Faith, Poverty & Christmas Joy
December 14, 2020
I gave this talk during a Zoom meeting of the Philadelphia chapter of the Association of Jeanne Jugan.
In the seminary, I learned that the lectionary presents two biblical figures for Advent. On the first three Sundays, we encounter the austerity of John the Baptist, the precursor of the Lord. On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we meet Mary, the expectant mother whose waiting for Jesus is more relatable. Through their Scripture stories, John and Mary teach us how to wait for the Messiah. Both direct us to Jesus. The Precursor says, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30) and the Virgin Mother says, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).
I have since learned that St. Jeanne Jugan could well be the patron saint of Advent. My devotion to St. Jeanne began in Advent when I traveled with other seminarians from St. Charles Borromeo Seminary to Holy Family Home to carol to the residents. The sisters gave us gift bags which included a copy of The Desert and the Rose. This short read tells the story of Jeanne Jugan, a 19th century unmarried French woman, waiting for God’s call.
Another seminary lesson I often share is that Advent is Lent in December. It is a penitential season like Lent. In these seasons, we recommit ourselves to the practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In Lent, we recognize that we need ongoing conversion. No matter how long we have lived the Christian life, sin is still present in our lives. Therefore, we must repent. In Advent, we recognize that we need a greater awareness of the Lord’s presence. There are still places in our lives from which we have excluded him. Therefore, we must call out, “Come, Lord Jesus!” Both seasons of penance and promise anticipate the corresponding seasons of celebration and fulfillment in Easter and Christmas.
Waiting is a basic condition of earthbound creatures. There is no waiting in heaven because all things are perfect there, but here on earth there is hardly anything except waiting. If we wake too early, we are waiting for the alarm to ring and force us from bed. We are in our cars waiting for the light to change. We are on the phone waiting for “the next available representative” to take our call. We are waiting for the end of the workday. We are waiting for the end of the school year. We are waiting for our favorite TV show to resume. We are waiting for test results. We are waiting for a promotion at work. After a job interview, we are waiting for a call from the company. We are waiting for love. We are waiting for the right time to propose. And some of us are waiting to die, a waiting known well in the work of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
How many, too, are waiting for 2020 to end? How many are waiting for the pandemic to end, so they can resume life as normal, so they can go to the theater, so they can travel, so they can be free again? How many are waiting to safely gather family and friends to mourn a passing or to celebrate a wedding with the customary pageantry?
We Catholics, who are also waiting for these things, have the consolation of our faith. The Christian answer to this constant human experience is that, in each case, we are really waiting for the Messiah, who is the fulfillment of all desire. The good things for which we wait – dinner, vacation, a pay raise – we Christians know well enough bring only temporary satisfaction. The things we dread – the start of the day, the test result – we know that the Lord is on the other side of them. He is even on the other side of death.
St. Jeanne was waiting for something more important than all these things. She was waiting for the meaning of her life. “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work which is not yet founded.” St. Jeanne was 47 when she took in her first elderly poor. It was a couple of years more before she and her companions took the form of a religious community. By then she was more than halfway through life. Therefore, St. Jeanne is fully capable of teaching us how to wait.
Although The Desert and the Rose introduced me to St. Jeanne, another book has taught me her approach to God in great depth. That book is Poor in Spirit: The Spirituality of Jeanne Jugan (2005: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd), written by Cardinal Gabriel-Marie Garrone, a Frenchman who worked at the Vatican. In these days of disillusionment with the hierarchy of the Church, we may be proud of Cardinal Garrone, who died in 1994. Only a true believer could have written this little book. He eloquently demonstrates the significant contribution St. Jeanne made to the collective wisdom of our mother, the Church. I consider her contributions in two parts, faith and poverty. The third and final part of my remarks ends with the Christmas joy we all await. I will quote the cardinal’s book frequently throughout all three parts.
The preeminent biblical example of faith is the story in Genesis 22. God has promised Abraham countless descendants, like the stars in the sky or the sand on the seashore. But Abraham and his wife Sarah cannot conceive a child and have grown too old. Miraculously, Sarah finally conceives and gives birth to Isaac in Genesis 21. Then in the very next chapter, God commands Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2). Imagine! How long they waited for a child to fulfill God’s promise and now God asks Abraham to sacrifice the long-awaited fulfillment. Nevertheless, Abraham, “our father in faith,” obeys. A painting by the 17th century Flemish artist Jacob Jordaens dramatically depicts an angel swooping in to halt Abraham’s raised knife. The angel declares, “Now I know that you fear God” (Genesis 22:12).
Jeanne also proved her faith. She sacrificed the normal means of happiness, the way that most people find meaning in their lives, when she rejected a proposal for marriage. She knew God was calling her to something else. She believed something that did not yet exist could fulfill her more deeply than the offer right in front of her. Her explanation of her behavior to her friends and associates is worth repeating: “God wants me for himself. He is keeping me for a work which is not yet founded.” This is no logical explanation; it is an explanation that presumes faith.
Cardinal Garrone beautifully captures Jeanne’s experience of faith in these words:
At what other time and in what other way shall we be most truly children of God, can we most truly call him by his rightful name of Father, than at that moment when we consent to risk everything in absolute reliance on him; when we believe so firmly in his love that we abandon terra firma and cast off into the unknown, confident that the hand of God will sustain us?Page 27
Many people use the word faith. Jeanne’s story shows us faith and the cardinal’s words capture its spirit of adventure. In faith, we “abandon terra firma and cast off into the unknown, confident that the hand of God will sustain us” (p. 27). This is not a passive faith, something we cling to as a life preserver until the storm has passed. This is not the faith of the atheist in the foxhole. Jeanne’s faith calls us to jump from the safety of the ship and swim, storm or not, to the promise of new shores. This faith calls us to the best use of our lives, beyond the normal expectations of mere mortals, to the highest heights of heaven.
