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Poor in Spirit: Poverty in the Spiritual Life

by Brant Pitre September 11, 2020 0 Comments

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In closing, I want to give two insights from the tradition. The first is from St. Irenaeus of Lyons. St. Irenaeus of Lyons is one my favorite saints, he lived in the second century A.D. He was one of the first great systematic theologians in the history of the Church and he wrote a famous book called Against Heresies. In that book he talked about the parable of the treasure hidden in the field and what he says is that the treasure that Jesus is talking about is not just the kingdom, but it's actually Christ himself. That Jesus is that treasure. Let me read the words here of St. Iraneus:

For Christ is the treasure which was hid in the field, that is, in this world (for “the field is the world”); but the treasure hid in the Scriptures is Christ, since He was pointed out by means of types and parables.2

So notice what it is saying there, Christ is the treasure hidden in the field because in the other parable, the parable of the weeds and the wheat, the field is the world, so Christ comes into the world as fully divine and fully human, but his divinity is hidden. So the treasure of his divinity is, in a sense, hidden under the veil of his humanity, under his coming into the world. But that that treasure is also hidden in the Scriptures, because Christ is there present in the Old Testament in types and in parables. So if we look at the prefigurations, the prototypes of Jesus in the Old Testament, although you can't see it right at first, but if you begin to study the old in light of the new, you'll see that Jesus is everywhere in the Old Testament. He's being anticipated, he is being prefigured, and he is hidden in the Old Testament, kind of like a treasure hidden in the field. But he is also hidden in the parables, right!? The parables are these riddles, these mysteries, that in a sense conceal the great treasure of the kingdom of God. This is a beautiful image from St. Irenaeus that I thought I would share with you. I really like that idea of Christ as the treasure hidden in the field of the Old Testament and hidden in the field of the world in the incarnation.

The final thing you might ask about this just in terms of practical applications is this, okay so in those two parables the merchant sells all that he has and buys that pearl and the man sells all that he has and buys the treasure hidden in the field, well how do I live that out? Am I supposed to go and literally sell everything that I have in order to pursue the kingdom of God? There are some people who are called to that. For example, a Franciscan friar or priest who might take a vow of absolute poverty, chastity and obedience, sells all that he has and doesn't own any thing except the clothes on his back, and maybe not even those. So some Christians will live that radical call to discipleship. But what about a layperson, a man with a wife and a family, like myself a father of five? How do we live out these parables? And here I always return to one of my other favorite saints, St. Francis de Sales — he is the patron of my diocese. He wrote a great book called Introduction to the Devout Life, which is a classic of spirituality precisely because it was written for laypeople. It is one of the few classic works of spirituality that wasn't written for priests or monks or nuns, but written for laypeople in particular. In part 3, paragraph 15, St. Francis talks about how to practice the spirit of poverty even while living in the world. So while we might not sell all that we have, because we have the duty to provide for our families, we can still live the spirit of the kingdom and the spirit of poverty in this way:

[W]e must practice real poverty in the midst of all the goods and riches God has given us. Frequently give up some of your property by giving it with a generous heart to the poor. To give away what we have is to impoverish ourselves in proportion as we give, and the more we give, the poorer we become...

So the first way of living the spirit of the parables is to give alms. In particular, to to give our property, give our money away to the poor to provide for those less fortunate than us. The second way is even more interesting, he says this also:

If you meet with losses that impoverish you either very much or a little, as in the case of tempests, fires, floods, droughts, thefts, or lawsuits, that is the proper time to practice poverty by accepting your losses meekly and patiently and by courageously submitting to such poverty.

So the second thing he says there is that a layperson can live the spirit of poverty both by voluntarily giving their property away, giving to the poor, but also when they experience losses that are involuntary, whether to a flood, fire, theft or lawsuit; not to grow angry, not to grow bitter, but to accept those losses gently and meekly and courageously, accepting the things that we cannot control. And that is the way as a layperson you can cultivate the spirit of the parables and the spirit of poverty without living a consecrated life where you take a radical vow of poverty to actually sell everything that you have. So there are different states of life, different ways to live out Jesus’ message of the kingdom, and the Church has always recognized that. But in this case, we see here Jesus calling us, all of us, whether we are in the lay state, married state, or whether we are single, a religious, a priest or monk, or whatever it is, all of us have to seek first the kingdom of God in our lives and everything else will be given to us as well.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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