January 22, 2013

Happy Are You...Poor?

And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples, said: 
Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. 
Luke 6:20

If there's anything so starkly opposite of the American dream, it must be the idea of Gospel poverty. In Thomas Dubay's book Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom he opens with a frank acknowledgement of the situation:
"To the unprepared eyes of modern men and women the title of this book can hardly be taken seriously. To suggest that poverty is desirable seems to approach absurdity. To imply that it is somehow meant for all people in every vocation may seem outrageous." [p. 11]
Reading this book when I first bought it several years ago, I myself had great difficulty imagining myself taking on the "sparing-sharing," frugal ideal Fr. Dubay speaks about. It wasn't that the Scriptures weren't replete with examples advocating for this very thing (they certainly are) or that his arguments weren't sufficiently persuasive (his handling of the subject is precise and compelling). No, the problem really came down to this: my soul wasn't sufficiently converted.

To consider detaching myself from my quest to acquire unnecessary possessions and enjoy spendy pursuits -- makeup, home decor trinkets, the newest smart phone, regular dining in restaurants -- was too much to ask. Though what I read was convicting and a part of me longed to make a real change to my life, it wasn't long after I put the book down that I began the inner argument that surely I could be a good and devout Christian while still enjoying my material indulgences and comfortable lifestyle. After all, I reasoned, I was relatively poor compared to many people I knew. God surely would be OK with my mode of living as long as I was refraining from serious sin, participating in Mass and church life, and dropping some of our money into the contribution basket each Sunday. That was "good enough"...it had to be. Right?

Now before I go further, let me clear that my purpose here is not to convince anyone on the validity of the Gospel poverty ideal. That's what wise and deeply pious folks like the author of this particular book have done already (Fr. Dubay passed away shortly after I purchased his book, may his soul rest in peace). I just want to share some of my favorite parts of the book and what has most touched me personally now that I've re-read the book from a much different state of mind and soul. :)

I've found that as my soul has been drawn closer to God, He has converted much of my way of thinking. As Fr. Dubay even mentions, "The only way to know the perfect will of God is to undergo conversion from the worldly outlook. The sensual person cannot understand the things of the Spirit; it is nonsense to him. Unless one is attempting to lead a serious prayer life, he is not likely to be much affected by the message in these pages." Recently I started re-evaluating just what level of sacrifice God was calling me to (in many areas), and as part of that process I picked up this book again. I was humbled to realize that my previous concessions on my lifestyle were indeed just that: concessions. In prayer God impressed on me that my idea of "good enough" is a lukewarm state indicating I was content with being merely mediocre in my relationship with Him. Out of love, He desires more from me. And out of love, I am moved to respond.

But just who is intended to live this Gospel poverty? The term probably brings to mind a dozen different definitions depending on who you ask, and the idea of who should practice it is probably as equally debatable.
"When most people think of poverty, they think of destitution. They envision squalor, malnutrition, ragged clothing, dire housing, omnipresent dirt, the absence of necessities for decent human life. Whatever gospel poverty might mean, they do not take seriously the thought that destitution is a viable option for themselves." [p. 11]
 Others, who perhaps have done more reading, do not equate poverty with destitution. However,
"...knowing that it does not mean destitution, they turn their thoughts in the direction of religious life. They have heard of a vow of poverty, and, feeling no call to vowed life, they dismiss the thought of it quite as readily as the thought of destitution. Obviously a married person cannot seriously entertain either choice as compatible with the roles of responsible spouse and parent." [p. 11]
The author argues, and with the support of a myriad of reputable New Testament scholars, that poverty in the sense that the Scriptures talk about is meant for all -- not just the desert hermit, not just the St. Francis of Assisi, not just the parish priest, but for the college student, young wife, father of five and businessman, and grandparent.
"In the liturgy throughout the year, weekdays and Sundays alike, one hears over and over again that the poor are blessed, that we must renounce all that we possess to be a disciple of Christ, that if a person has two tunics and a needy brother has none he must give one away, that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, that we came into the world with nothing and shall leave it with nothing and therefore we ought to be content with food and clothing and gladly give up superfluities... States in life vary in the efficiency with which they lead to the goal, but the goal remains the same for all. The laymen's living of frugality must differ in some ways from that of the religious and cleric. But the difference is not that between mediocrity and excellence. Evangelical poverty is radical, and it is radical for all." [p. 12, 13]
I agree, and so I am moved to consider just what it means (and what it doesn't mean) to live this sort of frugality. In my following posts I will go further into the book and share what stood out to me.

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