26 September 2012

The Beauty of Lady Poverty

St Francis is espoused to Lady Poverty
In which the Pilgrim confesses a bit of a crush on Lady Poverty, considers the via media, and venerates the true poverty of self in the martyrs Cosmas and Damian.

They counted all as loss in order to know Christ and to have a share in his sufferings, conforming himself themselves to his death.
—Cf. Phil 3:8, 10, Entrance Antiphon, Mass for a Single Martyr




My heart has a crush on Lady Poverty. When I read passages like "Take nothing for your journey; no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. (Lk 9:3) from today's Gospel or the story of the Rich Young Man, and above all, our Lord's words, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Mt 5:3), then my heart leaps out to Lady Poverty whom Saint Francis held so dear. In the Sacrum commercium, a medieval poem about the "Holy Converse" between Saint Francis Lady Poverty, blessed Francis, before beginning his order, searches the streets for Poverty, begging, "Show me, I beg you, where dwells the Lady Poverty? Where does she feed, where does she lie down at noon, for I am sick for love of her?" But no one knows, for those in the city despise Poverty and hide from her.

Finally, though, St Francis goes to the plains where he finds some old poor men, and they are able to tell him, "If then, brother, you would come unto [Lady Poverty], put off the raiment of rejoicing and lay aside every weight, and the sins that beset you, because unless you are naked you shall not be able to ascend up to her who keeps herself close upon the heights." So Francis and a few companions do as they advise and begin the long climb up the mountain, by the straight path and narrow way, that leads to their beloved.

When at last they find her, they woo her, and their words echo my heart: "Lady Poverty, you appointed by the King of Kings Queen and Mistress above all virtues. Only admit us to your peace, and we shall be saved, that through you He may receive us who through thee has redeemed us. If you determine to save us, quickly we shall be set free. For He Himself, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Creator of heaven and earth, has desired your comeliness and your beauty."

And that right there is it, for in Poverty I see the handmaiden of the LORD. "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head." (Lk 9:58) He says this to those who would follow him, and so who can help but long to share in his utter poverty. But while in his life, our Lord certianly lived a life of poverty, it is upon the Cross when his true poverty is revealed.

On the Cross Jesus is stripped of his robe, now the winnings of gambling soldiers, he is robbed of his apostles and disciples who fled and denied him, he is even seemingly robbed of his Father when he cries "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!" (Mk 15:34). Here he is at his most desitute. For not only had He, the Son of God,  "Who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of me. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross." (Phil 2:6-8) At that final hour, Our Lord is impoverished of his will ("My Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will" [Mt 26:39]) and finally even of his life.

If Lady Poverty can lead me to be so emptied so that I might be filled only with Christ. That I might be able to cast off all my belongings, even my will so that I can listen to Paul who counsels, "Cast off the old man that belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new man, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:22-24). Then I would take her to be my lady, whom I serve as a knight of poverty.

Poverty, along with obedience and chastity, is one of the Evangelical Counsels (see CCC 2053). Those who take vows of religious life vow to these evangelical counsels. And while all are called to incorporate these counsels into their own life, not everyone in the Body of Christ is called to live them perfectly. Though everyone is called to the perfection of Charity, just as some are Eunuch's for the Kingdom but most are not, so too not all are called to the Perfection of Poverty. (CCC 1974). Those times when I have tried to embrace Lady Poverty, she tends to appreciate the attention, but steers me toward the via media, the middle way.


Today's reading from Proverbs, then, is what applies to most of us, and what we should pray for every day: "Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full, and deny you, and say, "Who is the LORD?" or lest I be poor, and steal, and profane the name of God." (Pv 30:8-9) Here, our poverty is expressed when we give thanks to God for all we have, realizing that none of it comes by our power, but merely by the grace of God and our participation in His creation.

We should still love Poverty, but our lives are lived as Christians more Prudently in Simplicity. Let us pray merely for enough, and live our days not worried: "Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well." (Mt 6:31-33)

Ultimately, where we should be mindful of our Poverty, is that we should embrace our poverty of Will. The only food we should truly desire, like that of Christ, is to do the will of the Father (see Jn 4:34). We have already sought to "cast off the old man" the old raggedy coat of sins. So then if Christ would "sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well" (Mt 5:40) the cloak that is your body. For "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body." (1 Cor 6:19-20). Like Christ, as Christians, we should seek that our will is not our own; we should know that our body is not our own, and like Jesus we should pray for the poverty that we might lose our life and thus preserve it for Eternal life and gain all (see Lk 17:33).

That kind of poverty of Christ, poverty of one's very life, was found in the martyrs whose feast we celebrate today: Sts Cosmas and Damian. Cosmas and Damian were doctors and Christians of Arabic descent who lived during the time of the Diocletian persecutions. Sts. Cosmas and Damian considered all gain as a loss for the sake of Christ (see  Phil 3:7) and so refused to take any payment for their medical services to men or beasts. They were commonly known as the "moneyless ones" for this devotion to poverty, and this uncommon selfless, charity was what caught the attention of their persecutors.

But there is an interesting story about the brothers that cautions against poverty for the wrong reasons. In The Golden Legend there is a story of Damian treating a woman, who held him to take a small gift in the name of Christ. For the love of this woman and the Lord whose name Damian was beholden to, he took the small gift. When Cosmas found out about this, he was so furious that he told everyone that he would refuse to be buried next to his brother when they had died. However, that night, the LORD came to Cosmas while he slept and told him that in Damian there was no wrong since the gift was taken out of the sake of love. Charity must always trump poverty.

It was a holy Charity for God that allowed them the face so bravely their persecutors. They faced several trials—fire, arrows, stones—and each time their Christian courage held them fast, and each time they were saved by the intervention of angels. But God does not deny such as these the martyrs' palms. And so finally Cosmas and Damian were beheaded. Great was the early devotion to these two saints, with churches dedicated to their honor dedicated throughout the east and west, including in Rome. That devotion saw the names of these two martyrs, who loved Poverty and truly gave up all for Christ, in the canon of the Mass.

So let us ask the LORD, by the intercession of Sts Cosmas and Damian, be granted a perfect love of Lady Poverty, and if it be His will, to take her as our bride. Let us pray that will Cosmas and Damian we may be granted the martyrs' palm, but if we are not so called, that we shall still martyr our will to the Father. And of all the virtues, may we never place any before Charity, for it is by Charity that we come to Him who is love, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

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