Last summer I had a conversation about poverty with one of the men from the homeless shelter where I worked on Sunday nights. Clive had just moved out into a flat nearby, but he couldn’t afford electricity to cook, so he used to come back to the shelter for a hot meal. He was asking me what I did when I wasn’t working there, and so we ended up talking about religious life, and he asked what vows I would take. When I talked about taking a vow of poverty, he was not just completely nonplussed. He was actually offended.
He gestured at himself, clearly pissed off: ‘Why do you think this is good?’ I fudged something about simplicity of life reminding us that God is the most important thing, but it sounded crap to me. I wasn’t poor like he was; I wasn’t even doing a convincing impression of being poor. He couldn’t afford electricity to cook; I pressed one switch in our kitchen, and four lightbulbs came on.
I still don’t really know what it means to be poor, or what it means to choose to be poor. But I think if I bumped into Clive again today, I’d say something different.
The number one rule is that you don’t romanticise it. My volunteering work brings me face to face with poverty all the time. People living in poverty sit across the table from me, struggling, addicted, anxious, undernourished, depressed, overworked and angry. Poverty is not beautiful, it is not happy, and it is not well. Poverty makes you sick. It tears your relationships apart. It suffocates your aspirations.
The number two rule is that you don’t choose it. It’s fashionable now to upcycle, downsize, de-clutter, simplify, whittle down your clothes to a ‘capsule wardrobe’, but real poverty is not a lifestyle choice. Poverty is systemic, and all-encompassing and exhausting; it traps you, it traps your children, and it traps their children. Poverty is, by definition, something you don’t choose.
As a religious, I don’t have that kind of poverty. We’ve got limited personal cash, but we aren’t materially poor by a long stretch. In fact, in terms of food, shelter and heating, my lifestyle is wealthy, to the extent that I sometimes wish for a greater simplicity of life.
So in the face of these facts, what does it mean to take a vow of poverty? I don’t want to get so meta that I dodge the imperative of living a materially simple life in solidarity with people living in poverty. That matters and I want to reinforce it. But, at the same time, I know from people like Clive that my real poverty is not what I do choose, but what I don’t choose. Poverty is what I find limiting, stifling, systemic, what I’d most like to escape. My poverty is what I fight against, and what exhausts me.
Poverty often isn’t consciously experienced as such. It’s not that you don’t notice its effects, just that you don’t go round all the time thinking, ‘Woe is me, I am poor’. You just carry on taking each challenge as it comes: finding the money to pay the bill, looking at when the money comes out of your account for this or that, timing the payment, checking the price, putting something back on the shelf. For lots of the people I meet when I’m volunteering, it’s only when they sit down and talk about it that they realise how all-encompassing, unrelenting and exhausting it is. And it’s only when they sit down and talk about it that they realise –sometimes, anyway– how resourceful, courageous and resilient they are in the face of it.
I don’t face anything like their challenges. But I do face my own poverties – struggles I haven’t chosen, limitations I don’t want, constant effort that is pretty draining. Most of the time, I don’t think about this as ‘poverty’: it’s just daily life. It’s only occasionally that I realise the constant effort, and how tired I can get. But it’s also in those moments that I realise that, most of the time, I manage to be generous in the face of poverty. Most of the time, I don’t let myself get to a place of passivity and defeatism where I’m thinking, this is it. I have nothing left to give. Take it or leave it. Instead, I respond by trying to overcome the difficulty, by trying be creative, by trying to be generous, or patient, or courageous, or kind, or whatever it takes.
At the weekend, I picked up a book about St Francis of Assisi, that man who was so in love with poverty. I found myself thinking about Clive, and his question: ‘Why do you think this is good?’ As I read about his desire for poverty, I found myself in tears. One line stood out: ‘For Francis, poverty was freedom to grow in the Christ-life, and he was growing by leaps and bounds.’
To choose poverty means to choose to be generous in the face of limitations, difficulties, humiliations and exhaustion that you have not chosen. To choose poverty means not to turn in on yourself in those situations, but to accept and even embrace them, as far as you can, as an opportunity to ‘grow in the Christ-life’. Sometimes I feel I have nothing left to give but, day by day, I keep on managing to give. Sometimes I feel I have run out of my natural patience, or that I have exhausted my reserves of kindness, and so I tell God I have nothing left, and he has to help. Clive was right. Poverty doesn’t feel good. It can feel tiring, all-encompassing, unrelenting. But poverty –allowing myself to experience the place where I have nothing left– gives me the freedom to grow in the Christ-life of generosity, of self-gift, and of grace. And sometimes, when I find time to sit down and write about it, I can see that I am growing by leaps and bounds.
Photo credit: Luis Felipe Salas on Flickr