The Premises of Gospel Poverty | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. | From Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom
Our purpose at the moment is to delve into premises. Political practices and religious teachings cannot be understood except in terms of their root presuppositions. The practical running of a state makes sense only in the light of the assumptions of the people. Revolutions happen not only because policies are unjust but also because radical philosophies differ. Policies flow out of premises. The same is true of religion. Buddhist theory is consistent with its agnostic position a propos of God. Protestantism must accept the fragmenting consequences of private judgment, and Catholic canon law reflects its acceptance of the divine origin of the hierarchical Church.
One badly misunderstands Gospel poverty if he views it as nothing more than a humanistic concern for the downtrodden or as a politico-sociological effort to redistribute the world's resources. The more a man studies evangelical poverty, the more he is struck by the elaborate yet consistent intertwining of doctrinal themes with actual practice.
Our immediate problem is not to show these intertwinings. That I shall do further on. Our real difficulty is the human propensity to judge by sympathies, not by evidence. I fear that some readers will admit the intertwinings during their encounter with these pages but then revert to merely human presuppositions as they continue on through the rest of the book in its practical applications to the various states in life. It is not easy for us to learn that God's thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not ours.
In lecture work I have found that I may explain at length and, I think, with clarity, radical revealed premises and then find that when we get to the nitty-gritty applications, some listeners have reverted to their own prosaic premises. Naturally enough, their conclusions are at variance with mine. What is still more disturbing is that many of these people seem unaware that they have either forgotten the revealed roots of the matter (though I had developed them twenty minutes earlier) or that their position is in consistent with those roots. What concerns me is that this chapter may be forgotten as we work through the later ones.
Nonetheless, we hope for the best and present the New Testament premises undergirding its teaching on the use and misuse of material goods. Once these are granted, the rest of this volume makes perfect sense. Nothing else does.
Our first revealed presupposition: our destiny is literally out of this world. Eye has not seen, nor ear heard; indeed, it cannot even dawn on our unaided imagination the unspeakable delight God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor 2:9). Before this destiny all worldly glitter is dull, all tinsel is cheap, all adventure is prosaic, all attraction is unsatisfying. I am well aware that this kind of language strikes some people as pious puff. Though one could prove that it is as solid as granite, I shall not do so. People who best know from experience, the saints, have said it far better than I ever could. The doubter should study before he rejects. If he studies and is of good will, he will not reject. Be that as it may, I merely assert the New Testament premise: nothing, absolutely nothing on the face of the earth compares with the advanced possession of God in deep prayer. We understand the Christic teaching on material goods only when we understand this.
Premise number two follows on the first: in this new era happiness is found not in eating and drinking this or that but in personal goodness and in the peace and joy given by the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17). We are to rejoice in the Lord always, not simply occasionally (Phil 4:4). A consumerist society assumes quite the contrary. One needs only to read its advertising to be convinced of it—which is one reason it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Mk 10:25). The New Testament assumes that happiness is found not in things but in persons and especially in the Divine Persons.
And this suggests our third presupposition: we are to be head over heels in love for God. We ate to be so in love that we sing to him in our hearts always and everywhere (Eph 5:19-20). Every fiber of our being, heart, soul, and mind, is to become wholly love (Lk 10:27). People in love are not much concerned with things. They are person orientated, not thing centered. A consumerist is not in love.
Our fourth premise can be said in one word, asceticism. A genteel, soft, comfortable existence is foreign to the New Testament, because for wounded men and women it is foreign to being in love. Only those can love sincerely who are entirely purified by the word, detached from things less than God (1 Pet 1:22-23). Saint John of the Cross writes so much about detachment because he writes so much about supreme love. Saint Paul has the same message: only on condition that we crucify all self-indulgent desires can we belong to Christ Jesus (Gal 5:24). Hence it is no objection to revealed doctrine on factual poverty to say that it is difficult and requires sacrifice. Of course. They who want no part of asceticism want no part of love.
Our next premise follows hard on the last: no one can serve God and mammon (Lk 16:13). We must make a choice, and the choice cannot be fence straddling. The pharisees laughed at this (Lk 16:14), but they have never been noted for authenticity. The Gospel offers no comfort to those who wish to keep a foot in each of two worlds. Its teaching on the use of material things supposes that we are theists, that we have chosen God, that we are not compromisers.
And this implies a sixth presupposition: totality of pursuit. Nowhere in Scripture are we asked for much or most or quite a bit. Always it is everything. The God of revelation is never a God of fractions. It is not enough to love him with 95 percent of our heart, not enough to be detached from major obstacles, not enough to be merely cordial and helpful in community, not enough to be regular in prayer. No, we are to love with a whole heart, to be detached from all we possess, to enjoy a complete communal unity, to pray always (Mt 22:37; Lk 14:33; Jn 17:23; Lk 18:1). Merely human writers and speakers commonly dilute the totality of the divine message. Saints do not. The reader may note throughout this volume that what is said is what the saints literally and totally live. They embrace not only all these premises but the conclusions as well. This premise in particular, totality of pursuit, lies behind the radicality of New Testament teaching on poverty. Biblical men and women were by no means half-hearted or lukewarm.
