A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 14 : The Spirit of Poverty

"Blessed are the poor in spirit."
Matt. 5: 3

Since we have treated of humility and meekness, it is fitting that we consider the virtues corresponding to the evangelical counsels. As we have already spoken of virginity in connection with chastity, it remains for us to explain how poverty and obedience cooperate in Christian perfection.

To attain perfection, man must practice the three counsels effectively: in other words, in the use of legitimate goods it is expedient that he retrench before reaching the limit of what is permitted, that he may not be led into excess. The effective practice of the three counsels, as we have seen, (1) is a road leading more easily, rapidly, and surely to perfection, which is reached in this way more often in the religious life than in the married state. However, Christian perfection does not consist essentially in the practice of the counsels; it is chiefly in charity.(2) Moreover, to reach perfection, one must have at least the spirit of the counsels, which is the spirit of detachment, as St. Paul says: "The time is short. It remaineth that they also who have wives be as if they had none; . . . and they that buy, as though they possessed not; and they that use this world, as if they used it not. For the fashion of this world passeth away." (3)

We shall discuss, first of all, the spirit of poverty, recommended to all by our Lord when He said: "Blessed are the poor in spirit."


The meaning of this evangelical beatitude is as follows: blessed are they who have not the spirit of wealth, its pomp, pride, insatiable avidity; but who have the spirit of poverty and are humble. Christ says: "For theirs is the kingdom of heaven"; not only will it be theirs later on, but in a sense it is theirs even now.

Voluntary poverty can be practiced either in the midst of the abundance of worldly goods, when the spirit is not attached to them, or in destitution when one bears it generously for love of God. The value of voluntary poverty may even appear to those who have not faith, because they see the disorders which arise from cupidity, the concupiscence of the eyes, the desire of riches, avarice, the excesses of capitalism, and the forgetfulness of the poor who are dying of hunger.

We must begin to detach ourselves from earthly goods in order to grasp clearly the following truth often uttered by St. Augustine and St. Thomas: "Contrary to spiritual goods, material goods divide men, because they cannot belong simultaneously and integrally to a number." (4) A number of persons cannot possess integrally and simultaneously the same house, the same field, the same territory; whence dissensions, quarrels, lawsuits, wars. On the contrary, spiritual goods, like truth, virtue, God Himself, can belong simultaneously and integrally to a number; many may possess simultaneously the same virtue, the same truth, the same God who gives Himself wholly to each of us in Communion.

Therefore, whereas the unbridled search for material goods profoundly divides men, the quest for spiritual goods unites them. It unites us so much the more closely, the more we seek these superior goods. And we even possess God so much the more, the more we give Him to others. When we give away money, we no longer possess it; when, on the contrary, we give God to souls, we do not lose Him; rather we possess Him more. And should we refuse to give Him to a person who asks for Him, we would lose Him.

Consequently to combat cupidity, the concupiscence of the eyes, the desire of riches, avarice, and the forgetfulness of the poor, our Lord counseled voluntary poverty, or detachment in regard to earthly goods which divide men. Christ leads us thus to desire keenly spiritual goods, which unite men.

The spirit of detachment is even necessary for the Christian that he may clearly understand the true meaning of the right of individual ownership instead of infringing on this right, which is often forgotten; interior souls should have a profound knowledge of it. As St. Thomas shows, the right of ownership is the right to acquire and to administer material goods; but in regard to their use, they must be given readily to those who are in need.(5)

St. Paul says: "Charge the rich of this world not to be high-minded nor to trust in the uncertainty of riches, but in the living God, who giveth us abundantly all things to enjoy: to do good, to be rich in good works, to give easily, to communicate to others, to lay up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on the true life." (6)

Such is the spirit of detachment; it should remind all of us of what St. Thomas says elsewhere: namely, that if a poor man in a case of extreme necessity asks for a piece of bread and is refused, he may take it, and not be guilty of theft. He has a right to it in order not to die of hunger. A man's life is clearly worth more than a piece of bread which we have not the right to retain jealously if one of our brothers is in absolute need of it.

