Browsing The Northern Cross

Deacon Kyle Eller: Voluntary poverty is part of the Catholic faith — how do we live it?

Poverty is one of the things that makes the Christmas season, now rapidly coming to a close, so beautiful.

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

Jesus, of course, is the almighty God through whom all things were created. Everything is his. Yet he comes to save us not as a Roman emperor or a 19th century robber barron or as a 21st century tech billionaire but as a baby so poor he is born in a stable, so poor that when his parents present him in the Temple, they can only offer the poor person’s offering.

The richness he offers is not worldly wealth but a share in his divine life in heaven.

When we read the Gospels, it’s easy to see Jesus isn’t kidding about poverty. When asked, he tells someone he has no place to lay his head. He says “blessed are you poor” and “woe to you rich” and warns we cannot serve both God and money.

He offers, as an example of foolishness, a man who has achieved wealth and decides to build bigger buildings to store all his stuff so he can “eat, drink, and be merry” now that he has it made.

Another time he warns that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get to heaven.

Jesus pointedly warns against covetousness, saying a person’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.

There are undoubtedly many things taught by Jesus and his church that challenge us as 21st century Americans. If we mean to be his disciples and take this teaching seriously, Gospel poverty surely deserves a place near the top of that list.

It’s so confounding that perhaps our first instinct is to change the subject. For instance, if we lean to the left, we might make it exclusively a matter of whether our social policies are just to the poor or, if we lean to the right, we might make it about how much we donate to charity.

Those are both important and related topics! But Jesus is asking something still more — for a sharing in his poverty in our own lives.

Treating voluntary poverty as a virtue for ordinary Christians to practice certainly contradicts our national ethos. Think about that rich fool in the parable of Jesus. Isn’t that guy living the life most Americans seem to want? Wouldn’t many of us call that the American Dream?

Far from treating him as a cautionary tale, I suspect America as a whole would install him as a CEO or put him on the cover of a magazine or elect him to high political office. Contrary to the admonition of Jesus, we do tend to define a successful life by the abundance of our possessions.

We even do it to Christmas. How often do we hear its success evaluated by how well the merchants did?

The late Father Thomas Dubay starts off his wonderful book on this topic, “Happy are You Poor,” with a long series of questions we all might ask about Gospel poverty and with an explanation of what it is not. For instance, it is not, for most of us, a call to destitution — to starvation or squallor. It’s not a call to imprudence or being a poor steward of what we have been given. It’s not a rejection of creation and the good gifts God gives.

But neither is it just a matter of telling ourselves we’re detached from our possessions. We really should look different from the world.

I cannot cover in a few hundred words what Father Dubay answers in a whole book — I really recommend the book as a resource for thinking this through. But perhaps we can all begin with his phrase for what Gospel poverty means for us — a “sparing-sharing lifestyle.”

In that two-part phrase, the “sparing” part means that we look at the world seeking to live with less. Much of the advertising that constantly bombards us works by tricking us into feeling unsatisfied because of something we don’t have. We are constantly induced to want more and more. Gospel poverty fosters the opposite disposition, being content with enough, or a little less.

St. Paul writes of this in his First Letter to Timothy, “If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that. Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction.”

If the “sparing” part answers the what of this question, the “sharing” part answers the why. Yes, of course, we want to avoid idolatry and worship God instead of our stuff. Yes, we want to grow in interior freedom and not be mastered by our possessions.

But we also live simply and humbly because we are identified with our brothers and sisters who have less. Their want makes a claim on us. If we make do with less, we can do more for them.

If this sounds daunting, trust me: I know the feeling. As I begin a new year and a new life as a deacon, I can see areas in life where I need a deeper conversion in this.

That’s something for us to bring into our prayer. Where is God calling us to do with less? What “stuff” in our lives is our master? It might be the dinner table or “retail therapy” or gadgets or any number of things. But for nearly all of us, it’s something — probably a lot of somethings.

This is all easy enough to say or think about. But to bear fruit, we have to act on this call too. Even if we start small, one of the lessons of Christmas is that we need to give Gospel poverty its place in our lives.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at keller@dioceseduluth.org.