The Spirit of Poverty

Homily given by Dcn. Bill Bach for the Passionist Oblates, 2014

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Mt 5:3

The beatitude promised to the poor in spirit is the possession of God, a possession that clothes us with infinite riches. The goal of the Holy Spirit is to always lead us to God. We will find that the practice of the Gospel spirit of poverty is a very good and wise investment for a pilgrim people, and we are a pilgrim people.

We must never forget that the baptized are all called to imitate Christ according to their state in life. Throughout scripture we find that Jesus taught poverty of spirit by his life, his words and his works. It is not incidental that Jesus, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Son of God made Man, could have lived like any king in a palace. Furthermore, He could have had a superabundance of all of this world’s goods. Instead he chose to be born in a stable in Bethlehem and to end his life bereft of all things of this world by his death on a cross. Never, was Jesus self-seeking or stingy. Quite the contrary, he emptied himself of everything so that all of humanity through him might become rich in God. Everything that he was and all that he could do was totally devoted to the love and service of his Father and the salvation of souls. Let us always remember that throughout his life, Jesus lived in a spirit of trustful dependence on the goodness of his Father.

Just a brief thumbnail sketch of his earthly life tells us so very much about him. He helped to earn the livelihood for the Holy Family by laboring as a carpenter beside his foster-father Joseph. At age 30 when he began his ministry, he left home without transportation and nothing stored up for bad times ahead. And he did this to establish the kingdom of his Father. He depended upon the charity of benefactors. Many of these, at least the ones mentioned in scripture were women who took it upon themselves to insure that he could minister to the people wherever he went. So the Son of God made Man, chose a spiritual poverty and simplicity of life while on earth. We are predestined to share the image of Jesus, to become like him.

And we Passionist Oblates are called to strive for this interior virtue of poverty of spirit to which we are all called as Christians.

So let us focus upon an understanding of the poverty of spirit. There are three parts:

1.       Detachment from what is not God or of God, and moderation in the use of earthly goods.

2.       Simplicity of life, by renouncing waste, excessive luxury and the storing up of material goods.

3.       Seeking first the Kingdom of God through Christian stewardship of the gifts of God.

By living the virtue of detachment we use the goods of this earth in moderation, in ways that serve God. We must remember that if we become attached to the riches of this world, it is very easy to get “bloated” or too big for our britches and become unable to pass through that narrow gate that leads to eternal life. In short, we would then live in the world, for the world, for ourselves and not for God.

All things have been created by God and are intended to lead us to God and to help and serve others. The possessions themselves are not the problem, but setting our hearts on them instead of on God is the problem. When our possessions and our love and desire for them interfere with our love of God and neighbor, or our obedience to God’s commandments, then we have abused rather than used God’s gifts. For all of the possessions we have, we must be grateful to God but not hold onto them with all of our fingers and toes, and our possessive attitudes. Possessions are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves. Our end is heaven, to live forever with our Father.

We are called to be Christ-like. He lived in the world but he did not become attached to it and we must seek to follow his example. To quote from the Oblate Companion (#14, p.7), we find:

“Inspired by the poverty of Jesus which reached its greatest depth in the poverty of the cross, each member (Oblate) in serious prayer discerns his or her personal observance of the spirit of detachment from temporal goods. While exercising prudence and charity, we strive to balance the ideals of simplicity and unworldliness, with the duties of our state in life. We take seriously the Church’s teaching on stewardship, placing our gifts of time, talent and treasure at the service of the Church as far as our duties and obligations allow.”

The next page of the Oblate Companion (#15, p.7-8) give us further direction:

“Most importantly, we focus on interior poverty of spirit, setting our hearts on God’s Kingdom and His way of holiness. While striving to simplify our material wants, we extend our hands in Christian charity to assist others. In all things, we trust in the provident care of our Heavenly Father who knows our every need”

So I have not said, nor will I say that we must become indigent in order to imitate Christ and serve God. As in every Christian virtue, moderation is the rule. Indeed it is a total misunderstanding of the virtue of poverty to neglect our work or our duties to our families, or to cause them impoverishment. No we have an obligation to provide for them and ourselves. We must be prudent in giving away money or goods. To act otherwise would show a lack of charity and respect for our family.

May we never go to an opposite extreme. We must never divorce faith from our lives so that we allow ourselves any and every imaginable luxury, pleasure and possession while saying, “I am truly poor in spirit in my heart, so these things will have no effect on me.” Yes, we do have to “walk our talk” as otherwise poverty of spirit is emptied of any real content or influence on the way we live.

