Maybe the COVID-19 challenge is giving us opportune time to talk about poverty. COVID-19 is leveling the playing fields – confronting all of humanity with the reality of our communal and individual poverty.
“While the word ‘poverty’ is a negative term that immediately connotes deprivation and dependency … it is probably the most appropriate word to describe the human condition”. *
Through the COVID-19 challenge we are again confronted by the fact that our poverty is rooted in the truth that we and the rest of creation are not in control of our existence. Part of the root reality of creation is our communal dependency on the providence and care of God in and through one another – including all species. “True poverty of being is not material deprivation or the sacrifice of life’s essentials; rather, it is recognizing our need, and even more so, knowledge of our need, which renders us open, receptive and grateful. Poverty is an attitude of acknowledging that all is gift given to us by a God bending low in love. Those who are open and empty enough, who are in need to receive and to give forth what they have received, live in gratitude to God, and this gratitude is a spirit of conversion … Those who are full of themselves, whether materially, emotionally or psychologically, are ‘sent away empty’… Only the truly poor can be rich because God fills one’s emptiness … Poverty lends itself to interdependency, realizing that no one person is entirely self-sufficient, because every person is a creature of God … Poverty humanizes us by making us dependent on one another, allowing us to care for one another … True poverty creates community because it converts self-sufficiency into creative interdependency where the mystery of life unfolds for us … Only those who can see and feel for another can love another.
It is the same with creation. Only one who can taste the world renounces the spirit of possessing it. A life without possessing things, is a life of conversion that leads to community in creation. It is that free and open space within the human heart that welcomes the other person or creature of creation. Poverty, therefore, can nurture the grace of hospitality to creation.
[In what follows, my source makes ample use of the insights of Henri Nouwen, adding the ecological dimension.] Hospitality does not seek to change (or use!) others but to offer them a place to be, where strangers can enter and discover themselves as created free … Empty spaces reveal our intolerance of the incomprehensibility of people and events and make us look for labels or classification to fill the emptiness. Because empty space tends to create fear, we fill up our lives with ‘busyness,’ where being busy is a symbol of being alive. Such preoccupations, Nouwen says, prevent us from having new experiences and keep us hanging onto familiar ways.
How can we expect something really new to happen to us if our hearts and minds are so full of our own concerns that we do not listen to the sounds announcing a new reality? If we expect any salvation, redemption healing and new life, the first thing we need is an open receptive place where something can happen to us. And this is the place of hospitality born of poverty, the open space where new life can flourish, where others can be welcomed, where hostility can be converted to friendship.
We cannot change the world by a new plan, project or idea. We cannot change other people by our convictions, stories, advice and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, to lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center. In the same way , we can offer hospitality to creation, accepting creatures as they are, and allowing nature a space to be itself.
The COVID-19 pandemic creates global opportunity for all humanity to become hospitable brothers and sisters for all of creation – an opportunity to embrace our poverty. COVID-19 is scattering our big gatherings, playing havoc with our financial institutions and markets and is sending us into isolation, thus creating the opportunity for us to find ourselves and recognise our humble place and space in the one web of life.
Before COVID-19 we lived as enemies threatening the existance of other forms of life on earth (even our own) and even causing the extinction of innumerable species. We now have the opportunity to change into friends. Are we going to come out of isolation with awe and reverence and humble servanthood or are we going to emerge from our cells with a renewed determination to fight nature with a vengeance?
Are we going to use this opportunity to mend our ways and restore the relationship of inter-being with the rest of creation? Failing to do this is a bigger threat to our wellbeing and existence than the COVID-19 pandemic.
david p botha
* All quotes in this sharing comes from Care for Creation: a franciscan spirituality of the earth, 2007 by Ilia Delio, Keith Douglas Warner and Pamela Wood, Franciscan Media: Cincinnati Ohio, p 179-181.
* The book of Henri Nouwen that is used as source here is Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, published in 1975 by Doubleday, p 73,74 and 76.