It is a precept that a man should give alms from his superfluity that he may aid him who is in grave necessity.(7) What has been said of a piece of bread should be said of clothing and necessary shelter. There must be a return to the spirit of evangelical poverty in order to combat today the abuses of capitalism which exasperate the laborer who is out of work and unable to feed his children. Scripture tells us: "Whilst the wicked man is proud, the poor is set on fire." (8) The rich man, far from being a monopolist, should administer the goods given by God in such a way that the poor profit in regard to what is necessary. Then man no longer lives under the reign of covetousness and jealousy, but under the dominion of God.(9)

It is fitting today to recall these elementary truths even when speaking of the progress of the interior life, for the grave disturbances and perils of modern society require that we consider these truths from a higher point of view and that we put them into practice with a great spirit of faith and detachment. This is the true remedy for two extreme deviations which are mutually contradictory: the abuses of capitalism and the excesses of communism, two contrary disorders springing from a materialistic conception of human life and from forgetfulness of the Gospel.(10) The value of voluntary poverty is brought out by these very disorders, which are disturbingly serious.

The value of detachment appears in a more positive way when we remember the true goods we should ardently desire. Christ tells all of us what they are, and interior souls should have a deeper understanding of His teaching: "Be not solicitous for your life, what you shall eat, nor for your body, what you shall put on. Is not the life more than the meat, and the body more than the raiment? Behold the birds of the air, for they neither sow, nor do they reap, . . . and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they? Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you. Be not therefore solicitous for tomorrow; for the morrow will be solicitous for itself. Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof."(11)

The spirit of detachment thus leads us to a stronger desire for the goods of heaven and to reliance on the help of God to reach the end of the journey. Voluntary poverty and confidence in God go hand in hand; the more detached man is from earthly goods, the more he desires those of heaven; and the less he relies on human helps, the more he places his confidence in God's help. Thus confidence in God is the soul of holy poverty. All Christians should have the spirit of this counsel.

Since we are considering the effective practice of voluntary poverty, let us recall the answer our Lord gave to the rich young man who wished to know the surest road to perfection. Christ answered him: "Go, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor; and thou shalt have treasure in heaven. And come, follow Me. Who being struck sad at that saying, went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions." (12) He preferred to keep them rather than to follow our Lord and win souls, rather than to become a "fisher of men" like the apostles.

The effective practice of voluntary poverty is of counsel; it is not obligatory; but to be perfect one must have at least the spirit of the counsel, the spirit of detachment in the midst even of riches, if one keeps them.

St. Francis de Sales (13) develops this teaching, saying that voluntary poverty is a great good, but one which is little known; that it is a principle of happiness; that it must be observed in the midst of wealth and also in real poverty, if we should happen to lose everything.

Now if you love the poor, be often in their company, be glad to see them in your house, and to visit them in theirs. Converse willingly with them, be pleased to have them near you in the church, in the streets, and elsewhere. . . . Make yourself then a servant of the poor: go and serve them in their beds when they are sick. . . at your own expense. . . . This service is more glorious than a kingdom.. . . St. Louis frequently served at table the poor whom he supported, and caused three poor men to dine with him almost every day, and many times ate the remainder of their food with an incomparable love. When he visited the hospitals, . . . he commonly served. . . such as had the most loathsome diseases, kneeling on the ground, respecting in their persons the Savior of the world. . . . St. Elizabeth, daughter of the King of Hungary, often visited the poor. . . . But should you meet with losses which impoverish you. . . as in the case of tempests, fires, inundations, . . . lawsuits, then is the proper season to practice poverty. . . with meekness. . . and patience.(14)

St. Francis de Sales adds that truly Christian poverty should be gay, and that he who has chosen it should not seek his comfort, but should suffer some discomforts for the love of God; otherwise, how would this virtue be for him a means of union with God? The examples of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, and St. Benedict Joseph Labre, show us to what close union with God this virtue can lead us when practiced for love of God.