We need to demonstrate a certain unworldliness that is simple yet sincere that comes from our heart. Jesus said we are to be in the world, but not of the world. Oh how relevant his words are today with rampant materialism and relativism. We are to be his witnesses, we are to show ourselves and others that God has blessed us and that what we have and use is for his glory and the good of others.

At no time do we hear Christ telling us to seek personal destitution. Let me read to you a quotation from Vatican II’s “Document on the Laity, #7:

“God’s plan for the world is that men should work together to restore the temporal sphere of things and to develop it unceasingly. Many elements make up the temporal order: namely, the good things of life and the prosperity of the family, culture, economic affairs, the arts and professions, political institutions, international relations, and other matters of this kind, as well as their development and progress. All of these not only aid in the attainment of man’s ultimate goal, but also possess their own intrinsic value. This value has been implanted in them by God, whether they are considered in themselves or as parts of the whole temporal order….”

Let us remember that Jesus himself did not condemn the possession of material things. He himself had rich friends. Money itself is not the root of all evil; rather, it is the “love of money that is the root of all evil (1 Tim 6:10). Poverty in itself has no intrinsic merit or virtue. However, it is good insofar as it removes the roadblock that impedes our progress on the spiritual path:

1.       Poverty helps keep us from becoming distracted by things of this world that don’t matter. Remember, the poor do not spend hours worrying about the stock market, their Keogh retirement account, or what kind of home or car to buy.

2.       Spiritual poverty allows abandonment to Divine Providence and frees us from the anxiety about the future.

3.       Poverty enables us to understand all things of truth, beauty, simplicity and justice, all values to be used for our daily needs and give honor to God.

We have all experienced a “poverty in prayer” when things are not going as we planned. In “The Essence of Prayer”, Sr. Ruth Burrows says, “A heart must be really listening, really wanting the truth, really wanting God. The difficulty is that we do not want Him. We want our own version of Him, one we can, so to speak, carry around in our pockets rather as some superstitious people carry around a charm. We can hold endless loving conversations with this one, feel we have an intimate understanding with him, we can tell him our troubles, ask for his approbation and admiration, consult him about all our affairs and decisions and get the answer we want, and this God of ours has almost nothing to do with God” (p. 14). Sr. Ruth Burrows goes on to say that prayer is not a technique but a relationship and when we do experience a “nothingness” in prayer, we must, in faith believe that God’s love is in the deepest recesses of our being and He is bringing about His will and pleasure.

While preparing these thoughts about poverty, I opened up the little book, “HIS CROSS IN YOUR LIFE” by Father Bertrand Weaver, a Passionist priest who unfortunately died in 1973. At one juncture he provided a thought-provoking and charming story about Socrates as he was passing through the marketplace in Athens. Merchandise seemed endless. From the farms they had fruits and vegetables, and there were rich fabrics piled high or spread out for inspection for the potential buyers. In the background were the buyers and sellers, and behind all of them livestock, everything was for sale. Socrates said, “What a lot of things I don’t need.” (p.40)

Is it any different today? The hucksters get into our homes through TV and radio, and you can be sure they have learned the power of persuasion to sell what they have. Sometimes they are accompanied by soft music to lull us into a buying mood. And be sure, they can always offer a better price for the same thing offered by a competitor maybe in just the last commercial. These earthly goods are always presented as essential for our happiness. Can we be as discerning as Socrates and tell ourselves we don’t need everything spread out there before us?

To connect all of this with the life, passion and death of Christ, we find it was no accident that the God who had created all things allowed himself to be divested of everything earthly, even the garments with which he had clothed his sacred humanity. In fact, Jesus was stripped naked showing that he who created the world gave up all his earthly goods. Could there be anything more inconceivable? But – this was his way of teaching the blessedness of the spirit of poverty. Reflecting on the Beatitudes we read, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust consume, and where thieves break through and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither rust nor moth consumes, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, and subsequently all humankind developed a greed for worldly goods and power. We know that it can be so great that it leads people to lie and cheat, to steal and even kill. As we know, greed often causes both the poor and the wealthy to forget that they too are the stewards of God’s bounty and ignore the needs of their fellowmen.

The material goods with which God stocked the earth must not be considered bad. No, the badness comes only when these good things are abused. All of us can use what God has placed in the world as much as he wishes, but the cross tells us to do it in such a way that the use of these things will not harm but help ourselves and others in time and eternity.

