There are three evangelical counsels in Christianity: poverty, chastity, and obedience. Each, of course, presents challenges, but all are rooted in a similar goal: detachment. In obedience, God gives us the grace to free ourselves from pride and willfulness. In chastity, God gives us the grace to order and moderate our sexual passions according to our state in life, thereby reducing our obsession with their energy. And in poverty, God gives us the grace to suppress our greed and to make moderate, proper use of the things of this world.
For priests and religious, the challenge of obedience looms especially large. It is concerned with both daily matters and long-term ones, such as assignments and where one will live.
Chastity certainly challenges all: married, single, priest, religious, and laity. However, for the married and for priests and religious, chastity can be very workable as long as proper boundaries and structures are in place.
Poverty seems especially challenging to those who are married and have children. In my discussions with family and friends over the years, I’ve learned that the summons to poverty seems irksome, and even improper to many. Some say things like “Father, I have children to raise; I need to provide for them. And have you seen how much college costs these days? We need a decent house to live in. And medical insurance seems to increase by leaps and bounds every year. Poverty for me and my spouse would be foolish.”
Their objections are understandable. However, they are based on the notion that the counsel to poverty means a call to destitution, hand-to-mouth living, or a state in which one owns very little. To be sure, some are called to this sort of poverty. Religious own nothing and share all of what they earn or have with the community to which they belong.
But poverty as a spiritual counsel is deeper than what is in the bank, or the square footage of one’s home, or how much is in the college savings plan or 401-K. The poverty referred to points more to attitudes than assets. Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange speaks of the spirit of poverty in this way:
The meaning of this evangelical beatitude is as follows: Blessed are they who have not the spirit of wealth, its pomp, its pride, its insatiable avidity; but who have the spirit of poverty and are humble. … Our Lord counseled voluntary poverty, or detachment in regard to earthly goods … to combat cupidity, the concupiscence of the eyes, the desire of riches, avarice and the forgetfulness of the poor (The Three Ages of the Spiritual Life, Vol. 2, Tan Pub. pp. 141-142).
Great humility is necessary for us in our riches, since it is too easy for us to consider ourselves owners of them rather than stewards. That is to say, we are given goods by God to administer in the way He would have us, not merely according to our whims or desires. In his treatise on justice, St Thomas Aquinas says,
It is lawful for man to possess property … [but] with regard to external things [and] their use … in this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need (Summa Theologica IIa IIae q. 66, art 2).
Now certainly God would have us care for our own household first. But in an age such as ours, in which abundance knows few limits, the spirit of poverty is a necessary gift from God to help us to rightly assess what is meant by excess and superfluity. For indeed it is from our abundance that we ought to give to the poor and needy. In the lives of parents, the first who are needy are their children. But though charity does begin at home, it does not end there. And thus our notion of the poor and needy is rightly expanded to include many beyond our kith and kin.
Our culture does a poor job of schooling us in what is meant by abundance. Indeed the message today is that we can never have enough and that we absolutely need what we merely want. Is it really necessary for us to have homes of 3,500 square feet and up? Are granite countertops really essential? Are six televisions truly necessary? When have we reached the point at which we can say, “My family and I have what we need, and even a good bit of what we want. Now it is important to give out of our abundance”?
The counsel of poverty is aimed at addressing this prudential judgment. As a poor author who has never met most of you, I cannot give you the precise definition of what it means for you to give out of your abundance prudentially and generously. I cannot lecture you on how you merely want what you think you need. This is ultimately a matter between you and God.
That is why it is important to cultivate what we call the spirit of poverty. By it, we learn to be content with and grateful for what we have. By it, we can say to God, “Thank you, Lord. It is enough.” By the spirit of poverty we learn to be detached from the excesses of this world. By living more simply, we are able to be more generous both with our children and with the poor.
Through voluntary poverty we are freed of many of the extra cares of the world as well as from excessive preoccupation with external and passing things. By travelling lighter, our pace toward God and the Kingdom of Heaven can become more rapid. Our life is simpler and more focused on things that matter; we are less concerned with running after the latest upgrade, less anxious about securing and maintaining all of our many possessions.
A simpler life is less busy, so there is more time for relationships with God and others. There is more time for spiritual reading and edifying things. The goods of our heart and intellect are savored, while the goods of the body are less appealing.
Thus, the counsel of spiritual poverty is, at its heart, the call to a spirit of detachment, disengagement from what is less important in order to connect more closely with what is more important. Thus, poverty is not about less; it is about more. Voluntary spiritual poverty makes room for more of what is good, true, and beautiful; more of what is holy, edifying, and helpful.
By this counsel, God is not asking us to live in destitution. In fact, for parents with children, that might even be irresponsible. But, honestly, does not our obsession with worldly things rob us of more important ones?
Let the Holy Spirit counsel you on what spiritual poverty means for you.