When I was much younger, after some pretty intense reading in my undergrad days, I made a promise to God, that if He wanted me to do it, I would accept Holy Poverty, and live as one of the poor. Of course, I had no idea just what this podvig (Orthodox term for a cross to bear) would be. I suppose I expected a nice little Via Media poverty, no mansions or marble halls, but a modest roof over my head. God has had other ideas.
God doesn’t like His children to get too comfortable in the world, and because he has blessed me with holy poverty, I was definitely led in that promise rather than exercising some pious notion. Thank you, Lord.
Holy Poverty is what monks and nuns and dedicated religious practice. Some of them are blessed with orders that provide the roof and pot of kasha on the table, but I am just an Anglican, in ordained orders, married and therefore outside the monastery wall! Poverty is indeed hard. It means that sometimes we have to make choices about eating or paying the rent. Sometimes the choice is just not eating and not paying the rent, until someone is moved to show up with a little help.
Someone rather cruelly said to me recently when I was explaining why I couldn’t afford to do what someone wanted me to do, “Get a job!” but jobs for middle-aged, non-parochial priests are very scarce. As defenceless Christians, we can’t take just anything that comes along, and let’s face it, not everyone wants Plain people working for them. This is not a complaint, but an observation. If an employer is not moved in his or her heart to hire us (even if we are well qualified) then there is not much we can do about it. We are not called to take anyone to law over our rights.
Holy Poverty is a prophetic ministry. It is breaking a hole in the city wall; it is suffering down a well; it is going into captivity or spending the seasons far from home, because God sent you to do that. It is suffering along with the children of God, the poor. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of Heaven is theirs.” (Matthew 5.) A person can be poor in goods but not poor in spirit if they resent their poverty and dream of grasping the goods of others. Holy Poverty is real poverty, but it is rich in Spirit. It is a life free of worldly distractions and avaricious climbing to get the next prize.
I believe that to experience the poverty of the Spirit, you must be poor in the goods of the world. It is not a matter of detachment in spirit, but a matter of real detachment. You don’t own things. You don’t look to own things. You don’t hoard. You don’t collect. You have only what you need and if you have a surplus, you look to share. We are physical creatures in a physical world. We can’t live at some “spiritual” level unless our bodies are there, too. So the goods have to go.
There can be humiliation in this kind of poverty. We sometimes have to ask for help. Those who give are then blessed in the giving. Going to fellow Christians and asking them to share isn’t that humiliating, though, when they give in goodness and generosity, as members of the family of God. The humiliation is when we have to turn to the State for help, guaranteed under law, and have to answer all the too-personal questions and face the inevitable sense of judgment. We get to experience this so that we can understand what other poor people live through. We will manage to find work soon, since we have job skills and contacts. (Hiring is slower and more complicated than it used to be.) Some people will never find suitable work, because they lack education, or skills, or a network to help them. “Get a job” is incredibly humiliating when you know there is no job out there for you.
Remember the poor, in thy giving and in thy prayers. It may be thee some day who turns to thy fellows for help and succour.