Before the CribFR. LEONARD M. PUECH, O.F.M.
When we look at the crib a text of St. Paul comes to mind: "You know the graciousness of our Lord Jesus Christ; how, being rich, he became poor for your sakes, that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor. 8,9). This text was dear to St. Francis, who alludes to it in his rule, when he recommends poverty to his disciples.
Did not Jesus proclaim: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 5,3)? There is a twofold condition, though: one must be poor and be poor in spirit.
To be poor is not the same as to be miserable. Misery means to lack even the basic necessities of life, food, clothing, shelter, etc. Misery is an evil counsellor, as my father used to say; it easily leads to vice; and St. Thomas teaches that a certain number of material goods are necessary for the practice of virtue, at least for ordinary people.
Poverty means to have enough to satisfy man's elementary needs without superfluity, the kind of poverty St. Paul recommends to Timothy: "Having food and sufficient clothing, with these let us be content" (I Tim. 6,8); the kind the sage prays for: "Give me neither poverty nor riches, give me only my share of bread to eat" (Prov. 30,8).
Poverty neither sanctifies nor edifies unless it is poverty in spirit, unless it is voluntary. One may be poor in reality, but with a desire for riches in his heart. This is not poverty which sanctifies, because it is not accepted. It seems however, that many, even if they are not poor by choice, submit to their lot and do not rebel against their condition. Even this imperfect poverty is not without its spiritual fruit of humility, kindness, compassion, sobriety, which one often meets among the lower classes. This is probably the reason why God does not allow too many people to become rich with material goods, so that they may all the more easily acquire spiritual goods.
Poverty in spirit should not be used as a blanket to cover up indulgence in luxuries, as some do at times. It is true that it is interior detachment that counts, that one who lives in luxury may be poorer in spirit than one who is really poor but craves money. But it is also true that one who is detached from something and does not like it, does not take or use more of it than he needs. It is also true, that it is very difficult for the rich to enter into the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 19,23), precisely because without God's grace it is naturally impossible to have the goods of this world and not to like them.
Yet we know that it is impossible to serve two masters (Mt. 6,24); that one cannot love God and love the world at the same time (James 4,4 -1; Jo. 2,15). Voluntary poverty becomes a powerful means of sanctification, because it detaches from the world and the three concupiscences which run it — love of pleasure, love of money and love of honor. It cuts at their very root by excluding the love of money, since according to St. Paul: "The love of money is the root of all evils" (I Tim. 6, 10). By making oneself really poor one renounces many pleasures and worldly consideration.
Not only does voluntary poverty, when it is real, detach from the goods of this world, it also enriches with virtues, as St. Francis teaches his disciples. It means the acceptance of the humiliations, which accompany poverty and this is the humility of which Jesus says "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Mt. 5,3). It means renouncing power and accepting the weakness of the poor and this is the meekness to which Jesus promises: "Blessed are the meek for they shall possess the earth" (Mt. 5,4). It means accepting privations and suffering to receive in return this blessing: "Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted" (Mt. 5,5).
The experience of real poverty makes one realize the injustice there is in the world, and it creates a hunger and a thirst for justice, not only social but especially spiritual to which is promised: "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice for they shall be satisfied" (Mt. 5,6).
To experience the sufferings of real poverty softens the heart and opens it to compassion. It is a well known fact that the poor as a rule are moved to help other poor more readily than the rich. The type of the rich man indifferent to the misery of Lazarus is not found only in the gospel! This compassion receives the assurance: "Blessed are the merciful, they shall obtain mercy" (Mt. 5,7).
Because voluntary poverty detaches from created goods, it purifies the heart and prepares for the vision of God: "Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God" (Mt. 5,8). Voluntary poverty is the best means to secure peace; nobody envies one who has nothing and he who has chosen poverty envies nobody.
Voluntary and real poverty bears abundant fruit, but is not very welcome! This is why St. Francis used to say: "Poverty is a choice way of salvation; the fruit it bears is manifold and rare are they who know it well."
