Imitating Christ’s poverty is an open contradiction to the philosophy of the world. This world loves wealth. In affluent countries of the Western world, poverty is considered a curse, and poor people are despised. We pity the poor. On the contrary, the rich are honored and respected. Those with wealth are powerful, and those in poverty are assumed to be weak. Even when people are de facto poor, by all modern standards of psychology, they do not want to be poor. And least of all, no one in their right mind chooses poverty! How irrational can you be!
We must brace ourselves against this prevalent ideology if we are to truly imitate Christ’s poverty in the Real Presence. And let us also bring to mind what St. Francis De Sales warned the followers of Christ: “To desire to be poor but not to be inconvenienced by poverty is to desire the honor of poverty and the convenience of riches.” Needless to say, this is more than a warning. It is an indictment, especially of those in the Church who are commissioned to proclaim the Gospel of Christ but are themselves not living lives of Christian poverty.
Behind the Church’s teaching on the dignity of poverty is Christ’s own practice and praise of poverty during His visible stay in Palestine. In opening His public ministry, Jesus told His listeners, “I have come to preach the Gospel to the poor.” In the first of the eight Beatitudes, which are the Magna Charta of Christianity, Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In describing the focus of proclaiming the Good News, Christ declared “the poor have the Gospel preached to them.” And it is the poor who over the centuries have listened. Rich people have deaf ears to the teachings of Christ. Yes, there are exceptions, but they are just that: exceptions.
In instructing His disciples to go out to evangelize, Christ directed them to “call the poor, the maimed and the lame.” Christ Himself lived a poor life. He was born in a stable, lived in poor Nazareth, a first century village, and worked with St. Joseph as a lowly carpenter. Christ admitted He had nowhere to lay His head. He lived on people’s alms, never demanding a fee for His preaching and teaching about doing good. This would have been unthinkable. Imagine Christ, after preaching the Sermon on the Mount, sending His disciples to collect a fee from the people for His great lecture!
All of this and more could be said as we approach the imitation of Christ’s poverty in the Real Presence. We do not imitate what we do not appreciate, and to say the least, most of our contemporaries do not appreciate poverty; they depreciate it. In this meditation we will first concentrate on how Christ practices His poverty in the Holy Eucharist and then reflect on how we can apply that practice of poverty to our lives today.
Christ’s poverty in the Real Presence
As the writings of the Eucharistic saints make clear, Jesus wanted to be not only poor, but the poorest of the poor. Why did Jesus Christ choose to practice poverty? In order to reach out to the majority of the human race which is poor in worldly possessions. Most of the human race goes to bed hungry every night. Hundreds of millions of human beings do not even have a bed to sleep in. A woman coming back from India once told me: “I would pull the blind on my window and look out. Evening set in and people were settling for the night. As far as the eye could reach, I saw thousands of people ready to sleep on the hard rocky ground.”
And when I spent two weeks with Mother Teresa in Tijuana, Mexico, she told me, “I have never seen such destitution in my life, even in the worst slums of India, as I see here in Tijuana, Mexico. And Tijuana is in walking distance of the earthly paradise of our United States of America.
Whatever I hope to do with God’s grace in this meditation, it is to wake up our consciences. Please God, wake up the consciences of bishops, priests and lay people to be concerned for the poor — not just to mouth poverty, but according to Your grace, to live poverty. Over my years in the priesthood, I have learned that for many sincere, honest people, faith is in the realm of poetry, like reading Keats, Shelley or Byron. Their hearts are stimulating as they would be while listening to Beethoven. How beautiful! But nothing happens. Their lives go on unchanged. Many people like to talk about poverty. And some people show some compassion and concern for the poor. That’s good, but how few people really live poverty.
Why did Christ choose to live poverty? To make it clear that His Kingdom is not of this world. The wealth He promised His followers is not in money or in worldly possessions, but in the richness of God’s grace here on earth and in the wealth of eternal glory in the world to come. These are true riches. God’s grace on earth and eternal glory in heaven —that’s reality. Everything else is fiction. No wonder 90 percent of all the reading Americans do is fiction — they’re nourishing their dream life and feeding their minds with non-reality to escape and forget the real world God created.
We can safely say that every detail of Christ’s visible earthly stay was planned and calculated to the minutest detail. On these terms, it is clear that God wanted to be a poor man, and not only poor, but actually destitute. As we look at Christ’s poverty in the Eucharist, we see a perfect consistency between how He lived before His death, Resurrection and Ascension and how He now lives in the Blessed Sacrament. What adds to the significance of Christ’s Eucharistic poverty is that He is now risen from the dead, no longer mortal, but glorious in the splendor of His victory over sin and death. If anything, Jesus is now poorer in His Eucharistic life than He was during His mortal life on earth.
Here, I would like to paraphrase from St. Peter Julian Eymard, whose genius in describing Christ’s Real Presence is incomparable. What is Our Lord’s state of “wealth” in the Holy Eucharist? His home in the Eucharist may be only a poor church, perhaps worse than the cave of Bethlehem. And I don’t have to say how some modern Catholic churches in affluent countries don’t even look like churches anymore. His home, His dwelling place, is the tabernacle. In so many poverty-stricken places around the world, the tabernacle only consists of four worm-eaten boards of wood and a lid. Yet on the other hand, in churches in many affluent countries, I have looked and looked for the tabernacle and have had to inquire: “Where’s the tabernacle?” “Put away, out of sight.” Talk about the helplessness of Christ’s poverty!
