Evangelizing the Spiritually Impoverished: Missionaries of the Digital Continent

Evangelizing the Spiritually Impoverished: Missionaries of the Digital Continent

This discussion of spiritual poverty at Bearing blog was a part of the inspiration for this post. Bearing starts with Pope Francis’s Address to diplomats:

But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the “tyranny of relativism”, which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples. And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace if everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.

then asks:

So, here is my question.

We know what “St. Francis” is to the materially poor.

How does the St. Francis to the spiritually poor appear?

I myself was raised materially wealthy, but in comparative spiritual poverty.  I know something, a little, about this.

And many people are raised in spiritual poverty that goes far beyond what I encountered:  a poverty that not only fails to transmit the concept of divinity of God, but also fails to transmit the concept of humanity in persons.  Abuse, hatred, exploitation, violent acts against the dignity of human beings are everywhere; and a quieter kind of deprivation that simply values objects more than people and communicates it in a thousand daily acts of obeisance to things.

It has always been a struggle for “respectable” people to acknowledge that physical, material poverty is not generally a punishment inflicted by God on the deserving, or even inflicted by the undeserving on themselves.  It is a severe temptation among the comfortable of all stripes to assume that a poor man is poor because he did something to deserve it, or because he failed to do something and he should have known better.  It goes that way for many types of physical poverty:  the healthy love to blame the ill for making themselves sick through poor choices, the safe blame the endangered for endangering themselves. 

When Francis and his followers embraced holy poverty, they became a sign of contradiction.  They did not, I think, do so, each of them, in order to be a sign—I think they were doing so in order to become new men and women, in order to transform themselves inwardly by conforming their choices (tastes, even) to Christ, in response to a highly personal, inward call. But become a sign they did, as so many invisible transformations do.  The sign of contradiction is simple and yet ancient as Job:  here is someone both miserable and holy.  Someone whose poverty is as self-inflicted as can be, and yet, undeniably, steeped in the love of God.

What can it mean to be “Francis” to the spiritually poor?  Can this kind of poverty be embraced, the way that Francis of Assisi embraced the materially poor?  Can spiritual poverty ever be a kind of holy poverty?

in the comments she begins to try to answer her own question:

If there is such a thing as “embracing spiritual poverty” it would mean—I think—

—refusing to look down on, or denigrate, people who are spiritually impoverished. People who are ignorant of the truth, even willfully; people who perpetuate a cycle of abuse in part because of their own impoverished pasts; people who see others as means to an end. If you are “embracing spiritual poverty” then you don’t get to snark at such people, however awful they may seem. You would see their humanity, attempt to connect, put yourself at risk of being hurt.

Especially in the online world it can be so hard to see others’ humanity, to risk being flamed at by approaching what seems like a scoff as if it were an invitation to a dialogue, to risk seeming like a fool for enagaging a “troll” instead of dismissing him with scornful words. And in Catholic comment boxes you also risk being chided by your fellow Catholics for engaging with such angry hurtful people. “Don’t feed the trolls,” they warn you. But perhaps that’s exactly what we are called to do? To feed them? Couldn’t it be that the troll who regularly hangs out at Catholic sites someone who is hungering for the truth but afraid of rejection so is preemptively rejecting those who he feels have already shut him out?

It occurs to me too that spiritual poverty may be turning one’s back on the consumerist mindset which appears just as much in religion as in everything else. Instead of approaching liturgy or prayer with an attitude of asking, “how is this feeding me?” we could instead ask, “how can I feed someone else?” It’s not about, “What do I get out of it?” but “What do I have to give?” Then I suspect it will quickly become apparent how little I do have to give, how all I can do is beg God for a daily crust of bread which I can pass on to those even hungrier than I am.

