Most people born in a land flowing with milk and honey (like my husband and children) rarely understand how people struggle to survive in another part of the world.
They don’t know what it’s like to have to collect water from a communal hand pump and bathe in a public, roofless cell without a shower, using a bucket and cup. They can’t fathom how a one-bedroom tropical hut can still be home for a family of 12 without air conditioning, stove, refrigerator, or toilets. They couldn’t imagine life without canned peaches stored in a pantry or living with a bag of only one good set of Church/work/day clothes. They’ve not regularly endured having to walk dusty roads to the nearest market, bus station or town hall in the midday tropical heat. And likely, they’ve never slept on a bamboo-slatted floor with backache for a mattress and hunger pangs for a pillow.
For one weekend, as a part of the Theology curriculum of my Jesuit college (its ok to admit I’m Jesuit-educated now that Pope Francis I is our new shepherd, right?), I lived among the poorest fishermen in the Philippines and did all of those things that my husband and children probably think I made up. Brief though a time it was, the smell of fish and salt-air wafting in through open windows still lingers in my memory. And when I remember the laughter of ragamuffin children rising above the sound of waves tossing hardworking outriggers, it takes me back across oceans. After twenty years, what’s left a lasting impression in me is the simplicity and humility of the poor.
This frugality of the third world country where I grew up, was hard to shake off after I migrated to a culture of consumerism. Though there was still an invisible spending bar I couldn’t cross, I had no trouble accepting (and expecting) lavish presents from my husband, sisters and parents; spoiling my children with toys they took for granted; and hoarding discount clothes, clearance rack shoes and used books for myself. Things I soon learned would “decay with rust, can be eaten by moths or broken into and stolen by thieves” … or wind up in garage sales.
The definition of poverty took on a whole new, painful meaning for me when I read the words of the saints and spiritual leaders of our time:
1. Blessed Mother Theresa: “The spiritual poverty of the West is greater than ours… You, in the West, have millions of people who suffer such terrible loneliness and emptiness…They feel unloved and unwanted. These people are not hungry in the physical sense, but they are in another way. They know they need something more than money, yet they don’t know what it is. What they are missing, really, is a living relationship with God.”
2. Venerable Bishop Fulton Sheen: “It is a well attested fact that those people who are most impoverished in their souls try to cover this inner destitution by extreme luxury on the outside. The more naked the soul, that is, the more devoid of virtue, the greater the need of the body to give the appearance of possession through fantastic dress, display and ostentation. The more the soul is clothed with virtue, the less is the need for outer compensation.”
3. And lately, Pope Francis: “It is the spiritual poverty of our time, which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the ‘tyranny of relativism,’ which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.”
As someone caught between memories and realities of two opposite worlds, I can hardly begrudge the lifestyle of people who’ve grown up with affluence as the norm and poverty the exception nor condemn those who live in stark luxury in developing countries. But I constantly challenge myself: what can I do to alleviate my spiritual poverty and what more can I give those who live in material poverty?
© 2013. Anabelle Hazard. All Rights Reserved.