The Premises of Gospel Poverty | Fr. Thomas Dubay, S.M. | From "Happy Are You Poor" | Ignatius Insight
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
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
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.