October 3, 2011

Poverty is a virtue. So says St. Francis de Sales. "No man is ready ever to admit that he is avaricious. Everyone denies having so base and mean a heart."

OK. I won't admit that I'm avaricious. Those times I bought 6/49 tickets in the hope of launching into an early and comfortable retirement, it wasn't really me doing it. Actually, I had honourable motives. Gotta feed, clothe and educate those four kids, you know. A couple million bucks would help that project.

There was a time when I actually lived in some poverty and liked it. Those were student days when a car wasn't a "necessity" and books, food, lodging and entertainment were the only expenses. If I wanted to go somewhere, I walked, took the bus or hitched a ride. But there was no virtue in that, just a lack of experience with serious cash.

Give a man a vehicle, however, and any semblance of poverty disappears. It's true that you may not have much money. But if you've got wheels, you can pretty much go where you want, when you want. Take away that ready access to personal transportation and, no matter how much money you have in the bank, your freedom is limited.

That's the catch. Poverty means limits, limits that hurt. How many of us want that? Voluntary poverty is almost non-existent in our society. Even when we give away piles of dough, it comes from our surplus. Rarely does it hurt. Almost all poverty is conscripted. Why? Because we hate limits.

We hate limits on our exploitation of the earth's resources. We hate moral limits. We hate speed limits. We hate that law that says we shouldn't be talking on the phone, eating ice cream and backing up our truck all at the same time. We want it all and we want it now.

How can you possibly love poverty if you hate limits? You can't.

"To want to be poor and yet not suffer any hardships is asking too much," wrote St. Francis de Sales. "It is to desire both the honour of poverty and the advantages of wealth."


Poverty without hardships is romanticized poverty. It is a pretty idea, but not a serious one. If it doesn't pinch hard, it is not real poverty.

Most of our grandparents knew real poverty. They knew life without good central heating in the winter, meals of bologna sandwiches and creamed peas, and the possibility of mortal illness where there was no high-tech cure in sight.

The ultimate poverty, of course, is death. We've been able, for most people, to push it off several years into the future. But there's no escaping it. When it comes, those 6/49 winnings will be of no avail and there will be no U-Haul behind the hearse. The ultimate limit will have issued its verdict. All that chasing after money, good times and freedom without limits will have been shown to be the pursuit of a chimera.


Francis de Sales says we should love "the precious jewel of poverty." Poverty is our real condition in life, no matter how we try to escape it. "Our possessions are not our own. God has given them to us to cultivate and he wants us to make them fruitful and profitable." We need to labour for them, not out of self-love, but out of the love of God.

To be close to the poor means to draw close to the basic reality of human existence. Befriending the poor can be condescension. Condescension is not love of the poor, but self-love in pompous disguise.

Getting rid of the fake love of the poor means sharing their lives. Bob Dylan zeroed in on our hypocrisy when he sang, "To live outside the law, you must be honest / I know you always say that you agree / But where are you tonight, sweet Marie?"

Yeah, where are you tonight, sweet Marie? Fine sentiments and boastful deeds don't cut it. "If you love the poor, be often with them," wrote Francis de Sales. As well, frequently give them some of your property. "If you love the poor, you will share their poverty and be poor like them."


This is a hard saying for freewheeling people in a prosperous society. It means compromising comfort and compromising freedom in order to be with those who are neglected and who have nothing to offer us.

At least, it seems they have nothing to offer and, in the world's terms, they don't. What they do have to offer are the things that cannot be measured. Relationships. Reality in its clearest form. Freedom from self. Freedom from always being in control.

This is virtue, not a romanticized facsimile and not sanctimonious moral superiority. The poor are dangerous because helping them can make us feel oh so good about ourselves. But to really embrace poverty means something else. It means losing control, losing freedom and abandoning comfort. This is a virtue. But how many of us really want it?