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The Sacrament of the Poor

T.J., a native Texan (Brownsville) and a lawyer (U.T.) spent several
 months at Casa Juan Diego as part of his Jesuit novitiate. The Southern 
Jesuit province is restoring the original Ignatian practice of having
 novices live poorly with the poor. Casa Juan Diego qualifies as a site 
for this experience!

“And the King will answer, ‘I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did
 this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
 (Matthew 25)

Christ in Actual Poverty

On the wall leading to the soup kitchen which serves the residents of
 Casa Juan Diego hangs a tattered yet thought-provoking picture of Christ 
standing in the middle of a line, patiently waiting for a handout. I have asked myself both during prayer and during work whether the immigrants that I serve, those same humans who are considered “aliens” by the law and those same men who are measured under consumeristic standards by their negative impact on the job market, are actually the embodiment of my Christ, my God. I had never thought of the question until I began my work at Casa Juan Diego, and because of my work here, the only answer is a resounding yes.

John Kavanaugh, in his book, Still Following Christ in a Consumer 
Society (Orbis Books), posits that it is our “refusal to hear the cry of 
the poor and wounded which is the final component of our systematic 
alienation from personal existence.” He further points out that the poor are in fact the embodiment of Jesus. If only those who did not feel the same way that Fr. Kavanaugh did could work at Casa Juan Diego for one week. In the dark, scared, and weather-torn faces of these poor, immigrant men, one can readily see the face of Jesus: A Jesus who has been brutally wounded by man; A Jesus who has been stripped of both
possessions and dignity; A Jesus whom neither the law nor the courts
recognize as a legitimate person in our society; A Jesus who many times
 must rely on total faith in the Father for both physical and spiritual
 sustenance. This experience has allowed me to recognize the beauty of 
each resident as an image of the Jesus whom I serve. As such, the men,
whom society considers a commodity to exploit or an enemy to exterminate, can no longer be considered replaceable things, but in fact are the human embodiment of the divine. To exclude them and their oppressed condition is to exclude the Lord. Thus, if Jesus is in the 
poor, and it is in our response to the poor that we derive our “personhood,” then it is through Jesus that I can find meaning.

Upon the realization that I have encountered Jesus here in this sacred 
house, and knowing that Jesus is a reflection of who we ought to be, it 
is not far to suggest that I must face who Jesus wants me to be through 
my work with the poor. I also face what he wants me to do. It is 
interesting to note that Kavanaugh brings this issue to point in the
context of our own salvation. He points to Matthew 25 as the modality 
by which we will be judged on Judgment Day. We will be saved by God if we go out and save others. This counter-cultural prescription to 
eternal life with Jesus presents a very different world than the one in 
which I live and the one which attempts to define me. If I am to become
 who I was meant to be, I must follow a law which transcends the ebbs and flows of this world. I must follow the Jesuit ideal of a preferential 
option for the poor. By following this law, a whole new world structure
 emerges. In God’s world, which should be my world, strength is found in weakness, power is found in empathy, and courage is found in humility. Only through being actually poor in this experiment have I come to admire the poor whose radical beliefs place God over greed, family over finances, and morality over money.

Thus, in encountering the living God in the actual poor eyes, voices and 
hearts of the immigrants I serve, by placing myself with those who are 
actually poor, I come to see my own inadequacy while in the direct 
presence of Jesus. This presence evolves into a union between humanity 
and the divine which is rightfully considered the sacrament of the poor.

Christ in Voluntary Poverty

The importance of this sacrament, the sacrament of the poor, as a means 
to see and be Jesus in today’s world, is precisely the reason why those
 who are a part of the Catholic Worker Movement voluntarily vow a life of poverty (the other vows being pacifism and hospitality). Those who participate in this lay movement, under the original direction of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, live as Kavanaugh describes, a “counter-cultural Christian community” who serve the poor as poor. By doing so, they not only serve the poor, where Christ can be found, but they also are the poor, with whom Christ readily identifies. Thus their voluntary poverty provides a chance of serving Jesus as well as being Jesus.

