how flawed our environment may be, God is with us.
A few years ago I caught a bus to make an all-day visit to a local adoration chapel. The bus route lay through miles of suburban sprawl; shopping malls, gas stations, parking lots, car dealerships; imposed, artificial order and tacky tidiness, interspersed with litter and overgrown weeds, bits of land that nobody took care of (not that anybody actually cared for the lawn around the car dealership or the sign for the shopping mall; all the kempt landscapes were just one step away from abandonment or neglect.) From an elevated section of roadway, I looked out over vast residential areas, isolated by convoluted roads and HOA fences; hundreds of roofs all alike, too new for trees to have softened their outlines, bleak under a wintery sky. As I walked from the bus stop to the church, I crossed a freeway overpass roaring with traffic; superficial attempts at upscale design of curbs and medians contrasted with utilitarian electrical transmission towers and the all-pervasive litter. The church was in keeping with the setting; an oddly shaped, hulking building, islanded in a sea of parking lots and lawns. By the time I got to the chapel, the waste and dysfunction and sheer folly of the surroundings had thoroughly depressed me.
Yet as I slipped in I was washed clean by that indefinable feeling of peace and stillness that lives in places of prayer; He was there. And so were my brothers and sisters in Christ; all day long a steady stream of adorers came to visit the Lord, dropping out of their roaring suburban traffic and busy, fragmented suburban lives into the stillness which is a foretaste of eternity. Before I left that day, I had received the most intense experience of God in my life.
If we can’t find God while living in Suburbia (and in the persons of suburbanites), we are unlikely to find Him elsewhere; for without having found Him, all our attempts, our community building projects or model villages, will merely expand Babel. God is here, right now, not far away or long ago. And we are here too, with all our glaring evil and surprising good. We will not leave ourselves behind by moving to a new setting; if we are lazy, distracted, tepid, callous here and now, we’ll be so elsewhere.
Instead, the new world we’re called to build must flow from a change of heart, as Peter Land pointed out in the last podcast; all the change of scene in the world won’t cut it. A spiritual writer once said “We are given no encouragement at all to entertain our feeling that if only we did not get these headaches, if only we had nicer neighbors, if only we knew how to pray, if only we were more humble, everything would go swimmingly. We do not have to work out how to get ourselves into a good position for having a relationship with God . . . The newness inherent in any situation of encounter with God is brought by him, not us.”
All things work for the good for those who love God, even such bad things as suburbia; and from the hearts of those who love God good things flow forth . . . including a world that is better than suburbia!