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Part 14: The Challenge of Holy Poverty

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By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Feb 23, 2017)
The following is part 14 of a special series on the role Mary plays in the life of the Church.

Last time we looked at the tremendous joy that can fill the hearts of those who lead a life of Gospel simplicity.

But what if we are not actually poor in material goods? Must we give away all our wealth in order to find the joy of holy poverty that Mary found? No doubt some of us are called to do so.

In the story in the Gospels about the Rich Young Man, Jesus advises him to "Go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (Mk 10:21).

Down through the centuries, many Catholics have heard the call to do just that, embracing a religious vocation of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Holy poverty is a special emphasis of the vocation of the Franciscans and the Poor Clares. But Jesus never makes voluntary poverty a precept for all of His followers.

If our Lord has blessed you with material wealth, you can still find the treasures of holy poverty and holy joy by practicing detachment from all created things. This includes "mortifying" (in other words, "putting to death") all clinging to created things that threatens to take your heart's first love away from Jesus Christ. In his book This Tremendous Lover, Fr. Eugene Boylan writes:

Mortification ... is not performed in any morbid sense of self-hatred, or contempt of the body; it is not a mere negative thing, a foolish frustration and self-suppression. It is something quite positive, an assertion of Jesus rather than a denial of self; for we only deny ourselves to find Him, that he may live in us and that we may be united to Him. ... We are speaking now in general terms ... [of] the desire of bodily pleasure, of ease, of comfort, of gratification, of admiration, of knowledge, of pleasing others, of revenge, of achievement, and all those attempts which self-love makes to control and dictate our actions.


Often, for those of us who are blessed with material wealth, the best way for us to practice true mortification is to deny ourselves needless comforts and luxuries, and practice true generosity to those whose material poverty causes them extreme suffering. While holy poverty is the context in which holy joy can be found, truly "grinding poverty," real destitution (e.g., hunger and malnourishment, disease and painful illness, the privation of all opportunities for useful work, etc.) is hardly the same thing; only great saints can find a path to sanctification in such a state, while for most people, such extreme destitution can simply overwhelm them and their families with crosses too heavy for them to bear.

Thus, our Lord bids us relieve the sufferings of the destitute as best we can: "For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. ... Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:35-36, 40).

The 18th century Anglican spiritual writer William Law challenges us with these reflections on the importance of detachment from material luxuries, combined with compassion for the poor:

If we part with our money in foolish ways, we part with a great power of comforting our fellow creatures and of making ourselves forever blessed.

If there be nothing so glorious as doing good, if there is nothing so like God, then nothing can be so glorious in the use of our money as to use it all in works of love and goodness, making ourselves friends and fathers and benefactors to all our fellow creatures, imitating divine love and turning all our power into acts of generosity, care, and kindness, to such as are in need of it.

Riches spent upon ourselves in vain and needless expenses, in trying to use them where they have no real use, nor we any real want, we only use them to our great hurt, in creating unreasonable desires, in nourishing ill tempers, in indulging our passions and supporting a worldly, vain turn of mind. For high eating and drinking, fine clothes and fine houses. ... [Excessive] pleasures and diversions do all of them hurt and disorder our hearts ... [and] make us less able to raise our thoughts to things that are above. ...

So that money thus spent is not merely wasted or lost, but it is spent to bad purposes and miserable effects, to the corruption and disorder of our hearts, and to making us less able to live up to the sublime doctrines of the gospel. It is like keeping money from the poor, to buy poison for ourselves.


Finally, a beautiful summary of the truth about holy poverty is given to us by Fr. De Rouville in The Imitation of Mary. It takes the form of a dialogue between a Christian believer and the Blessed Virgin:

The Believer
Holy Virgin, I love to think of the deep peace that filled your soul in the stable at Bethlehem where Jesus was born. ... In that stable, Mary, you were infinitely more content with your great poverty than the rich of Bethlehem with their great wealth. ...

Mary
My child, if you possess Jesus, you are rich enough. A soul that considers God its sole blessing is indifferent toward earthly possessions and is quite willing to be poor.

When I saw that Jesus, King of heaven and earth, though rich He became poor that he might enrich men by His poverty (2 Cor 8:9), I made it my goal to imitate Him. ...

The Holy Spirit does not tell everyone: "Give away all that you have." He does not require that degree of perfection from everyone, but He does say to everyone: "Do not be attached to possessions."...

My child, love the poor. Be happy to use all the means you have of comforting them in their trials. ...

Make it your duty ... to help the unfortunate. Do not give ear to your own cupidity which claims it never has enough. You are not forbidden to save, but you may not be hardhearted and miserly. How praiseworthy it is to be thrifty so that one may help the poor! ... You must give alms according to your means. If you have a great deal, give a great deal; if you have but little, then gladly share that little with the poor. ...

Blessed are those who are content to be poor or who strip themselves of this world's goods so that they may concentrate entirely on acquiring the riches of His love and the blessings of heaven! Blessed are they who in imitation of Jesus ... are entirely detached from the things whose use they have!


Prayer
Recite the Chaplet of the 10 Evangelical Virtues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and prayerfully reflect on Mary's purity of heart.

Questions for Discussion for Parts 13 and 14
1. What is the virtue of "holy poverty," and when was it especially manifest in the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary?
2. Share with the group a brief biographical sketch of the life of St. Francis of Assisi. How does the virtue of true poverty of spirit, as manifested in the life of St. Francis and of our Lady, open our hearts to the gift of "holy joy"?
3. If you are not poor in material goods, how can you grow in the virtue of holy poverty?

Suggestions for Further Reading
Read St. Alphonsus Liguori, The Glories of Mary, Part Four, chapter VII, entitled "Mary's Poverty."

Access the series to date.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Mary - Who She Is and Why She Matters (Marian Press).

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ash wednesday question - Mar 1, 2017

with the idea to sell what one has and give (money) to the poor... what about giving what one has directly to the poor? the profit from used stuff to get new stuff is a challenge. also these days sometimes money is wasted on addictions. and we have so much extra clothes usually and possessions which can be given away to those in need.

PRINCIPLE AND FOUNDATION of St. Ignatius - Mar 1, 2017

I think that's the way to figure out if we don't need everything we have? and what is good to share?

"The First Principle and Foundation

The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul.

All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created.

It follows from this that one must use other created things, in so far as they help towards one's end, and free oneself from them, in so far as they are obstacles to one's end.

To do this, we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no other prohibition.

Thus, as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created."

(that's an adaption I found on a parish website of a church named after St. Ignatius but it doesn't say who wrote it specifically; it is based on St. Ignatius' words from the Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises)