A Call to Discipleship
Reprinted from The Common Good, No 66, Spring 2013
There are advantages to choosing a lifestyle of downward mobility, which the Catholic Worker Movement has traditionally called ‘voluntary poverty’. One of these is that we gain some perspective on the experience of those financially less well off in our society.
Since I was originally from a middle to upper income family, it was somewhat of a surprise for me to discover how much simply being less well off affected how we were treated. Of course, in many ways it wasn’t a surprise too, because I knew my own prejudices and vanities, and expected to receive them back. Indeed I don’t think that a degree of material poverty frightens us as much as the accompanying loss of status and respect does.
In other words, the experience of comparative material poverty in our society is not, I think, as distressing as the marginalization you experience because of it. We live simply on recycled housing, furniture, clothes, car, crockery etc. – on things that others don’t want or need – and we have plenty, because we live in an affluent society. We are comfortable. The discomfort comes from how we are regarded because of this, how we are led to feel ashamed. I sometimes imagine how much worse it would be for us if we were black as well, or mentally ill, or suffering disability in some other way. More than charity, the poor in our society need friends.
In much of this experience, the Church, and I include all Christian churches here, has been a place of refuge for our family from the judgment of ‘the world’. In the Church we found friendship, support, and respect. It has been on the whole a kinder place, and I am grateful to it, especially for my children’s sake. Our ‘recycled life-style’ has impacted mostly on them in their formative years. Many times one or two of them have urged us to increase our income so that they didn’t have to feel so embarrassed. However we have resisted the pressure from them, and it has been a source of lively family discussion about how we think we can best build a better world for everyone. I should add that they are luckier than many poorer families, since we have still managed to give them some extra-curricular activities, and send them to Catholic high schools, that allow reduced rates for low income families.
There have been times, however, when we have experienced exclusion within the Church, and seen others suffer the same way because they were not middle class, financially successful, mentally or emotionally competent, or white. We have seen wealthy families greeted and befriended with enthusiasm, while poorer people have been ignored. That’s what keeps people striving for more, over above what they could possibly ever need, or even use! Consequently, looking down on people with less money becomes a way to make you feel better, which creates the desire for more money in them, and so the vicious cycle continues.
The antidote to all this destructive consumption, and breakdown in the human family, is to immerse ourselves in relationship with God who waits longingly for us in love and fidelity. St. Paul tells us we are meant to be in the world, but not of the world. It should not be the world that is forming and informing our attitudes and opinions, and it is the world that worships money. God is infinitely kinder than the world. We all know how hard it is to please the ‘world’, and feel acceptable by it’s rigorous standards, anyway! Seriously, is there anyone out there who thinks they’ve made it in the acceptability stakes?
God has also given us instruction, through His son, Jesus, in how we are to regard those most rejected by the world, the ‘lowly ones’. We are to treat them as the presence of Christ to us, which means as being actually above ourselves in deserving of dignity and respect! If God is the one largely forming and informing our intellect, emotions, and actions, we would be going to the highways and byways and begging the poor into our Church.
I am not naïve to the problems and complications this could bring into our lives. We shared our home for 14 years with homeless strangers, many of them mentally ill, many of them suffering addictions of one kind and another. I had to learn that welcoming the marginalized did not mean I couldn’t challenge bad behaviour, and expect respect myself. Seeing Christ in ‘the distressing disguise of the poor’, as Dorothy Day puts it, is not easy.
But we all need to constantly examine how much we have allowed the world to seep into our consciousness and behaviour, and put renewed energy into making sure God has the upper hand in our lives and attitudes. That’s when we are truly a Church alive in Christ, and not dead in the world.
Anne Rampa is married to Jim Dowling and together they have seven children. They mostly live at the Peter Maurin Catholic Worker farm, north of Brisbane.