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More Thoughts on Poverty--Which I'm Going to Totally Muck Up--But Here It Goes Anyway

alec vanderboom

My charming fellow Catholic blogger, Leila, gave me a nugget of gold from Venerable Fulton Sheen: She quotes him as saying:

 In such cases where we are face to face with two standards of right and wrong -- God's will, the popular will -- we become confused and know not what to choose; we may even find it difficult to believe that what is so unpopular could be good. (full post here)

Oh my goodness--that quote described my spirituality during college. I didn't know which to pick --my classmates "popular will" or my own fragile Christianity--so I became paralyzed and sort of choose nothing. Whoa Nelly, did major trouble ensue.

 This quote can obviously apply to the public perception of the virtue of "chastity" versus the Catholic Church's definition. But I wanted to apply this quote to the public perception of the virtue of poverty and the Catholic's definition. Poverty is sort of a hard thing to tackle straight on--because American identity is very tied to financial success--so I want to talk about prudence. There is natural prudence and there is supernatural prudence. They work together, but there is sometimes when supernatural prudence leaps ahead--sort of a like a focused, assertive lunge. Supernatural prudence gains ground for a distinct purpose--to help the spiritual life. That's why it's totally stupid to skip a flu shot when you've got a newborn in the house and lazily say "God will protect us." But it's a totally honorable thing to jump into a river and save a drowning child.

 So here is another example. I think there are three ways for an American family to live on limited means. The first way is poor in popular imagination. "I'm poor. I'm helpless." Every day is stressful. There is poor shelter. There is a lack of transportation. Meals are inconsistent, at scattered times, and mostly highly processed food. Parents feel stressed and often times suffer from serious depression and anxiety. The adults have poor ways of coping with stress. Rather than yoga and marathons, there is excess smoking, drinking, drug use or arguing. Kids have very little structure and emotional support. There is a lot of reactions, but little long term problem solving. There is also a little protection or boundaries within a nuclear family. So different friends and relatives drift in and out of the home. There is a lot of outside "static" where other people have serious problems that often trump the family relationship between Mom/Dad/Brother/Sister.

This is everyone's worse nightmare.

 The opposite approach is with the Middle Class. (I'm NOT saying the Middle Class don't have many of the same problems--there is just an extra problem where they have more resources to hide them from public view. Hiding your problems from others is not always the better place to be). To distance themselves from the poverty of the working class, the Middle Class tend to be--hyper structured. There are dance lessons and birthday parties and Pre-SAT prep courses. There is a lot of pressure to make sure the kids look good at all times. So you frantically hire a Spanish tutor if the kid comes home with a B-. There is pressure to drive a nice car, live in a nice house in an expensive area with good schools. You have money to go to post-natal yoga class, but you better be dropping weight and looking great in your yoga pants five weeks after the baby's birth.

 I get that the Middle Class screams "Who wants to live in a trailer on a West Virginia hill top? Poverty sucks." But as an observer, I've got to say--the frantic ant hill of life inside the Middle Class sucks too. So this poverty thing that Jesus hands us, it's a way out of the frantic busyness of the Middle Class, but its also a way out of the hopeless despair of the Lower Class.

 Jesus gives us an invitation. Be poor for me. Be poor with me.

 First, this way is a gentle invitation. It's not the same screaming fit similar to the "we all need to use less fossil fuels." You're not a second rate Christian if your not poor. But when you love him, when you hang out with him, there is this gentle invitation "Hey, come hang out with the poor."

There are many ways to voluntarily impoverish yourself in your walk with Christ. When you want to adopt, adoptions are expensive. That invitation to follow Christ makes you $30,000 poorer. When you give birth to an Autistic kid, Autism isn't covered by most insurance plans, so your family bank account is going to take a hit. Maybe you give money to your Mom who is battling cancer or maybe you take on extra legal cases pro bono.

 I just think there is a hidden "middle way." A way of being poor in things but rich with grace. Of finding the sweet spot with Jesus in poverty. I think this middle way can apply to everyone. It's good for us to stop parroting what the culture says we "need" to have to be happy, healthy, and successful Americans. We need to gently quiet that "popular will voice" and tune into the quiet, gentle, well informed, artistic heart that is connected to the Holy Spirit. That's when we get the good stuff.