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Voluntary poverty: Spiritual Roots and Practice

Rob Boedeker

June 13, 2008

“Once we begin not to worry about what kind of house we are living in, what kind of clothes we are wearing, once we give up the stupid recreation of the world; we have time - which is priceless - to remember that we are our brothers’ keepers and that we must not only care for his needs as far as we are immediately able, but we must try to build a better world.” Dorothy Day




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What is Voluntary Poverty?

“Voluntary poverty means daily, hourly to give up our own possessions and especially to subordinate our own impulses and wishes to others; these are hard, hard things and I don’t think they ever get any easier.” Dorothy Day, Loaves and Fishes









We can begin with this two-part definition of voluntary poverty. The first part deals with things we possess. Dorothy Day says that to live poor voluntarily we must at every opportunity be stripping ourselves of our material goods. This is a continual process, as we are ever accumulating things1, and it is to be done in a spirit of abandon: a letting-go of that which we depend on in order to become both freer and more dependent on God.


The second part concerns more than our possessions: our will. Dorothy says we must bend our wants and desires away from ourselves and towards others. In this way we hope to make serving others a priority over our instincts of self-fulfillment and self-preservation. While this part does touch on our acquisitive tendencies, it places more emphasis on what we choose to do with our time and energy than what our material situation looks like.

When practiced, voluntary poverty takes many forms. It can be grimy and miserable.2 It can be austere and beautiful.3 It can be related to our material condition. It can be an invisible poverty we carry within. The more we look for examples of poverty, the more forms appear in which poverty can exist. We could make a list that includes being poor financially, poor materially, poor spiritually, poor in space (living in cramped quarters), poor in time (being overworked), poor in rights or privileges (discrimination and lack of opportunity), poor in education, poor in health, and so on. If we accept the less obvious forms of poverty along side the more oft-considered material or financial poverty, then we admit many diverse ways in which one could live in voluntary poverty. The common thread that ties them together though would remain the same: conscious abandon and a bending of the will.4

Rationale for Voluntary Poverty

The Catholic Worker’s emphasis on voluntary poverty grew out of the worldview of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, a religious and socially conscious view.5 Voluntary poverty allowed them to manifest their values in daily life. They lived in this way as a means to an end, in order to express a certain belief about how best to live life.

They were inspired by what they considered the radical, or root, message of Christianity.6 They believed that one of Jesus’ central values was to take responsibility for others, to be our brother’s keeper.7 Peter and Dorothy wrote frequently about this, pairing voluntary poverty with the Works of Mercy. Through voluntary poverty and the Works of Mercy, they could love others better, which was the ultimate goal.8 They’ve said that the meaning of life is to love God; to love God is to love God’s creation; to love our brothers and sisters requires giving of ourselves. As long as the needs of others are before us, we have the responsibility to respond with a joyful and generous heart, just as Jesus taught us. From this follows the conclusion of voluntary poverty: what you have that has been given to you is not yours if your brother or sister needs it. While this may mean incurring suffering on your part, to suffer willingly is the best way we have to show love, the most noble and meaningful pursuit in life.

Actually living this way brings about certain consequences, good and bad. Dorothy and Peter said that this lifestyle is a way of making an individual freer9, a community of individuals closer,10 and the world better both through a more just distribution of resources11 and through resistance to evil in the shape of hate and fear, an exploitative war economy, consumerism, professionalism and materialism.12

Unfortunately, it also brings about instability and suffering – physical, emotional and psychological. It can mean forsaking certain things like married life, kids, a place to call your own, respect from society, conveniences, privileges, etc. Dorothy felt this lifestyle, with all its difficulties and joys, was a calling some were meant to experience, if not all.13

Material Poverty: Living in Simplicity

The most commonly thought-of form of voluntary poverty within a consumer culture, material simplicity, usually means getting rid of stuff. That idea has its place, but within the Catholic Worker tradition austerity is a means to the end, not the end in itself. To Dorothy, the end was prioritizing others’ needs before our own and putting to use the goods we have been given to satisfy those needs, even if it meant our own suffering. To her, voluntary poverty would be barren of meaning if it weren’t rooted in love.

Often the trouble is that so much attention has to be devoted to the process of letting go of our attachments that we forget why we are going through all this in the first place – in order to be free enough to love. One may hear ascetics cite the phrase, “What we own ends up owning us,” as a reminder of the power of attachment in human nature. Not only do people grow close emotionally to inanimate objects, we may even construct our identity around them. To separate ourselves from these things is to lose a part of ourselves, to experience a certain type of death. Few would argue though that things are as important as our very lives, despite how much we may want some item or other. Detachment becomes important for the reason that it allows us the freedom to evaluate our priorities, without ephemeral longings getting in the way. It is remarkable that throughout history those who have been free enough to weigh life’s priorities deliver a roughly universal message of what humanity’s priorities ought to be, love being the foremost. Voluntary poverty is a lifestyle designed to best preserve the freedom to evaluate and to act on our ultimate priorities.14

In implementing our lifestyle of voluntary poverty, if arguments begin to arise over, say, how many inches of TV screen are to be permitted, it is an indication we may have lost the point. A constructive way of getting around that obstacle is to picture someone in need we care about, to hold their image in our imagination and remember some feeling we have for them. Then we can ask ourselves if this line of discussion would be important to them, or whether what we are trying to do will have any bearing on their being loved better or their obtaining a more humane, dignified life. If we can ask ourselves this and answer with honesty, we are free to sift through the details. Sometimes an answer may lead us to accept something that we feel we need, perhaps in order to be refreshed enough to love someone better or to respond to a need we aren’t yet strong enough to resolve. Most times though we will find that we have the necessary strength.

