The Inner Journey of Poverty
||Dr Micha Jazz is a contemporary friar with The Contemplative Network. He is a Mediator, Spiritual Director, Retreat Leader and poet journeying towards the heart of God whilst engaging in mission. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can hear him each day on Premier Radio, where he presents the Be Still and Know 5-minute meditations.
Who can climb Mount God?
Who can scale the holy north-face?
Only the clean-handed,
only the pure-hearted. (Psalm 24:3-4)
I am grateful to Rowan Williams who has most recently encouraged the ongoing construction of my framework for both an understanding and a practice of Living Lightly. He describes what he sees as the distinction between ‘Pure and Impure Desire’.
Pure Desire seeks constantly after God. There are no confines and forever a horizon in front of me. He writes enticingly, ‘…my home is what I must look for, eagerly, attentively, as I grow and journey’.
Impure Desire alternatively holds out the expectation that I can reach a place of earthly contentment, satisfy desire, assuage my needs. It deceives me an expectation that I can reach my horizon, settle and realise personal self sufficiency.
It is perhaps illustrated best in the story of Mary and Martha. A story about integrity and fragmentation rather than contemplation and activism. Mary is drawn towards finding her complete realisation in Jesus whilst Martha struggles and remains constrained and conflicted as she seeks to manage and control her immediate environment.
For Mary, God becomes the organising, focussed framework for her life whilst Martha still chases a variety of competing self determined demands in an effort to find fulfilment, self respect, appreciation and acceptance.
We are presented with two questions. Are we free in the moment like Mary? Or left frenetically seeking to adjust reality around our own needs, searching for a place of ultimate control over outward circumstances in an attempt to find inner rest, confidence and security?
To live in the Mary tradition, I must come to terms with the multitude of distractions that invade my senses, stir my appetites and apparently demand my attention. The one focus becomes my love and following of God. The one thing needful: my ability to set aside all other ‘wants’ in pursuit of the Beloved, knowing that this alone will satisfy. It creates a poverty of sorts for I can only climb the mountain that leads to God’s heart by leaving at base camp the many other wants and needs that stir within me.
The ancients have long taught of the benefits of setting everything aside apart from the continuous pursuit of the Divine. Whilst the initial decision-taking process is fraught with a myriad anxieties (ones that remain a major source of temptation and de-stabilisation throughout the journey, often torturing the mind and creating significant moments of self doubt), the reward is freedom from anxiety itself.
Quoting Williams again, ‘…it exposes the self once again to grief, the possibilities of recognising loss, frustration and tragedy in one’s own life and in the lives of others’. I can live in my neighbourhood and in this world aware of the pain and suffering of the many - I am sensitised. I inhabit my humanity whilst I am sustained by Christ’s divinity.
I recognise this does not sound a very attractive ‘calling’. It is a way of pain, the ‘via dolorosa’, the way of the cross. It is the journey that sensitises me to my environment - good and ill - extending from my fellow humans to the plant life that surrounds me, which itself sustains the birdsong that awakens me and reminds me, ‘all is well with my life’!
I see this as the very heartbeat of ‘Living Lightly’ since I become devoted to the will of God alone whilst choosing to be dependent solely upon God’s faithfulness.
Poverty requires faith, since it has no other means for surviving into tomorrow. God has promised and demonstrated his faithfulness to me for he will, ‘…neither fail me nor forsake me’. The challenge is always my ability to believe and live in this - a work of years not months (and one reason to celebrate ageing rather than endlessly pursuing the fountain of youthfulness).
Such poverty de-centres me. Need is no longer my central desire for self-gratification or self-realisation - food, sleep, finance. Rather, need emerges as the universal cry from the heart of creation and I am invited to engage creatively and to respond to such a need through the lens of faithfulness to God’s call.
I grow in my appreciation of Jesus and accept his oft repeated and persistent invitation, ‘Follow me’. I choose to surrender my rights, my ability to assert my dominance, ceasing to manipulate in response to my own self obsession and personal survival - both as an individual and as part of a political, economic and social construct. Now I, whilst still seeing only through a glass darkly, seek to utilise those gifts throughout creation - from people to minerals, production processes to markets - to enrich and provide meaning for humanity as a whole.
So, in conclusion, for me living lightly must start with the inner journey of making peace with God and self. Without attention to that inward journey there will be no effective outward expression. It is the way of self-sacrifice so that I might put to death that ‘great impostor’ as Manning describes the false self. It is in death that life springs forth. This life then emerges to embrace all of God’s created order and comfortably challenges all those assumptions and activities that fail to address the outstanding needs - dignity, respect, realisation - that are central to the well being of the human heart as designed and implanted throughout humanity by God himself.
It is quite simply an act of obedience:
“Quick now, here, now, always-
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.”
(T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding')