Happy are the poor

"As I walked through a couple of stores, Christmas decorations were already up. The store environments were screaming at customers, “Buy! Buy! Buy!” It is curious that the day that marks the birth of Jesus has become a day, indeed a season, that emphasizes commodity form living to an extreme."      Fr. Brennan: Advent homily.

Critique of the consumer society

Our consumer culture persistently teaches that we can counter insecurity by buying our way to self-esteem and loveworthiness. The pervasive message, passed on in popular media, advertising and celebrity-modeling, is that we will feel better about ourselves if we are surrounded by symbols of worth.

Donald Trump may be only the most prominent example of our quandary: the more we try to ground our identities in external possessions or triumphs, the more we plaster our names on everything we can accumulate, the more we cling to surface and style, the less we find underneath.

A Princeton study of the late 1980s found that one in four young teenage girls reported herself as being "extremely depressed." Oddly, the more time they spend on shopping, hairstyling, and applying makeup, the more depressed they get.

The flight from the solitary personal self haunts our compulsion to work, our urgency to produce. We often seem incapable of living in the present moment while paradoxically we feel robbed of time... We have devised marvelous stratagems to save, borrow, manage, lose, beat, and kill time, but we avoid personally living in it.

There have been a lot of jokes made about the number of marriages that go on the rocks because people would rather sit in front of a computer terminal than spend time with their spouses, but it's no joke..."People are having substitute relationships with their cars, computers, VCRs and bank accounts."

From John Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society, p. 4-8

In 2011, the average American spent $646 on holiday gifts. In 2012, it is expected that the average American will be spending $854 in gifts.  In 2012 American parents planned to spend an average of $271 per child in Christmas gifts. One in 10 parents planned to spend over $500 per child.

A Waiting Time: Finding Joy in Solitary Confinement

The Church teaches us that Advent is a “waiting time.” For many years I felt that my life as a monk from 1985 to 1990 had given me insight into this season. However, my sense of its power deepened last fall, when two students of mine ended up in solitary confinement. In 2007 I founded Saint Louis University’s college-in-prison program at a maximum-security prison in Bonne Terre, Missouri. I had been working with these two men for six years, and knew them to be of exemplary character. Paul began my first course at the prison as a Wiccan (and over the last few years has returned to his evangelical faith). Timothy was already a deeply committed Christian who had taught himself New Testament Greek. Getting to know them and their fellow students at Bonne Terre has been the highlight of my teaching career.

When I got the news that they were in the hole, I was deeply concerned about their health and their psychological wellbeing. I learned that all eight men who worked in the chaplain’s office had been sent to the “administrative segregation” unit because one of them had been burning music onto CDs, using the chaplain’s computer, and selling them on the prison’s black market. Prison policy mandates that when something like this is discovered, everyone from the work site goes to solitary until the investigation is completed (usually about 30 days). This created an added hardship for Paul and Timothy, because they were just starting their third week of a class they had waited for with great anticipation: my colleague, Professor Daniel Smith, was teaching an introduction to the New Testament.

During the weeks that followed I waited with a mixture of concern and dread. Having visited the administrative segregation wing for just a few minutes, I could not imagine surviving a day, much less a month. While one of our other students (from the course we offer to prison staff at Bonne Terre) was able to deliver their homework and return their assignments, little news came back to me about their condition. I expected the worst. They had not committed an offense. They suffered because of the actions of another. That would have been a torment for me, quite apart from the conditions that they had to endure.

Toward the end of that 30 day period, I brought a visiting British professor to the prison to do a reading from his book on his years of teaching in British prisons. As we walked into the Visitors Center, I found Paul and Timothy waiting to greet me. They looked healthy(!) and they had beaming faces. I expressed shock that they had been released early and asked them about their weeks in the hole. Paul responded, “Nothing beats reading the Epistles in solitary.” During the years I had gotten to know them, I had urged these men to live big lives in small spaces. What they taught me that day was deeper and more profound. I learned from them that joy may be found in the waiting time … even in solitary confinement.

