How Poor Can You Get?

by Fr. David May

Catherine Doherty nearly always conveyed a sense of uneasiness when it came to Madonna House and questions concerning evangelical poverty. Let’s just say she was never worried about us being too poor, but rather that we were not poor enough.

Little efforts to make life more comfortable were roundly and publicly discussed and often condemned. Or if not condemned, allowed to exist with some regret for “the good old days” of early Combermere or of her past houses in Harlem or Toronto.

Yet poverty was never some rigid law that we had to adhere to “or else.”

When the need was there, lavish, even extravagant, love was shown freely and without hesitation. And liturgical feast days were accompanied by all sorts of traditions that were true to the Lord’s own saying: They cannot fast as long as the Bridegroom is with them (Mk 2:19).

What Catherine longed for is that our community would one day (soon!) embrace what might be called the very heart of poverty. Here is her description of what that essential aspect of poverty consists of:

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“One has to begin at the beginning. The beginning is to finally acknowledge your own immense poverty. Now you have to fully, deeply realize that all that you are, all that you have is from God! From this follows that you have and are nothing.

“Once you make this truth of your own poverty before God the very marrow of your thoughts, your life, your love, your body, in a word, your very being, then you will become truly humble. Then you will walk in truth, walk in and with God. …

“The acceptance of this truth will make you truly free, free to love and serve. … It will also make you free to love and serve God more passionately, more constantly, more totally. You will then be on the threshold of this many-faceted, infinitely beautiful virtue and attitude of heart, state of life. That is poverty!

“But still, you will only have begun. I repeat, you will be only standing on the threshold of poverty’s dwelling.

“The next step is having a heart wide open to grace!

“Now you will enter an unknown terrain through which God himself will deign to lead you. All that you have to do is to be open to grace.” (Dearly Beloved, Vol. 1, 1989, pp. 338-339, MH Publications.)

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Catherine taught us that this poverty then blends with obedience to God, so that, in a way, at least as to their spiritual depths, they are indistinguishable. Profound obedience in all things makes us poor, since we give up our will to the Lord’s wishes for us.

Yet it was a deeper understanding of my poverty that persuaded me of the wisdom involved in closely obeying the Lord’s will in the first place.

What follows, according to Catherine, is an inner stripping from the Lord that leads to a death to self over and over and a rising to new life in Christ: “I live, not I, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20)

It is then, poor and obedient, that we become disciples in the true sense, for we preach, live, and give not ourselves now, but Christ.

Or as Catherine puts it, succinctly and eloquently:

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“The naked crucified One always knows his own, and [he] especially cannot resist the ones who strip themselves inwardly naked for him and immolate themselves with him on his own cross for love of him and for the souls for whom he died.

“Stripped in this fashion, dying to self, crucified through poverty and obedience, walking in humility which is truth, you will be able to feel what the poor feel. You will heal, console, and bring multitudes to God. You will be truly poor in the full sense of that glorious word, and hence truly rich.” (pp. 340-341)

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How do words such as these strike you? Do they seem too idealistic and thus impractical and out of reach? Do they even make sense at all or have any attraction? Or do they at least have the potential to set your heart on fire anew with the desire to give all to Christ?

When the impossibilities of the Gospel were being discussed in Madonna House in Catherine’s day, she would respond variously.

On one occasion she would speak of the duty of the moment as the surest way of embracing the Gospel without compromise, because it brought the Lord’s will down to the accessibility of life one moment at a time, rather than our getting oneself overwhelmed by imagining the whole picture.

On other occasions, she would take a sheet of paper and tell us this represented the “whole vision” of either the Little Mandate of Madonna House or the Gospel, and then she would cut off a tiny little piece of paper and tell us, “And this is how much I live it out. Yet I must continue to place the whole vision before you.”

Surely her own journey into poverty must have included this call to preach the Gospel without compromise, all the while knowing that she was not fully measuring up to what she was urging everyone to live.

It was what the Lord was telling her to do as he had told so many of his saints in previous generations.

I was idealistic enough when I first came to Madonna House, and young enough (!), that such words set me on fire to try to follow the Lord wholeheartedly. I know I never measured up to it all, but what a tragedy not to have tried, and to keep trying right to the end.

There is a strong tendency once again today, in the name of “accompaniment” and of compassion, to water down the hard and challenging truths of the Lord concerning marriage, sexuality generally, and even end-of-life issues.

What we in MH learned from Catherine is that we simply cannot compromise on essentials without losing everything sooner or later.

But, you say, the fact is that we do compromise; our poor human nature soon gets discouraged, and we either give up or dismiss rules beyond our capacity, a conclusion often reached only after long and painful striving to do it and failing.

In the face of all this, we were pointed constantly in the direction of a merciful Savior. We were taught not to be ashamed of having failed over and over again, to seek forgiveness, to believe in his infinite tenderness, to abide in his Heart, and with Our Lady’s encouragement, to try yet again.

Before you know it, you’re no longer 21 but 65 and very much in the habit of believing and practicing the above.

Why should I stop now trying to live the Gospel, when (who knows?) tomorrow may be that day when, at last, God gives me the grace that enables me to love you as you should be loved, that is, as Christ loves you—he who became poor to make us rich in grace (cf. 2 Corinthians 8:9).

The End