An argument with the spouse: his small, innocent observation unleashes the ghost of a thousand arguments past, complete with its burden of chains. Marriage is like that sometimes: after two or three decades together, every fight recapitulates all fights. I hate feeling this way: poverty.
The end of the semester. The beginning, and for that matter, the middle. Doing everything this job requires feels impossible. I passed “tired” long ago and have moved on to “flesh and bone and soul weary.” I’m sick of having to know things, of having to talk about them. But knowing and talking are my job. I hate feeling this way: poverty.
A visit with the doctor. Another diagnosis, another expensive prescription, another sign that if civilization gets interrupted in a big way, I will not be one of the survivors. The usual scorching self-examination: could I have prevented this? I hate feeling this way: poverty.
Advent, as a friend reminds me, is a dark time. There’s a reason for all those strings of light: we’re trying to fight off the darkness. Probably it’s the same reason behind all the feasting: fear of the gnawing within, the reminder of how mortal and dependent we are. Who doesn’t hate feeling poor?
Voluntary poverty is a fine and noble thing, which I once tried briefly and gave up disillusioned. But whether it’s poverty of bank account or poverty of spirit, most of us don’t take on personal inadequacy voluntarily. I am a Third Order Franciscan, which means I live by Franciscan principles “in the world.” I’ve taken a vow of simplicity rather than poverty, and in truth, in material terms I live pretty well. I’m discovering, though, that there remain open to me levels and layers of poverty that I never suspected.
Yet in the multitude of circumstances in which I hate feeling inadequate, I’m beginning to discern a call, an invitation to go deeper. Naturally my first instinct is skepticism: By all means, let’s spiritualize this misery as “poverty of spirit,” and then I can feel holy instead of depressed. I’m wary of making a virtue of necessity, of baptizing feelings I’d never take on voluntarily and calling them “sacrifice.”
I’m reminded, however, of what the psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said about suffering: even if all freedom is taken away, to a human being one choice always remains: the choice of how to face the suffering. I can resent the feelings of limitation and fallibility, of not having, or knowing, or being enough. Or I can welcome the Spirit’s work of kenosis within me, the self-emptying, the scooping-out that creates more room for God’s presence within.
When Jesus healed people, he didn’t tell them, “Congratulations, I’ve healed you.” He said, “Your faith has made you whole.” “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” There is some part of our healing that depends on our own stance—the empty-handedness with which we approach God and ask for help because we cannot help ourselves. We can reject that poverty, or we can embrace it and with it the invitation to go deeper into God.
We’re going to be poor either way. It’s Advent, and the deepest darkness of the year approaches. But the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it, though it may hide it for a while. I can resent the darkness; I can hate the way it makes me feel. Or I can say to the Light, “I will follow you into hell if that’s where you’re leading.” Poverty—every kind of poverty—is hell. But for those who embrace it, Jesus said: “Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Susan Pitchford is a sociologist and member of the Third Order, Society of St Francis. She is the author of The Sacred Gaze, God in the Dark and Following Francis.
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