Kenneth Parker, kennethlparker@gmail.com
Saint Louis University

The Needy have hope

Holy poverty has been a wellspring of God’s mercy in my life, not something I seek, but the way God breaks into my narrow, materialistic life to teach me His ways. Three examples, if I may.

When I began graduate studies in 2002, I took a room at Christmas time in a two-bedroom apartment in a high rise in a fairly nice neighborhood near DC, with a couple from El Salvador who worked as janitors in the building. They ate maza and beans breakfast, noon, and evening, gave neighbors knocking the door free access to what little was in the kitchen, and sent any rent money I gave them home to relatives. Seven relatives moved into the living room at one point (two parents and five children). My roommates lost their jobs. All the adults began working at a “factory,” leaving at 6 am to stand at the corner to be picked up by a boss, and returning after 6 at night, leaving their three year-old home all day alone. Friday nights, the boss would arrive looking for his cut, and I would hear the blows, the screams and tears when, I supposed, not enough money was given him. All this when I spent my days about a mile away at a Catholic university with religious order seminarians dining out at restaurants while posting selfies together, and taking plane trips here and there, once to see the pope overseas at a youth day.

Not long before that, during a bout of illness, I was in bed for several months and not able to work. Fearing the loss of my apartment, I posted a room for rent ad at the local hospital community board. I was upset with the Lord for my illness as I wanted to travel and evangelize …The next day a visiting gynecologist arrived from Asia, needing a room for 6 months. I welcomed her to stay, but told her that I was prolife. She immediately burst into tears, telling me she was in charge of a depo provera campaign in six countries. Many of the patients suffered bleeding, were given D&Cs and died after suffering perforated uteruses and without necessary antibiotics. She had contacted American doctors in charge of the campaign who told her not to worry, that thinning uteruses were a result of the depo but that these were acceptable losses. She told me she had become a doctor because of her grandfather, a Muslim psychiatrist, who was revered as a holy man because he healed his patients by having them come to live with him. She felt she had betrayed his legacy. At the end of her stay in the US she was required to attend a conference. She told the large crowd that it was not a question of Islam but of development. They had no roads, clean water, or antibiotics, but rather closets filled with dangerous abortifacients. Several diplomats quietly thanked her for speaking out. Radical Islam has now taken over her region.

Just a few weeks ago, I was working for a conference and staying in a hotel room paid for by conference organizers. Facing layoffs at the small nonprofit where I worked, I prayed after one talk that the Lord would give me an increase in the virtue of hope. I went upstairs to my room to lie down for a few minutes, and saw on my pillow a beautiful rainbow reflected from the window… I remembered the words of scripture that Our Lord had no place to lay His Head, and felt great comfort in knowing He walks with me always, along with Lady Poverty.

My sister took a photo of the pillow and it is attached. Merry Christmas, Everybody!

The needy have hope, and iniquity closes its mouth.” Job 5:16
Clare McGrath-Merkle, OCDS, cmm4@verizon.net

Christmas came early this year

At the beginning of this academic year my seventeen-year-old son reported that life at school was more difficult than previous years. These were not the usual teen year problems. Each day he faced multiple collisions (body slams and books flying) in the hallway between classes. He strained to see the smart board displays. His vision would unexpectedly shut down and he would have to stop and wait until it came back. He often could not finish homework because by early evening his eyes could not focus on his computer screen or printed pages. Things were changing for him, and he had to make adjustments. He started using a white cane, made special arrangements with teachers for homework assignments, and made greater use of audiobooks.

His visual impairment had been diagnosed when he was five, and we had been warned that changes might come in his late teens. Still—in the long “waiting time” he has gotten on with life, and grown into a young man full of ability and ambition. He built his first high performance computer last summer. His robotics team designed and constructed a robot that won local awards and will move on to the state competition this spring. His school’s IT department wants to hire him as a student worker this spring. He is maintaining his 4.0 average. He is also just a pleasant guy with a great sense of humor.

