a beautiful poverty

I got this exciting message yesterday from a professor I contacted months ago about her dissertation and work concerning voluntary poverty:

Hi, Paul--

I hope you remember me from a brief exchange we had last November. I have had you on my mind for the past month because I'm wondering if you'll be around for the ekklesia project conference, or if you would consider being there for it. It's July 19-21 in Chicago.

Here's the story: I've been asked to organize another workshop session on some topic around wealth and economics. We did a session a couple of years ago in which I offered my critique of stewardship. Then last year, we did a session on koinonia and almsgiving. This year, the whole conference is organized around the magnificat, and I'm thinking that it's time we had a good discussion of voluntary poverty. And to be frank, I can offer some academic commentary on it, but I think you would be far better suited to talk about what it means, especially for the whole church within this context, that there is such a thing as holy poverty. Who is invited to this and in what ways? How is this part of the Christian witness? What do you say about the two-tiered ethic the church has commonly held when confronted with the witness of poverty? etc.

Think and pray about that. I hope that I haven't put off talking to you about this so late that you wouldn't be able to be in Chicago at that time. Your contribution would be important for the ongoing project of trying to hear Jesus' call, to claim gospel freedom, within this culture and economy.

Let me know what you think--


Cool. I want to do it.

And this inspired me to look back through some of my old journals for passages about voluntary (holy) poverty. The first one I found in Saul Bellow's novel Herzog. He was saying that the ugly, degrading poverty of Skid Row is necessary for the success of Wall Street, since Skid Row inspires the the fear that motivates the continual money-making. The message being, "If you don't play along with our system, look what will become of you." Then Bellow remarks, "if there were a beautiful poverty, a moral poverty in America, that would be subversive."

I was also impressed by these passages from The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James:
We have grown literally afraid to be poor. We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join the general scramble and pant with the money-making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in ambition. We have lost the power even of imagining what the ancient idealization of poverty could have meant: the liberation from material attachments, the unbribed soul, the manlier indifference, the paying our way by what we are or do and not by what we have, the right to fling away our life at any moment irresponsibly--the more athletic trim, in short, the moral fighting shape.

...I recommend this matter to your serious pondering, for it is certain that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.

And here's G.K. Chesterton in The Everlasting Man:
We often hear of Jesus of Nazareth as a wandering teacher, and there is a vital truth in that view in so far as it emphasises an attitude towards luxury and convention which most respectable people would still regard as that of a vagabond. It is expressed in his own great saying about the holes of the foxes and the nests of the birds, and, like many of his great sayings, it is felt as less powerful than it is....

It is well to speak of his wanderings in this sense and in the sense that he shared the drifting life of the most homeless and hopeless of the poor. It is assuredly well to remember that he would quite certainly have been moved on by the police and almost certainly arrested by the police for having no visible means of subsistence. For our law has in it a turn of humour or touch of fancy which Nero and Herod never happened to think of, that of actually punishing homeless people for not sleeping at home.

"And Jesus lifted up his eyes on his disciples, and said: 'Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.'" (Lk 6.20)