“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:3) In today’s culture there is very little that could be rated as a sin, much less a mortal sin. The biggest one today is perhaps smoking, ironically. But a close second is poverty. Poverty is considered evil by our media and first world Western culture, it should be avoided at all costs. In fact, the advancement of a country is often measured by poverty levels. So are the perceived worth of people.
Instead of talking more about justice and giving to the poor, I would like to focus in a bit more here on the virtue of poverty. This is something I lived as a vow for many years as a religious, and although I am not an expert, I think that most lay people fail to recognize the beauty of “lady poverty.”
“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)
This line makes sense, but in a weird way. Christ, who has absolutely everything, is the richest. So, when he becomes poor he comes down to our level. He brings all that richness to us so we can partake of it. At the same time, if we become poor, if we take out of our lives everything that is not Christ, we become richer the more we unite ourselves to him.
Poverty is one of those classic paradoxes of the New Testament. You get rich by becoming poor. The Israelites of Jesus’ time (and before) saw wealth as a blessing and poverty as a sign of disfavor from God. This is the common, even logical, view. But Christ, through his own example as well as many parables and through people he interacts with, shows us the beauty and richness of the poor and lowly. Christ was born in a manger, the lowliest and the poorest of places. Then he died naked on a cross, not the death of a king. Then in parables like that of Lazarus and the rich man he shows us that we can get to heaven in spite of being poor, and sometimes because of it. Remember the eye of the needle that the camel can’t fit through?
But why is that? Why is poverty so important for holiness that it has become one of the three vows all religious take? Why did St. Francis of Assisi found an entire order based largely on embracing poverty? Because poverty frees our hearts.
When we are attached to earthly things, any earthly things, we cannot soar to God. The classic example in spiritual writing is that of a small bird with its leg tied to the ground. It doesn’t matter if it is tied by a string or a metal chain, as long as it is tied down it can’t fly. When we are attached to earthly things we cannot be completely attached to God. While chastity and obedience also have their place I think it is a bit easier for a lay person to see how those two apply in his life. If you are attached to the lusts of your heart or your own will then you are obviously not free to love God with all your heart. (Chastity is necessary in marriage as well, just in case you married guys thought you were getting off easy…) But lay people, especially a father providing for a family, needs money and things to provide for his family. Those things are good, as long as they don’t pull us away from loving God and loving others, and that is why it is hard to see where we are or are not living poverty.
Sometimes it is hard to recognize where to draw the line. A good place to start could be between needs and wants. I was edified by a man I know who heard a talk about poverty and needs vs. wants and after hearing the talk he took action and sold his nice sports car to trade it in for something less flashy that still got the job done. You may need a car, but does it have to be the most expensive one you can afford? You definitely need clothes, but do they all have to be designer stuff?
Another thing to look at is things that pull you away from loving others. Perhaps it is a good thing to get a nice TV, but if you spend countless hours watching sports when you should be with your family is that really good for you? This is another exam we can do, see what things pull us away from others or lead us to sin. You probably need a phone for all sorts of reasons, but does it need to be a phone that has access to the internet, or even a smartphone? If that is leading you to sin then you probably don’t need it. Or, rather, you need to cut if off!
Sometimes, it isn’t even the material thing that pulls us away from God and others but the desire for the material thing that pulls us away. Those desires can make us jealous, resentful, or just grumpy. Sometimes just cutting out desires for material things can bring us a lot of happiness.