It’s the mark of the first Beatitude, and yet we are quick to breeze past it. It’s why the rich young man walked away from Jesus sad, and yet we are slow to put ourselves in his shoes. It is the prerequisite for entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and yet we often twist the call to make it more comfortable.
I’m convinced that the reason it remains so mysterious a teaching today is because it is one of the keys to sanctity.
Understand that my thesis does not imply that we neglect those steeped in material poverty. On the contrary, not only is the Gospel clear about our personal poverty—it demands that we work to alleviate the sufferings of the poor. Like most things in Catholicism, this is a beautiful both/and.
The poverty that Christ speaks to in the Gospels is a poverty of spirit. This can seem abstract and elusive. But we need only to look at the fruits of materialism, comparison, attachment, control, striving, and self-reliance in our own lives to discover the counter-seed to poverty that concupiscence plants in all of us.
It is this poverty that we are to embrace; it’s this attachment to “wealth” in all its forms that we are to leave behind in order to follow Him.
The Call and the Command
Of course, Christ doesn’t command us to lay something down without filling us with much greater abundance. The call to and command of poverty is ultimately a promise of supernatural joy. Poverty produces in us great faith, hope, and love. And it is in this Christ-like poverty that we act most justly, most prudently, most courageously, and most temperately.
Saint John the Baptist gives us perhaps the most concise explanation of what happens in this exchange of poverty with the Lord:
He must increase, I must decrease. // John 3:30
Our poverty—our empty hands—allows us to hold onto the Lord rather than the fleeting things of this world.
The Saints, as always, are our models in this response of love. In studying the lives of the Saints—in all their variety—I have found three things they hold in common:
- All-consuming love for Jesus and devotion to Him in the Blessed Sacrament.
- A steady and deep devotion to Mary.
- A radical interior poverty and a particular concern for the poor.
For our purposes here, let’s examine the third point.
The Saints were poor. Regardless of worldly status, they chose the riches of Christ over the riches of the flesh. Yes, there were Saints who were royalty and Saints who slept on dirt floors. All were poor. There were Saints endowed with endless talents and gifts and Saints who couldn’t pass high school. All were poor. There were Saints who enjoyed blissful vocations and Saints who lost everyone they loved. All were poor.
Their poverty was an overflow of their detachment from the world and their attachment to God. They saw everything in their lives as an invitation into greater intimacy with Him. When blessings came, they received them and sought to serve Him with those blessings. When trials came, their hearts did not waver, and they received them and sought to serve Him in those trials.
Thus, great fruits of interior poverty are steadiness of spirit, supernatural gratitude, and unshakeable joy.
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If We Want to Be Like Him, We Must Be Poor
If we want to be more and more conformed to Christ, as is the call of every baptized Christian, then we must see Him as He is.
There is no greater poverty than that our Godhead displayed by becoming one of us. The Incarnation is the path to poverty for every single one of us.
And if we might fail to see the sublime humility of God in the Incarnation, He made sure to highlight it by being born poor, into a poor family, into a poor town.
If we truly want to be like Him, then, we must be poor.
He Will Help Us
A great gift of the Lord’s merciful love is that, if we are seeking Him with all our heart, we don’t have to figure out how to be poor on our own. He will help us. He will show us how our crosses can produce an undeniable poverty of spirit. He will strip what needs stripped. He will topple the idols in our lives. If we allow Him, He will give us the grace to unclench our hands and let go of the control we so desperately cling to. Because He is the One we were made to cling to in all our desperation.
Jesus does not call us to spiritual poverty and then neglect to show us the way. On the contrary, we can look to His poverty, His sacrifice, His obedience, and His humility to find the counter-cultural road to true freedom and happiness.
This call is a difficult one to live, but the rewards are beyond our earthly imaginings.
Ways to Cultivate Interior Poverty
As you seek the Lord’s Heart and ask Him to help you be poor, be on the lookout. He will respond, and He will show you. And while you walk with Him along your particular path to holiness, there are some ways you can consistently cultivate interior poverty. Here are just a few ideas:
- Examine your life and conscience // The first step is to take a regular look at your life and soul. Where are you naturally bent toward a holy poverty, and where do you cling tightly to things or people other than God? Identify those areas and explore why you are attached or afraid. Write it down if it helps.
- Get rid of it // Then, clean house. Are you attached to shopping or acquiring? Perhaps it’s time for a spending freeze. Are you in habitual mortal sin? That has to go. Are you striving for praise from others? Time for some mortification. Of course, there are good and even holy things in our lives that we cannot “get rid of” nor should we. But if we find ourselves attached to them, it’s time to admit it and ask Jesus to help us rightly order our loves. Additionally, it might be time to simplify our lives—our possessions, our schedules, our distractions, and so on.
- Be honest about what you’re trying to control // Be brutally honest about what you’re trying to control in life. We often mask a desire for certainty under the cover of stewardship or “common sense.” We confuse clingy tightly to our security or relationships or money or health or fertility or position with putting our hand to the plow but we are prone to cross the line between cultivation and control. We are called to be good stewards but the very nature of being a steward means that we don’t hold ultimate dictation. In what ways are we striving to?
- Be with the poor // If we want to most fully respond to the Gospel call to poverty then we must be poor and be with the poor. If we do not know the poor, then we cannot come to know Christ more fully. Wondering where to find the poor? Consider the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy. The hungry and homeless and imprisoned and sick and doubtful and sinner and ignorant are the poor we are called to live among and serve. Ask the Lord to show you how to be with the poor to which He has called you.
- Rejoice in your weakness // Instead of being repulsed by our weaknesses and shortcomings, let’s learn to expect, anticipate, and rejoice in them. In this way, we follow the lead of Saint Paul, who understood that this kind of interior poverty means that we will share in the abundance of God’s grace. The weaker we are, the more His we can become. That is a cause for celebration.
- Learn about poverty // Finally, we can learn more about what the Church has taught about poverty through the centuries. Read Happy Are You Poor. Pray through All She Had. Teach your children what it means to live a life of spiritual poverty. Don’t let poverty remain a nice thought that we never enact or set aside for those who are called to radical sainthood. That’s us! Let’s do our due diligence and seek the Lord’s Heart for our interior poverty.
Will you join me in praying through this idea of spiritual poverty? It’s perfect for Lent; let’s not delay.
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