Friday, February 12, 2010

Value of Poverty -- #1

Value #1 Radical Readiness for the Kingdom

He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble.
He hath filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he hath sent empty away.
Magnificat, Luke 1

Father Dubay uses the word "Values" for this section of the book. From Chapter 12:

"Because strictly speaking poverty is a negative situation, we do not seek it for itself. We pursue it for the positive values for which it prepares us, the values it makes possible."
The online definition I can find that's closest to what I think he means by "value" is:

"A principle value is a foundation upon which other values and measures of integrity are based."

The first of these values for which poverty makes room is "radical readiness for the kingdom."

First, "radical" in this sense means something different from wild-eyed reformist, but rather, "going to the roots" (radix)

Father Dubay says that the twin roots of radical readiness are "detachment" and "humility" and that they are complementary, and linked by factual poverty. When we empty ourselves as much as possible of love of things and love of our own way of doing things, we leave ourselves receptive to the next step, which is to be filled with God's grace. The things and self-will block this like weeds. He says it is somewhat similar to the way a child becomes ready for reading when he leaves behind certain traits of early childhood that prevent the decoding and symbol-comprehension process from taking place. This is what he means by "readiness".

If we have a choice in the matter and are really detached, we won't be trying to hold on to things, and the extra will slip away. It is a bit like how Francis Borgia, who was obese, heard God's call and stopped overeating and became slender. This is easy to say, but humanly impossible, of course!

We have already discussed "detachment". St Ignatius described detachment succinctly in the Principle and Foundation of his Spiritual Exercises:

For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it; so that, on our part, we want not health rather than sickness, riches rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, long rather than short life, and so in all the rest; desiring and choosing only what is most conducive for us to the end for which we are created.
Humility is implied in this definition, and Father Dubay makes the connection explicit by means of factual poverty. If we say we are detached but still choose to have lots of possessions we are probably fooling ourselves (I think "choose" is an important word here because some of the saints were kings or popes who owed some magnificence to their role, and there are probably modern-day parallels). And since in our society, he points out, status is often linked to possession, being voluntarily poor can induce humility as well.

Being voluntarily poor CAN induce humility, but can also precipitate one into the trap of spiritual pride, which is what happens when our "center of gravity" as Father Dubay says, is not the Trinity but ourselves or what others think of us. From the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on Poverty:

The ancients understood the nobility of making themselves independent of the fleeting things of earth, and certain Greek philosophers lived in voluntary penury; but they prided themselves on being superior to the vulgar crowd. There is no virtue in such poverty as this, and when Diogenes trampled Plato's carpet, saying as he did so: "Thus do I trample on Plato's pride", "Yes", answered Plato, "but only through your own pride."
I am thinking that people move in their own spheres of prosperity. Father Dubay talks about a woman with expensive jewels and an extensive wardrobe who dines finely and goes on luxury vacations. He's not talking to me there. I'd feel very silly walking around with jewels or a designer wardrobe. But certainly I have my own circle with its own "luxuries" -- the newest homeschool curriculum or material, perhaps? Some neat educational toy or cool homeschool course? Things we feel we "have" to have to compete with others, rather than things they really need or could benefit from. I think the message applies to all different socioeconomic groups -- one can't simply look at one's annual income and then feel either smug or concerned. He's talking about an active process, a "triangulation" that involves:

  1. What we really need to provide for ourselves and our families (more details on that in later chapters)
  2. What our "neighbor" needs.
  3. What God requires of us individually -- our generous response to His generosity.
It might look different at different times. Father Dubay says, too, that different people show different degrees of readiness. Our priest said there was a legend that the "rich young man" who turned away sadly from following Jesus because he had so many things later changed his mind and became a follower. The saints practiced poverty in ways that looked different on the exterior, though Father Dubay says the principle was consistent. But the legitimate differences ought not to be a cover for getting by with the absolute minimum. Of course, we are free in a certain sense to do the absolute minimum. But, going back to the Blessed Mother's canticle, without the more generous "emptying" of ourselves there will be less to fill with good things-- the rich will be turned away because they had already filled themselves.

Oh, and "kingdom"! The last word to define in his phrase. Father Dubay says it has to do with changing your center of gravity -- the universe no longer revolves around oneself, but around the Holy Trinity. More on the Kingdom in the Catechism: here and here.

So factual poverty has a value because it empties us and gives us radical readiness for the kingdom. That is his first point!

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