Poverty v. Being Poor

The feast of St Vincent de Paul always makes me do a little soul searching about the meaning of poverty. Is there a difference between that and being poor? I tend to think of poverty as an abstraction — real and painful to those who suffer from it, but still something that can be measured by economists and sociologists according to the arcane standards of their profession. It isn’t a universally valid concept, either. What constitutes poverty to someone living in north America may appear very differently to someone living in parts of India or Africa. Being poor is different, and can be found even in the midst of plenty.

One of the medieval descriptions of monks and nuns was pauperes Christi, ‘Christ’s poor’ — those who had chosen to strip themselves of every kind of personal possession in order to follow Christ.  Anyone viewing the remains of their abbeys today might be tempted to scoff. Many medieval monasteries did indeed possess great corporate wealth even though individually the monks and nuns owned nothing at all, not even their own bodies and wills being at their own disposal, as the Rule of St Benedict says (RB 33.4). However, I’d say being poor means more than lacking possessions or being deprived of the right to private ownership. Even the attitude of mind and heart monks and nuns call detachment only imperfectly expresses what it means to be poor. Being poor means having no choice — having no choice whether one eats or not; no choice whether one is educated or not; no choice about whom one does or does not marry. The poorest people in the world are probably the women and girls whose lives are so circumscribed by material poverty and intellectual and religious convention that their lives are truly not their own, even for a minute; and that is not to deny the terrible hardships suffered by men and boys whose lives are unending toil under appalling conditions.

Is there anything we who are rich can do? We can give money and time, of course; we can pray and work; but perhaps we also need to ask ourselves from time to time whether we aren’t confusing poverty with being poor, seeing abstractions when we should be seeing individuals. The Society of St Vincent de Paul is one of those great charitable organizations that quietly and perseveringly helps those who are poor, both here and abroad. It is not the material relief of poverty alone that has made it great but the gift of its members for seeing Christ in those they serve, of being poor with the poor.

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4 thoughts on “Poverty v. Being Poor”

  1. I know a wealthy man who spends a great deal of his money frequenting spiritual retreats and then he goes back home and boasts about his wealth and status. I find it baffling and a challenge.

    When I see images of Western boys hunched over their expensive computers whilst African boys are laughing and giggling together and kicking around a football barefooted, it reminds me of who is most rich in their soul.

  2. Don’t forget that the internet provides a great community and place for teenagers to learn and interact with people more like themselves than they might find in other places. Not everyone is interested in football, and there is as much joy to be found in playing digital and real games. I play games on the internet with my finance, as a way that we can do things together, despite living 300 miles apart.

    I find figuring out how to share my wealth and tackle poverty, and how to keep my own materialism in perspective very hard to reconcile with what our faith teaches. If I don’t horde my money, I will never own a home of my own. No matter, I can rent. But then, I’m just putting money into the hands of someone else with significant wealth, while having little security and stability in my life. You can’t become part of a community, if you have to move location every year or so. And so on…

    I try to give time instead, which is much harder for me to find than money.

  3. A very challenging and thought-provoking post for us in this ‘rich’ part of the world. I think the key is to be able to part with any material thing we have without a moment’s thought – realising that true wealth is not found in things. And if we do find ourselves in charge of ‘things’ (money, material things) we should firstly be grateful and then always looking for ways to give whatever we have to others. Often easier said than done!

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