Sunday, July 04, 2010

What Does "Poverty" Mean?

One of the things I love about social media like blogs and Facebook is coming across quotations that friends (or strangers) share. I come across several that I like, and every once in a while I come across a treasure that really lends itself to contemplation or further reading.

I came across one such quotation last week, from Lewis Mumford, a 20th century thinker of whom I'd never heard before:

A day spent without the sight or sound of beauty, the contemplation of mystery, or the search of truth or perfection is a poverty-stricken day; and a succession of such days is fatal to human life.
I think this quote struck me for several reasons, but where I plunge my thought most deeply in this short sentence is into the phrase "poverty-stricken day."


I have thought about that word often, but never did so much before encountering the Catholic Church. It was something I noticed quickly when I started attending Mass in Milwaukee; there was much more use of this word poverty than in the churches I had belonged to previously. Regardless of how it was used, I had a hard time getting comfortable with the word, with figuring out how to incorporate this word into my new Catholic vocabulary. I got that there was a spiritual dimension to poverty. But mostly I observed middle class suburbanites talking about the terrible plight of other people -- those in poverty. Something in the equation seemed off. At the time, I was living in what a co-worker had described (with some shock when we had discussed my plans to move there) as poverty-level housing. And I guess it was. But I could afford it, and I loved it there. I've never cared what things look like.

In fact, my whole relationship to economic prosperity has always been rather indifferent. With the possible exception of my time in Japan, where I earned far more money than I was expecting to (I went with the understanding that I was a volunteer receiving room and board), I've never lived with lots of means. But I have felt oftentimes like a material glutton, that I have much more than I need. I spent a short time doing mission work in Jamaica in my young 20s and witnessed families who lived in tin shacks the size of a closet and who drew water whenever the pump happened to be working that week. It was laughable for me to think of my "poverty-level housing" as any sort of deprivation after that.

Again this idea of poverty comes to mind these days because we've been living without my husband having a job for a couple of months. Lots of families are in this boat right now. It has been useful for me to shift out what truly we need and what we do not. I have struggled in the past with simply shifting into a "get tough" mode where I refuse to need anything. This is a self-martyrdom problem where I think I will make everything better my killing myself off. I see that this stance does not demonstrate trust in God nor respect for His love for me.

So, what of this thing of poverty? Mumford strikes it on the head. Poverty consists in being deprived of the sight or sound of beauty. Poverty consists in forsaking the contemplation of mystery. Poverty consists in giving up the search for truth and perfection. Beauty, Goodness, Truth. The Catholic Catechism states: "God created the world to show forth and communicate his glory. That his creatures should share in his truth, goodness and beauty - this is the glory for which God created them" (CCC 319). Sharing in the glory of God is all the riches the soul actually needs and desires. A life spent in this pursuit is rich, it is pleasing, it is life-giving. If we lack these things, as Mumford points out, especially chronically, we risk a fatality, the demise of our humanity, our souls.

The deceiver of our souls would convince us that Beauty is ugly, or meaningless, or superfluous -- to be sacrificed. He would convince us that there is no Goodness, there is only expedience, there is only what makes the opportunity before worth grabbing, despite what it means for my own soul or for another. He would convince us that the only Truth is what brings me momentary satisfaction. Got my goodie, gonna get my next goodie; there ain't no more to it than that.

It truly doesn't matter whether we have lots of money or little; either way we can live in poverty. Ironically I think it can be dreadfully hard to alert those in affluent poverty to the state of their souls. It sounds like a bunch of hippie nonsense to tell people their souls are dead. So maybe that's not the approach. Perhaps the approach is to pray folks into a wrestling match. Truth? Beauty? Goodness? Does it matter which facet grabs us, which of our lacks, which of our longings stabs out of our hearts and refuses to shut up? God knows the embrace each of our souls most needs today. Let us pray for each other that we will not shout down God's approach, not drown it, not turn Him aside, not try to stay "comfortable". Not try to stay in poverty. Allow Him who became poor for our sakes to make us rich.

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