Premise number seven: a consuming concern for the kingdom (Jn 4:34). Things are not the main business of life. They are means, only means. An artist eagerly absorbed in his work can skip a meal without noticing that he has not eaten. Geniuses often care little about their dress, perhaps at times too little, but their reason is magnanimous: they have something large on their minds, and they see clothing styles as of only marginal importance. Jesus and those who first wrote about him had the largest of minds. They were absorbed in the Father and his business. They were free of our pettiness, our concern with trivialities. They tried to raise our minds from the things of earth to those of heaven (Col 3:1-2).
This in turn suggests our next premise: we are all of us strangers on earth. We are nomads, pilgrims in search of our real fatherland in heaven (Heb 11:13-16). We entered the world with nothing, and we will leave it with nothing; we are therefore content with mere necessities (1 Tim 6:7-8). We do not think the things of earth important (Phil 3:19), but we await the resurrection in which we will see the real value of our bodies transfigured after the manner of the risen Jesus (Phil 3:20-21). In this light cosmetics and jewelry are seen to be poor substitutes for the real thing.
This pilgrim status implies still another presupposition: we are brothers and sisters to our fellow pilgrims, and we spontaneously, unquestioningly share good things with them. Companions on earthly pilgrimage when they become more and more of one mind in their pursuit of the Holy One do not think twice about sharing their common resources. They gladly and readily make available their food and drink with others in the parry. Saint James calls dead a faith that does not share its possessions (Jas 2:14-17).
Our final premise flows from all the others: understanding Gospel poverty perfectly requires a perfect conversion, a 180-degree switch from worldliness. One reason it is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to attain heaven is that the latter is blinded by his clingings. He not only does not do what he ought to do with his wealth, he does not even see what he ought to do. To him it is obvious that his barns bursting with crops are to be used for his own pleasure: eat, drink, make merry, take things easy (Lk 12:16-21). It does not occur to him that this abundance should be shared with the downtrodden. Saint Paul tells the Romans (12:2) that the only way to know the perfect will of God is to undergo conversion from a worldly outlook. The sensual person cannot understand the things of the Spirit; it is nonsense to him (1 Cor 2:14). Unless one is attempting to lead a serious prayer life, he is not likely to be much affected by the message in these pages. There may be a momentary impact, but I would expect little by way of lasting results. I would suggest, therefore, that you, the reader, insert prayer into this reading. And more: if you are not now committed to a regular, serious prayer life, I would urge you to begin such today. Not next year, next month, not "when I feel better" or "when I will have more time and less work". Today.
A word of logic. If you accept the premises in this chapter, you will have no trouble with the remainder of this book. There is an inner consistency throughout the whole. If, on the other hand, you do not accept one or another premise, I would suggest that you stop now and get busy with prayer. These premises are not my private opinion. They are God's revealed word. And his word has the last word. If I accept his word, it heals and saves and enthralls me. If I reject it, it will condemn me. After you and I have faced him in serious prayer we are ready for the Gospel message about material goods.
Happy Are You Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom
To the modern mind, the concept of poverty is often confused with destitution. But destitution emphatically is not the Gospel ideal. A love-filled sharing frugality is the message, and Happy Are You Poor explains the meaning of this beatitude lived and taught by Jesus himself. But isn't simplicity in lifestyle meant only for nuns and priests? Are not all of us to enjoy the goodness and beauties of our magnificent creation? Are parents to be frugal with the children they love so much?
The renowned spiritual writer Dubay gives surprising replies to these questions. He explains how material things are like extensions of our persons and thus of our love. If everyone lived this love there would be no destitution.
After presenting the richness of the Gospel message, more beautiful than any other world view, he explains how Gospel frugality is lived in each state of life.
"Father Dubay, an outstanding spiritual writer, has taken on the thorny problem of poverty and how it really relates to Christians. With his usual spiritual acumen Father Dubay looks at this question and gives every person something serious to think about regarding personal poverty, a value that speaks to us on every page of the Gospel." - Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel, Author, Arise from Darkness
Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., is a well-known retreat master and expert in the spiritual life.
A Marist Priest, Father holds a Ph.D. from Catholic University of America and has taught on both major seminary level for about fifteen years. He spent the last three decades giving retreats and writing books (over twenty at last count) on various aspects of the spiritual life.
He is an expert on the teachings and writings of the two mystical doctors of the Church, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.
Books by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M., published by Ignatius Press:
And You Are Christ's: The Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life
Authenticity: A Biblical Theology of Discernment
Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer
The Evidential Power of Beauty
Faith and Certitude
Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and the Gospel - On Prayer
Happy Are the Poor: The Simple Life and Spiritual Freedom
Prayer Primer: Igniting A Fire Within
Video series by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.:
Teresa of Avila: Personality and Prayer
Contemplation: Union With God
Excerpts from books by Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M.:
Thirsting and Quenching | From Prayer Primer
St. John of the Cross | From Fire Within
Seeking Deep Conversion | From Deep Conversion/Deep Prayer
Designed Beauty and Evolutionary Theory | From The Evidential Power of Beauty
The Source of Certitude | Epilogue to Faith and Certitude
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