It is not filth and hunger that make saints, nor even poverty itself, but love of poverty and love of the poor. -Thomas Merton
It is really possible to love poverty? Some Saints certainly did seem to embrace it whole-heartedly on their journey here on earth. St. Francis of Assisi springs to mind, as do many others who have pursued material poverty in some way, shape, or form.
Are we all called to love poverty in some way?
Various Kinds of Poverty
Material poverty as I have experienced it here in Ranong, Thailand working amid the Burmese migrant community sometimes looks like this…
You live in a wooden shack in a row of similar wooden shacks that have two or three rooms. You are at the mercy of your boss, your health, and immigration law. If you or a family member gets sick, you face the choice of eating or going to the clinic for medicine. There are smells from poorly constructed and maintained drains or from rotting garbage. There are piles of rubbish just outside your front door. You are forced to make the decision to eat or to send your children to school.
How Much Should We Give Up?
I’m not sure what there is to “love” about that. I’m pretty sure that our loving God does not intend for his children to live in such a state of degradation. And yet, in order to serve the poor and to find personal holiness, many Saints have renounced their possessions and vowed to live in a state of “poverty.”
Mother Teresa, for example, left her relatively well-off convent school in India to work in the slums amid the poorest of the poor. For her this meant (among other things) owning only two saris and eating very simple food. Her example has been a huge challenge to me and to many others in our wealth and comfort obsessed world.
The question for me is: how much should I give up my possessions and my comforts in order to help lift up the truly poor? How far does God expect me to go?
A Spirit of Detachment
To the rich man in the Gospel, Jesus said:
‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me. But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he was a man of great wealth. -Matthew 19: 21-22
Many times I have reflected on these words of Jesus. I’ve come to the conclusion that, for me, it’s a spirit of detachment to materials things that is important. That, right now, God is not expecting me to take everything I own to the nearest charity shop, throw on a raggedy robe, and wander around living off what others give me from time to time.
Only God Can Give Us a Love of the Poor
Pursuing poverty or even simplicity in life can actually become a kind of idol. We can take a perverse kind of pride in it and then try to convert others to our way of living. We can end up being miserable in our efforts to live without any comforts at all if we believe that this in itself can make us holy and close to God.
After many years of working in New Zealand in my profession and earning a reasonably good wage, I felt called to come to Thailand to work among the Burmese migrant population. Many of these migrants are indeed very poor. Not just in a material sense, but also in a sense of lacking education and thus hope for their and their children’s future. Poverty and discrimination has curtailed their educational choices to a large extent.
I am not Mother Teresa and I own far more than two items of clothing. In fact, I am given clothing and fabric all the time by my students as they know I love the colours and patterns of their native dress. Despite the challenges of living in a different country, I can live fairly comfortably here in Thailand. The food is always tasty and the people are generous and helpful. Having given up some of the luxuries of my ‘first world’ country, I have not managed to live a life of poverty in the way that many of my students do.
Indeed, when I have holidays I am able to travel inside and outside Thailand in a way that they cannot. This is not just because of money, but because of visa and work permit restrictions. For all my commitment to following Jesus and giving up many of my possessions to be here, I am still materially wealthy in comparison to the majority of the world’s population.
So What Does Love of Poverty Mean?
Perhaps it means not to be afraid of poverty. Not to be afraid of that state because really and truly all we need is Jesus. Jesus is enough.
The witness of those great Saints who lived lives of material poverty shout this message loud and clear. Jesus is enough.Love of Poverty and Love of the Poor #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Katie Fisher works on the Thailand/Myanmar border with Catholic mission Marist Asia Foundation. She is attempting to learn to speak Thai and Burmese and spends her free time reading, listening to podcasts, and trying to stay cool in the tropical heat. You can find out more about her here.