Poverty: Poor in Spirit
Perhaps the most radical vow in religious life is the vow of poverty. While modern culture may attack chastity and challenge obedience in an age of suspicion, poverty, it seems, is the true obstacle to a modern appreciation of religious life. We moderns drown ourselves in our possessions, never seeming satisfied with what is ours, always seeking what is just beyond our grasp.
It often seems that the fast pace of today’s society requires stuff, things, and objects, but to what end? Too often our work, our jobs, are merely vehicles to acquire stuff, which in turn allow us to prosper at our jobs, which allows us to acquire more stuff, et cetera, ad nauseam.
To be fair, God does not call everyone to give up everything and live apart from the world like a monk. In fact, most of us, myself included, are called to work in the world, and that requires a job, which provides an income, which we use to acquire materials both essential and supplementary. However, our work can be more than merely the means of survival; if we are open to God’s call for us, which is tied up with our vocation, our calling by God, our work takes on a special purpose as well.
There is, then, a special challenge for us who live in the world. For example, a man called to serve God as a lawyer cannot do so without having first attended law school, which costs money, which requires a job. . . So goes the process. Yet Christ calls us to practice poverty. How can we, when our lives are chained to monetary needs?
It is all about priorities.
How to be Perfect
Here the story of the rich young man proves helpful (Matthew 19:16-30). The young man who approached Jesus was a good man; by his own admission, he had followed the commandments his whole life. He was “blameless” under the law, like St. Paul (Philippians 3:6), a “just man” like St. Joseph (Matthew 1:19). For this reason we read in Mark’s version that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). Yet even this good, just, blameless young man was not perfect. Christ called him to something better: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Christ calls the young man the way he called His apostles: to leave comfort and embrace the challenging beauty of life in Christ.
At that call the young man balked and “went away sad, for he had many possessions” (Matthew 19:22; Mark 10:22). The young man had been preparing for this moment, the chance to do something great with what God gave him, for his entire life. Yet when the moment came, “he went away sad” because something else crept in place of God in his life. Unwilling to part with his possessions, he parted with Christ.
Therefore, whenever we receive gifts from God, we should never hold onto them. That does not mean we cannot use or enjoy them. The purpose of a house, for example, is for inhabiting. Yet what good are gifts if we guard them selfishly? What is the point of a grand house if we never receive guests? Why develop a skillful hand in writing or in teaching if we never share what we write or speak to those who seek to learn? What is the point of riches if we refuse to share them with those who have nothing?
God gives gifts, talents, and riches for us to share. All we have, we have received from God. All that we are, we are because of Him. Therefore, we should not attach ourselves to worldly possessions, even if we have them. It isn’t just a matter of money. We should not put, say, our car first, or our phone first, or even our prestige at work first.
A King in Poverty
In St. Joseph we find a masterful model of poverty. Remember, Joseph was heir to the Davidic kingdom. Grant it, by the time of St. Joseph, the Davidic dynasty was essentially dead, beaten down by waves of conquerors (Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans).
The Israelites kept track of who was in line for the Davidic throne, however, as Matthew 1:12-16 seems to indicate. The heirs never made a big deal about their inheritance, of course, as it is never a good idea to announce to your enemies that you are a rival claimant to the throne. So the rightful king of Israel worked as a humble carpenter.
Then came the census. Joseph and Mary probably expected a comfortable life in Nazareth, where they lived. Nazareth was a small town, but the work was good (the townsfolk knew Joseph as “the carpenter”) and the holy couple probably envisioned a simple existence. Then God called, as He does other great figures in the Bible, in the midst of Joseph’s success. He is called to take Mary into his home, to be her husband. Then, through the decree of the emperor far away (guided by the providential hand of God), Joseph left his comfortable town, his possessions, and went to Bethlehem. His was a poverty of money, yes, but also one where he did not grasp onto his God-given skills; rather he used them to do God’s will in this world.
A Bibliophile’s Addiction
In my own life, I struggle with being detached from my possessions, especially books. I love books, and have often found myself having bought used books that I did not need. For years, I hoarded my excess of books, and finally I tried, mostly in vain, to make some money out of them at local used bookstores. Many of those that I did not try to sell I kept out of some imagined need for a book that, honestly, I never wanted to read.
Eventually, I realized that I needed to detach myself from the books. Thank God for book donation bins. I mean that sincerely, as detaching myself from my possessions, my books, allowed me to attach myself to the One to whom I should have been attached all along.
As Christ told his disciples, “For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be” (Matthew 6:21).
Editor’s note: This article is part two of a four part series of the series, “Becoming True Men of Christ” which will run each week. You can receive email notifications or sign up for our feed on Facebook and Twitter.