The first week of Advent we went for a low vision evaluation offered by Lighthouse for the Blind. I expected the usual thing: lots of questions and a series of tests that would result in a list of suggestions for how to manage life with low vision. We had been through similar experiences before. But this encounter was different, leaving us both dazed and profoundly confused. A cheery doctor sat down with us and explained that she had identified more than a dozen devises that would help my son manage his new normal: an Ipad loaded with apps that would assist him with mobility and orientation, and link up with the smart board displays at school; several devices for distance vision and one that would expand his peripheral range of vision; and an impressive machine that not only magnified any printed text put under it, but also could read the text to him as well. In other words, she was recommending thousands of dollars of equipment that I could not afford. To my bewilderment, the doctor smiled and said, “We will let you know when the equipment comes in, and will come to your home and school for installation and training.” I was speechless and more than a little emotional. The doctor smiled again and said, “I love this job.”
Christmas came early this year!

Kenneth L. Parker,
Saint Louis, MO 63108

The Tin Man: A Parable on Poverty

My mother was quite a character. She would be what we would today call the obsessive-compulsive type, especially when it came to her rock garden, Christmas decorations, and housecleaning. One Easter, when the television station aired “The Wizard of Oz” my mother made her admiration known for the Tin Man. And soon it was done. He stood about six-feet tall, and had long metal pipes for arms and legs. His limbs had been welded to his torso. He had a frying pan for a face, on which were welded two large wing nuts for eyes.
The neighbors complained – a lot – and mother was requested at a Town Hall meeting to take Tin Man down. My mother lost all interest in the rock garden after the demise of the Tin Man; her spirit had been crushed. I found it twenty years later under a basement staircase, dented and rusty beyond repairs.

* * *
While serving food to the homeless I heard a woman in our volunteer group making snide comments like, “Look at THOSE people.” “Why don’t they get JOBS?” “That’s his third time up here. We’re only supposed to serve them ONCE!”
Dorothy Day once stated that “the mystery of the poor is this: that they are Jesus, and what you do for them you do for Him. It is the only way we have of knowing and believing in our love. The mystery of poverty is that by sharing in it, making ourselves poor in giving to others, we increase our knowledge of and belief in love.”
* * *
In pausing to reflect on the plight of the Tin Man, it dawns upon me that the people who are homeless and impoverished really have a lot in common with him. Although the poor may seem dirty, wearing clothing that is tattered and old, there is a precious metal inside of all of them, an utter desire to be loved completely, which is why the Lord calls us to serve others with kindness and compassion. Society also tries to lock the poor and homeless away like the Tin Man because they are perceived as ugly or worthless. However, we must not forget Dorothy Day’s views on the “mystery of poverty,” and why we are all called to love our neighbors as Jesus commanded.

Robert P. Russo, russo.robertp@gmail.com
The complete version of the Parable on Poverty can be found in A Life Remembered: The Conversion, Radicalism, and Mysticism of Dorothy Day, to be self-published in 2015.

Reply to Robert:

I was struck by your parable of the Tin Man.  You tried to relate it to poverty.  However, it struck me as the killing of the human spirit, especially of your mother. The defeat of your mother is what happens to a lot of us humans.  The Tin Man had no feelings, but your mother did. 

Many of those poor people you helped may have suffered some human defeat in their lives that they never recovered from.  It might have been the loss of a loved one, mental or physical, or the loss of a job.  It could be as simple as the lack of a promotion.  These common life setbacks often lead to a downward spiral in life itself.  

Every time you give a little hope of human dignity you ignite a spark in the human heart in the fight against hopeless poverty in our world.  Dorothy Day saw the human spirit in poor people.  We all have to do the same. You do not stop being human because you have no resources.

Gene Finnegan
Calumet College of St. Joseph