Thursday, May 23, 2024

A dangerous memory

February 3, 2009 by  
Filed under Pat Bearsley

St. John’s gospel says, “He handed over his spirit” and at that very moment of handing over his spirit, the church was born. Jesus in his poverty, a poverty whereby he actually died, triumphed  over death. As the German bishops, in that wonderful letter on poverty wrote, “He outwitted death.” In the very act of dying, of passing over his spirit, it passed over, wasn’t breathed just into thin air as it were. It was passed out onto that little community of disciples at his feet: Mary, the Beloved Disciple and the other women.

In the Johannine vision of things, in Jesus’ direst poverty, the church was born. This was Pentecost for John. For us Marists that is a further enrichment actually of our root metaphor. We think of Mary in the early church, Mary at Pentecost according to the Luken version in Acts of the Apostles. We are also warranted to contemplate Mary and the little community of the early church at the foot of the cross in John’s scheme of things.

For it was on Calvary, in the depths of degradation, Jesus was also glorified and he did that by passing the spirit whereby he lived, his Holy Spirit if you like, passing it from himself into the little group of disciples gathered at his feet and the church was born. The church was born out of the very poverty of Jesus, the poverty in which he died when he had nothing left but his spirit to give, he gave that and died.

This is the Jesus we are committed to following in poverty. It’s not just a matter of material things. It is a matter very much deep in our essence as a person. Being prepared to spend oneself, spend oneself to the limit, holding nothing back because we own nothing.

It’s a radical poverty and we’re committed to that by our vow and by our tradition as Marists, Jesus the poor man. It’s necessary that we be like Jesus because as the Calvary scene so eloquently tells us, it’s through the poverty of his death that the church was born, that there was the establishment of the Kingdom, that the whole world was won for God. Once again, by looking to Jesus, we see the method as it were, that’s why we’re committed to it because we too are committed to winning the world for God.

The poverty is to be radical and it is to be real. It is to be real. The poverty Marists freely profess, and once again, in that previous Constitution, the emphasis was on, “we choose poverty,” here “we freely profess it.” That’s what makes us different from the poor people in the world. They have no option. They don’t choose to be poor, they have to be by the circumstances which they find themselves.

As Fr. Jago reminds us, the new note of poverty today is that although the church has always helped the poor, done good things for the poor, the call now is that we have to identify with the poor. We have to join with them and that’s the hard part. It’s easy to be Father Christmas, to handout alms, to give presents, to do good out of our riches. That’s relatively easy. To make common cause with the poor, that’s the hard part.

But our Constitutions call us to that. “The poverty that Marist freely profess is genuine in the measure that their standard of living (and that’s their place of residence, their clothing –Marists shouldn’t be fashion plates– their belongings –just because everyone else has a quadraphonic stereo system or whatever it is– their travel. That one was put in deliberately, it slipped in because it is a controversial one. But it’s rich people who travel round by aeroplane all the time, I know I’m going on an aeroplane. The poor people can’t afford it. It’s the rich people who have their own car, travel, means of transport. Anyway, these are the to be such that the way in which we live poverty “brings us closer to those who are poor through no choice of their own” (C.110). There’s the contrast. We choose it, they don’t. And that’s so often the difficulty, they can think that we are freely choosing, that we don’t have to, whereas they are oppressed by poverty.

When we are sitting back comfortably in our communities, it’s easy to glamorise poverty, but those of you of course who work really among the poor know it is a dreadful situation. “Their poverty would be unreal and deserving of scorn if they were always concerned for their own comfort and wished to be lacking in nothing (C.110).

They’re strong words, deliberate words. It would be unreal to be just pretending to be poor, if we did the token thing. And we would really deserve mockery –although it’s not so much mockery we get, it ineffectiveness, people just shrug their shoulders, “What do you know about it” and they don’t allow our ministries to be effective. Once again, as Colin noted, it’s a blockage to the Word of God getting through.

Again, “they are sensitive to the ways attachment to money can hinder the proclamation of the Good News” (C.113). That’s another key note of Marist poverty, we are poor for the sake of the Gospel. Not only the radical living of the Gospel but for the sake of the mission. (c.f. C.108)

Fat, rich, comfortable clergymen are alienating in today’s world, even amongst the rich, fat and powerful. It turns people off. The Word of God does not get through clearly. There’s too much static when they look at our fine clothes, our lovely cars and the rattling coins in our pockets.

That’s the point, it’s for the sake of mission. Not only is living comfortably, or not poorly an obstacle, but also it has something to do with greed. “They are sensitive to the ways attachment to money can hinder the proclamation of the Good News. In all their dealings with people, they show themselves generous and free” (C.113).

In another Constitution it talks about wealth which comes through talent, education and even out time – C. 109. “This times my own and I’m not going to let anyone come in on that.” That’s not being poor. Poor is also to do with availability. “In all their dealings they should show themselves generous and free from the least appearance of greed (here’s that word again) as they endeavour to practice literally the Lord’s command: ‘You have received freely; give freely’ Mt. 10:8” C.113. All the graces and blessings you’ve been given, you didn’t earn them, so therefore pass them on freely. It’s again the no to greed.

