The Church honors the memory of St. Rose of Lima on August 23. I confess to a particular affection for this first canonized saint of the Americas because I attended St. Rose of Lima School in Newark, New Jersey from kindergarten through fifth grade and, amazingly, another St. Rose of Lima School in Freehold, New Jersey for sixth through eighth grades. That coincidence pleased my mother since I was able to wear the same school tie – SRL!
St. Rose was a seventeenth-century Third Order Dominican – a mendicant order. Those in consecrated life profess what are known as the “evangelical counsels” – poverty, chastity, and obedience. Luke 12:32-34 leads us to consider the first of those counsels, in which Jesus encourages His disciples to “sell your possessions,” give all to the poor, and thus have “treasure in the heavens.” Offering a good psychological motivation, as well as a theological one, Our Lord observes: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
Professing a vow of poverty is called a “counsel” because doing so is not necessary for salvation. Consecrated religious freely live poverty: to follow the “poor” Christ; to be free of the cares of this world; to identify with those who are poor not by choice but by the circumstances of their lives; to provide the rest of us in the Church with a holy example of detachment from worldly things.
Anyone even remotely familiar with the Gospel should know that materialism and Christianity are mutually exclusive. It’s not wrong to want or need things; God knows we need a house and clothes and food, but we cannot be mastered by our desires for material possessions.
St. Augustine expressed a tremendous insight into the human person, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee, O Lord.” We are never satisfied. Even as children, greed begins to take hold of us as we always want more. The tricycle that thrilled us at three is a bore at four, so we want a bicycle, and a 10-speed only a little while later.
And the problem just worsens as time goes by. One home is not enough; I need a vacation cabin as well. One car expands to two or three. A television in the living room requires a mate or two elsewhere in the house. And so, the vicious cycle goes on.
Maupassant’s short story “The Necklace” dramatizes the tragic vanity and futility of materialism. A Parisian woman is never satisfied with what her husband could provide on a government clerk’s salary and constantly nags him for more. One night, he comes home with tickets to the inaugural ball, which he was sure would make her happy. Her response was, “What good are they? I have nothing to wear to such an occasion.” The husband had saved money so that she can buy a new gown. She’s pleased but soon realizes that she has no suitable jewelry. Without permission, she borrows a wealthy friend’s piece of jewelry – a magnificent necklace. But at the gala, she loses the necklace and only becomes aware of it on the way home.
She goes to a jeweler the following day for a replica at the cost of thousands of francs. She takes a loan that takes ten years of real drudgery to pay off, in addition to the loss of her so-called friends. One day, she meets the friend from whom she borrowed the necklace. “$5,000 for that necklace?” the lady remarks, “But, my dear, it was only costume jewelry and worth $100 at most.”
In 1 Cor 4:9-14, St. Paul urges his readers to follow his example in being a “fool for Christ’s sake.” Yes, the world thinks living in evangelical poverty – or even a life of spiritual detachment – is insane. We believers, however, should counter their skepticism by posing three basic questions to the skeptics, questions which we have posed first to ourselves: What do I spend my whole life working for? In the end, will I have time to enjoy it? Or is it even worth the effort to begin with?
In an 1837 sermon entitled, “Weapons of Saints,” St. John Henry Newman explained evangelical poverty:
it is the fashion of the world to regard it not only as the greatest of evils, but as the greatest disgrace. . . .Now if there is one thing clearly set forth in the Bible it is this, that “Blessed are the poor.” Our Saviour was the great example of poverty; He was a poor man. St. Paul says, “Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye through His poverty might be rich” (2 Cor 8:9). Or consider St. Paul’s very solemn language about the danger of wealth: “The love of money is the root of all evil, which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Tim 6:10). Can we doubt that poverty is under the Gospel better than riches? I say under the Gospel, and in the regenerate, and in the true servants of God. . . . I say, in Christ the poor is in a more blessed lot than the wealthy. Ever since the Eternal Son of God was born in a stable, and had not a place to lay His head, and died an outcast and as a malefactor, heaven has been won by poverty, by disgrace, and by suffering. Not by these things in themselves, but by faith working in and through them.
Or, as a sage even wiser than Newman prayed: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me.” (Proverbs 30:8)
*Image: St. Rose of Lima, based on facial reconstruction of her skull by the Brazilian Anthropological and Dental Legal Forensics Team in 2015.
You may also enjoy:
Michael Pakaluk’s Francesco’s Economy of Poverty
Matthew Hanley’s Charity to Match Our Poverty