One of the odd paradoxes of life is the peculiar attraction of poverty. Part of us hates and fears the thought of poverty: the grind of it, the frustration of not being able to do what we would like, the shame of it (especially for competitive types), and the fear and powerlessness of it. There’s a reason so many poor people come to the US. They don’t want to be poor.
On the other hand, there is a curious romance to poverty. Something in the story of St. Francis calls out to us. His courtly love for “Lady Poverty” and, above all, his amazing freedom of spirit are deeply moving to us even nine centuries later. He frightens us and magnetically draws us, all at once. What if we had to endure the life of poverty he lived? On the other hand, wouldn’t it be glorious to have the chance to get out of the rat race as he did? To return to his simplicity and beauty, his youth, his purity?
Israel was much the same way. Once the nation settled down in Canaan and started living a comfortable life off the fat of the land, it became ever more easy to forget the lean and hungry times and congratulate itself for having “grown” into the plump respectable citizen it was today. All that youthful passion about devotion to God and covenant? Well, we have to learn to temper these quaint enthusiasms. The nation became filled with the spirit that pats passionate youth on the head and smiles, “You’ll understand these things when you’re older.” All those longings about eternity, justice, joy and salvation? Yes, one has these sorts of charming idealistic excitements before one learns the ways of the world, but now Israel had more practical concerns.
Except for one thing: those irritating, attractive prophets who kept busting up power lunches and refined wine-and-cheese soirees with the call to return to the covenant of Israel’s youth and poignant reminders of how it used to be, back in the lean and hungry days when God took care of Israel in the Wilderness and she was like an orphan adopted and cherished by God (Ezekiel 16).
That call to passionate youth, to the exhilaration and freedom of having nothing and of total dependence on God, has been sounded again and again in the history of the People of God. Once, during the reign of one of the wealthy and power-encrusted medieval Popes, somebody bragged to St. Dominic, “Peter can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold I do not have'”. Dominic tartly replied, “Neither can he say, ‘Rise and walk'” and went on to found an order of beggars.
We feel the sense of that-the tonic, astringent, liberating call of Lady Poverty–even as we keep coming up with excuses for why it is still prudent and sensible to amass more and more stuff. Yet still, something calls to us and we find some secret place in our heart still exults at the thought of Francis, happier with nothing than Howard Hughes was with Everything. We look back on times in our own lives when we were much worse off financially than we are now and recognize in those times something sweet and delightful.
Lent, that time of aridity, simplicity and prayer, is the chance to stripe all the junk away and go with Francis’ Lord into the wilderness where God speaks. It is not a time of deprivation. It is a time of youthful exhilaration in the possibilities of what life and love might be when we don’t have to placate a consumerist hoyden of our own devising. It is a call to see, not lack but Lady Poverty, not loss but heart’s desire, not going without but going within the heart of God and listening to the still, small voice that spoke to Elijah.