Thursday, October 23, 2008

Poverty and simplicity…

In an excellent post at St. Edward's Parish Blog today, Fran asks, "How do you define poverty?"

"We are very quick to equate poverty with money. Perhaps we need to reflect more deeply", she says, and goes on to ask, "Ultimately how can we examine the poverty in our own lives and use that to both transform and be transformed?"

Thinking about this, I was reminded of Rowan Clare Williams' words in A Condition of Complete Simplicity, where she writes,

To be poor, sadly, is still to be without a voice and without power… Arguably, 'the poor', wherever they are, are still less than people. The very phrase, 'the poor', lumps together and depersonalizes billions of individuals with different unique stories and voices which are seldom heard, because the rich and powerful shout more loudly.

It can be tempting for those attracted by Franciscan simplicity to rhapsodize about the ennobling properties of poverty. This is dangerously patronizing. It is important to understand that there is an essential difference between poverty as a chosen, life-giving option and the poverty which denies and dehumanizes. Living in un-chosen poverty does not ennoble. Instead of freeing the mind from 'distractions' about food and clothes and other material concerns, they become an obsession. Far from being set free to live abundantly, this kind of poverty concentrates the mind on the mechanics of blind survival. A poor people are not necessarily any freer from materialism than the rich; they merely have less opportunity to indulge their desires. For the sake of clarity, then, it is necessary to draw a distinction between involuntary poverty, and a choice (or vocation) to live in simplicity in defiance of a world which defines us by what we have.

Over at Inward/Outward, there is a quote from Bill Moyers' foreword to Jim Willis' Faith Works: Lessons From the Life of an Activist Preacher:

Charity is commendable; everyone should be charitable. But justice aims to create a social order in which if individuals choose not to be charitable, people will not go hungry, unschooled or sick without care. Charity depends on the vicissitudes of whim and personal wealth; justice depends on commitment instead of circumstance. Faith-based charity provides crumbs from the table; faith-based justice offers a place at the table.

Where does this take us?

Poverty, unsought, crushes the heart and dulls the mind; simplicity, chosen, whether the absolute poverty of St. Francis and his contemporary followers, or the simplicity enjoined on members of the Third Order, to "live simply and to share with others… accept[ing] that we avoid luxury and waste, and regard our possessions as being held in trust for God" (The Principles, 11), sets the heart free and clears the mind.

We who choose simplicity, whether the circumstances of our natural lives have provided us with much, as St. Francis' had, or little, as with many of the early Tertiaries, must put ourselves either personally at the service of of those whose poverty in un-chosen, or at the service of finding for them justice, and a place, by right of simply being human, at the table. As The Principles state (7), "Our Order sets out, in the name of Christ, to break down barriers between people and to seek equality for all. We accept as our second aim the spreading of a spirit of love and harmony among all people. We are pledged to fight against the ignorance, pride, and prejudice that breed injustice or partiality of any kind."

It seems to me that these thoughts may have relevance beyond the Third Order Society of St. Francis in these days of economic insecurity and environmental concern. You don't need to be a Franciscan to choose a life of simplicity and justice - but St. Francis may still have things you can learn from, and his beautiful and Christ-like heart may strengthen and comfort you as you try to work out your calling.


  1. Oh my- first of all, thank you for the link dear Mike.

    Today I got into a conversation with someone about this... and one of the things is that we so rarely welcome poverty with the hospitality required of it. That is one thing on my heart as I write this.

    I think that we are all invited to open our arms, as if on the cross and welcome Lady Poverty into our hearts.

    Boy, I can write this but I stink at actually doing it.

  2. This challenging post reminded me of an incident in Japan. I was visiting a nun in Fukushima and she told me about an inspiring, itinerant priest who lived and worked among the poor. He dressed in tatters. When the Sisters offered to do his laundry while he stayed with them. They felt sorry for him for the ragged state of his underwear and bought him fresh underwear. He blew his top because he felt it betrayed his mission to wear other than rags. She had impressed with the totality of his gift of self. I told her that, if he really identified with the poor, he would be grateful for the new underwear and not complain.
    Voluntary poverty, I guess, can become something one clings to instead of God. Simplicity, on the other hand,leaves room for God. Without justice, it is hollow.

  3. "Voluntary poverty, I guess, can become something one clings to instead of God."

    I'm reminded of the old Buddhist distinction between detachment and non-attachment! (The former can become an attachment in itself...)

    Very thought-provoking comment, Barbara, and very necessary too. Thank you!

  4. I have sent this out to people in my fraternity. I am thinking that it should go out in our newsletter, if you don't mind.

  5. Thank you, Kelly, I'd be honoured! But it wouldn't be much of a post without the other people whose work I've quoted ;-)

  6. Anonymous10:31 pm

    Mike, thanks so much for adding to the discussion. I linked up.

  7. Mike, I was warmed and impressed when I saw "The Mercy Blog" referenced on today's "Inward/Outward" message, sent by Church of the Savior. It's very good, and it will be spread even further far and wide!

  8. Wow! I'm "warmed and impressed" too, Jan... Inward/Outward is one of my favourite places. Thanks for the heads-up - I have Inward/Outward in my feed reader, but I hadn't got around to it yet today.

  9. Ironically, the question of 'How do you define poverty?' speaks to its many aspects and qualities. Mostly people begin and end with a quality of lacking...lack of power, lack of justice, lack of material well being, lack of education, etc. This is all highly important and cries for attention especially when we consider that the Lord Jesus told us to 'love our neighbor as ourself.'

    Yet St. Francis took it to an even more elemental level which was to embrace Lady Poverty in such a fashion as to become totally dependant on God. For Francis the beauty of poverty was not in it's lacking quality, but rather in its ability to set him free to be totally available to God.

    Hopefully, those who embrace this charism (with grace, penance and due time), learn to gaze upon Lady Poverty, even if from a distance, and enjoy to some degree what it means to give up temporal supports and rely more upon God.