Poverty is not only a powerful means of sanctification, it is also a most effective means of edification. It may be called the virtue of the apostle. The example of Jesus should be enough to convince us: to save the world he chose to be poor and to preach the gospel he chose twelve ignorant fishermen. Besides, when he sent them on their first mission he instructed them to take nothing: "Do not keep gold or silver, or money in your girdles, no wallet for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staff" (Mt. 10,9-10).
This text had a decisive influence on St. Francis. One day at Mass he heard a priest read and explain it. In a flash Francis understood what he should do. He got rid on the spot of his staff, shoes and mantle. He had found what he was looking for. Events proved him right: in less than ten years he had several thousand disciples.
What is it that gives poverty such power? First of all it corresponds to God's plan to save the world through the folly of the Cross: "The foolish things of the world has God chosen to put to shame the wise, and the weak things of the world has God chosen to put to shame the strong, and the base things of the world and the despised has God chosen, and the things that are not, to bring to naught the things that are; lest any flesh should pride himself before him" (I Cor. 1,27-29). We are therefore mistaken when we think the gospel would be spread much better if the Church had in its hands politics, finance, education, the press, radio and television.
In reality the gospel cannot be preached without real and voluntary poverty. It is not enough to preach it, to teach people not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, etc. Everybody knows that. To preach the gospel means to announce the good news, that God loves us and invites us to love him and to share his own happiness. How can anybody convince men that this is true, that it is the only happiness worth living for, that they must not seek happiness in the goods of the world, unless he himself is detached from them? If he is not, he will be content to preach the morality of the pagan philosophers: enjoy yourselves, but be reasonable and avoid excesses. Or if he preaches detachment of the goods of the world, who is going to believe, what he does not practise?
On the other hand, real and voluntary poverty preaches both to the rich and to the poor. To the rich it preaches the necessity of detaching themselves from their riches and provokes their admiration and their generosity. To the poor it preaches the acceptance of their poverty, wins their confidence and brings down the wall which separates the rich and the poor. One who lives in luxury shuns the contact of the poor and the poor for their part are ill at ease with him. And they could not believe him, if he were to exhort them to accept as the will of God their poverty, which he himself carefully avoids.
Besides, real and voluntary poverty is the most eloquent and convincing form of preaching. It is a language everybody understands which proclaims clearly the need to prefer God to all created goods. It speaks most forcefully through example and with evident sincerity, yet it does not hurt or humble anybody since it does not argue nor condemn. It is the preacher who humbles himself!
There is a second form of apostolate, the apostolate of charity. Jesus set the apostles to preach and to heal (Lk. 9,2-6), as he himself had done (Mt. 9,35). For this apostolate also, poverty seems to be the necessary foundation. I know the difficulty of the problem. If no great material equipment is needed to preach, to help the poor in their various needs requires some material resources, whether it is procuring food, clothes, shelter for them, nursing them in their illnesses, or providing them with an education or a home, if they are orphans. And yet the history of charity is there to show that when saints set out to help the poor with nothing to rely upon but divine Providence — with no money, no buildings — only then was it possible to care for the poor for the love of God only. It was true yesterday with St. Joseph Benedict Cottolengo; it is true today with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Their very poverty provoked admiration and generosity and brought them vocations and material help.
During the Christmas season let us look at the crib, that we may learn the lesson of poverty and humility that it teaches us, and be preserved from the fascination of vanities and the whirlwind of desires, which corrupt the heart (Wis. 4,12).
Fr. Leonard M. Puech, O.F.M. "Before the Crib." In Spiritual Guidance (Vancouver, B.C.: Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty, 1983), 214-218.
Republished with permission of the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty.
The late Fr. Leonard M. Puech wrote a popular column for the B.C. Catholic from 1976 to 1982. Those columns were compiled and published by the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice, and Liberty as the book Spiritual Guidance in 1983. The VFAJL is interested in reprinting Spiritual Guidance. Anyone who would like to contribute to this worthy cause please write: Dr. Margherita Oberti, 1170 Eyremount Drive, West Vancouver, B.C. V7S 2C5.
Copyright © 1983 Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice, & Liberty
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