Abraham’s faith in Genesis 22 was rewarded when God called into being the people of Israel through his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Jeanne’s faith was rewarded when God called into being the Little Sisters of the Poor through Jeanne’s special love of the elderly poor.
Jeanne’s kind of faith is the way to avoid the functional atheism of so many Christians who believe that God exists but doubt that he “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). Cardinal Garrone warns them, “You cannot believe in God by halves” (p. 61).
St. Jeanne teaches us much more about poverty, in her words and actions, than many Christians have learned from other spiritual teachers. For Jeanne, poverty is the consequence of faith. When faith is our state of mind, poverty characterizes our actions. It is true that voluntary poverty defined as the renunciation of personal possessions is the special calling of religious sisters and brothers. But poverty for Jeanne is even more radical. It is not so much about renouncing ownership of things. Instead, it is “not owning ourselves” (p. 28). Her typically succinct language defines poverty spiritually: “Having nothing of one’s own. Awaiting all from God” (p. 24). At another time, she defined poverty in only three words, in a phrase that is small enough to cut through the rationalizations of the mind and pierce the heart: poverty is “finding God enough” (p. 27).
Cardinal Garrone’s commentary is helpful to see the connection between faith and poverty. St. Jeanne “shows us what lies at the root of our faith…what it really means to call God our Father” (p. 30). According to Jeanne, the cardinal explains, “the essence of poverty… [is] in the act of ‘faith’, in the grand biblical sense, in the fatherhood of God as sufficient for sustaining our existence” (p. 28).
St. Jeanne’s teaching on spiritual poverty would have us pray: “I do not belong to anyone else. I do not rely on anything else. I rely on you totally. I belong to you totally. I believe that you are enough for me.”
Is this teaching too much? Maybe we find ourselves in the position of Jesus’ disciples, who protested, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” (John 6:60). A couple of responses are helpful.
First, our embrace of poverty is only a response to God’s initiative. St. John wrote, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). In fact, Jesus loved us “to the end” (John 13:1). God’s love in Jesus is total; therefore, our response must be wholehearted. St. Jeanne’s teaching on spiritual poverty prepares us for a wholehearted response.
Second, the embrace of poverty can occur gradually, whereby God “withdraws one by one the props of human security from us” (p. 29). Our response to God’s love does not have to be abrupt; it can well up from our heart, a slow stream at first and a powerful river later.
But if we still consider Jeanne’s poverty stark or dreary even if necessary or noble, we have missed her point. Cardinal Garrone explains the positive quality of Jeanne’s teaching without a hint of sophistry: poverty is “confident and filial dependence on God, a total entrusting of oneself into his hands, with all that such a disposition engenders of peace, joy, wisdom, courage” (p. 7). Yes, poverty is confidence, supreme confidence! Poverty is how we make a gift of ourselves, so we may be available only to do always the will of the Father. Poverty is simply Jeanne’s word for the desire of every man and woman: to give ourselves to a great cause and to find in it all that we need. Poverty is the path to peace and joy.
Cardinal Garrone writes, “Little Sisters, poverty is your glory” (p. 9). Garrone speaks of glory in the tradition of St. John the Evangelist, who records Jesus speaking about his impending crucifixion: “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified” (John 12:23). Jesus’ crucifixion, dying without human respect, abandoned by friends, was simultaneously the meaning of his human life, to “give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28).
Is Advent efficacious? If we observe it well, will it always lead to joy in the Christmas season? Consider the benefits of the penitential practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In increasing our prayer, we divert time often wasted to time growing closer to God, which always occurs in prayer. In fasting, we remove the overindulgence that characterizes the eating and broader living of many Christians in the West and leads some to unhealthy addictions. In almsgiving, we divert money from our households, where after a threshold it has diminishing returns, to the households of the poor, for whom it has an outsized impact. These practices demonstrate that we do not need excess to be happy. In fact, excess can be counterproductive to our happiness!
Encounters with the poor have left many of us with a renewed appreciation of the basics: food and water, shelter, family. During a mission trip to Uganda, I was given an unappetizing plate of boiled chicken parts. The parts had not been cut with machine precision in a poultry plant; they had been torn by hand. They came un-breaded and without sauce. After I managed to finish my plate, I was invited outside. I witnessed neighborhood children taking turns drinking directly from the pot in which the chicken had been boiled. I was disgusted – and I suddenly appreciated the chicken parts. St. Jeanne told her sisters, “For little beggar-maids, anything should be tasty” (p. 45).
But can stripping away the excess and appreciating the basics of life give us joy? Contentment perhaps, but joy? St. Jeanne teaches us that joy comes not in owning things but in being owned by God. Being “owned” by God means making ourselves totally available to him. In faith, we believe that he exists and that he “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). In voluntary poverty, we “await all from God.” We do not trust in other sources of support. They are at most the means through which God our Father provides for his children.
Love, or charity, is a theological virtue for Christians (together with faith and hope). It is planted in the soul by God. Availability could well be the best secular word for capturing the Christian meaning of love. Making ourselves totally available to God is the manifestation of the love he put in our souls. We are loved by the personal God, not by the impersonal “Universe.” We are cared for by a heavenly Father, not governed by karma or dependent on fallible human beings, an insecure job, or an unpredictable stock market. We are loved by him totally, just as we give ourselves to him totally. Such total love is the source of our joy. It is the joy of finding everything for which we have been waiting.