Having started down that line of thinking, how there is a need for the spiritually impoverished to be fed, especially online I began to imagine that some individuals might have the vocation of doing just that. Then as I talked it over with Dom he said, it couldn’t be individuals. It would have to be people living in community. And as we talked I began to envision a new sort of religious community: the Missionaries to the Digital Continent. A cloistered contemplative order who live the Benedictine motto ora et labora whose days are ordered around the monastic hours and Eucharistic adoration and who are dedicated to bringing Christ to all the darkest corners of the internet. They would troll around the internet, going into comment boxes to meet people where they are at and to bring them simply Christ. They would in a sense be dedicated to the spiritual works of mercy:

  To instruct the ignorant;
  To counsel the doubtful;
  To admonish sinners;
  To bear wrongs patiently;
  To forgive offences willingly;
  To comfort the afflicted;
  To pray for the living and the dead.

Theirs would be a white martyrdom as they came under attack from all sides. Their models would be the great missionaries like St Isaac Jogues and St Jean de Brebeuf and St Francis Xavier who brought Christ’s love and mercy to often hostile people., frequently at the cost of their own lives The focus would not be debate or apologetics per se not winning arguments but on bringing the light of Christ, his love and mercy and truth to the digital natives who might not otherwise encounter him ever.

They would minister to the spiritually poor. To the angry and hateful. To the ambassadors of the culture of death.

They would have to have a lot of training in evangelization, in apologetics, in rhetoric. They would have to be very well read in all the biggest controversies of the day. They would have to be excellent communicators, good writers. They would have to have solid spiritual direction and a very solid formation.

Wouldn’t that make a fascinating novel? I’m imagining something along the lines of Rumer Godden’s monastery novels, In This House of Brede and Five for Sorrow Ten for Joy. But with a techno spy thriller twist as they evangelize the furthest digital outposts, slipping behind the Great Digital Wall of China.

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  • Karen, I just want to say your first paragraph almost brought me to tears.  Those words have been on my tongue for so long, but I’ve lacked the skill to say them.

  • Melanie,

    I truly believe that the vocation of mother is primary, all encompassing and never ends. I totally agree with each one of your “works of mercy.” A cup of water is no less a service when given to a whiny toddler instead of a homeless man.  I counsel the doubtful when I sit up into the early morning hours talking to my daughter who is so sad that she can’t attend her first choice college due to lack of financial aid. God gives us opportunities to serve Him wherever we are. I can be a witness to someone in the next dressing room when I tell my daughter her dress is beautiful and modest. I can serve my children’s school by making phone calls from home. Being a mother is exhausting and tedious at times, but we are called to be holy where we are. And I am always aware that by being here and serving and raising God -fearing children, I may be training them to be missionaries, priests or doctors who will go out to serve others.
    Perhaps it is 17 years of perspective, but I figured this out awhile ago and decided to let it go. I do what I do.and I don’t as well as I can. And I fail. But I get up again.

    You are doing very hard work each day. There is a baby who is entirely dependent upon you for everything. You are where you are called to be doing what you are called to do. Someday, that may change. And then you will have the grace to do that.

    It’s so hard to convey tone in a comment. And I’m always afraid I come off less gentle than I intended, but please know this is “said” with quiet gentle love.

  • Melanie, thank you for this!  Also, perhaps this thought bears a little more reflection, but my first thought after reading this is that you *are* “burying the dead.”  You are burying your own self-love when you choose to serve God through serving your family.  Some of us learn to do this while kicking and screaming all the while (at least on the inside, if not in fact out loud!). I think that it would qualify at least in part as a work of mercy if I could learn to do it without making such a fuss about it. Oh, and I am so glad to know that I am not the only introverted mother out there who experiences the “every fiber of my being screaming ‘leave me alone.’”  I am sure that others experience it as well, but I rarely see it mentioned.

  • +JMJ+

    A friend and I have been discussing the extravert-introvert divide, Melanie, and even if you hadn’t pointed it out yourself, I would have said that Heather’s piece and your post are a classic case of the same.

    Like you, I don’t think I need to meet some transgendered drunks (LOL!), even if I don’t have to hire a baby-sitter to do it. If our paths cross in unlikely ways, sure, I can take a hint from Heaven—but barring that, I’m going to do the work that is in front of me. (To be perfectly honest, though, I don’t think I even manage that on most days! Which I see as another reason not to take on more.)