Colin seemed to have a great reaction, a revulsion which churned him up inside at the mere thought of greed. It’s one of those things that really got him animated and going, any suspicion of greed. Remember if the Superior General has greedy thoughts, he has to get on his knees and confess them to the council.

No doubt it had something psychologically to do with the bad experience he had in his youth. When he was about eighteen years old he was seriously ill and everybody thought he was dying, he was on his death bed. They thought he was unconscious and his relatives were already starting to divide up his few meagre possessions among them. He wasn’t unconscious, he heard every word and he never forgot it. That had something to do with it.

But much more deeply for him, it was this awareness that the official church in Restoration France seemed to be greedy, seemed to be much more interested in restoring itself to its Pre-Revolutionary honours and wealth than in preaching the Gospel and people were turned off.

Moreover, greed is that voice which does grip the heart, makes us more interested in our interests than in those of Jesus and Mary. It’s obvious and yet it’s pernicious. It leads us to betray our true nature and find our destiny more in possessions, in the things we have, rather than in the persons we are. This of course is completely alien to the spirit of Mary, it is not at all counter-cultural.

Our no to greed, our desire to live poorly, is in the trendy phrase, “counter-cultural,” particularly in western countries, in this country, in my country where so much effort is put into the acquisition of possessions. Where so much effort is given to status, where so much effort and as it were one’s hopes for happiness rests in the things we have, the comfortable life.

But our only chance of evangelizing that life is to make a radical statement against it because the biggest obstacle facing us, and we’ve all met it, is what Colin calls indifference. People are quite comfortable without religion, they don’t need God. My life is basically quite happy without him. I have my family, I have my friends, I have a good job, enough money to live comfortably, I’ve got my holiday home, I’ve got this, I’ve got that. So why do you tell me I need God?

It’s not so much the poor who are opposed to the Gospel. It’s not so much even the rich. It’s that huge middle class of comfortable people who sure, have their own little worries and that, but by and large, life’s not too bad. If we buy into that life, if we are living the same sort of life, what hope have we of showing that indeed, there is more to life and that indeed God has saved us?

Again, the Constitutions. “Such poverty rids the heart of covetousness (in other words the greed) and reliance on worldly means. Aware that it is easier to adapt to one’s surroundings than to remain faithful to the Gospel” (C.226). Another important sentence. It’s much easier to breathe in the atmosphere of the culture in which we live, it’s all around us, it is the air we breathe. We live in an affluent society.

I’m not passing any judgements on your culture. I’m talking about my own which is so similar. We live in an affluent society. We can’t avoid breathing in it’s values, just by living, living in this environment.

So Marist, we have to be aware that it is easier to adapt to our surroundings. There’s some biological law in it. A fish adapts to living in water and if it had to out, it’ll try and breathe, or something. I don’t know. But generally, we do adapt, there’s a law about it.

Our poverty has to be conscious, deliberate and freely chosen. “Aware that it is easier to adapt to one’s surroundings than to remain faithful to the Gospel, they shall take care that their dwellings, possessions, and manner of life bring them closer to the poor. A Society of rich men (affluent, comfortable, fat men) could hardly claim –that yes, we are a sign to you– that Jesus and Mary are concerned for you and your world” (c.f. C. 226).

When you think about it that’s a strong statement but it’s nowhere near as strong as Fr. Colin’s final Constitution and this is merely another echo of it and a faint echo. I’m using the old translation, this is the last number he wrote: “Woe to the man whoever he may be, who in any way would be the occasion of the Society as a whole or a single house, lapsing into lamentable laxity in such a serious and necessary matter. For if they were to forsake the spirit of poverty, Jesus and Mary would no longer acknowledge this Congregation as their own nor deign any more to dwell in its midst, and thus, left to its own frailty, it would in a short time and most certainly collapse into total ruin.” (1978 edition 1872 Constitutions, n. 445.)

A loud and clear warning from our Founder and yet poverty is probably the virtue that we, as Marists, find most difficulty to live. It’s probably the one area in which most of us have strayed furthest from the ideal of Fr. Colin. Yet, he was so insistent, it is the foundation stone, and if we’re not poor, Jesus and Mary wont own us and left to our own devices, we will collapse into total ruin. If things are not going well at the moment, perhaps we should be asking ourselves, is this where we’ve gone wrong?

It is difficult to be poor in this sort of culture and environment and it came through in that survey of American religious. I thought it was quite interesting that when the members who took part in that survey were asked about the option for the poor, which most active congregations had taken and which the church is asking of religious, they had to admit that it had little effect for them and they had little taste for it.

That value was found most strongly, (and not very strongly), but the strongest was among the young apostolic sisters and this group currently shows the smallest tendency to increase in size. Only young female religious seem to be keen on the option for the poor and they’re the ones with the least vocations. I think it says something. It doesn’t say they’re wrong though.

It’s an uncomfortable topic, I know. I feel uncomfortable even talking to you about it, but we can’t be true to Colin, we can’t be true to our vocation, unless we take seriously what he says about it.

Source: Fr. Pat Bearsley, Conference 8 Boston Province Retreat, 1994.

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