A Poor Church for the Poor
In the short time he has been Servant of the Servants of God, Pope Francis has been a consistent topic of conversation between family and friends of mine. Most of his actions and words, relayed initially via social media, news reports or magazine articles, are then carefully dissected and distributed for analysis. It seems like some sort of guessing game where those of us who are interested are trying hard to anticipate the shape of Pope Francis’ pontificate. I notice that my small group is not alone in doing this.
The one phrase that jumped right out and caught the imagination of most of us was his initial claim: “Oh how I would like a Church that is poor and for the poor.”
There are many ways to read that phrase. Some of my friends and family immediately celebrated that the Corporal and Spiritual works of Mercy, Social Justice and Catholic Social Teaching were being promoted. Some were excited to see the reaffirmation of the beloved Saint Francis’ Lady Poverty and hoped of papal leadership measured by deep humility and holiness that would open up spaces (and hearts) in the Church. Still others were hearing renewed calls to asceticism, prayer, poverty of spirit and an impassioned love for Christ.
I have no doubt that on some level all these things are correct. In fact, the more he preaches and comments in public, the more his older writings and actions come to light, it is clear that Pope Francis has a strong commitment to serve the poor, to a deepened prayer life, to humility and to a constant pursuit of conversion out of love for Christ.
When I am asked, though, what I think the pope means when he says he wants a “poor church for the poor,” I hope he is thinking about his vocation and calling to the Jesuits and that he is thinking about poverty as a Jesuit does.
Immediately after offering this hope, I can already hear the jokes about Jesuits and poverty rising. As Father James Martin explains in his book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything:
The most popular joke about Jesuit poverty is this: A first year novice is visiting a large Jesuit community during a big celebration of the feast day of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, on July 31, usually an occasion for grand dinners. The novice spies the immense dining room, the tastefully appointed tables, the flower vases and the filet mignon ready on the table and announces, “If this is poverty, bring on chastity.”
Humor, however, is not my main goal in expressing my hope. Instead, I am thinking of the central text of formation for all Jesuits, The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Written in the 16th century, The Spiritual Exercises include various methods of prayer such as the examination of conscience, silent prayer, movement of the body and visualizations of biblical scenes or of holy persons. Exercises intended to train one for a very specific purpose. Not to have a wonderful experience of God. Not to seek some version of holiness. Not to fit a template, some Procrustean bed of Christianity through twisted forms of asceticism. Not to chase some utopian dream of earthly peace and justice. These are all shadow sides of the goal for Jesuits. These all arise as temptations along the way, idols that can be worshiped if one’s intent is not clear.
The intent of The Exercises is, according to Ignatius, “the overcoming of self and the ordering of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.” An overcoming of self. A letting go. A training in complete offering of one’s whole being with no attachment to anything that can stop worship of, service to and love of God. This is Jesuit poverty that filters into the vows that Jesuits take, the rules they follow. Jesuit poverty is a poverty of mind. And while this is not as flashy or as well-known as other aspects of Christian vows of poverty, it is essential to living a Christian life.
It is a poverty of mind that allows for Encounter. Letting the self be overcome, one notices The One Who Will Not Go Away. “All actual life is encounter,” Martin Buber reminds us in his magisterial work I and Thou and in poverty of mind, when one lets go of the self that interprets and understands and controls, one encounters the Thou to which my life is directed. The silence, solitude and stillness — poverty of mind — allows for the graced revelation of something beyond the self.
This Jesuit poverty of mind begins with the imagination. The imagination has the ability to hold contraries together and open up space in knowledge allowing for insight and for the whole mind to be engaged in certain ways with the bible, with Christ, and with the world. Often, when discussing the imagination, the creative moment is the focus and what is missed is the destructive one. In imagining, one playfully and gently deconstructs what is for what could be. There are moments, lifetimes actually, of space and silence in imagination and the genius of Ignatius is to allow one to quietly participate in the overcoming of the self.
In participating, one discovers an inversion of intention. At the start, the one performing the spiritual activities is intending the actions and thoughts but at some point that inverts. In other words, one starts off performing The Exercises, but is ultimately performed by them. One does not read texts, but one is read by them. One does not encounter but instead is encountered. One does not imagine but is instead imagined. It is because the one performing The Exercises meets Christ — the person where divinity and humanity, grace and nature, thinking and revelation meet. And it is in this meeting the goal of poverty of mind is made clear.
The goal of poverty of mind, this encounter through imagination that leads to an inverted intention, is all meant to lead to the ultimate goal: contemplation. Contemplation in the Christian tradition is the gift of silent prayer in deep union with God. For Ignatius and all Jesuits, though, contemplation is not understood as simply union with God in some sort of blissful ecstatic experience that reifies the self and the self’s goals of holiness and utopian joy. Contemplation is finding God in all things, and responding to God in the world. Contemplation is a running toward the world and not away from it toward some creation of our minds. It is a training in continuously being poor in mind that allows us to notice that all of Reality is held in being by an immense Love and we wish to engage it in every person and place we see. It leads to a deep humility and holiness, as well as solidarity with those who suffer injustice and material poverty It is a total transfiguration of our minds and our lives.
And it is this type of Jesuit poverty — a poverty of mind — that I hope Pope Francis is speaking of when he dreams of a poor church for the poor.