Tuesday, December 26, 2006

god is not rich

i hate those people that tell you
money is the root of all that kills
they have never been poor
they have never known the joy of a welfare christmas

everclear, "i will buy you a new life," so much for the afterglow (1997)

Edward Blair Leighton, "The Charity of St.Elizabeth of Hungary" (c.1900)

i spent the better part of this past semester arguing to my students that francis may have been crazy, but if he was it was the good kind of crazy. i argued that francis needed to be interpreted not merely economically and politically, though this was important, but as a mystic, in the tradition of pseudo-dionysius and meister eckhart; that there was little distance between bonaventure's theory and francis's praxis.

partly i made this argument for my own benefit. i have always struggled a bit with the franciscan tradition and the belief that poverty was a good. in the 21st century the distance between the medieval mendicant orders looks small, but the franciscans really were radical in a way that, for instance, their nearest contemporaries, the dominicans, were not. for dominic, poverty was pragmatic. wealth symbolized corruption, decadence and heartlessness to those dominic was trying to reach. thus dominic insisted that the order lay aside wealth in order to reach those persons. francis on the other hand embraced poverty as a good.

i grew up in a home that was poor. the poor child of parents who were pulling their own way out of even greater poverty. my father spent most of his childhood in a small two room house that i only knew as a shed, leaning precariously to one side, used to store my great-uncle's lawn mower and a few other gardening items. it fell down a few years ago when a hurracaine blew it over. my parents were both the first in their families to get college educations. my father did not finish his until well after i was born. my mother, who was, in her youth, a better student, never used her teaching degree to earn money until after my little sister left home when i was in my 20s. i came along and interrupted her plans of being an elementary school educator.

we lived in a trailer in the middle of a large trailer park: the north carolina sun beating down and baking my mother in summers so that she would flee, me in tow, to the shopping mall or grocery store in order to find air conditioning. my first christmas was a green-stamp christmas. i have vague memories of our already outdated black and white television being broken for several years because they could not afford to fix it. there was a small (and later larger) garden through-out my childhood, not because my parents had any particular interest in gardening, but because it meant they did not have to buy so many vegetables. i could go on...

the truth is, i was so young i did not realize we were poor and by the time i was old enough to be able to comprehend it my father had completed his engineering degree and was working full time and we were not poor any longer. nonetheless it gradually became clear to me that we had been poor and that this was not the poverty of francis. this poverty hung about the necks of my parents like a millstone and they needed, desparately, to get out from under it. the poverty of francis was meant to be freeing, and freedom lived in pursuit of god. the goal was to create a situation in which one no longer desired anything other than god. and so, just as the great mystics would strip away every concept that stood between them and god, so also, francis insisted on stripping away every physical reality. it was a struggle to master not only the mind, but the desires of the body as well: to recover the beautiful edenic life, where body responded to mind, and reason and the will governed the material order.

it is a truism of medieval theology that god does not need anything. god is the Whole, full and complete. and if one is to be engodded, if is to be an alter-Christus, as francis's companions identified him, one must also desire nothing. this could only happen when one let-go and could simply be. god does not have nor possess, nothing belongs to god as a piece of property, god is the One that is also All, with nothing to lose or gain. for francis poverty was the way of capturing that idea, a way of reaching the point where one could simply identify in one's being and will with the divine in perfect love.

i am not poor; indeed i am, when looking at the world in its entirety - though this perspective is lost if one lives in america too long - one of the rich, one of the aristocrats, so fascinated by francis. i am elizabeth of hungary, looking for some way to lay aside my crown. having been spared the poverty of my family's background, i am now unable to find the poverty of francis and am instead trapped within the poverty of riches. i still have my theoretical issues with "voluntary poverty", but where will one find an alter-francis, in any case, that could show one the way?



Maliha said...

Isn't it an act of privilege to choose poverty, given that millions are dying (w/out such a choice?)

This is something i struggle with...the Mystic doctrine is appealing, but then isn't responsibility part of this world?

