Today's topic will be spiritual poverty. What really is spiritual poverty, and is this just a vow that religious take, or is it an attitude that all of us should have?
The renunciation of worldly material goods has long been seen as a means toward spiritual growth. It is an attempt to live a life in harmony with Christ and to do His will. St. Faustina wrote that the virtue of poverty "is an evangelical virtue which impels the heart to detach itself from temporal things" (Diary, 93). The Catechism teaches us that "All Christ's faithful are to 'direct their affections rightly, lest they be hindered in their pursuit of perfect charity by the use of worldly things and by an adherence to riches which is contrary to the spirit of evangelical poverty' " (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2545).
The attitude of spiritual poverty is not meant just for those in religious life. Scripture tells us, "Do not love the world, or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world" (1Jn 2:15-16). And St. James wrote, "Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God" (Jas 4:4). As the soul tries to obtain closer union with God, it realizes that it must die to self in order for the Lord to increase. St. John wrote "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn 3:30) The soul is in a constant battle with the self and human desires. The renunciation of worldly things that St. Faustina writes about requires a certain sense of asceticism — that is, an element of training and exercise. Yet it is not the attempt at mortification that is the virtue; it is the detachment from worldly things in imitation of Christ. It is the spirit of detachment that is vital, for in fact, the Lord may not require us to rid ourselves of all worldly things, only to have a spiritual detachment from them. From a practical standpoint, we do not let the material goods be our ultimate goal; we know that we can be happy and at peace without them.
Jesus himself did not condemn the possession of material things; He himself had rich friends. Money itself is not the root of all evil; rather, it is "love of money that is the root of all evil" (1 Tim 6: 10). We must not let material things be our god. Poverty in itself has no intrinsic merit or virtue. However, it is good insofar as it removes the roadblocks that impede our progress on the spiritual path. Poverty helps keep us from becoming distracted by things of this world that don't really matter. The poor do not spend hours worrying about the stock market, their Keogh retirement account, or what kind of home or car to buy. Spiritual poverty allows abandonment to Divine Providence and frees us from the anxiety about the future. It enables us to understand that all things, no matter their monetary value, are to be used for our daily needs and to give honor and glory to God. If we have a nice car, we should thank God for His blessing on us, as all good comes from Him. But we should realize that these "things" do not make us beautiful or rich in God's eyes. As Christians, we must realize that we are already rich in Jesus Christ, and that "for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). We are already rich, because we are baptized sons and daughters of God!
Many pursue money and material goods because they believe it will bring them a new identity, satisfaction, and security. In times of struggle, many find their solace and consolation in worldly things. Many struggle with low self-esteem, and believe a new car, hairdo, or wardrobe will somehow make them different; it will lift them from their despair. Money or material things may give us a fleeting sense of a new identity and a sense of power, but for how long? What happens when the money runs out? When this happens, many of our so-called "friends" leave us — they were not our friends because they saw the beauty in our soul, or kindness in our heart, or for the joy of being in our company. No, they were with us because we had money and were "somebody"; they were with us for the illusion of power and of being with "somebody." We were being used for what we had, not loved for who we were.
One may feel a surge of power sitting behind the wheel of an expensive automobile, or a feeling of power when one puts on an expensive suit. However, all these material things are fleeting, and shortly after obtaining them, we realize that we are still the same person, and we feel the need to obtain another "toy" that will give us another sense of being a "winner" and a "success." However, after a time, the hair styles and automobile models change, and we tire of the material things we purchased to make us feel better. So we move on to the next, and the next, and the next. Life becomes a never-ending quest to get the most expensive toys, or at least, whatever toys society tells us are "in style" at a particular time. And in spite of this never-ending quest, we are still no happier than before. Because we are slow learners, we continue the struggle for an improved self-identity and inner happiness, using the same ineffective techniques, and the lust for more expensive goods continues. We never achieve the desired satisfaction because God is not in the picture; because all these material things are fleeting. They break down or wear out, and the vicious cycle starts over. But God's love for us is constant and never-ending.
Some work and struggle and sacrifice to make money and become a "success," for they believe it will give them security. Their entire focus is on material things; they take their eyes off of God to achieve their goals. "I'll get to that later," they say. Occasionally, people tell me that, "I'll help the poor after I win the lottery." They know that they should help, but they are unwilling to part with some of their blessings. Their life is like the man with one foot in the boat and the other on the dock; he wants both and leads a very unsteady existence. Or, some act like the workaholic who works many extra hours trying to accumulate wealth because he convinces himself that "when I get enough money, I'll enjoy life and really work for the Lord!" However, for most, such a "picture perfect" scenario never comes to fulfillment. Either one gets laid off, the long hours take a toll on the marriage and family, or a demise in health ruins the best of intentions. Satisfaction never occurs, and the soul becomes angry and despondent.
The soul striving for sanctity detaches himself from worldly things to obtain the gold that never tarnishes. "It remains for the holy people to struggle, with grace from on high, to obtain the good things God promises. In order to possess and contemplate God, Christ's faithful mortify their cravings and, with the grace of God, prevail over the seductions of pleasure and power" (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2549).
What makes a man rich? Is it material goods or the love of God in our hearts? True satisfaction comes only from the Lord. No amount of money, no position of authority, and no material item can bring lasting inner peace. "Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart" (Ps 37:4).