Monday, January 14, 2008

The virtue of poverty?

Practitioners in many religious traditions, not just Christianity, uphold asceticism and poverty as virtues to cultivate, since it is presumed that one is less likely distracted by anxiety, desires, and fear if one has nothing--or at least very little--in the way of material possessions. One is able to focus more clearly, even more purely, on the Divine or merely on presence when one isn't worrying about how the stock market is doing.

Even when I was an adamant agnostic, I admired those spiritual leaders who embraced poverty as the path to enlightenment. Francis of Assisi stood out in my mind as a model of someone who stood up and rejected middle-class expectations of affluence that was built up by constant concern for business ventures.

But now at 46, having already outlived the life-span of Francis of Assisi and looking down the road at retirement I wonder about this quest for poverty. While I am content with many of my career choices, in which I always considered compensation secondary to personal fulfillment, I am reevaluating other choices related to how I spend money, and even more so, I am reevaluating the amount of work I am willing to do without compensation.

When one works for the Church or in fields related to spiritual growth, one is often asked to offer time and talent for little or no financial compensation.

This article from the San Francisco Chronicle doesn't relate to ministry, per se, but it does highlight the story of someone who has no money at 61. And it makes me consider one of the arguments I make in my classes: lay people in the church are often fed models of the spiritual life that were originally developed for vowed religious, i.e. monks and nuns, who while taking vows of personal poverty, still lived within institutions with corporate wealth that provided for the sick and elderly. Those of us who work for some religious organizations today are often paid under the market value for our labor and we receive fewer benefits than secular organizations offer.

The cautionary tale of the woman who opened her home to lots of people, but who had not a penny saved is the script of the life story awaiting many of us choosing the "spiritual life." And I wonder about its wisdom. Is it fundamentally a selfish life to choose a life of poverty so that one is dependent on state support as one ages or becomes seriously infirmed?

Kenneth Baxter Wolf dismantles the sentimentalism of Franciscan poverty in The Poverty of Riches: St. Francis Reconsidered. He argues that Francis could have done more to help the real poor in concrete ways had he sacrificed his idealism (read: selfish idealism) and embraced the middle-class life his father wanted him to inherit.

It takes a lot of material resources to live one's ideals. As a follower of Gandhi wrote, "If the old man only knew how expensive it is to keep him in his life of poverty."


1 comment:

Elizabeth, GTU said...

This is a compelling reflection, Darleen, one which raises lots of issues for me. Like, who, generally speaking, is most often encouraged to embrace a life of poverty and what it allows them to really do in the service of Christian ideals. The second part of this question is in part addressed in your reference to Wolf. Are people such as Francis, who give up material wealth, really able to serve God more fully than if they had a little cash to dole around? Or, maybe more to the point, to see to their own needs so that they had sufficient energy, focus, health, longevity, etc. to really minister to others. But, the first part--the who--is, I think, often more gendered, and in that regard it links to the second. Francis was giving up money, but also a certain measure of social power--an asset few women who make a similar financial choice have to spare in great abundance. So, maybe there is something to be said for people whose wealth encourages vanity, manipulation, and insensitivity to the needs of others giving it up. Maybe the release of those trappings does enable them to serve more fully. For many people who don't start out in a position of privilege--and, again, this is far too often women--the ideal of poverty can be seen as preventing them from from accessing the more limited social power (part of that coming from basic life security) that would enable them to follow their vocations most fully.
--Elizabeth