I’ve just started reading God or Nothing, a book-length interview with Cardinal Robert Sarah. He’s the man who, among other things, has been recently both praised and dismissed for his call for priests to return to the ad orientem celebration of the Mass. Say what you will about this fellow, but no one can argue with his orthodoxy, his fierce devotion to the faith, and his wry humor.
Over brunch last Sunday, I mentioned Sarah’s book to a friend, and my friend jumped in enthusiastically, telling me about Sarah’s hard line on the poverty issue. And no, the hard line he takes is not that poverty needs to be eliminated from the thousands of tiny African villages, similar to the one he grew up in. No indeed. Sarah instead denounces, in the strongest language, that (iste!) persistent Western and modern idea that poverty is an evil to be conquered: “I remember being disgusted when I heard the advertising slogan of a Catholic charitable organization, which was almost insulting to the poor: ‘Let us fight for zero poverty’. . . . Those who want to eradicate poverty make the Son of God a liar. They are mistaken and lying” (pp. 140–141).
Earlier today, I read an article from the Huffington Post (I know, that was my first mistake) written in advance of the canonization of Mother Teresa. Rather than the usual praise given in honor of her life of sacrifice, the author chose instead to “de-sanctify” her, supposedly showing all the ways that she fell short, declaring that she was and is a propaganda tool of the Church, and painting her as a manipulative, money-grubbing individual who (and this is clearly, in the author’s mind, the folly of all follies) spoke in defense of the inherent dignity in suffering and the worth of poverty. Madness. Sheer and utter madness.
All this talk of poverty has gotten me thinking. Jamey (my husband) and I are working diligently right now on getting out of debt, trying to save for a house, and simultaneously trying to be prepared to have a baby, should God see fit. What does it mean for us to live “in poverty”? And, if I can ever figure that out, do I actually want it? Say we knock out that debt millstone, find an affordable, pleasant home, and are both able to keep working full-time. Are we no longer living in the spirit of poverty? I’ll tell you one thing: I don’t miss the days of being a teacher, or a college student. I remember not being able to buy milk and bread; there are few things that have left me with as much shame, frustration and fury as the checkout lady’s impatient and scornful attitude as I removed one grocery item after another until my debit card was finally accepted. I remember paying for gas with dimes, nickels and pennies because I didn’t have any quarters and my bank account was empty. I don’t ever want to be there again. I dread it.
That probably means I’m not actually very good at realizing the value of poverty. So I asked Jamey over lunch today what it means, and what we’re supposed to do about it, just on the off chance that we ever do reach a place of a little more financial security. Would that mean we’re not “living in poverty” anymore? And why should we want to live there, anyway?
He reminded me of something else Cardinal Sarah says, of a distinction he makes between poverty and destitution, the former being a good and the latter an evil. Destitution, in Jamey’s words, is being without necessities (food and shelter) and having no way of getting them. You see, I would have said that my husband was formerly destitute, as he went through many years of long homeless stretches, and lots of days without food. But he makes the case that he wasn’t destitute, for the basic reason that he could have had help from shelters, soup kitchens, family or churches if he had asked for it. He just chose not to. He was living in poverty, but not in destitution. Starving to death is an evil; living in free or enforced simplicity, but with the basics covered, can be holy poverty, i.e., can be Christ-like. I was angry and ashamed that I couldn’t buy milk and bread, but I could at least take home some eggs and pasta. And I had a home to take them to. That was my poverty, and my petulance and pride made it very unholy indeed.
The thing is, for all our cultural misunderstanding of poverty, for all the desire to eliminate it as an evil, for all my own struggling with seeing the value of it, I see signs all through our culture that there is a native thirst for it in the human person. We are longing to make ourselves empty so that Something can fill us; we are longing to be reminded that we rely on something bigger than ourselves, try as we might—like the babies who get yogurt in their eyes in their insistence on feeding themselves—to prove our independence. And I see this happening in lots of ways, and lots of ways that don’t seem to agree with each other. But all of them, I think, boil down to the same thing.
We can all agree on the existence of the consumer culture. That’s a pretty easy one to understand, right? “All of these things will fill this emptiness. And, if they don’t, they’ll distract me from it, and I’ll be self-satisfied in having amassed them.” This is the root of the mindset with any consumerism, I believe, be it actual possessions, or obesity, alcoholism, or sexual deviancy.
But the next step I’m seeing unfold is a far more subtle rejection of reliance on Christ, and at the same time a much clearer indication that He is what we’re looking for. This is the very trendy idea of minimalism, manifested, among other ways, in the form of tiny houses and Marie Kondo’s “Spark Joy” decluttering; clear your life, clear out all the noise, all the extras, and just be you qua you. You don’t need anything else, and maybe not anyone else. This is perfectly encapsulated, believe it or not, in a discussion about body image in some of the opening lines of Spanglish, starring Paz Vega, Téa Leoni, and Adam Sandler:
American women, I believe, actually feel the same as Hispanic women about weight: a desire for the comfort of fullness. And when that desire is suppressed for style, and deprivation allowed to rule, dieting, exercising American women become afraid of everything associated with being curvaceous, such as wantonness, lustfulness, sex, food, motherhood. All that is best in life.
Clearly, we could quibble with a few of the finer points of morality sandwiched in there, but the overall point is a valid one, one I wish I could make the whole world hear. There is something in our culture that screams at us to deprive ourselves of so many intrinsic goods, of so much richness, so much genuine wealth. And it’s something I’ve never begun to understand, until this afternoon. Here’s my theory: we know we’re supposed to make ourselves empty, and we have forgotten why.
Just before I walked down the aisle last December, my dad leaned over and whispered, “We must decrease, that He may increase.” And that is what poverty is all about. It’s making room for the Person we’re ultimately and forever meant to be with. It’s about stripping ourselves down to the bare essentials, clearing away the noise and the clutter and the cushions so there’s nothing left but for ourselves to depend on Christ.