He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Monday, September 19, 2016

Love it to Death: The Poverty of Love

I recently attended a presentation on Saint Theresa of Calcutta given by a Franciscan friar who had actually been to visit the Missionaries of Charity and work with them as they served the poorest of the poor.  When I speak of the poorest of the poor, this is not hyperbole.  These are elderly people left to die in their own filth, starving children, and abandoned female babies not deemed valuable enough to try to feed or care for in any way.

They have no government aid, a dearth of economic opportunities that makes our unemployment problem in the U.S. look pretty positive by comparison, and the same grinding hopelessness that poor people in the U.S. often face as they realize that they will probably never be able to work their way out of poverty.  Such abject material conditions as we would consider too inhumane for our worst criminal offenders are their normal way of life.

These situations certainly require our diligent attention, and we should indeed be loving these neighbors of ours just as much as we love ourselves.  We should also find efficient systematic ways to help them materially: to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those who are sick and imprisoned.  Whether it's the Catholic monks and nuns or atheists engaging in what's called effective altruism, we should be working to give away our excess wealth in a way that benefits those in greater need than we are.

At the same time, the demands of love do not stop at providing material help via rationally-devised efficient systems.  We are called to an even greater love than this, to lay down not just our resources and time, but also our hearts and minds, for all those who are impoverished.  And sometimes, those who are impoverished aren't just lacking material resources; they're lacking the unconditional love of another human being who listens to them, talks to them, and holds them in their heart, their mind, and even their arms.

These people are not just facing a poverty of food, water, and shelter; they are also facing a poverty of love, which may be the worst poverty of all.  The poor man who was robbed, beaten, and left for dead before the Good Samaritan found him was materially poor after the incident, but that wasn't the only poverty he faced while lying in the dirt, clinging to life.  The Levite and the priest passed him by, moving to the other side of the road, withdrawing from him leaving him to fend for himself when he was most vulnerable.

They did not show him the love of a neighbor, the love Jesus called us to when he taught us who our neighbors are by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.  It was the Good Samaritan who first saw him with the eyes of love, then bandaged his wounds, lifted him up, and carried him to safety, bearing his weakness without complaint.  And the Good Samaritan didn't stop there; his love drew him to stay with the poor man and to draw others into caring for him as well.

This is the model of Mother Theresa and the Missionaries of Charity: first love them and try to heal the worst of their wounds, then stay with them as long as you can to alleviate their poverty of love and take care of their material well-being.

When you choose to tend the poverty of love or the poverty of materials being suffered by our least brothers and sisters, tend first to their poverty of love and then to their material poverty.  Enter into their poverty first, showing them the true compassion of love by bearing their sufferings with them, and then alleviate that suffering as best you can.

To do this is a charity that is the charity of Christ, the love that isn't the love of the body alone, or the mind alone, or the heart alone, or the will alone; it's the love that gives all that we are to those who need the help of our bodies to lift them up, the help of our minds to walk with them on the search for truth, the help of our hearts to feel joys and sufferings in communion with one another, and the strength of our will to keep them climbing the ladder of divine ascent along with us.

We are called to empty ourselves of our selfishness completely, giving everything we are to enrich those who experience the poverty of love.  We are called to visit the elderly who have no one left to visit them, remember those who are both forgetful and forgotten, meet with the runaways and the abandoned, those who are lost in the crowd and those who hide from love because they don't believe they are worth it.

We are called to tend to the sick and dying with our hands, our hearts, and our minds because they are people, actual and whole.  They are far more than mere bodies to bandage.  They are more than merely a mind in isolation or a heart that is broken.   Part of the poverty of love is only being loved in part rather than as a whole.  Oh, how we ache to be loved fully and to give love just as fully as we receive it!

We are called to love our least brothers and sisters totally, with all the strength of body and mind, heart and will.  We bring to bear all the faculties of the soul when we love our neighbor as Christ loved us, holding nothing back just as He held nothing back.  He was born in poverty, lived in poverty, and died utterly impoverished so that we might have the riches of eternal life.  This was the poverty of Love, shown to us as an example of how to participate in divine love.

Just as Love Himself was pierced with a lance for the love of the world, so too we who would follow him will be pierced by the lance of divine love, taking up our cross and following in the way of poverty.  This poverty of Love is the result of giving all that we are to those made in His image and likeness, seeing Christ in them and being merciful to them just as Christ is merciful to them.

In the same way that we should not leave the least brothers and sisters of Christ impoverished, lacking in the love that God pours out upon us so generously, so too we should pour out our love upon Christ with all our heart, all our mind, and all the strength of our body.  This will empty of us of our selfishness, leaving us in the poverty of Love.

It is in the material poverty born of loving others sacrificially that we become rich in the greater tenders of love, compassion, and mercy.  In the poverty of love, we become more clearly an icon of Love, reflecting the light of divine love into the world ever more brilliantly as we become increasingly impoverished for the sake of Love.

In the poverty of love, our plate is empty because we have given our food to the hungry, our cup is empty because we have poured ourselves out for the love of another, and yet our hearts are full and our souls sing because Love always returns to give us the Bread of Life and the Wine of Salvation.

The Poverty of Love is the ultimate treasure, and the Cross marks the spot where it's buried, waiting for us to make the sacrifices necessary to reach it and find the true riches of Love.

Note: The above is an image of The Good Samaritan by French artist Aimé Morot (1880).


  1. We had some wonderful conversations that evening at the Friar's presentation, Sam. I have a lot of trouble sometimes when I see those who are the weakest in the worldly sense, such as children, suffering from the poverty of love. To be honest it makes me quite angry--and at some moments, my anger even turns toward the Lord. Then, when I stomp off to give God a beating down, I find that they've already nailed Him to the Cross. They've already done even worse things to God than I had in mind, so there's nothing more that I can do to Him. He is in the middle of the very worst part of our sufferings. Then I can only stand shamefaced in the stark realization that even my anger is tinted with self-righteousness. For can I truly say that I've truly given all to help those who suffer from the poverty of Love? Christ entered into their poverty fully--all we can do is join our sufferings to His, though they will always pale in comparison. The poverty of Love will not change until we who call ourselves Christians are just as zealous in showing radical, self-giving love as bloodthirsty men are at destroying human life.

    There is one piece of the problem of pain that troubles me more than the rest of it. The worst part of it is not that children/innocents suffer. As bad as suffering is, we know from experience that it can (at certain quantities and intensities) teach us patience, empathy, etc. What I have trouble with is that so many children are taught by their parents/guardians that evil is good (violence is a good way of solving problems, sexual exploitation is okay, etc), or even that they worthless or second-rate because of the sins of their parents. It is difficult to imagine a lot of good coming out of spending one's childhood under such extensive brainwashing. These children are exactly the ones who need someone to enter into their poverty of love, but they also the ones who are liable (in many cases) to be farthest from the doors of the Church. They are also the hardest to love, because they are liable to behave in quite unlovable ways as we reach out to them. Still, we must go and love them anyhow, with the strength that Christ gives. As C.T. Studd wrote:

    “Some want to live within the sound
    Of church or chapel bell;
    I want to run a rescue shop,
    Within a yard of hell.”