Poverty, Anyone? Why the First Evangelical Counsel Is a Gift for Us All

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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.

16 Replies to “Poverty, Anyone? Why the First Evangelical Counsel Is a Gift for Us All”

  1. We are an average household and could have made more monies and materially plenty if we (my husband and i)turned our family time/day into hardwork for ‘success’. Looking back, we thank the Lord for His abundant blessings, not of material wealth but a family intact with God our Father as the Head of our household, Who often provides whenever there is lacking. And the tradition continues with our daughters. Thank You, dear Jesus; and thank you too, father.

  2. “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” Thank you Father. This is so beautifully written.

    No one that i can ever bring to mind, has ever explained this poverty so clearly. It has been my experience that in embracing poverty that i actually have more and live a rich satisfying life that does indeed, focus on God and all the attendant beauty and peace that goes with it.

    The Holy Spirit has guided me to change from a thoughtless, careless spender, to one who now considers every purchase. i now ask myself: Do i need this or is it not really necessary. Because i have learned to be more prudent with my money, i have found i can make purchases, based not so much on price, but on value. So now, i am able to share what i have much much more freely.

    But the biggest change has been within my relationship with Christ. Nothing could have prepared me for the abundant joy, the peace and the constant comfort of sharing my home with God. In losing all, i had thought so valuable, i gained the most priceless treasure in all creation. True love, a living relationship with our God.

  3. Interesting that I usually pray for an increase in faith, hope, charity, and I add on chastity and obedience when I initiate a Rosary. It is interesting because, just before seeing this post, I was considering yesterday why I add on chastity and obedience and how they are part of the Evangelical Counsels normally reserved for avowed religious. I do not think to / am not inspired to pray for poverty, and I think now that it is because I do not struggle with the idea of poverty, because I know that I have far, far more than I need and trust that God will always provide; He always has provided even though I often have not been aware of that fact, and we look for ways to give.. I have grown strong in the desire to be obedient to God and His faithful servant-authorities (not all of His authorities are faithful) and I have grown stronger in my ability to be and to think chastely, erasing bad habits acquired in my youthful years.

    So, even if we are not avowed religious, when initiating a Rosary, we should pray also for an increase in chastity, obedience and poverty, that with the application of God’s grace our ways may be straightened and narrowed, our lives made simpler, our focus made more direct on the person of Christ, that we may consistently grow in holiness all the days of our lives.

    1. Yes, the counsels are for us all, gifts offered to all, even to those who do not vow them.

  4. Msgr Pope asks: “But, honestly, does not our obsession with worldly things rob us of more important ones?”

    Educators are obsessed with worldly things. Teacher have abandoned spiritual poverty. Indeed, most catholic schools work against spiritual poverty, since they market themselves as job training centers. I am not attacking the need to learn a trade, but these schools have sacrificed their spiritual mission to the workforce. Education now is simply about getting a job. Catholic educators for the most part, have simply fallen in line with the messaging of the world. They have fallen away from the truths of the Spirit.

    The great Catholic intellectual tradition, from which St Thomas, Garrigou-Lagrange, and others were nurtured, no longer exists in the mainstream Catholic colleges. Nor do we find this tradition alive in the vast majority of our parochial schools. Educators now earn their living by keeping us attached to this world and detached from the Spirit. And parents are paying for it.

    There was a time (perhaps 50 years ago) when Catholic parents were still relatively detached from the worldly things, but the catholic colleges perpetrated a massive fraud at the time, in the name of renewal, that robbed their children of the spiritual life.

    Our catholic colleges have long since stopped educating students about the spiritual truths, and they immerse students in the world of flesh, power, and vainglory. Anyone who doubts this has not walked through your local Catholic college lately, or looked at their curriculum offerings.

    Even our private and parochial schools have fallen into these habits of thinking. They publish their test scores in the three Rs, proving that their students can get a job. But their students remain ignorant of the basic truths of the Faith. They are detached not from the world and its ways, but from the history and traditions of the Church. These schools and those who enable them present a huge stumbling block to children.

    The great irony is this, as Catholic educators (so-called) have moved away from the great tradition of Catholic education that came out of the middle ages, their students have become more ignorant of the arts that liberate the spirit.

    1. Per Peter Kreeft’s “Fundamentals of Faith,” page 15:

      One reason students are not getting reasons to defend the Faith students is they are not getting the Faith to defend. Fewer than 5 percent of my Catholic educated students can explain why it is not a contradiction to call God both one and three, or Christ both divine and human….”

      “Most shocking of all, well over three quarters of all Catholic college educated students I have taught do not know, after 12 years of catechism classes how to get to heaven! Their answer to this question is usually something like “be sincere” or “try your best” or “work for peace” or “have a nice day” or some such trumpet blast. They rarely even mention Jesus when asked this question. Why should they? Warm fuzzies are not stronger than death.”

    2. Yes, agreed. The main point young people seem to hear from educators and parents is: Study hard so you can get a big paycheck, big house, and have it made. The essential and only goal it would seem is “stuff” of this world. Little is said about studying for the purpose of finding our gifts to serve others and use our gifts to advance the Kingdom of God by grace.

    3. At least two colleges in the eastern U.S. are fighting this trend; Christendom College in Front Royal VA and Franciscan University of Stubenville OH. I am sure there are a few others. In my experience the graduates of these two colleges have at least a clue of higher Catholic Thought, and know something about the virtues.

  5. Poverty, yes for blessed are the poor. Blessed are the poor in spirit. When we become so attached with the world such that we cannot forego of our wants and just live on our needs we forego of GOD. But if we have and give them away, wonder of wonders, they do multiply some more that we need to give them away some more. That is the profundity of giving. Poverty, yes, GOD alone is enough.

  6. Somewhere, St. Thomas Aquinas says that it is better to love God than to understand God and that it is better to understand created things than to love them.

  7. Hi Msgr,

    Thanks for this post. I take to heart the words in Proverbs: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; provide me only with the food I need; Lest being full, I deny you, saying, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or, being in want, I steal, and profane the name of my God.”

    It’s hard to formulate a blanket proscription for this balance (I tried writing a paper on it in grad school, and came up short), as it might be different for different people, but I would err on the side of poverty. I have a lot of Christian friends, non-Catholic but very faithful and good men, who lean towards the prosperity gospel–being blessed, materially and spiritually, and seeing nothing wrong with big houses, nice cars, etc, as long as you are faithful. Not sure how to feel about it, as like I said, they are good and faithful Christians, but it never sat right with me. Maybe it’s my Dorothy Day inspired Catholic Worker background;)

    I’ve become a regular reader of your blog in the past six months, in large part because it feels like a lighthouse and I’m a ship at sea in the culture. Orthodox teaching with a human, balanced perspective can be hard to find. Thanks for being a light.

    1. Yes, this is a favorite proverb of mine. Thanks for reading and for your encouragement.

  8. Thank you for this beautiful essay: both a challenge and an encouragement. To me, a mother of a large family, your words ring true in so many ways. One, when our children have an (over)abundance of anything, they care so much less for their things. I become a stuff manager in our home, telling them to pick up, put away, etc. Two, the more people we have, the fewer things we need; the children play with each other, not their toys, games, etc. Three, we have begun to value shared experiences more than accumulating items. Truly, when relatives ask what the children want for Christmas, we prefer family memberships to local venues like the zoo.

    I delight to learn how all three of these counsels inform each other. Our marital chastity means openness to life, which is of course calls us to a deep level of obedience to God’s authority in planning our family. With so many of us (in our case, 11) living on one income, we have learned to share, recycle/reuse, work together, etc. and embrace doing more with less…with joy. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

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