Nice post, thanks for your reflections.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

wa salaam,

actually, i completely agree. at one level (and here i am going to annoy several of my face-to-face friends who have committed themselves to causes like the catholic worker) 'voluntary poverty' seems like an act of arrogance. i understand the drive to detachment, but to pretend one is poor (to put it in the most cynical language) seems almost insulting to those who really are.

as i mentioned, i do really struggle with francis and the beauty and conviction of his life.

one still sees aspects of this impulse in liberation theology, especially in south america where it is often argued that god is seen most clearly in the lives of the poor/poor communities.

on the other hand, how does one live amidst the poverty of riches? the painting shows elizabeth of hungary passing out bread from the castle kitchen. but in a day or two, these people will need bread once again. so i feel like francis is right at some level. there are people who suffer in poverty and those of us who do not...there is something wrong with our lives so long as their suffering continues. BUT no amount of playing-poor will change the reality that we are not.

i think francis and others in the mystical tradition sought an immediate solution to the weight of sin. but i am not sure we can slip free of our sin that easily, and we must hope/work for a salvation that remains for us something in the Future.


koonj said...

This post shook me. Poverty or faqr in the Sufi tradition takes different forms. - there's recognition that 'poverty can make you into an unbeliever' as well as that 'poverty is my pride' (from the Prophet). There were mystics who lived in wealth and maintained huge kitchens that feed hundreds daily (langar-khana's). There were mystics who lived in total ascetic poverty.

A sufi lived in great wealth and maintained charitable systems. When he died, his son gave it all away. He was asked why. He said "my father wasn't possessed by the wealth and I fear it."

Our "poverty" is relative, as I'm reminded when I glance JUST over my shoulder at some of my own family/relatives' standard of life - and beyond them to the *actual* poor. We have layers and layers of poverty today, and a tiny tiny tiny group of individuals who live in disgusting opulence--disgusting because *I* don't have that (yet).

And yet I can afford to agonize about it because I'm not wondering where the next meal is coming from.

Lawrence of Arabia said...

this could easily turn into a very long post of its own, but there is a major strain within the christian tradition, and especially found in the monastic and mystical tradition that glorifies poverty. in fact it is one of the origins of xn monasticism.

there is a story in the gospels where a "rich young ruler" comes to jesus and asks what he has to do to be perfect. jesus tells him first to obey the law: love god with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself. the rich young man says he has dedicated his life to obedience, what more must he do? and jesus responds, "give away all you have and come and follow me." and the text says, "and the young man went away sad, for he was very wealthy."

you pair stories like that with, say, one of the major themes in the gospel of luke. in luke, poverty (NOT voluntary poverty even, but poverty, plain and simple) is itself a good and the wealthy are damned for nothing other than being wealthy (parable of the rich man and lazarus, for instance). poverty itself is close to god. francis is obviously very influenced by this idea.

there are countervailing traditions of course; matthew's gospel spiritualizes the idea of poverty for instance. luke says 'blessed are the poor', matthew says, 'blessed are the poor IN SPIRIT'. BUT nonetheless there is still a very strong and almost universal feeling that personal wealth is not appropriate to those who seek to live a truly holy life.

i guess in this post i express my own ambivalence, and outright confusion. it is a topic on which i feel i do not know what to say. i tried to enter into the franciscan tradition this semester as i taught francis and bonaventure to my students, and i can understand them...but i do not agree. at some level i just do not buy francis's committment to "holy poverty" as the definition of the gospel life or as THE defining characteristic of mysticism. and yet a desire for god that does not include social transformation and a recognition of injustice is empty.

francis somehow spoke to an entire generation throughout an entire continent, and was nfluential on a massive scale. it broke down within a couple generations, but still...where is that francis now who can put forward a vision of mystical-PRAXIS that is compelling, that speaks to the questions and crises of the age in which we live in a creative and new manner (yea i dont want much)?

and so, we struggle...seemingly in the dark...

thank you for the thoughtful reply. i really had no idea about the sufis and wealth...i find that very interesting. and you are of course absolutely right about the relativity of poverty. when i refer to myself as one of the rich...by american standards we dont even begin to vaguely qualify, and i have relatives who really are quite poor by american standards. still even the child of "po' white trash", which i am, is a child of privilege.

"And yet I can afford to agonize about it because I'm not wondering where the next meal is coming from." --- that about sums it all up doesnt it; and much more simply than my long-winded, dependent-clause laden writing. :)

thank you very much and best wishes,