St. Thomas (15) tells us that Christ willed to be poor for four reasons: (I) because voluntary poverty is fitting for the preacher, who should be freed from the care of earthly goods; (2) because He wished to show that He desires only the salvation of souls; (3) that He might lead us to desire especially eternal goods; (4) that divine power which saves souls might stand forth more clearly in the absence of human helps. This is also the reason why Christ chose poor fishermen of Galilee as His apostles. Thus is demonstrated the fruitfulness of voluntary poverty; it is the hundredfold promised by Christ.

In the first place, the spirit of poverty frees us from excessive preoccupation about exterior goods, which are then no longer an obstacle in our progress toward God, but a means of doing good. Thus delivered, the Christian may run the way of perfection; he no longer thinks of settling down on earth as if he were to remain there always, for he understands that he is there only temporarily. He is no longer embarrassed, as it were, by useless baggage in his journey toward eternity; aware of being a traveler, a viator, he aspires to reach his last end without delay. His pace is even quickened, becomes ever more rapid, because he is always more drawn by the last end in proportion as he approaches it.

In the second place, voluntary poverty is a sign of disinterestedness, particularly necessary for an apostle; for it should be evident he has no interest but that of winning souls for our Lord, as St. Dominic told the prelates who arrived in Languedoc with a whole suite to preach the Gospel to people seduced by the errors of the Albigenses. These prelates understood then that they should preach
first by example, by true detachment; and they sent away their retinue.

In the third place, voluntary poverty is materially fruitful in a degree that sometimes borders on the miraculous. To see this fact, one need only visit certain convents dedicated to the care of the poor, such as the homes of the Little Sisters of the Poor, or the piccola casa of St. Joseph Cottolengo in Turin, "a little house" which shelters ten thousand indigent sick, and which subsists only on the alms received from day to day. It is like a perpetual miracle worked by divine Providence in response to the trust of the holy founder and his sons, who understood the profound meaning of Christ's words: "Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you." (16) These servants of the poor live by the supernatural contemplation of this truth and by its practice.

Fourthly, more admirable still is the spiritual fruitfulness of the spirit of poverty. It teaches us patience, humility, detachment in regard to higher goods, to all that is not God and the love of God, that is, in respect to the goods of the intellect, of the heart, and of certain goods of the soul.

The goods of the intellect are our knowledge, our talents if we have any. In study we must know how to avoid curiosity, vainglory, useless natural eagerness; how to place this study truly at the service of God, detaching ourselves from our own lights, from our excessively personal views. If we do this, the Lord will in this case also give us the hundredfold: a superior simplicity, that of true contemplation, which forgets itself in order to lose itself in its object. St. Albert the Great practiced this spirit of poverty in respect to the immense learning he had acquired. He was told that he would lose the use of his memory; this took place, and during the rather long period of life that was left to him, he remained as if completely absorbed in the contemplation of God. In place of the acquired learning that he had lost, he received a very superior treasure, a lofty degree of infused contemplation that he might live most profoundly by the mysteries of salvation.

The goods of the heart are our affections, and also the affection full of esteem and confidence that others show us. We must live in a certain detachment in regard even to these goods that we may not fall into sentimentalism. We must not cling to being loved, esteemed; we must also consecrate our legitimate affections to God, placing them under the influx of true charity, which will reveal to us what a treasure is a truly supernatural friendship that is wholly generous. It is a great gift of God, which He occasionally grants to those who have renounced all.

Finally, the spirit of poverty also teaches us to practice detachment from certain goods of the soul, that is, spiritual consolations. They must certainly not be sought for themselves; were this done, they would cease to be a means of progress toward God and would become an obstacle. We must consent to be weaned from them when the Lord judges it to be for our good. Following the advice of St. Grignion de Montfort, many interior souls strip themselves of all that is communicable to others in their prayers and good works and entrust it to the Blessed Virgin that she may use it to the best advantage of souls on earth or in purgatory in greatest need of it. By this denudation the Christian prepares himself for a higher spiritual poverty, which is a great gift of God and recalls the destitution of Christ on the cross, abandoned by His people, by many of His own, and to all appearances abandoned by His Father. Interior souls find this higher spiritual poverty in the last purification which St. John of the Cross calls the dark night of the soul. Victim souls experience more profoundly than others this absolute stripping of themselves and this immolation which configures them to Christ that they may obtain the salvation of sinners.