  • Hi Melanie

    I agree with you.  I went and read the whole thing, and wished I hadn’t.  We all have to do what God calls us to do and relate to the people God places in our paths.  What good is it you (or I) rushing around “ministering” to transgendered drunks when the children placed in our care are running around feral.  Maybe it is her vocation, but just because that is her vocation, doesn’t mean it is yours, or mine.

  • I completely agree with your assessment.  I am thankful that our Church has made it clear what our primary vocations are.  Like you, I have several, in my case four, children under seven and homeschool and to be honest, we don’t get out much either.  I am an extrovert and surrendering to the lack of self-satisfying social interactions in favor on tending to my home and children has been incredibly difficult, yet very necessary to my life in Christ.  Consider Mother Teresa’s words:

    “I was surprised in the West to see so many young boys and girls given into drugs, and I tried to find out why – why is it like that, and the answer was: Because there is no one in the family to receive them. Father and mother are so busy they have no time. Young parents are in some institution and the child takes back to the street and gets involved in something. We are talking of peace.”

    Consider also the Blessed Mother, the thirty years Christ spent with his family, in the bosom of love that His Father prepared for Him to grow and flourish.  Would it have been right for her to abandon the Christ child to pursue other, better, ways of serving?

    God is all powerful and all-mighty.  He can feed the poor, He can visit the sick, He can do all these things but invites us to participate in His concern for them to help us to grow in love and maturity.  That is His gift to us.  Our gift to Him is not our service but our hearts, which only we can give.

  • A woman’s beauty gladdens the countenance,
      and surpasses every human desire.
    If kindness and humility mark her speech,
      her husband is not like other men.
    He who acquires a wife gets his best possession,
    a helper fit for him and a pillar of support.
                        -Sirach 36:22-24

  • Heather has a much different past than you have. I think a lot of the kinds of people she knows and serves are because of the kind of past she has. I don’t have children, but I don’t believe I’m called to hang around with the kind of people Heather talks about there either. God calls each of us to a different life.

  • Melanie,
    I’ve lived the corporal and spiritual works of mercy in the same way you’ve outlined here, and just want to add the following—burying the dead works on a couple of levels, one of them simply being that we do what needs to be done when someone dies, but the other, for a mother, is being open enough to life to bury the babies we aren’t allowed to have.

    And, re. “ransom the captive”—I have always turned that one around to me, the mom. Mothers of young children (perhaps mothers of all ages) are captive to their families in so many ways. One way to live that work of mercy is to surrender to it. Another way to live it is to reach out to other moms and offer to babysit, give them a break, let them break out of jail for a few hours or a day. smile

    Re. Heather King’s post, I don’t think you’re being defensive—just pointing out something that is too often overlooked. I, too, am a big defender of the idea that moms best live their vocations when they *live their vocations.*  It may not be popular at parish meetings or with committee heads, but I’ve always thought that moms need to say “no” to an awful lot of outside stuff in order to give their fiat to their children.

    I think King is spot on for the world she is living in, and you are spot on for your world and station in life. I support her idea that we need to get outside of ourselves, and as she does, I reject the country club model of parish life. That plays out both in the way she’s described, and in the way you describe. Neither of you is snubbing your nose at the downtrodden. You just have different kinds of downtrodden in your paths. (And I love your description of toddlers bearing a resemblance to drunks and strippers.)

    Again, I don’t think it’s defensiveness, just clarification. I have been through this self-doubt, and I have heard countless other moms question themselves, too. We hear homilies and come away from Mass feeling that we “aren’t doing enough”—it’s vital to point out that there is so much to be done in the domestic church. If we just keep focusing on that,  maybe a lot of the things we need committees for at the parish could disappear.

  • I agree with everything you write and I don’t think you need to defend your vocation at all.  You are doing a beautiful job and the pictures you post of your beautiful family attest to that fact.  I am thankful for mothers like you who are open to life and are raising their family in a Christ-centered home.  Your reward will be great in heaven (and maybe even before as you watch your kids grow into beautiful God loving men and woman).

