Wisdom of the Ages: Understanding Poverty

The final chapter of Rowan Williams’ Where God Happens, which I mentioned the other day, is a selection of sayings of the desert fathers and mothers put together by Laurence Freeman, who also wrote the introduction to the book. It is a wonderful collection of comments on important qualities including patience, modesty, humility, charity and discretion and offers a lot to reflect on.

One of the things Freeman talks about is the desert fathers’ and mothers’ understanding of poverty. The kind of voluntary poverty that is a virtue does not consist of merely depriving oneself of things. One can go without and be miserable about it, filled with a desire to possess.

The poverty that is a virtue is a freedom from material anxiety and the complications of ownership that allows one to “enjoy everything or be happy with nothing.” Poverty is not about what things one has or doesn’t have, but “of fundamental attitudes and nonpossessiveness.”

Developing a peacefulness of soul that seeks nothing takes a lot more work to develop than merely going without. And it is clear from Freeman’s discussion that the desert fathers and mothers understood that.