Thursday, June 19, 2014

Living Without Layers

God and money. “No one can be a slave to two masters. He will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn. You cannot be slaves both of God and money” (6,24).

When I read that, my heart jumped. Jumped with a sort of strange joy! Sinner that I am, I have chosen the better part. Poverty was a goal, the goal of my life. And I finally achieved it.
But the strangest thing happened! There was a time when I had nothing and I used to beg. Oh! That was a beautiful time. Nobody depended on me and I was unknown. How good that was—how good it was! Anyhow my heart still hungers for poverty. The real physical poverty.

“But do you know something, Lord? They have tied me with a thousand cords. Little cords mostly, but I can’t move. They justify so much! Would you believe it, I’m living in a blue house and it has to be paid for? I’m travelling on some kind of plane that has to be paid for specially. Everything seems wrong somehow. Will you please listen to that Gospel of yours? See. You said it.

So it’s up to you now, to let me go into a poustinia where no one knows who I am. I want to be poor. I feel sad. I love all the staff workers, but they are all children. I know that you have given me children, but still. They talk about poverty but they don’t want it. So it seems to me. I don’t know why. Probably I am all wrong, but as I read St. Matthew about God and money, what can I say? Somewhere I must be wrong.”

So there is God and there is money and the eye the lamp of the body. Now I ask you—what can a poor woman do? She has no money, so she doesn’t worry about it. But when you come to think of it, she has a lot to give up besides money. True, money is the source of all evil, but she can give up her will. It’s not easy. No, for a poor woman it’s not easy, especially for a poor woman like me who had education, this and that, and a child. No, it isn’t easy to give up the thought of money.
Catherine Doherty, Gospel of a Poor Woman

Reflection – Among the books I hope to write some day (it’s a verrrry long list) is a book about Catherine Doherty’s love of and understanding of poverty. I really don’t think there’s anyone else who quite talks about it exactly as she does, at least not in the spiritual writers and even great saints I have read.

Her initial experience, first of almost starving to death in the Revolution, then of being grindingly, humiliatingly poor in North American, then of willingly embracing that level of poverty for the love of God, seared into her being a depth of conviction about the necessary connection of poverty and holiness, poverty and love, and a flaming desire (because of that connection) to be poorer and poorer and poorer all the time.

When she and her husband Eddie first arrived in Combermere, to a little unfinished six-room house with no electricity or running water with very little money in the bank to live on and not much prospect of that changing, she laments in a diary entry that it was too bad that ‘she will never be poor again the way she had been in Toronto’!

For her, the initial days of her apostolate in Toronto in the 1930s were an experience of life when there was literally nothing else for her but Jesus and Catherine. It wasn’t even an apostolate, at first, not exactly. It was just this young woman living in the slums, utterly indistinguishable from her neighbors, praying and fasting and serving them, and living in this passionate love of Jesus Christ.

While she bowed to the will of God, which was that she would be the founder of a community and it would grow, and this would mean buildings and projects and money in the bank (and in spite of her seeming grief over having to fly on an airplane and pay for the ticket, she really didn't have a problem with this), she never ceased to hunger for that depth of intimacy and hidden union and absolute poverty with Him.

I want to write about this at book length… mind you, I’m not sure who exactly would buy such a book or read it. Because the other great pain for Catherine, and this passage from the book reflects it, is that she was aware of how few other people, even her beloved MH spiritual children, really shared this passionate love for poverty.

We always want to keep a few layers of… whatever… between ourselves and Jesus, don’t we? Always want to cosset ourselves, just a little bit, protect ourselves, quite a bit, keep control of our lives and our environments, a whole lot. For Catherine, poverty in its naked physical expression was like an outward sign of an inward attitude of utter abandonment, utter self-disregard, utter belonging to Jesus to an extent that precluding any other belonging, being possessed in such a way that meant possessing nothing. Living without layers - that's what she yearned for.

Because Catherine loved Jesus, and because this is how her love for Jesus expressed itself, she literally could not be poor enough, could never be satisfied with how she or MH was living out physical poverty. It is a vision of Gospel life and Gospel love that is never comfortable, always deeply challenging, puts an end to complacency of any kind.

And the question that really emerges for all of us is this: how much do we love Jesus? What does that love of Jesus mean for us? Just how far are we willing to go, what are we willing to do, to give up, for the sake of that love? It may look different for us than it did for her, but the love is the same, and from that love, the generosity, the totality, the grandeur and magnanimity of the Gospel. How much do we love? That’s the question.