  • And a quick p.s. just to clarify my final words—I know that certain things *do* require committees, and parishes do have necessary and vital work—not to denigrate that.  But I was using that to emphasize the greater point that I think both Heather and you are making—we have to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and the path He put us on, even when it’s tempting to look for greater problems to “fix” out there. We all need to start with fixing our own problems, and when we’re addressing those, faith starts to radiate outward.

  • Melanie, my good friend on the Internet, I hear your heart, I fully acknowledge your vocation and your passion for it, in it and I disagree with your assessment of Heather’s alleged exclusivity in what it means to fulfill one’s vocation in-Christ as I respectfully disagreed with your response to an earlier post of Heather’s I referenced in regard to her experience in terms of Church and local parish life. I do not see in her writing the kind of exclusivity you find on either point.

    Please bear with me. Thanks. I value both you and Heather.

    Heather writes from her experience as do we all. While I try to be careful in my own writing to not impose what God asks/invites of me on others I do not necessarily feel I need to qualify everything every time which would make for cumbersome and tedious writing at my hand. Heather does not need my defense but I find she makes her point and well without taking anything away from any other Christian.

    I read in Heather’s post no misunderstanding of what the Church teachers per vocation or that she was putting people in a place where they need to defend their vocational calling to anyone. I understand how your own passion for your vocation and the honest temporary, occasional struggle with a kind of what-if-I’d-done-something-else or should’nt-we-have-done-something-“more” could filter how one receives a message. Ultimately though you know your call as Heather knows hers. When you write beautiful thought provoking posts on family life you do not and do not need to qualify them with statements to ensure another does not misread and think they are lesser because they can’t have children or are single by whatever circumstance et ceterea. From the years I’ve known you on-line you and Dom have a beautiful “domestic church” and Amen.

    My life, my calling into family, into ordained Protestant ministry and later into the Catholic Church as a lay person has caused me plenty of those self doubting moments but ultimately I do know that I am where I am supposed to be and that I could not do what either you or Heather are doing nor do I read in Heather’s writing any imposition on my or misunderstanding of varied life callings and vocation. To me she writes with passion, as you do, out of the lived experience and with the mind of the Church (as much as any of aspire to such) just as you do.

    You are both my online friends, Melanie. I hear your heart and passion for your vocation in the above just as I hear Heather’s in the post you refer too by her. As I have been saying much in these days to people in conflict over what I see as an unnecessary comparisons between Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI and our Holy Father Pope Benedict, I converted from Protestantism and it’s false “solas” to a both-and Church. The Church and our world clearly needs people of passion in every vocation and I thank God for both Heather and you.

    P.S. I think Karen gets it right, “I think King is spot on for the world she is living in, and you are spot on for your world and station in life. I support her idea that we need to get outside of ourselves, and as she does, I reject the country club model of parish life. That plays out both in the way she’s described, and in the way you describe. Neither of you is snubbing your nose at the downtrodden. You just have different kinds of downtrodden in your paths. (And I love your description of toddlers bearing a resemblance to drunks and strippers.)”

  • Melanie, Lovely post. And so true. None of us should be looking at our lives and pointing at others saying this should be your circle and daily life.

    We are on the same journey to heaven, but the way is different for each of us.

    Perhaps some of it has to do with being an introvert, but I also think so much of the Holy Family’s hidden life. Jesus didn’t have his tax collectors and other sinners as his friends until he was 30! And then His mission unfolded.

    Right now our job is to form our children. If I’m not fulfilling my vocation here as a wife and mother, I will be no help to anyone, nor doing God’s will seeking out other areas to do social work and build my social circle.

    I have to remind myself this many times when opportunities arise to do work or social opportunities I have to weigh on how this will affect my home life. And most of the time, I see that this is not the time.

  • Well said, Melanie. I agree completely, as I get up to answer the importuning of the hungry four-year-old when I’d rather be reading your comments.

