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.
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.