Carmelite Spirituality – Poverty
A Gospel Value

Patrick Burke, O.Carm. Carmelite Family: Number 19, Autumn 2003.

Poverty is a way of living, a way of relating, especially to the goods of the earth, that allows us to be free and creative, accepting all that God has created as gift for us and for others. It thus allows everything God has created to lead us to closer union with God. Poverty can also describe our way of relating to God, especially when the model of our poverty is the poverty of Jesus Christ. It can also remind us and the transient world in which we exist that there is a world to come in which we will possess all because Christ will be all in all.

Different Ways of Being Poor
It is hard to imagine that anyone would want to be poor. The real poor have to struggle each day just to survive. If they get sick they may not be able to pay for medical care. They will leave school early, or perhaps never get to school at all. Their limbs will be smaller and their skin pale and dry. Born into deprivation some people have always been poor. Despite efforts to help, they have lived so long in poverty it is almost impossible to see how they will ever be free of it. Other people might not have been poor in the beginning, but circumstances changed and they found themselves with nothing.

Some people become poor by choice, in order to follow a religious ideal, or in order to share the lot of the poor and work with them until they rise above their poverty. Some people live by the Gospel virtue of the poor in spirit. These are the people who recognise their total dependence on God, who welcome the gifts of God, and seek ways to share the gifts of God they have received, rather than holding them for themselves.

There are those who feel they are lost, despite having many of the gifts of the earth. People may have all that they could ever want in terms of position and possessions and choices but they are not happy. This is the lot of those who are spiritually poor rather than poor in spirit as the Gospel recommends.

Finally, there is the poverty of those who are very conscious of their fragility and inadequacies: poor in personality, poor in intelligence, poor in their ability to relate to others, poor in skills and poor in health. St. Paul recognised some of this poverty in himself. It led him to the statement that he accepted this poverty because when he was weak it was then that the power of God shone out in him. It was then that he was strong.

All of this tells us that there is a kind of poverty that is desired by God, and another kind of poverty that is an offense to God and his creation. The life of evangelical poverty, taken on by consecrated people in the Church, looks in both directions. Those who take on this life accept it as a gift and a calling, they seek to live a life of poverty and simplicity, doing what they can to help overcome the poverty that makes the poor suffer, or holds them back.

The Evangelical Counsel of Poverty
An evangelical counsel is a value that the Gospel puts before us and recommends for our life as followers of Jesus Christ. The evangelical counsel of poverty is for all the baptised. As we read the Gospel we can sense the call to some kind of poverty, a constant urging not to place our trust in riches, and to be close to the poor. The poverty recommended by the Gospel is the poverty that helps us to be sensitive to God, to the goods of the earth, and to others, particularly the poor, in a way that is more human, more freeing and more salvific.

Jesus, The Poor Man
The model for the life of evangelical poverty is Jesus. Born in Bethlehem, the child of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth, He grew up in Galilee, walked among the poor and lowly (fishermen, shepherds, farmers, prostitutes, publicans), pointed out the errors of the rich, and defended the powerless. After a life of serving others He died, stripped of everything, on the cross. The Gospels show us His powerlessness before the Father and in the face of the authorities that condemned Him. They tell of the time He spent walking among the poor. If we do not come close to the poor, we will never love them in the way Jesus did.

The Believers Shared their Goods
A further model for our life of poverty is the early Christian community. Those who followed Jesus shared their goods, so that no one was left in need. The life of poverty is very practical. Inspired by the description of the first Christian community in the Acts of the Apostles, the followers of Christ see themselves as belonging to a community, in which the members share all their goods so that no one is left in need. The idea of sharing goods offers a great challenge to the world of today. It is said that the system of taxes in modern society is an attempt to put this idea into practice. Yet how many of us relish the idea of paying these taxes? All that we have is gift, to be put at the service of others.

The mentality of this kind of poverty is the mentality of wanting to use all the good things of the earth in order to make life better for everybody and to honour the Creator and giver of all of these gifts. This poverty also helps us to recognise the gifts that God has given us. If we hold these gifts for ourselves, if we do our best to accumulate more and more of them so that others are left short, it is very clear that we have distorted God’s plan of providing for the needs of everyone on the earth.

A Sign of the World that is to Come
This mentality of poverty is an expression of our acceptance that this world is a passing world and that we are destined for a world in which Christ will be all in all and we will not have to look any longer for possessions, honours, privileges or security. Because we believe that this world that is to come is already present, the person who lives by the evangelical counsel of poverty lives already in that security and confidence that is offered by the kingdom. Their lives in poverty, simplicity and solidarity is a way of reminding others that the kingdom of God is already present and that there is in each one of us a desire to see the fulfilment of that kingdom in the life to come.