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  • Writer's pictureCynthia Lambert Cheshire

Spiritual Poverty Is Not Humiliation, and Other Things I’ve Learned from Living Paycheck to Paycheck

This week, a Very Big Thing happened in the Cheshire household. My husband and I went on a date.

As we walked into our local pizza place, dressed maybe a little too nicely because we were excited, the waitress handed us our menus and said, “Date night?!”

“Yeah!” we responded, “And it’s really sexy. We’re going to be budgeting!”

She laughed. We laughed. It was all very cute and sitcom-y. And then, as she walked to the bar to get us our drinks, I unpacked the paper and pen I had brought with me and brought up the Calculator app on my phone. Seriously—our plan for this date was to do a household budget. And we were excited about it. A couple weeks ago, my husband started his first-ever civilian job. After 15 years in the military and other uniformed service, he was finally able to grow out a beard, wear a polo shirt—and make private sector money. This. Is. MAJOR.

Today’s readings invite us in the mystery of God, and I love them for it. But today’s readings also have a lot to do with Poverty—a subject that, in my experience, is rarely explained with enough nuance in the Church. Several years ago, I did the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. The Exercises are difficult to explain—they are simultaneously a set of prayers, contemplations, and rituals, but also a journey, a process, a new mindset. Most of all, the Exercises are an experience with God unlike anything you’ve known before. The Exercises proceed in phases called “Weeks” going through the life of Christ. Certain themes weave themselves across the phases, and one of these is Poverty.

I had a really hard time with that one.

In the greater perspective of the world, I know that I am wildly wealthy. I have always had a car to get to work. I have never lived in a food desert. My children have always had a solid roof over their heads. But until literally this week, my entire adult life was spent living paycheck to paycheck, making just enough to be disqualified from government support. I spent years budgeting and dividing and doing the nonstop math of relative poverty. Once, we ran out of heating oil because we couldn’t afford to pay for regular deliveries. The next day, I took some jewelry to the pawn shop to get enough cash to heat the house again. One of the pieces I had to sell was the necklace I wore on my wedding day.

Suffice it to say, I do not think that poverty is glamorous or noble or romantic. It is scrappy and stressful and robs you of dignity. So when I encountered such an emphasis on asking God for “poverty” during the Spiritual Exercises, I reacted.

For months—and I mean months—I railed at my Spiritual Director. “I feel like Ignatius is fetishizing poverty. It’s not something to want, it’s something to endure! How dare he make a real struggle some romanticized spiritual metaphor!” My Director sat as she often did: calmly, waiting for God to do the work. Once God (and I) had worked out my pain and loss and grief at so many years of financial precarity, God taught me about the true, spiritual Poverty St. Ignatius emphasized, and which I see in today’s readings.

Today’s Psalm sets the history of Israel in a cosmic timeline to remind us that God sees our struggles and responds:

“A bountiful rain you showered down, O God, upon your inheritance;

you restored the land when it languished;

your flock settled in it;

in your goodness, O God, you provided it for the needy.”

Physical poverty is stress and exhaustion and nonstop hustle.

Spiritual Poverty is the calm of knowing that God sees you, as God has seen generations of struggle before you.

God is gracious, unknowable mystery, as I am reminded in today’s Epistle: “Brothers and sisters: You have not approached that which could be touched as a blazing fire and gloomy darkness and storm and a trumpet blast and a voice speaking words such that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them.”

Physical poverty is that deep feeling of humiliation as yet another agency asks to see your pay stubs and then says you’re not quite poor enough to warrant their help, as if it's somehow your fault that groceries went up by 50 cents an item and no matter how many times you do the math, the budget just doesn’t balance.

Spiritual poverty is true humility—not based on outside degradation, but on knowing that God is God and you are you, and therefore by definition God’s will is best. The same God who appeared to Abraham and Moses in fire sees you weeping over your calculator at the end of every month.

“The father of orphans and the defender of widows is God in his holy dwelling. God gives a home to the forsaken; he leads forth prisoners to prosperity.”

Physical poverty robs you of societal dignity.

Spiritual poverty is the assurance that your dignity is God-gifted, untouchable.

So much emphasis is given to the flip-flop of social positions Jesus talks about in today’s Gospel; so many homilies preached on the phrase, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” I haven’t yet heard a homily that focuses on what already is: we are all humbled at the Divine feast. Not one of us is God. We are all, spiritually speaking, Poor. Yet God invites us to the most lavish, most generous banquet the same. Where society doles out shame, God doles out grace, forever and ever. Amen.

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