Abba Evagrius said that there was a brother who had no possessions but a Gospel, and sold it to feed the poor. And he said a word which is worth remembering: “I have even sold the word which commands me to sell all and give to the poor.”
Poverty is one of three particularly monastic disciplines, though I think in a more moderate form they can apply to everyone. The three are poverty, as I said, and virginity and obedience. These may quite possibly be the three least favorite things of our society.
In The Princess and Curdie, by the Scottish pastor and author George MacDonald, the mysterious princess, the “Mother of the Light,” reflects on poverty in this way while speaking to Peter, Curdie’s father:
Things come to the poor that can’t get in at the door of the rich. Their money somehow blocks it up. It is a great privilege to be poor, Peter—one that no man ever coveted, and but a very few have sought to retain, but one that yet many have learned to prize. You must not mistake, however, and imagine it a virtue; it is but a privilege, and one also that, like other privileges, may be terribly misused.
A “great privilege”—hardly the attitude of the world today. While in no way do I think that either George MacDonald or the desert fathers would approve of those who justify the status quo by downplaying the hardship of the poor—the brother in the story sold the one possession he had to give to the poor—I think that there is also an equal danger in portraying all those who struggle with material hardship as helpless victims as well. As I said, poverty is not popular, but that does not diminish the good that can come of it; and, as the princess observes, poverty is a gift “that yet many have learned to prize.” Monastics first and foremost, I would add.
Kelly and Brendan and I are not destitute; we have all that we need and a little more. But by many standards we would probably not be considered wealthy, and barely even middle class. This was the case for my family as a child as well as for my father. But joy does not discriminate between rich and poor, and as the princess notes, “Things come to the poor that can’t get in at the door of the rich.” “Blessed are you poor,” says Jesus, “for yours is the kingdom of God…. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 4:20, 24). The point here is not to disparage the rich, but only that it is much easier for a flea to pass through the eye of a needle than a camel (cf. Matthew 19:24).
There is, in fact, a great spiritual advantage to being poor for those who have eyes to see it. When people can pray with all their souls, “Give us this day our daily bread” (from the “Our Father“), they more easily recognize the presence of God in prayer. Ultimately, there is nothing getting in the way of the rich from praying with such fervor, except for their riches, that is. It is hard for a person to pray for something that he/she does not think is lacking. In the end, however, all that we have has been provided by God and is a gift from him. Possessions come and go, the delights of the world run through our hands like water, but the gift of poverty, so long as it is not “terribly misused,” quickly teaches us that the life of the soul, the kingdom of heaven, stands forever.