Two Types of Poverty
In making a vow of poverty, I have discovered two meanings to this word which are important to distinguish from one another.
There is a poverty that I cannot experience by choice. This kind of poverty is a grinding material, social, and developmental deprivation that is forced upon human beings by tragedy, neglect, greed, and the structural prejudice that is built into the social systems whose benefits and injustices I share. To have integrity, I have to recognize that I have not experienced this first kind of poverty in my life. On the contrary, I grew up with many gifts, as well as many unjust privileges, that I cannot shed by choice. For example: healthy development as a baby in the womb, an abundance of nourishing food, healthcare, safety, excellent education, and financial credit, as well as racial, national, and linguistic privilege – all of these factors in who I am have been inherited and shaped by circumstance. I cannot pretend that I know poverty in these areas of life. But by vowing a second type of poverty, I can collaborate with God to break the momentum of materialism and self-absorption, poking holes in the cocoon created by my inherent desire for personal security, combined with social privilege. This second kind of poverty can help me work with integrity for consolation and justice in my world.
This poverty is experienced as greater presence in my world as it is. Based on the evangelical counsels, it is exteriorly, a renunciation of personal possessions, and interiorly, a renunciation of attachments. This poverty involves living simply, but it is also more specific than simplicity, because it has a specific goal: complete availability to God and others. It is also apostolic; we choose it in order to know God’s love and to make the love of God better known in the world. In a Jesuit life, the model of apostolic poverty is Jesus himself. Jesuit poverty can be controversial, because it doesn’t always align with our idea of what is actually “poor” or even “simple.” This is one of the challenging aspects of a Jesuit life, which must be continually discerned if one is to maintain integrity. But Jesus’ poverty, Gospel poverty, was complex, too. (For example, take a look at this list of 41 illustrations of Jesus’ poverty in Mark’s Gospel. I am completely indebted for most of this list to Jesuit men from several US provinces. Thank you brother Jesuits! Only the reflections on Jesus’ experience of poverty during the Passion were written by me.)
The love of God does not condone the first kind of poverty we discussed. Material, social, and developmental deprivation are not in God’s desires for any human being. This deprivation results when we turn away from God, hoarding more than we actually need and turning a blind eye to others, both as individuals and as a society. The deprivation of my sisters and brothers is, in a very real way, the result of my sin – my complicity with sinful social structures and dominance relationships. I am so complicit in this form of poverty that I might be tempted to despair. And yet, as my spiritual director said, “This is the world God chooses to be present in.” Christ is here with us, poor and wealthy, oppressed and oppressor alike, ready to help in our transformation. I do not despair because Christ promises to be with me, and we are in it together for the long haul.
Object lesson: Spotify Premium
Now that we have these two types of poverty distinguished, how do I begin to actually inhabit the second type? After making vows last August, I began the process of seriously evaluating my life in light of this vow. I already lived pretty simply because of student loan payments and personal preference. What, I thought, could I give up in order to go beyond this simple living, toward an apostolic poverty geared specifically at being more available? The first petty item on the chopping block was my personal Spotify account. I was spending $10 per month to have access to curated lists of my favorite songs, available anytime. This seemed small, but I was surprisingly resistant to giving it up! A fearful little voice reminded me that I used these songs to relax on my way to and from work as an RN for patients in crisis. I used these songs to bring up memories of friends, family, God. I felt afraid of not being able to relax, and afraid of forgetting the good memories that came with the songs! When I realized my level of attachment to something as simple as a Spotify account, it was clear that the freedom lay in canceling it. And here came the object lesson in apostolic poverty. That first morning on the way to work, when I realized I didn’t have Spotify premium anymore, I turned on the radio. It felt like a shaft of light broke into my cocoon! I listened to the news on the local jazz station, and actually felt more connected to my world, not less. A small shift came with a profound lesson.
There have been many such object lessons over the past 10 months. At a certain point, inspired by the increased availability yielded by small actions, I developed the courage to take bigger steps toward a truly apostolic poverty. At this point I have liquidated all of my possessions, discharged all the debts I can, and am about to enter the next stage of novitiate: pilgrimage, followed by a long experiment in service. I realize that I am much more ready to do this than I was before letting go of Spotify Premium, petty as it sounded at first. This is because the fear of letting go of all my possessions and income was essentially very similar to the fear of letting go of a few curated playlists: “If I let go of all my things, I will not remember who I am.” Taking this fear to God in prayer, I realized that the opposite was true: “If I let go of all my things, I will remember who I really am.” Now, when I leave on pilgrimage in July, I will have nothing. Nothing except a few tools essential to the novitiate; the interior gifts God has given me; the unearned privilege that I must use in the service of faith and justice; God’s love and grace; and the promise that these alone are enough! And this thought, while unnerving at times, is also deeply liberating.