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Bourgeois Lifestyle for Sale (Cheap!)

by Fr. David May

Listening to Catherine Doherty talk about poverty could be a frustrating experience for those not accustomed to her way of thinking.

I remember what it was like back in the 1970’s, when we had staff meetings on Friday evenings in St. Raphael’s handicraft centre (the biggest private space we had for meetings at that time). Let me give a couple of examples:

***

Catherine: I don’t understand why we made so much raspberry jam. It’s far more than we need. In any event, we are going to stop eating it every Sunday, and keep it only for very special occasions.

Me: Good idea, B. Let’s gives it away to those in greater need.

Catherine: Sweetheart, raspberry jam has nothing to do with it!

***

Or this one at the end of a particularly trying week at the farm:

Catherine’s opening sentence at the staff meeting: The only thing people are interested in around here is a bourgeois life style.

Me (under my breath): WHAT?????

***

Catherine (next directing her remark to a priest who would nod his head knowingly, to my unending irritation): Of course poverty for the Gospel is an interior stripping that only the mature can begin to understand.

Me: B, could you elaborate a bit on that point?

Catherine: No. It can’t be explained, only lived.

***

Or finally, this one:

***

Catherine: In Russia, when a family was in need, the ones who had space opened up the whole apartment or house to that family and shared everything they had. That’s how we helped the poor.

In North America, people are very generous up to a point, but no one thinks of something so radical. There is a different approach here, preferably through an agency.

Me (through clenched teeth but not to be heard): What about the Russian Revolution?!

***

Slowly it was becoming obvious to me that I had a lot to learn about gospel poverty and especially what Catherine Doherty meant by it.

Eventually, I discovered the essential point around which everything else revolved. (“Eventually” took quite a while, by the way!)

For Catherine, the perfect example of poverty was that which Jesus gave on the Cross. In other words, he gave everything of himself for us in laying down his life.

***

Here is a typical example, taken from a letter written to the staff in 1957 at the beginning of Lent:

“With Lent approaching, my mind turns to the passion of Christ and the realization that this same passion continues daily in his Mystical Body, the Church. This means in us. In you. In me. In every human being.

“The question arises in my heart: How are we, who are called to this special vocation, how are we to bear his pain in our minds, our bodies, our souls? More precisely, how are we to share it, and sharing it, how are we to assuage it in others?”

***

Or there is this example from 1957:

“We all know that the spirit of Madonna House is the cross. But have we thought about how difficult it is to be stretched on that cross? To allow oneself to be stretched on the cross requires fidelity, perseverance, and vision. It is this vision that gives one the courage to climb that hill to Golgotha.

“You may walk upright with even, forceful steps, or bent over and burdened. You may have to drag yourself inch by painful inch, exhausted and wounded, on bruised hands and knees, up the Hill of the Skull towards that desired goal: the cross.

“Without that clear vision and singleness of purpose, without complete dedication and surrender, you might not reach the cross.”

***

This was what you might call the hidden assumption behind her reflections on poverty—that our eyes were ever on Christ crucified as the perfect example for every aspect of our vocation.

But there was yet another dimension that also would go largely unspoken, unspoken, that is, until we got somewhere near Good Friday. Then Catherine might speak about what to her was the most obvious thing of all about the cross of Christ.

***

Here is a brief excerpt from a letter written on Good Friday in 1961:

“Once again it’s my Friday in poustinia, only it’s not just a Friday, it’s Good Friday.

“A great joy floods my soul, a joy I wish to share with you. Today is Love’s day. Today God is showing us how much he loves us by dying on a cross.

“He has shown us how much we must love him and love one another. Remember how many times Christ repeated the word ‘love’. ‘Love one another.’ Today is Love’s day.”

***

All of this was ‘behind’ any discussion Catherine would lead about gospel poverty. The kenosis (self-emptying) of Christ unto accepting death on a cross was the supreme example of the loving and total gift of self that gospel poverty is the handmaid or the servant of.

Use of raspberry jam was not the point. Signs of external poverty were not it either, nor was the way poverty was idealized in old Russia. None of this was “the point,” but rather point-ed towards the one true and pure ideal of the total gift of self out of love for the other, namely, Jesus Christ.

That being said, there are certain key areas, or point-ers where a “yes” or a “no” to Christ the Poor Man is forged in us in the crucible of life.

I will take those up next month, for they are relevant not only to questions of poverty but of love itself, which is, of course, the whole point of this discussion.