  • Melanie,
    I hadn’t read the original post until I saw it referenced here, and when I read it I almost thought it was a parody.  It doesn’t appear to be, based on the nature of Miss King’s site and her life, but to me (as a ordinary mom, worker, parishoner, etc.) it might as well be. That is her life, but as just about everyone has pointed out, it is not yours (or mine) and our lives do not need to involve those specific encounters to be meaningful and holy.
    I only wanted to add two things: as I recall you (and I) have buried the dead with babies in heaven (about as intense a grief as I can imagine).  And less sadly: the vocation to be a mother and father is ever more rare in this society; yesterday’s shocking statistic is that 41% of children are now born out of wedlock in the US.  That makes every sippy cup, every sleepless night, and every getting them to church experience of incalcuable value!
    OK, one more: I think the enthusiam with which the original post was greeted was really because to many readers it just sounded sexy—or cool, hip, out there, or whatever word you can thing of that means more interesting(more real!) than this boring bit of work I’m stuck with over here.  But maybe you and me, and those other readers really are all supposed to be where we are right now.
    Anyway, enjoy your Easter with everyone.

  • It’s unfortunate to see readers of Heather’s blog caricatured in this way, “I think the enthusiam with which the original post was greeted was really because to many readers it just sounded sexy—or cool, hip, out there,…”

    This continues to be turned into an unnecessary either/or issue or a better-than issue yet the original author has not made either case. That is in fact why I included both Melanie and Heather’s recent articles side by side on my own post.


  • I’m not terribly familiar with Heather King, so I hadn’t read the original article.  I read it, percolated over it a couple days, and I think that, ultimately, it’s really just a case study in why writers need to ruthlessly self-edit.

    Heather’s primary point, that the fruitful Christian life is one of the triumph of love over fear, is a good one and worth hearing over and over again.  But she immediately fails to support her point by drawing her portrait of what this triumph looks like in a very narrow fashion.  I don’t think she means it to be so exclusive… but she undeniably writes it that way.  And writing that doesn’t convey what you mean is bad writing.

    The part Melanie quoted, is a powerful, fierce bit of writing.  It is intended to punch the reader in the gut, to knock them out of complaisance.  But it lacks the pithy universality of “you only love Christ as much as the person you love the least.”  I suspect that Ms. King simply loved it too much to cut or rework it.  Unfortunately, I think it ruins the overall impact of her essay.

    Ultimately, there are as many ways to live a life of love triumphing over fear as there are relationships between individuals.

  • Now I have a unique perspective: I used to be a mother of littles and now they’re all grown up. I’ve got another career cooking and it’s smack dab in the middle of perversion/addiction city: the entertainment world and man, are these people lost. So now is my time to be with, love and pray for: transgendered, sex addicts, unstable homosexuals, drug users of all stripes, drunks and mad geniuses. Often, they are combinations of most of these. 

    Not every mother will (like me – gladly!) leave behind days of little children at home and venture out into a much grittier, grimier world.  But life will change for you, no matter what your style.  I suspect many will continue on with things like volunteer work in your own parish or neighborhood and perhaps continuing on with what you know about mothering via grandchildren.  And I now know that, even though I am much more called to be out and about in this secular world, I am MORE grateful to mothers who are having and raising children who will, please God, change this disgusting culture for the better. Many of the current crop of people I’m around had such pathological upbringings, it’d curl your teeth.

    I love my work now so much more; it is more fun, more glamorous, more exciting, more creative.  But more important?  Not on your life.

    So a mother who has been in both worlds, no one can do both at the same time.

  • Wow there are so many great comments here and I am sorry I don’t have time to respond at length to every one of them as they deserve.

    But I do want to clarify a bit. I love Heather King’s writing. Her books, her blog. But the hazard of the blog, as I know all too well, is that it’s an off the cuff piece. Heather’s essay is beautiful, a lovely exhortation to love fearlessly and to ruthless self examination.

