Friday, February 23, 2018

Against poverty

" 'Sell what you have and give to the poor, and come and follow me.' " And the young man went away sad, because he had many possessions.

In a way I am the young man who goes away sad, because I have many possessions. But I quarrel just slightly, if I may, with this idea that poverty in itself is good. Following Christ, yes. But after you  give away your wealth and follow Him, then there must be some other tasks you will do besides aiding the poor, because now you won't have any wealth to give. I suppose you go out and pester other people to give theirs. And then in the course of time everybody is poor and the religion is over.

People in study groups explain away the 'many possessions' line by saying it really means the parts of your life that "own" you. That's nicer to think about because you can just pick something spiritual or non-threatening. We all like our specific possessions don't we -- like Georgie with his bibelots, they are ours -- but this easier interpretation doesn't match the plain sense of the text. And I still quarrel with the exaltation of poverty itself. I have my grandmother's old Sunday missal, full of garish glossy mid-1950s paintings showing the Mysteries of the Rosary, the Stations of the Cross, and so on. Below the painting of the Nativity (third Joyful Mystery) is a prayer in which we contemplate the manger and ask God to grant us "the love of poverty."

I don't understand why. I was, for a time, what I consider "poor." Not hell-of-Sudan poor, but drowned in credit card debt and wearing my sister-in-laws' hand-me-downs when I was forty. It was not fun, peaceful, or holy. Yes, I know St. Francis of Assissi gave away everything and kissed lepers, and I know Pope St. John Paul II gave away his teaching salary, had no home and slept on a desk in his university office, but I can't help suspecting these people were free to do so because they didn't have to worry about survival. About gas bills and mortgages. Francis must have attracted followers whose wealthy families sponsored them out of pity, and anyway it was the Middle Ages, who wasn't poor? And by the time John Paul was a bishop and Pope his daily survival problems were over.

Only that's entirely silly and cynical, isn't it? Francis still had to eat even in 1220 (although it's unpleasant reading how much the saints denied themselves in food or sleep or both, and how young and worn out they tended to die -- coincidence, much?), and so did the future Pope in occupied Poland. Anyway that is the whole point of sainthood. It is something beyond the capacity of ordinary people: they were "free" to give everything and follow Me because they had superhuman faith and acted against their own best, worldly interests come what may. And they were rewarded with survival. The path to impoverished sainthood seems awfully circular, or just awful.

Even if we are not saints but ordinary people, I don't understand the hatred of ordinary possessions as such. Of course you can have too much meaningless stuff, and of course buying or collecting can be a bandage on an interior sore that needs more substantial attention. And you can't take it with you so why are you bothering, yes yes. But it also seems to me that God did not make an impoverished world.  If God loves poverty then why aren't all trees black, all flowers brown and all animals gray? It seems to me God takes pleasure in resplendent matter, in peacocks and tigers. And why is there art, and why is art human? It seems to me also that there is a certain grace and honor given to God in living as well as one can while remembering of course there is more to life than this -- and a daily grace and honor given to God includes appreciating and caring for possessions. If not, if poverty is the great ideal, then why not also sickness, dirtiness, or illiteracy? And if concern for possessions robs us of attention needed for grand things, prayer for example, why wouldn't poverty also rob us of that needed attention?

I don't see why one gigantic swathe of human nature which can be for the most part harmless and can lead to all sorts of good things, like oh I don't know the whole of Renaissance art for example, should be wrong. Now lots of "gigantic swathes of human nature can be for the most part harmless and lead to good things," and yet we don't ignore their darker sides do we. Interest in sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll come to mind first I suppose. I get it. But the one carbuncle attaching to this condemnation of possessions, nowadays, is the eternal and triumphant liberal creed beside us and bestride us, which says Yes! Of course too much wealth is bad, and liking stuff is pathetic and unhealthy! We'll tell you how to redistribute it, to whom, and what you don't need, and we'll create the leadership and the laws to make sure this happens. Finally we'll see justice done! You agree, right? ... and that's the carbuncle. I think of it as a foreign growth that slows a ship down and diverts it, or perhaps grows all over it and smothers it. Or let me mix a metaphor: it's not so much a foreign growth but another master, which has a great deal too much power already and which, given the slightest obeisance or cooperation, does not like further dissent.

Anyway if we love poverty do we see the perfect Christian society in Venezuela? In North Korea? Sudan? Poverty is good, right? Don't we even speak of "God's poor," as if they were better people and he loved them more?

"Sell what you have and come and follow me" is one of those commands that no one, no one is going to try except the saints. Far from being like us and ordinary and relatable, they are very unlike us indeed. They will go on seeming so to me unless you can find me a middle class saint who kept all his stuff, enjoyed dusting his bibelots, and also gave something to the poor, and is still considered holy. I almost think it's the Gospel story itself that matters, as a story. It at least puts an ideal into mankind's collective head, or a diagnosis, for saints specially to use.

As far as the non-threatening interpretation of the text, allowing that the "possession" you must relinquish is some interior idol that owns you ("you know what it is," Bishop Barron says confidently in one of his talks, and I'm thinking -- I'm not sure I do ... cocktails?), after all I may know what mine is. Mine has always been the ambition to be a famous and influential writer, even (holy of holies) a full time writer earning my living by it. I don't think a day has gone by since I was twelve that I haven't thought, how can I approach that market or this, how can I get noticed here, there, or anywhere? After all, are we not obliged also to make use of our gifts, even in this huge world full of people trying to do the same? Now to give that possession away, and "follow Me" -- very well, that You can have. But it's paradoxically hard to do. You end up publishing your post about it, secretly thinking, ah, now, at last perhaps.


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