Posted January 09, 2012 in My Story:
The Blessing of Poverty

by Fr. Denis Lemieux.

Blessed are you poor, for the kingdom of heaven is yours (Lk 6:20).

I have learned that there is only one place where I grow in faith, one place where I encounter the living God. That is the place of my own personal poverty.

I am going to reflect on my spiritual journey and on different ways in which I have encountered my own poverty, at least a little bit. At least enough that I am beginning, I hope, to know the blessedness of poverty.

I’m 45 years old now, and I’ve been a staff worker of Madonna House for twenty years and a priest for seven. I was nineteen the first time I came to Madonna House and twenty-five when I made my first promises.

When I arrived at Madonna House in 1986, for various personal and familial reasons, I was fairly "bruised and broken." I don’t mean physically.

Basically, I had very little self-confidence, and my underlying belief was: I am good for nothing; I can’t do anything. Subsequent years have shown that it is true that there are a number of things that I am not very good at.

That’s all right, now. I’m peaceful about it and can laugh about it—now. It was not all right for a long time.

I’m probably one of the most mechanically inept men in Madonna House. Don’t let me near a car engine; I will destroy it. Or any other kind of heavy machinery. In their wisdom, no one in Madonna House ever put a chain saw in my hands. If they did, I probably wouldn’t have hands.

Anyhow, in my early years in Madonna House as a guest, applicant, and young staff worker, I messed up a lot. I broke a lot of things. I couldn’t do anything right; I was ‘good for nothing’. At least that’s how I experienced it; others may not have seen it quite so starkly.

I was on the farm for a couple of years, and my time there has become the stuff of legend. I think the most we can say for that time is that I didn’t actually destroy the farm.

So those were my first five years or so at Madonna House—an awful lot of messing up and feeling very, very useless. I had little to show for my time except for a lot of broken tools and inner pain. I was very, very poor.

At the same time, by the grace of God, I had an incredibly strong sense of vocation. I never seriously questioned that I belonged at Madonna House.

So what was I faced with? (There was no talk of me becoming a priest at that point.) The way I saw it, I was going to spend the rest of my life in the laymen’s department, breaking things and messing up.

And that really pushed me. I was forced to stop measuring myself by my work. I had to decide from the outset that my identity was not what I did, that I was not defined by my work. And I was pushed to that because I had no work to speak of, certainly nothing I could take any "pride" in.

Those were very, very difficult years. But they forced me into a very, very deep place inside me, and they forced me to make some fundamental decisions about who I am.

Then one day I had a minor back injury which resulted in my getting transferred to the subscription department of Restoration.

For the first time in my life, I sat down at a computer. It was like one of those movies where the ugly girl suddenly rips off her glasses and she’s Anne Hathaway or something.

I sat down at the computer and within an hour, I knew how the computer works. Within a week, I knew more about how the computer works than people who had been working in the office for ten years. I discovered that I had an aptitude for computer work. I just get it.

So all of a sudden, I went from being extremely unsuccessful and good for nothing to being able to program computers and do all sorts of other things.

Of course, I still had my moments when I screwed up, and there were still areas I wasn’t very sensible in, but suddenly I could do a lot of work.

I became the circulation manager of Restoration; I became the editor of Restoration. I became the schola (choir) director. Suddenly, there were all sorts of wonderful things I could do relatively well.

So what was my next poverty? In those years—we’re now talking about the mid-‘90s—I started to become aware that I wasn’t always the nicest person in the world. I had some issues with anger. I had some residual pain and suffering from earlier events in my life that made me not always the nicest person in the world to live with.

In fact, I went through several years when I was quite an s.o.b.* (Excuse my language). I really was not very pleasant.

So here I was in a community of love, a community dedicated to loving one another as I have loved you (Jn 15:12), and I just wasn’t loving people. I really wasn’t. And I was stuck in that.

Sometimes we get stuck in that. We go through periods in our life where we are just not quite able to do the being nice business too well.

I had precious little peace in those days, and I was always crying out for mercy. "Mercy, mercy." "Jesus, have mercy. Jesus, have mercy." "Lord, have mercy on me."

And I kept saying to people: "I’m so sorry." I had to apologize a lot in those years, and I kept crying out to God for mercy. And that’s how I discovered something kind of important. I learned that God is, in fact, merciful.

I came through those years; I learned. I got a little bit of healing. I’m not quite such an s.o.b. anymore, though I still have my moments.

I have just written a book about mercy based on what the Lord has taught me and what Catherine Doherty taught me, and in that book I have a wonderful quote from one of her spiritual readings: "So you’re an s.o.b.? It’s okay. God likes s.o.b.s. He hung out with them."

I’ve learned that it’s okay to be poor. Blessed are those who know they have nothing but God.

So, over a few years as I kind of calmed down and learned a bit about how to generally manage better in life, I began to hit yet deeper levels of poverty in myself.

In the late ‘90’s I came to a profound realization that at a very deep level of my being, I was fundamentally an atheist. I did not believe in God.

So here I was coming up to final promises. I was about to commit my life to the Lord in Madonna House. I was also feeling a very strong call to the priesthood.

And I was hitting some very profound attitudes of mind and heart: I discovered that I didn’t trust God. I didn’t really believe he was on my side or that he was really there.

He certainly didn’t seem to be acting as if he was there. This became for me a very profound entry into a new depth of poverty.

During that time, we began to have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. I don’t often get direct words from the Lord. But the Lord told me to do an hour of adoration every day.

And I said, "I don’t believe in you. Well, not quite." After all, I’m a Catholic; I believe in God!

But I was like, oh, my gosh, I’m not getting along very well with God these days, and he wants me to pray an hour every day!

I’ve got a lot of work to do; I’m in charge of three departments. Do an hour a day?

So I said to myself, "I’m going to miss a lot of meals because the only way I can do an hour every day is to do it during lunch or supper."

And that’s what I did, mostly. I did a lot of sitting there. Just sitting there, glaring. Glaring at Jesus, quite often. And it became a very profound thing. I mean, talk about being poor!

Catherine in one place in her writings says that the most cosmic poverty is to not know God. And I didn’t know God, even though I had been in Madonna House all those years and seemingly doing all sorts of things for him.

On some level, I didn’t know God. Cosmic poverty! And what came out of that was a very great paradox. Touching that poverty, I began to cry out from that deep place inside.

Again, it was, "Lord, have mercy," but at this point not for my specific sins but for this realty that on some profound level I was in darkness. "Jesus, have mercy! Lord, have mercy!"

I was doing a very profound crying out. And the paradox of that was that the more I cried out, the more I actually did have faith.

That has gone on now for years. We’re not too far into the remote past now in this story. So blessed are the poor.

I’ve come to know from all of this that that is where the action is. This is where our spiritual life is happening. Always.

That is where God meets us—wants to meet us.

He is meeting us there in our poverty, and it’s through our crying out, through our choice to not run away or avert our eyes or shy away from it—that we grow in faith.

It is when I am weak that I am strong (2 Cor 12:10).

So where am I poor now? Probably I will only know in retrospect. But I do know that right now in my life I am being called to really listen to the Spirit as I try to write books or articles or whatever. And I am called to try to love this person and that person as they come to me for spiritual direction.

All this is beyond me, and so once again I am pushed to cry out: "Lord I don’t know anything. I don’t know what this person needs. I don’t know how to express this idea or that truth."

Poverty is our constant reality. It really does seem to be the condition of our whole spiritual life.

We easily think it’s all about getting it together, figuring it out, feeling good. But I have learned one thing: it is in our poverty that the Lord comes to meet us. And to be met by the Lord is blessedness.


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