Let us spend a moment or two considering the work of Johannes Baptist Metz, a German theologian born in 1928, who wrote a tiny but intensely meaningful book entitled, “The Spirit of Poverty” published in 1968 and translated into English in 1998. Metz helps us to truly understand the impoverishment that Christ endured. He said, “Everything was taken from him during the passion, even the love that drove him to the cross. No longer did he savor his own love, no longer did he feel any spark of enthusiasm. His heart gave out and a feeling of utter helplessness came over him. Truly he emptied himself (Phil. 2:7). God’s merciful love no longer sustained him. God’s countenance was hidden during the passion, and Christ gaped into the darkness of nothingness and abandonment where God was no longer present. He reached his destiny, stretched taut between a despising earth that had rejected him and a faceless heaven thundering God’s “no” to sinful mankind. Jesus paid the price of futility. He had become utterly poor!!!!!” And Metz continues in the next paragraph: “In this total renunciation, however, Jesus perfected and proclaimed in action what took place in the depths of his being: he professed and accepted our humanity, he took on and endured our lot, he stepped down from his divinity. He came to us where we really are – with all our broken dreams and lost hopes, with the meaning of existence slipping through our fingers. He came and stood with us, struggling with his whole heart to have us say “yes” to our innate poverty.” (pp 13-14)

It is no accident that “poverty of spirit” is the first of the beatitudes. It is also the mother of the three-fold mystery of faith, hope and charity. Only through poverty of spirit do we draw near to God: only through it does God draw near to us. It is where God and humanity encounter each other.

In poverty of spirit we learn to accept ourselves as beings who do not belong to ourselves. It is not a virtue that one “acquires”; as such, it could easily turn into a personal possession that would challenge our authentic poverty. We truly “possess” this radical poverty only when we forget ourselves and look the other way. LET ME REPEAT THIS; Poverty is not a virtue that one “acquires”; as such, it could easily turn into a personal possession that would challenge our authentic poverty. We truly “possess” this radical poverty only when we forget ourselves and look the other way. And to quote Jesus, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the reign of God (Lk.9:62). To look back for reassurance is to try to acquire possession and full control over this virtue, which amounts to losing it.

If we have a nice car, a good home and enjoy good health, we should thank God for His blessing on us, as all good comes from Him. But we should realize that these things do not make us beautiful or rich in God’s eyes. We must remember always that we are already rich in Jesus Christ and that “for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Again, I shall say it --- we are already rich because we are baptized sons and daughters of God.

But let’s look at some of the reasons why people pursue money and material things. Often, they believe it will bring them a new identity, satisfactions, and security and power. In times when they are struggling, they may find solace and consolation in worldly things. So very many people suffer from low self-esteem, and believe that a new car, hairdo or wardrobe will make them different and lift them out of their despair. Probably all of us have had a sense of power, even a new identity because of money, a job or something materially special. But how long does it last? When the money runs out, do our friends leave us? So were they really friends? They had the illusion that we were somebody with power and somebody to tag along with. Wouldn’t we rather have them see our kindness, our joy and beauty in our souls? That is what really matters.

Getting caught up in what we think makes us important and worthwhile can lead to an endless pursuit of things, particularly material things that have no lasting power. And why is that? Because we never achieve the desired satisfaction because God is not in the picture. Material things are fleeting. They break down or wear out, and the vicious cycle starts over. But that is not the case in our relationship with God. His love for us is constant and never-ending. This is so true. True satisfaction comes only from the Lord, and no material item can bring lasting inner peace. What does Psalm 37:4 tell us? “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

The Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen said, “It is a well attested fact that those people who are the most impoverished in their souls try to cover this inner destitution by extreme luxury on the outside. The more naked the soul, that is, the more devoid of virtue, the greater the need of the body to give the appearance of possession through fantastic dress, display and ostentation. The more the soul is clothed with virtue, the less is the need for outer compensation.”

Not surprisingly, Blessed Mother Theresa had this to say: “The spiritual poverty of the West is greater than ours…You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness…They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.”

Lately, Pope Francis said, “It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the “tyranny of relativism” which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.”

We are at a point in time where THE WORLD tells us what is good: and we don’t hear too much about God and what he desires most for us. As I set out at the beginning quoting Matthew 5:3, “How blessed are the poor in spirit: the reign of God is theirs” this seems like a good time to review the fruits of the poverty of spirit. Let’s list them, or at least some of them:

·         Happiness and holiness are the first fruits.

·         NEXT, is peace and joy with a freedom from anxieties, cares, preoccupations and worries arising from excessive wealth, or from the unrestrained desire for “more and more.”

·         NEXT, is kindness and goodness which allows us a greater freedom to help others in the service of the Church.

·         NEXT, is greater freedom from envy and greed; acceptance and gratitude for who I am and what God has given to me. We count our blessings.

·         NEXT, is freedom to love God with one’s whole heart and soul and mind and strength and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

·         And FINALLY, there is a freedom for a life of prayer leading to eternal life.

So what does my summary spell out loudly and clearly? FREEDOM!!!!!!!!!!! And nothing is impossible for God.