Living Out Gospel Poverty in an Age of Prosperity

Father Thomas Dubay Outlines Christ’s Call to Frugality and Love

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WASHINGTON, D.C., OCT. 9, 2003 ( Christ’s idea of Gospel poverty is not destitution, but a love-filled sparing and sharing lifestyle.

So says Marist Father Thomas Dubay, a retreat master and author who investigated the role of poverty in the spiritual life in his most recent book, «Happy Are You Poor» (Ignatius).

Father Dubay shared with ZENIT his thoughts on Gospel poverty in today’s world.

Q: Since Gospel poverty is so deeply countercultural, especially in the First World, how do we open people’s minds even to give it a fair hearing?

Father Dubay: There are several problems here. One is that most people do not know what Gospel poverty means. For example, it does not mean we promote destitution. On the contrary, the Lord in the radical things he says is trying to rub out destitution — which is why we are to share with the needy.

Another problem is that we seldom hear from the pulpit anything near to a full picture of the sparing and sharing lifestyle that is so beautiful. Christic frugality is love-filled. It is not a Spartan or Buddhist ideal.

A third problem lies in free will. Unfortunately, there are people who so cling to their pleasures and luxuries that they have decided that anything that interferes with their lifestyles is going to get little to no attention.

Q: What, then, are Jesus, his apostles and the Church promoting?

Father Dubay: It took me the entire book, «Happy Are You Poor,» to answer this question with some adequacy. That is why it is written. The full answer is beautiful. However, let me give one simple answer, though there are many others.

It is easy for you and me to say, «Of course I love my neighbor as myself,» and then turn around and treat myself far better than I treat the family next door or the pitiful slum dwellers in Haiti or Calcutta.

Consider fiery John the Baptist preparing the way for the Lord and making plain the facts of sincere repentance: «Brood of vipers … the ax is laid to the root of the trees … and thrown into the fire.»

Understandably, the people are shaken up and ask what they should do to show conversion. His answer is plain: «If anyone has two tunics, he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.» That is real love and sound logic, and any honest person should be able to see it. To live it requires radical conversion.

Q: How can we open people’s minds to what love is all about? How do we sound the wake-up call?

Father Dubay: Feodor Dostoyevsky, perhaps the best novelist in the 19th century, wrote brilliantly about the question of God and atheism. In one spot, he put on the lips of a character the fact that if a person does not worship the real God, he will bend his knees before things created and finite. There are, he added, no atheists — they are really idolaters.

That, of course, is true. Everyone has one or more consuming concerns. It’s either the real God or money, power, pleasures, lust, pride in its various forms and so on. One or more of these latter becomes idols, as the man who rejects the only God centers his thoughts, desires, aspirations, worries and concerns on his idol. They are gods to him.

Anyone who has embraced the Trinity has little trouble understanding Gospel frugality — the whats, whys and hows of it are explained.

Q: Pope John Paul II has warned about mistaken ideas of freedom. How is Gospel poverty related to true freedom?

Father Dubay: Freedom and love are probably the least understood of common words in our contemporary world. Most people assume with little thought that greater freedom implies fewer laws and restrictions. There is a kernel of truth in this idea, but it is a secondary and consequential kernel.

Freedom is most basically a power to do and to be. For example, you are free to play the violin or do bypass surgery only to the extent that you have the requisite knowledge and skills. The same is true of being free to teach a class in physics or philosophy or theology. If you have these basic powers and goods, then you should not be unduly restricted from exercising them.

Jesus made this point clearly when he said that if we have his Word, its truth will make us free. This is why the saints, the men and women who live his message with heroic perfection, are the most free and fulfilled people on the planet. They rejoice with the Lord always, as St. Paul in Philippians 4:4 admonishes all of us.

Q: How, then, would you relate this fundamental reality to evangelical poverty?

Father Dubay: All the benefits I discuss in my book empower a person to become a beautiful, loving, real person. What I said about idol worship earlier is much to this point.

Avarice enslaves a man in a multitude of ways easy to imagine. Vanity about possessions is much like vanity about accomplishments and bodily beauty — one is held in bondage to the minds of other people.

When one is freed of selfish clinging to material goods, one is then free to love neighbor in fact as well as in mere words.

Q: What is detachment, and how is it related to freedom?

Father Dubay: It may be easier to see the point by explaining what attachment is in the pejorative sense. A handy and accurate definition is: a clinging or desiring of the will to do something created for its own sake.

There are three elements here: It is a willed desire, not a mere feeling; it concerns something finite, not God; «for its own sake» makes a mere means into an end, that is, something of an idol.

St. Paul puts the matter positively in 1 Corinthians 10:31: «Whether you eat or drink or do anything else, do all for the glory of God.» All created goodness and beauty is meant to bring others and us to the unspeakable enthrallment of the beatific vision in risen body. To willingly cling to anything merely created for its own sake reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s analysis: It is either idolatry or it tends in that direction.

Q: How do the ideas of stewardship versus total «rights» over material goods fit into this picture?

Father Dubay: Stewardship, detachment and a loving, sparing and sharing lifestyle make a beautiful whole. Total rights over material goods sounds like human beings assuming a divine status.

Q: What suggestions do you have for the layperson who truly wants to live the spirit of Gospel poverty, but who must meet the day-to-day demands of raising a family and paying bills?

Father Dubay: In my book, I address this topic in Chapter 12, «Frugality in Marriage.»

I have been joyously surprised to hear from sizable groups of laity in different parts of the United States who spontaneously have decided to study this book and then meet regularly to discuss how its Gospel message is to be applied specially to their state in life. That is an excellent answer to the present question.

Then, too, knowing the married saints and seeing how they responded to this question can be an immense enlightenment and encouragement.

Q: How should the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and their aftermath open us to re-evaluate what is most important in life and to discover our wealth of potential to love?

Father Dubay: This is a matter of deep conversion not only from mortal sin but also in giving up venial sins and going on to heroic virtues — to which the Gospel repeatedly calls everyone. And that, in turn, demands a deepening of prayer life, meditation leading to contemplative intimacy with the Trinity. Yes, all the way to the transforming union.

As Han Urs von Balthasar put it, «Truth is symphonic.» It all fits together.

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