Historically, and perhaps in some part due to my non-religious upbringing, I’ve felt rather opposed to and sullen at the thought of ‘poverty’.
Before converting to Catholicism, poverty to me mainly meant a lack of success, or something that many third world countries suffer from, or a life without much meaning due to being in unfortunate circumstances. It meant you couldn’t enjoy the finer things in life. Or so I thought.
This word has been completely transformed since my conversion. Only recently have I actually begun to appreciate this new meaning and want to emulate it. That said, I still have an iPhone and a top of the range computer, though my mindset has changed in a way that will make me think twice, I hope, with how I use my money in the future.
It hadn’t crossed my mind that poverty could be actively sought out by individuals who could otherwise lead a comfortable or affluent life. I hope many of us are familiar with the virtuous Christian stories of poverty, such as the stories of St Francis and his followers (including some from the nobility) who were so moved by his actions and virtue that they gave up lives of affluence and luxury to join him as humble monks and priests in poverty.
I recognise now that poverty can be both voluntary – a virtuous application – and involuntary, in which case, one might not have control over one’s lack of fortune, though may respond to it with grace.
Here are some (non-biblical) examples of why poverty can be a virtue, from the humble perspective of a convert of 2 years:
It keeps you humble. Having gone through a particularly ‘worldly’ period of my life before joining the church (I have travelled to 43 countries, mainly over a period of 3 years, and owned an expensive 2015 V8 Ford Mustang car, which in car terms clearly cost more than is necessary to get around. These are just 2 examples), I can see that greater joy is possible.
You don’t spend more than you need. In some sense, if your income is fixed and you spend less, then money is freed up for other things – saving for your family perhaps, or maybe charitable donations (e.g. tithing).
Poverty also rids you of attachment to this world and worldly possessions. In the past, I have been a “hoarder” in some sense: I had some floor-to-ceiling bookshelves built in 2 rooms of my house, then proceeded to buy books to fill them. The prospect of moving abroad with work made me reflect on having all of these books, all these items, and has made me realise that having possessions can be a drag. It can cause you a certain level of angst. This can also push you to care more about material possessions than about the transcendent, which is perilous.
Poverty, when entered into, or at least aspired to, causes you to make sacrifices. This is precisely what Jesus did. The more aware of holiness I am, the more open and enthusiastic I become about making sacrifices. In some sense, the more I can flee from or bury the excesses of my prior (non-Christian) life, the better.
In part, I wrote this in response to a book I mistakenly bought, which turned out to be about the ‘prosperity gospel’, a heretical interpretation of the Good News, which I found to be dangerous and spiritually repugnant. It is a relief, though, that I am now repelled by such works, and it was one of the few occasions where I’ve literally put the book in the bin – another being a particularly militant feminist book I bought during my liberal days.