We should always associate (1) Christ’s infancy, His speechlessness and his total dependence in Bethlehem and (2) Christ’s condition now in the Holy Eucharist. Christ in the Blessed Sacrament brings nothing from Heaven except His own adorable and invisible person. If the poor are without honor, Jesus in the Eucharist is without glory.
Many of the poor have very few friends or none at all. The 10,000 men and women in New York City who walk around with plastic bags across their shoulders beg from passersby. They are dressed in rags and sleep on sidewalks or in holes in alleys. And many freeze or starve to death during the severe nights, walking within sight of the beautiful skyscrapers of the wealthiest nation in the world.
Here in the Eucharist, Jesus also has very few friends. He is a strange unknown to the majority of Americans who may walk past a Catholic Church or Chapel for years and never for a moment give a single thought to Who is present there. And He’s even unknown to many Catholics! We have such a responsibility to make this Jesus Christ known by those among whom He lives and for all practical purposes don’t even know He exists.
Imitation of Christ’s Poverty
As we begin to look at ourselves and how we should imitate Christ’s poverty, we should distinguish between Christ’s actual poverty of need and His spiritual poverty of detachment. Both are practiced by the Savior, and both are to be imitated by us. The distinction is not subtle, but crucial to a correct understanding of the Real Presence.
Actual poverty: So how do we imitate Christ’s actual poverty? By being satisfied with less rather than with more of this world’s goods. And the more the world offers us, the more opportunities we have to imitate Christ because there’s more we can give up or sacrifice!
We should imitate Christ’s actual poverty by genuine poverty in the poverty of want. Poor people lack what rich people have. I remember my moral theology teacher back in the seminary telling us: “When you become priests and preach at a parish, especially a wealthy parish, you must tell the people that we all must practice poverty or we will not go to Heaven.” If we are going to follow Christ in His poverty, we must lack. What an examination of conscience Americans would have to make! So many Americans lack nothing. They have everything when it comes to worldly goods.
When seeking role models, actual poverty looks not to those who possess. Actual poverty identifies physically with the poor. This is where our media have mesmerized our whole nation. We have been hypnotized into the worship of wealth. But let us consider the words of St. Bernard: “I wish to be a friend of the poor, but especially their imitator. The one is the grade of beginner, the other of the perfect, for the friendship of the poor makes us friends of kings, but the love of poverty makes us kings ourselves. The kingdom of Heaven is the kingdom of the poor.” (Letters)
We should always remember this: “The kingdom of Heaven is the kingdom of the poor.”
Poverty of spirit: How do we imitate Christ’s poverty of spirit? If actual poverty means deprivation, poverty of spirit means detachment of the heart from whatever this world calls good.
Poverty of spirit means poverty of desire. For the sake of others, a person may possess a certain amount of this world’s goods. However his heart must not be on this world, but on the world to come. The only reason that justifies some people to actually be wealthy is for the sake of others. But how painfully well I know so many people who are wealthy. Yes, they give a few tidbits, a few crumbs like the rich man in the parable who gave some scraps to poor Lazarus. The actual possession of wealth must be for the sake of others and not for one’s self or you will not enter the kingdom of Heaven. Our hearts must be detached from this world. I think the hardest thing on earth is for a person who is not actually poor to practice poverty of spirit. A person who actually lacks is by his very life detached — there’s nothing to be attached to. But especially in a country like ours, those who are not poor have earthly possessions and want more. I have counseled too many wealthy people and have given enough retreats to multimillionaires to know how difficult, how humanly impossible it is to be really detached internally when you want to possess. Let it be known: our hearts were not made to be satisfied by anything in this world. They were made to possess God.
Poverty of spirit is also humility of spirit. Why do people desire to possess? It is not mainly for the personal satisfaction wealth or money or property may bring them. You can only eat so much. You can only make the bed so big. You can only put on so many clothes. People don’t accumulate wealth just to eat more, or dress more — there’s a limit! The real reason is because worldly possessions bring recognition and acceptance and praise and honor. It is this strategy that the devil uses to lead people into pride and from pride into all kinds of sin.
But poverty of spirit does not seek recognition or praise. Those who are spiritually poor actually prefer not to be recognized and not to be honored. Poverty of spirit is concerned for others, is thinking of others and wants to help others. Poverty of spirit recognizes that whatever I have is a gift of God and has been given to me by God to be used for His greater glory and not mine, for the furthering of His interests and not mine, to be used according to His will and not mine, and to be shared with others, according to His preference, and not my preference.
The saints tell us that poverty is ennobling, enriching, powerfully apostolic, deeply satisfying and divine, seeing that when God came into the world, He was born and raised in poverty and now on earth He practices such poverty in the Real Presence. This should awaken the hearts of His followers to follow in His pathway and detach our hearts sincerely from everything in the world and set them on the only true riches which is the possession on earth of Jesus Christ crucified and the possession in heaven of Jesus Christ glorified.