While this strength may appear unevenly, we must have faith that it will nevertheless grow steadily. Recounting from her own experience, Dorothy tells us, “Sometimes, as in St. Francis’ case, freedom from fastidiousness and detachment from worldly things, can be attained in only one step. We would like to think that this is often so. And yet the older I get the more I see that life is made up of many steps, and they are very small ones, not giant strides.” This passage highlights another important method for growing in voluntary poverty; that is, to raise before us the example of those who have preceded us along this journey, to study their trials and triumphs, and gain encouragement where we may.

Poverty of Stability: Living in Precarity

Living austerely is often not the same as living precariously. For those who chose voluntary poverty from a former life of comfort, precariousness may be the most challenging aspect of poverty to accept freely. The psychological stress of financial instability, for example, may seem unnecessary; the practical consequences of depending on Providence may appear as negligence. The safety nets our society provides – health insurance, regular paid employment, familial relationships, retirement and Social Security, private investments, savings accounts, credit cards, food stamps, etc. – are relied upon to protect against destitution, illness, natural disaster, and death. Abandoning any conventional safety net carries real consequences. However, the cost of gaining and safeguarding them requires equivalent sacrifices. Dorothy practiced the lesson of the mystics who preached abandonment to divine providence as an ambitious step toward carrying out God’s will.

Dorothy passed along a note their newspaper received on this subject. “‘Precarity,’ or precariousness, is an essential element in true voluntary poverty, a saintly French Canadian priest from Martinique has written us. ‘True poverty is rare,’ he writes. “Nowadays religious communities are good, I am sure, but they are mistaken about poverty. They accept, they admit, poverty on principle, but everything must be good and strong, buildings must be fireproof. Precarity is everywhere rejected, and precarity is an essential element of poverty. This has been forgotten. …Precarity enables us better to help the poor. When a community is always building and enlarging and embellishing, which is good in itself, there is nothing left over for the poor. We have no right to do so as long as there are slums and breadlines anywhere.’”

One of the conflicts described in this passage is the tension between supporting an institution and supporting the individuals served by the institution. By assuming responsibility for the needs of others, by creating a vehicle to carry out that responsibility, a tension immediately arises between meeting the needs of the vehicle and meeting the needs of those whom the vehicle serves. This is as true for the State as for the Church as for each individual Catholic Worker house.

In fact, this conflict arises any time one assumes responsibility beyond one’s own person. Responsibility implies a mixture of satisfaction and suffering, freedom and constraint. Taking responsibility for our brothers and sisters may be a fulfilling life goal but will inevitably necessitate certain duties of us, all of which will be unpleasant at any given time. Given a conflict involving only ourselves as individuals and another, we can simply decide to prioritize the other and accept our own suffering. As stewards of an institution, we must weigh different sets of priorities. It becomes more difficult to establish priorities the further our responsibilities extend outward. Dorothy experienced this conflict and struggled to maintain a balance of priorities. However, she accepted this struggle as part of the lifestyle of voluntary poverty, to be embraced, in the hopes of growing closer to God.15

These conflicts illustrate another dimension of voluntary poverty. It is a constant adaptation to our ever-changing circumstances. When applying the ideal of voluntary poverty, like any other ideal, it must be studied, prayed over and renegotiated throughout the many stages of our life. These stages include raising a family, buying property16, preparing for retirement, and facing death.

Various Related Thoughts

Voluntary poverty and destitution

Dorothy distinguished between voluntary poverty, what St. Francis called ‘Lady Poverty’, and inflicted poverty, or destitution.17 She wanted to highlight the difference between what she called the victims of poverty and the champions of poverty. It was necessary for her that the lifestyle she lived be understood for what it was, a choice motivated by personal convictions. This made it different from the state of those whom misfortune or society had forced into poverty. She made this distinction, not to diminish the difficulties of the destitute or to gain special status or privilege, but to better advocate for compassion and justice on behalf of those who suffered innocently. Through this distinction, she could send a message to society’s more comfortable members that living more justly, more divinely, was possible and of value.18

Effects of Voluntary Poverty for CW and volunteers

“For Peter Maurin, voluntary poverty and hospitality were to have a twofold effect: the sanctification of the Catholic Worker and the transformation of the Church's attitude toward the poor. ‘I can give you bread and meat and coffee. Yes, I can give you these -- but you, you can give me the chance to practice Christian charity. You are an ambassador of God. Thank you.’" (Mark and Louise Zwick, The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins)

War on Poverty

“When the War on Poverty was presented as a solution to problems in society by Lyndon Johnson, an interviewer asked Dorothy, ‘How do you think the Church can best assist the War on Poverty?’ She responded, ‘By teaching Holy Poverty – a philosophy of poverty and a philosophy of work.’” Mark and Louise Zwick