The Personalist Project

Accessed on September 21, 2023 - 4:31:22

Some Reflections on the Spirit of Poverty

Marie Meaney, Aug 22, 2013

Not many are called to a voluntary life of absolute poverty such as St Francis of Assisi, or Mother Teresa and her sisters.  However, everybody is called to be in some respect poor with the poor in order to exercise true caritas on which, after all, we will be judged (Christ tells those who fed, clothed or helped him in some way in the poor, that they will go to Heaven,  while those who didn’t, are cast out). How are we supposed to reach the hungry, thirsty, the suffering, the psychologically wounded, and feed their hearts rather than just their bodies, if we are unable to meet them where they are?  The poor, of course, are not merely those who are in material want, but all those who are suffering intensely in some way and are in need of help. Yet, if we feel superior or simply disconnected to them – since we are, for example, not drug-addicts, homeless, depressive or in mourning– then we cannot “be” with them where they are; for “being with them” is at the core of any real help, since it means opening one’s heart to them and to their particular suffering.

Only when we have acknowledged our extreme inner poverty, our brokenness, our being anything but whole, and spiritually speaking in dire need of a doctor, only then are we capable of meeting the poor with a matching spirit of poverty. For we too are poor - though perhaps in a less obvious way - because of our frailties and our sufferings (which in all likelihood will be intense at least at some point in our lives, even if we have been generally lucky). We may not be addicts or homeless or depressive, we may not be stripped of everything nor feel more like a worm than a man (Ps 22:6), but there is not much preventing us from doing so, and certainly not our strength alone (however great that might be). Once we realize this deeply, we are embodying a true spirit of humility without which love cannot exist.

Material poverty on its own does not guarantee a spirit of poverty; misery can also embitter, make angry, rebellious and proud. But if one accepts poverty, as some religious orders do, in order to embody an inner spirit of humility and love, then poverty becomes the road to Heaven.  Then it is capable of touching the hearts of those otherwise crushed by suffering.  The goal is not to glorify poverty for its own sake; indeed, we are called to help the poor to rise from their misery and many religious orders and various organizations try to address their needs. But people, who truly live the spirit of poverty by giving up all riches, express their solidarity with them, and more than that, a folly of love willing to descend into abject misery to be with those who are poor, such as Christ did for all of us.

Since charity is a universal vocation and the spirit of poverty is essential to exercising it, it needs to be present in everybody, also in people who are otherwise very successful and happy in terms of their work, money, health, and family-life. The temptation, if everything goes for the best in the best of all possible worlds (as Pangloss would have said), is to think that one has obviously got it right, while the rest of the world, or most of it, for some reason hasn’t.

Yet only if one unearths one’s brokenness, can one exercise true charity and be true to one’s human vocation. As long as we take ourselves as the measure for others (they are too sensitive, forceful, chaotic, slow, talkative – compared to, well… us), we can be sure that we are still lacking in this spirit of poverty.  Only Christ should be our reference, not we; and He said that we would find Him in those in need. Hence He is especially present to us (even if we are unaware of it) in those who seem to us too sensitive, forceful, chaotic, psychologically unstable etc, all those who appear poor compared to us and our achievements. 

Mother Teresa once said that she had never committed the sin of judging others.[1] Few are those who can say this about themselves! But this shows that she truly was embodying this spirit of poverty, for no brokenness, no sin in another could shock her to the point of judging him. She always saw behind all of this the person whom God profoundly loves, even in the dictators of this world. She knew her own brokenness, and thus no misery was foreign to her.

However, this does not mean the saints did not find other people difficult to deal with and bear. It precisely reveals their sanctity that they were able to do so charitably. Dorothy Day’s diaries are full of her struggles with other people’s irrationality (often due to psychological disorders and much suffering), difficult tempers and lack of personal hygiene. 

It is difficult to acknowledge one’s brokenness, I mean really recognize it; to state in the abstract that we are all sinners and that, yes, we have some weaknesses we are struggling with, which we keep repeating during confession, is still fairly easy for the practicing Catholic. But to be willing to realize the extent of one’s weakness is extremely difficult. For self-righteousness is one of the main vices of the otherwise spiritually awakened, and for good cause. When it rears its ugly head, we are often unaware of; but it is generally at the root of our thinking that this person is simply too difficult to deal with, because of who she is rather than because of who we are. It is a continuous interior battle we need to fight.

Love and awareness of one’s brokenness (otherwise called humility) have to go together in order to exist at all. Love without humility becomes hard and judging. Seeing one’s faults without feeling loved leads to despair; hence we are afraid of acknowledging our brokenness, since we imagine that we are no longer loveable. It takes faith in being loved to be willing to acknowledge one’s faults.

Simone Weil once said that our hearts need to be broken, but that we generally want them to be broken by anything but God. However, only God – one could add – breaks the heart by melting it out of its self-righteousness, and humbling it into acknowledging its weakness. The greatest miracle is not to transform stones into bread, but to transform our heart of stone into a loving one. Then we are truly capable of being poor with the poor.  

[1] Leo Maasburg, Mutter Teresa: Die Wunderbaren Geschichten, München: Pattloch, 2010, p.113.