HAPPY ARE YOU POOR: THE SIMPLE LIFE AND SPIRITUAL
by Thomas Dubay, SM Ignatius Press, 2003 177 pages, $12.95 To order: (800) 651-1531 or http://www.ignatius.com
Most American cities east of the Mississippi have magnificent, century-old Catholic churches that were built with the quarters and dimes of Irish, Italian, German and Slavic immigrants. During the 1960s and ‘70s, the pulpits of these churches often resounded with rhetoric about a “preferential option for the poor” and the plight of Third World nations. Today, one by one, these solid, old churches in working-class neighborhoods (and the parochial schools that go with them) are being closed.
No one planned it that way. But, amid all the activism, something was overlooked. Marist Father Thomas Dubay suggests that it was the ideal of Gospel poverty.
The title of his book comes from Christ's Sermon on the Mount. The author's aim is “to present the faithful with a clear, systematic understanding of the New Testament doctrine on our use of material goods.” His approach is theological and spiritual rather than sociological.
The teaching that he proclaims is needed today even more than it was in 1981, when the first edition of the book appeared.
Writing after 15 years of post-conciliar ferment, Father Dubay begins by challenging the reader to ask the question: Is Gospel poverty for me? “This book is radical,” he writes. “It is not in the least exaggerated, however. Its contents are simple enough for a schoolboy to grasp, and yet most adults go to their graves without a real feel for it. The message is austere, but at the same time it bears tidings of great joy.”
The author then painstakingly describes what evangelical poverty is not: destitution, impractical other-worldliness, mere inner detachment. After the Second Vatican Council, retreat masters were sometimes heard trying to redefine poverty as respect for the environment or availability to others. “In this concept, a person is poor when he gives to others his person, his talents, his time,” writes Father Dubay. “While this self-donation is no doubt praiseworthy, solving problems by changing definitions is hardly an honorable procedure. If we are not living evangelical teaching, it is we who should change, not the teaching.”
Father Dubay offers no pat answers or surefire formulas. Instead he sets forth the Christian principles proclaimed in the Gospel and points to the example of Our Lord himself and to the lives of his saints. Lists of questions, resembling an examination of conscience, help the reader to think things over, and the author repeatedly advises taking difficulties to the Lord in prayer.
The concluding chapters especially make clear that self-denial is not an end in itself; a Christian empties himself so as to make room for God in his life.
This book's appeal is broad enough that it should find a hungry audience among Christians of all stations — young and old, married and single, clergy and religious. Anyone who is “yearning for the undiluted message of Christ,” as Father Dubay puts it, will find great benefit in these pages.
Although a few of the allusions to the 1970s and the descriptions of mortifications practiced by some saints may seem strange, the author succeeds admirably in explaining “why evangelical poverty is so beautiful and freeing an ideal.” You'd be hard-pressed to find a more suitable message for Lent.
Michael J. Miller writes from Glenside, Pennsylvania.