We’ve been graced with a delightfully candid neighbor boy, and a few years ago he asked us point blank, “Are you poor?”
No, most certainly not. The appalling situation in which some of our children must share a bedroom not withstanding, let’s be clear: I live luxuriously. Hot water, indoor plumbing, coffee, books, very many shoes . . . everywhere you look, my home is the very picture of superabundance. Elizabeth Scalia shares a letter from a mom who actually tried the $1.25/day grocery challenge from Billy Kangas. She reports what you may have suspected: Destitution is no fun.
The Paradox of Uncluttered Living
Pope Francis or no Pope Francis, Christians do have a calling to share our wealth with the poor. I know some people who pull that off better than I do; they live frugally and avoid accumulating any excess. The irony: If you visited their homes, you might think they were rich.
The reason? Really rich people have clean houses. They don’t have bunches of junk stuffed into every spare corner. If you take that Christian ideal, and combine it with an eye for durable furniture, good housekeeping habits, and a few pretty objects artfully displayed, it creates the illusion of luxury.
Probably one of the reasons the neighbor kid inquired about our circumstances is that we’ve always got the Sanford & Son thing going on in some corner or another — but that has nothing to do with wealth or a lack of it, and everything to do with a penchant for creating toys out of cardboard boxes. It’s a hobby. A trashy hobby.
Christian Poverty in a Nutshell
Fr. Thomas Dubay’s book Hapy are You Poor lays out the argument for evangelical poverty in considerable and enthusiastic detail, and one of his opening observations is that we aren’t talking destitution. The working principle is that we use what we need, and pass on the rest. The tendency, in rejecting this aspect of Christian spirituality, is to make a list of things we can’t live without, and say, “How can you expect me to live without ________?!” And the answer is: No one expects that. If you need it, have it.
(My tendency in rejecting this aspect of Christian spirituality is to just hit the “submit order” button, and put off worrying about it for some other time. I need a rubber bracelet that says TGFP – Thank God for Purgatory.)
If you want a shorter and easier read, Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s post “Benedictine and Franciscan Poverty” hits the key points – read the whole thing, or you’ll miss my favorite bit:
My Dad was a Christian businessman. Sometimes people would criticize him for making a decent mark up on goods he sold in his store.
His answer was, “I want to make as much money as possible in order to further the Lord’s work!” He did too. He and my mom were wealthy, but lived modestly and gave much money to good Christian causes. This is the way the laypeople are called to detachment: to realize what the money is for: it’s for God’s work. It’s for the good of the gospel. It’s for the kingdom of heaven.
For an idea about franciscan poverty, here’s the Rule and Constitutions of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. (The Rule of St. Benedict can be found here, and it’s pretty interesting too. And the FFR guys have a nice vocations-discernment page here, take a look.)
Luxury & Junk Food
So I did, after reading Fr. Dubay’s book, spend some time thinking about the whole “What do we really need?” problem. And here’s our situation: We try to buy good food at my house.
Good food is not cheap.
In America, the going thing is to eat trashy food. So much so, that Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry recently felt called to write about how Catholics need to eat better. Which means that if you read labels, or buy organic, or generally try to eat like a 19th century farmer actually ate, only without doing the farming . . . your Cheetos-eating compatriots may well accuse you of gluttony. You’re eating too daintily, or too luxuriously.
Now let’s review: I do live luxuriously. So much so that I feel the need to warn you that Equal Exchange switches over to its summer shipping policy on May 1st, so if the best you can do in your efforts at Christian poverty is to eat fair-trade chocolate, order before melting season sets in.
(I don’t have a particular reason for favoring EE, by the way, it just somehow worked out for me. Catholic Relief Services has a pile of links to other reputable sources for this ‘n that. And they fail to mention Mystic Monk, so I will, because I’m not sure you can be a Catholic blogger unless you mention the monks every now and again.)
But if your idea of luxury is to eat bread that contains things like flour and water in it, but not chemicals you’d have to get special clearance to use in high school lab science, that’s the sound of your brain on American groceries.
Buying expensive cheeses imported from another continent? Luxurious. (I do that.) Buying cheese that has only ingredients like “milk” and nothing that can only be had by prescription? Not luxurious. If the cow /pig /chicken now on your plate ate grass and saw the sky at some point in its life, that does not make you a glutton. It makes you humane.