    And even the paragraph I quote in this piece is beautiful. I think our Holy Father Pope Francis is a wonderful example of the kind of self giving Heather outlines here. I have no problem at all with saying that her description of her social circle is a beautiful illustration of the fruits of a life given selflessly to Christ. I don’t read in Heather’s piece any misunderstanding , just… a little sloppiness in the writing, in the thinking. I get that way too… so involved in thinking through a point that I forget how it might come across to someone in a very different sort of situation.

    The piece was written passionately and with a little haste perhaps. I think what took me aback was that it was framed as a proposed homily. Now a homily is a very specific kind of exhortation that I’d never want to have to give because it must reach such a range of people: the young and the old, the single and married, the parents and the childless, the healthy and the sick, the able and the disabled, the extroverts and the introverts, the effusive and the shy, the rich and the poor, the drunk and the sober, the tax collector and the pharisee, the whole motley mess of sinners who show up to every Mass. So if a homilist were to say as Heather proposes: “if that’s not part of your circle… you aren’t getting out enough.” Well, that sounds like an indictment to me of anyone who isn’t able to put together that kind of circle. Yes, I know that wasn’t the intent, which is why I said that I knew my reading was tendentious. But the plain meaning of the words as written as opposed to the intent is well, hard to ignore. As I said, if I heard that in a homily it would crush me. And I fear that once I’d read that I had a hard time giving proper attention to the rest of the piece. Which is a shame because it does make so many points well.

    Well and so it goes. I didn’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill or to imply that King is a bad writer or a bad Christian least of all that she’s casting stones or laying burdens on anyone. Just saying that this particular piece kind of missed me because it doesn’t speak to where I am. I agree with Owen that there is no either/or here, only each of us trying to discern a vocation. Really I just wanted to think through my reaction to the quoted section to see why it was so hot. That’s why I write: to think things through.

    And part of why it is so hot is because this is an area I’ve been struggling with, bringing to prayer and to spiritual direction. Every time I read anything about any of these social justice concerns I feel indicted. I feel like I’m not doing enough. And to some extent that’s a good thing. We should never feel comfortable. We should always be striving to do more. But we also need to be realistic when we make these self examinations. We do need to take into account our vocation, our individual situation, etc.


  • The fact is my adult “reversion”, my deepening in faith, coincided with my getting to know Dom. I think it no accident at all but a part of God’s beautiful plan that he was very instrumental in awakening that desire to go deeper. But I don’t have in my past a great experience of living this active social gospel. I’ve not spent time feeding homeless people or visiting the ill or any of the more active variations of the corporal works of mercy. And so my imagined version of what a Christian life should look like is very much like what Heather outlines. That’s the vision of the Christian life I found in my religion textbooks in my eight years of Catholic school. And so when I write a mother’s version with filling sippy cups and changing diapers it still sort of feels to me like making excuses. There’s that little voice that says if I were really following Christ I’d be out doing all those things, children in tow if need be.

    And accepting my limitations is hard. Of course my real path to holiness is working on my patience with the hungry, needy ones I find here in my home. If I can’t love and protect them with tenderness, if I can’t see Christ in them, any attempt to try to live the Gospel outside of my home would probably be a sham. And the fact is I fail every single day to see Christ in them and to be Christ to them. So yeah, plenty of work here and now without needing to go out and pick up homeless people off the street. But still… couldn’t I be doing more? Shouldn’t I pick up the phone and schedule a playdate with that mom I know from church? Shouldn’t I do something for my neighbor across the street who lost her husband last year? I probably should. I have the best intentions and yet somehow I never get around to it. One thing drives out another as Butterbur the Inkeeper says in The Fellowship of the Ring.

    King’s piece is good precisely because it does provoke this kind of introspection and self examination. Would I have phrased it differently? Do I wish she’d clarified or reworded it? Yes. But mostly I’m grateful to her for giving me a chance to probe this wound yet again, to dig a little deeper, to see where I fail to live up to my call as a Christian, where I can do more. And to see where I am in fact doing my best, to not beat up on myself.

    Anyway, thanks again, everyone who responded. I’ve read every comment and taken them all very much to heart. I have the best commenters and am very grateful for all of you. Now I need to go take care of my baby girl….