On Voluntary Poverty

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 28, Advent 2003
by Dorothy Day

This is the second half of the article reprinted from the May 1952 Catholic Worker. The first half appeared in the Easter 2003 Common Good.

First Efforts

I can remember our first efforts 19 years ago. We had no office, no equipment but a typewriter, which was pawned the first month. We wrote the paper on park benches and at the kitchen table. In an effort to achieve a little of the destitution of our neighbours we gave away our furniture and sat on boxes. But as fast as we gave things away people brought more. We gave away blankets to needy families, started our first house of hospitality and people gathered together what blankets we needed. We gave away food, and more food came in. I can remember a haunch of venison from the Canadian Northwest, a can of oysters from Maryland, a container of honey from Illinois. Even now it comes then, a salmon from Seattle, flown across the continent; nothing is too good for the poor. There is no one working with the Catholic worker getting a salary, so no one is bothered with income tax, and since all of the leaders of the work give up job and salary, others of our readers feel called upon to give, and help to keep the work going. And then we experience a poverty of another kind, a poverty of interior goods, of reputation. It is said often and with some scorn, ‘Why don’t they get jobs and help the poor that way? Why are they living off others, begging?’

It would complicate things, I can only explain, to give Roger a salary for his work of 14 hours a day in the kitchen, clothes room and house; to pay Jane a salary for running the women’s house; and Beth and Annabelle for giving out clothes, for making stencils all day and helping with the sick and the poor; and Bob and Tom for their work — and then have them all turned the money right back in to support the work. Or to make it more complicated, they might all go out and get jobs, and bring the money home to pay their board and room and the salaries of others to run the house. It is simpler just to be poor. It is simpler to beg. The thing to do is not to hold out on anything. That might smack of the Ananias and Saphira act.

Holding on

But the tragedy is that we do, we all do. We hold onto our books, our tools, such as typewriters, our clothes, and instead of rejoicing when they are taken away from us, we lament. We protest at people taking time or privacy. We are holding on to these goods. It is a good thing to remember.

Occasionally, as we start thinking of poverty, usually after reading the life of such a saint as Benedict Joseph Labre, we dream of going out on are solitary own, living with the destitute, sleeping on park benches or in the Shelter, living in churches, sitting before the Blessed Sacrament as we see so many doing, from the Municipal lodging house around the corner. And when these sorts come on warm spring days when the children are playing in the park, and it is good to be out on the city streets, we know that this is luxury too, and we are deceiving ourselves, and that it is the warm sun we want, and rest, and time to think and read, and freedom from the people that press in on us from early morning until late at night. No, it is not simple, this business of poverty.

‘True poverty is rare,’ a saintly priest writes to us from Martinique. ‘Nowadays communities are good, I am sure, but they are mistaken about poverty. They accept, admit on principle, poverty, but everything must be good and strong, buildings must be fireproof, precarity is rejected everywhere, and precarity is an essential of poverty. That has been forgotten. Here we want precarity in everything except the Church. These last days our refectory was near collapsing.

‘We have put in several supplementary poles and thus it will last maybe two or three years more. Someday it will fall on our heads and that will be funny. Precarity enables us to help the poor. When a community is always building, and enlarging, and embellishing, which is good in itself, there is nothing left over for the poor. We have no right to do so as long as there are slums and breadline somewhere.’

Over and over again in the history of the church, the Saints have emphasised poverty. Every community which has been started, has begun in poverty, and in incredible hardships and with the joyful acceptance on the part of this hardship by the rank and file priest and brother and nun were gave their youth and energy to good works. And the result has always been that the orders thrived, the foundation grew, property was extended till holdings and buildings were accumulated, and although there was still individual poverty, there was corporate wealth. It is hard to keep poor.

Blood of the poor

One way to keep poor of course is not to accept money which is the result of defrauding the poor. Here is a story of St Ignatius of Sardinia, a Capuchin just canonised last summer. Ignatius used to go out from his monastery with a sack to beg from the people of the town but he would never go up to a merchant who had built his fortune by defrauding the poor. Franchino, the rich man, fumed every time he passed his door, at being so neglected, though this perhaps seems even more unbelievable than the climax of the story. His concern, however, was not the loss of the opportunity to give alms, but the fear of public opinion. He complained at the Friary, whereupon the Father Guardian ordered St Ignatius to beg from the merchant the next time he went out.

‘Very well,’ said Ignatius, ‘if you would wish it, father, I will go, but I would not have the Capuchins dine on the blood of the poor.’

The merchant received Ignatius with great flattery and gave him generous alms, asking him to come again in the future. But hardly had Ignatius left the house with his sack on his shoulder then drops of blood began oozing from the sack. They trickled down Franchino’s doorstep and down through the streets to the monastery. Everywhere Ignatius went a trickle of blood followed him. When he arrived at the Friary he laid the sack at the Father Guardian’s feet. ‘What is this?’ gasped the Guardian. ‘This,’ said St Ignatius, ‘is the blood of the poor.’

Love of Money

This story was contained in the last column written by a great Catholic layman, a worker for social justice, FP Kenkle, always a friend of Peter Maurin, founder of the Catholic Worker. Mr Kenkle’s last comment was, that the universal crisis in the world today was because of love of money. ‘The present Egyptian crisis is but one scene in the great oriental drama that has been unfolding for the past years,’ he wrote. ‘The Far East and the Near East (and he might have said all Africa also), together constitute a great sack from which blood is oozing. The flow will not stoop as long as our interests in those people are dominated largely by financial and economic considerations.

‘Voluntary poverty,’ Peter Maurin would say, ‘is the answer.’ Through voluntary poverty we will have the means to help our neighbour. We cannot see our neighbour in need without stripping ourselves. It is the only way we have of showing our love.

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