As an efficacious sign of grace by which divine life is dispensed to us,
this sacrament of being poor as well as serving the poor, is an integral
 part of the Catholic Worker faith. Every Monday and Thursday at the 
Men’s House there is a meeting of men who are residing at “the Casa.”
 The most moving phrase of the meeting is the announcement of the price
for staying at Casa Juan Diego–yes, there is payment that is due. If
 any one of the men should see another person who needs help, and they
 can provide help for that person, then it is time to repay the help they 
have received by helping that other person. The medium of commerce is 
no longer money, but love and service. This generosity has provided
 what Kavanaugh calls “culture-transcending values.” These values, these Catholic values, do not belong to any specific culture, but in fact are above the limitations and reductions of any culture. As such, love and service via the Catholic Worker movement continue as current and
cutting-edge issues in today’s society, and the voluntary poverty oaths 
taken by the members eradicate the need to commodity the refugees of the house. Instead each person is seen as created in the image of a
”communitarian God,” which is to see “the Personal Form of human 
existence realized in Jesus Christ.”

According to Kavanaugh, voluntary poverty, which facilitates and in fact
 provides another dimension to the sacrament of the poor, also serves as
 an important stepping stone to the ultimate goal of spiritual poverty.
 Only through this sort of poverty can I relive my retreat-like freedom. 
In seeing and praying over the beauty of living as a poor man, and 
serving poor men, many of the constrictions and definitions of today’s 
society, including consumerism, become moot. As stated above, the new 
medium of exchange and self-definement becomes love and service, which replaces the old medium of money. When you have nothing, there is nothing to lose when you decide to let go of the social constrictions placed by modern culture and cling to God. Proof of the fact that God will never fail those who ultimately depend upon Him is the fact that I
 live in a house full of illegal immigrants that runs purely on donations
 and voluntary poverty. Further proof of God’s grace are the amazing and
 inspirational people He calls to serve the immigrants. The revolutionary holiness that these Catholic Workers follow and the voluntary poverty they vow have proved to me both in the mind and in the heart that poverty can be an exercise in freedom rather than the proffered limitation by which this culture sees it.

Christ in Spiritual Poverty

The most moving and emotional prayers during this experiment have been the times when I quietly walk into the chapel, fall onto my knees, and pray that God use me as He will. It makes no difference how, just as long as I can be with Him while I do what needs to be done. It is during these times that I realize both my limitations and incompletions, as well as the fact that with the relationship I have now with God and with Christ, I have never felt more complete. Because of seeing the actual poverty, because of living with those who live voluntary poverty, and because I have whole-heartedly embraced those two aspects in my life at Casa Juan Diego (and beyond), I can stand and witness with Kavanaugh to the fact that this sacrament with and of the poor is “an elevation, an exalting and celebration of the most intimately human aspects” of my life. It is an embrace of my own frailty and the realization that I am totally dependent upon God for everything, especially my own meaning and purpose. It is ultimately an embracing of my own true humanity as identified through my poverty, which connects me to the saving power of Jesus.

This acceptance of my “ontological poverty” rather than security or
 power is most readily realized when I pray and think about how I feel
 about myself and my God right now. I could not be happier, and more at
 peace than being an active Jesuit novice. My experience in being with the actual poor, in working with those living in voluntary poverty has brought me to a level of spiritual poverty not yet experienced. A level which Kavanaugh captures so well when he says, “It is only when I stand, without pretense, in my naked humanity, in my utter incapacity to earn love and worth, that I can hear the lover bestowing the free gift of love.”

The experience of poverty described in the above two sections have led 
to the inevitable realization that the recognition of my humanness is 
total dependence upon God, even to the point of giving me the grace to
 recognize this in the first place. Moreover, this recognition and lived 
experience has only confirmed the fact that I continue to grow in the
desire to have an intimate and singular relationship with Christ through
 the Society of Jesus. I bring my spiritual poverty and the Lord’s 
spiritual perfection together as a visible sign of relationship through 
the sacrament of the poor (actual/voluntary and spiritual).

In the end, it is this relationship, this freedom to be the imperfect 
beings that we are together with knowledge of the fact that our only
 true completeness lies with Christ, which is what Kavanaugh points to 
throughout his whole book, Still Following Christ in a Consumer Society. The fact that we are limited persons is most readily seen by our own poverty, both actual and voluntary, yet ironically enough, it is with and through this poverty that we see Christ, unite with Christ, and in
actuality, become Christ-like. This crazy and radical idea that we are
 people instead of things, and that our poverty and not our riches are
what truly make us both human and divine, is what “personhood” seems to be all about. Only in the “poverty of our being,” from actual to voluntary to spiritual, can we experience the freedom of loving a God who loves us so much.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XVII, No. 4, July-August 1997.