How to practice Poverty amidst Riches

July 5, 2021 • 9 min

From Introduction to the Devout Life, page 138

Chapter XV.

How to practise true and real Poverty, being notwithstanding really rich.

The painter, Parrhasius, painted the people of Athens in a very ingenious manner, representing, by means of numerous figures in one picture, their several variable dispositions—choleric, unjust, inconstant, courteous, gentle, merciful, haughty, proud, humble, resolute, and timorous. But I, Philothea, would put together into your heart riches and poverty, a great care for and a great contempt of temporal things.

Be more careful to make your goods profitable and fruitful than worldly men are. Are not the gardeners of great princes more careful and diligent in cultivating and embellishing the gardens committed to their charge, than if they were their own? And why? Simply because they consider them as the gardens of kings and princes, to whom they desire to make themselves acceptable by their services.

Philothea, our possessions are not our own, but were lent to us by God to cultivate them, and it is his will that we should render them fruitful and profitable, and therefore we perform services agreeable to Him in being careful of them; but then it must be a greater and more solid care than that which worldlings have of their goods, for they labour only for love of themselves, but we must labour for the love of God.

Now as self-love is violent, and turbulent, and impetuous, so the care which proceeds therefrom is full of trouble, uneasiness, and disquiet; and as the love of God is sweet, peaceable, and calm, so the care which proceeds from it, although it is for worldly goods, is yet amiable, sweet, and agreeable. Let us, then, exercise this peaceable care of preserving, nay, even of increasing our temporal goods whenever just occasions present themselves, and as far as our condition requires, for God wishes us to do so for the love of Him.

But beware lest self-love deceives you; for sometimes it counterfeits the love of God so closely that one would imagine it to be the same. Now, that it may not deceive you, and that the care of your temporal goods may not degenerate into covetousness, in addition to what I said in the last chapter, we must practise a real poverty in the midst of all the riches which God has given us.

Deprive yourself, then, frequently of some part of your property, by bestowing it on the poor with a willing heart; for to give away what we have is to impoverish ourselves by so much as we give; and the more we give the poorer we make ourselves. It is true God will repay it back to us, not only in the next world, but even in this; for nothing makes us prosper so much in this world as alms; but till such time as God shall restore it to us we must remain so much the poorer by what we have given. Oh, how holy and rich is that poverty which is occasioned by giving alms!

Love the poor and poverty, and you shall become truly poor, since, as the Scripture says, “we are made like the things which we love.” Love makes lovers equal. “Who is weak,” says St. Paul, “with whom I am not weak?” He might have likewise said, Who is poor with whom I am not poor? For love made him resemble those whom he loved. If, then, you love the poor, you shall be truly a partaker of their poverty, and poor like them.

Now if you love the poor, be often in their company, be glad to see them in your house, and to visit them in theirs; converse willingly with them, be pleased to have them near you in the church, in the streets, and elsewhere. Be poor in tongue with them, speaking to them as their companion; but be rich in hand, by bestowing your goods on them, as having more abundance.

Nay, more, Philothea, do not rest content with being as poor, but be poorer than the poor themselves. But how may that be? The servant is lower than his master; make yourself, then, a servant of the poor; go and serve them in their beds when they are sick, serve them, I say, with your own hands; be their cook yourself, and at your own expense; be their seamstress and laundress. O Philothea, such service is more glorious than a kingdom.

I cannot sufficiently admire the ardour with which this counsel was put in practice by St. Louis, one of the greatest kings the sun ever shone on. I say a great king in every kind of greatness. He frequently served at table the poor whom he maintained, and caused three poor men almost every day to dine with him, and many times eat the remainder of their pottage with an incomparable love. When he visited the hospitals, which he frequently did, he commonly served those suffering from leprosy and ulcers, and such as had the most loathsome diseases, kneeling on the ground, respecting, in their persons, the Saviour of the world, and cherishing them as tenderly as any fond mother cherishes her own child.

St. Elizabeth, daughter of the King of Hungary, often went amongst the poor, and for her recreation sometimes clothed herself like a poor woman amongst her ladies, saying to them: “If I were a poor woman I would dress in this manner.”

Good God, Philothea, how poor were this prince and princess in the midst of their riches, and how rich in their poverty? Blessed are they who are poor in this manner, for to them belongs the kingdom of heaven. “I was hungry, and you gave me to eat; I was naked, and you clothed me; come, possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:” these words the King of the poor, as well as of kings, will say when He addresses Himself to the elect at the Day of General Judgment.

There is no one but, upon some occasion or other, feels a want of some convenience. Sometimes we receive a visit from a guest whom we would wish to entertain very well, but for the present have not the means; at other times our best clothes are in one place, whilst we want them in another place where we must be seen. Again, sometimes all the wines in our cellar ferment and turn sour, so that there remain only such as are bad; at another time we happen to stop at some poor village where all things are wanting, where we have neither bed, chamber, table, nor attendance; in fine, it is very often easy to suffer for the want of something, be we ever so rich. Now this is to be poor in effect with regard to the things we want. Philothea, rejoice on these occasions, accept them with a good heart, and bear them cheerfully.

But should you meet with losses which impoverish you more or less, as in the case of tempests, fires, inundations, bad harvests, robberies, or lawsuits, oh, then is the proper season to practise poverty, receiving those losses with meekness, and submitting to your losses with patience and constancy.

Esau presented himself to his father with his hands covered with hair, and Jacob did the same; but as the hair on Jacob’s hands stuck not to his skin, but to his gloves, one might take away the hair without hurting the skin; on the contrary, because the hair on the hands of Esau stuck to his skin, which was hairy by nature, he that would attempt to pluck off his hair would have put him to such excessive pain as to force him to cry aloud, and be very warm in his own defence.

Thus, when our worldly goods cleave to our heart, if tempest, a thief, or a cheat, should pluck any part of them from us, what complaints, trouble, and impatience do we not show? But when our goods do not cleave to our hearts, and are only considered according to the care God would have us take of them, should they be taken from us, we lose neither our peace nor our senses.

Hence the difference between beasts and men as to their garments; for the garments of the former, viz., their skins stick fast to their flesh, and those of the latter are only put upon them, so that they may be put on or taken off at pleasure.

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