One of the titles traditionally attributed to St. Joseph, is “Lover of Poverty”. During this year of St. Joseph, it behooves us to reflect a bit on this virtue. At first glance, this title strikes me as emotionally incongruent with much of my new reality as a parent. I do not love poverty
and honestly, my husband and I sacrifice a lot of our time and effort trying to stay as far away from it as possible. With the birth of our children, came a new and innate desire to nurture, protect and provide for them. And, although my travels around the world have impressed upon me how fortunate Americans are with regards to material comfort, I am nevertheless anxious that we do all we can to ensure our children would not know poverty.
I knew theologically that poverty in of itself is not a virtue, so what could all this mean? If in fact, St Joseph was a poor man, why would that be a reason to honor him? I brought my questions to the Lord in prayer and asked Him to reveal the reason so many holy people in the history of the Church have desired to live poverty in their pursuit of union with God.
At its very essence, poverty is about dependance. A poor person is deeply aware of both his need and his inability to fulfill those needs. In contrast, a wealthy person is independent, free to make decisions and able to never need anyone else. As Americans, we immediately recognize the latter as an ideal to which we strive. The problem, however, is that Faith at its very essence, is also about dependance. It is a profession that God is our Creator and holds all life in existence. It is the belief that ultimately, true happiness can only be found in Him. Spiritually speaking, it is the awareness that we are totally dependent on Him for our life in this world, and through salvation offered in Jesus Christ, eternal life in the next.
In the Beatitudes Jesus tells us that “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven”. To be poor in Spirit means that one is detached from the things of this world, and therefore, has made room in their mind and heart for spiritual riches. It is only in this sense that poverty is seen to be a virtue. In so far that detachment from material things facilitates one to look to God to fill the void.
People who are materially poor are more readily able to realize their spiritual dependance on God because one’s reality always informs their spirituality. Does this mean that every poor person is necessarily holy or that wealthy people are unable to realize their dependance on God? No, of course not, but it does mean that it is harder for someone who has no experience of true need to be convinced of their utter need for God.
I will tell a story to illustrate this point. I have an aunt who has lived her whole life in a third world country in extreme poverty. It is only due to the generosity of her relatives that her and her children were able to survive. Not long after she arrived here for a visit, I witnessed how she ended a meal. When she finished her plate she brought it to her lips, kissed it and then touched it to her forehead. She did this same action three times. I had never seen anything like it but knew instinctively that this humble act was an exterior sign of her deep gratitude to God for his providence. The experience of true hunger in her lifetime has left her acutely aware that it is God who gives all good things, and the meal that she just ate was a sign of His love for her. This act struck me at the same time as extremely beautiful, and something I, someone who has never experienced poverty, would never think to do. It is in this sense that poverty is a virtue that can bring us closer to God.
During this year of St Joseph, I invite you to ask the Holy Spirit to show you any area in your life where undue dependance on worldly goods keeps you from pursuing the virtue of poverty and relying on God’s providence and entrust these areas to God in a simple prayer.