Thus, in different degrees, the spirit of poverty and still more voluntary poverty effectively practiced for love of God, enrich the Christian while stripping him and obtain the hundredfold for him. Such is the lofty meaning of the evangelical beatitude: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."


With St. Thomas (17) we must add that it is more meritorious to perform a good act with a vow than without, and this for three reasons: (I) because the vow is an act of the virtue of religion, or of the worship of latria. This virtue is the most noble of the moral virtues; hence it renders more meritorious the acts of poverty, chastity, and obedience which it inspires, commands, and offers to God as a holocaust.

Moreover, charity itself inspires the vow; it is made out of love and is a true testimony of love that is at times highly meritorious. If anyone greatly loves another, he places himself at the other's service out of affection. Thus the soul that wishes to love God greatly places itself forever at His service out of love, binding itself to Him by a vow. It has been objected that he who is already closely united to God through charity, the highest of the virtues, does not find an additional perfection in binding himself to God by a vow. If he is already a friend, he does not have to become a servant; so much so that our Lord said: "I will not now call you servants. . . . But I have called you friends." The answer to this objection is that he who loves God finds an additional perfection in placing himself through love at God's service for his entire life.(18)

St. Thomas adds two other reasons: (2) he who promises God a succession of good works and accomplishes them subjects himself more to God than if he accomplished them without having promised them. Thus he who gives the tree and its fruits offers more than if he offered only the fruits while retaining possession of the tree. (3) Lastly, by the vow the will is immutably fixed in the good, which is an additional perfection.

Consequently it is evident that the vows of religion, especially perpetual and solemn vows, add to the acts of poverty, chastity, and obedience, an additional merit, that of the virtue of religion, which is itself offered to God as worship by charity that inspires all the other virtues. The soul consecrated to the Lord thus belongs more intimately to Him.



1. Cf. Vol. I, chap. 13.

2. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 184, a.3.

3.Cf. I Cor. 7:29-31.

4. St. Thomas, IIIa, q. 23, a. I ad 3um: "Spiritual goods can be possessed by many at the same time; not so material goods." Cf. Ia IIae, q.28, a.4 ad 2um.

5. Cf. IIa IIae, q.66, a.2: "Two things are competent to man in respect to exterior things. One is the power to procure and dispense them, and in this regard it is lawful for man to possess property. . . . The second thing that is competent to man with regard to external things is their use. In this respect man ought to possess external things, not as his own, but as common, so that, to wit, he is ready to communicate them to others in their need (I Tim. 6:17f.)." Cf. Ia IIae, q.105, a.2, c.

6. Cf. I Tim. 6: 17-19.

7. Cf. IIa IIae, q.32, a.5.

8. Ps. 10 (according to the Hebrews): 2.

9. His Holiness, Pius XI, points out in one of his encyclicals that the Lord distributes temporal goods to the good and the bad with holy indifference. Temporal goods have in reality no value in themselves; their worth lies in the use that is made of them in view of eternal life.

10. The saints have often said that love is an act by which cupidity retrenches its superfluity so that others may have what is necessary. . . . The Incarnation of the Word is the example of compassion.

These thoughts often recur in the Imitation de la vie pauvre de Notre Seigneur, a work attributed to Tauler, and in his authentic sermons.

11. Matt. 6: 25-34.

12. Mark 10:21 f.

13. Introduction to a Devout Life, Part III, chaps. 14-16.

14. Ibid., chap. 15.

15. Cf. IIIa, q.40, a.3; q.35, a.7.

16. Matt. 6:33.

17. Cf. IIa IIae, q.88, a.6.

18. This superior influence of love is manifested also in the fact that interior worship excels exterior worship. It is more perfect to offer God our acts of faith, hope, and love, than exterior acts. The theological virtues inspire the virtue of religion, which through love thus renders the worship due to God. Cf. IIa IIae, q.81, a.5 ad 1um.