Once in a while I have the grace of an experience that shows me that despite my best spiritual efforts, I am not yet poor. Yes, I have professed to live sine proprio, "without anything of my own." Yes, I buy clothes from the "slightly imperfect" rack. Yes, I don't drive when I can walk or take the bus or the subway. Yes, I refuse to accumulate a mass of things that ends up being "my stuff." Luckily for me though, the Holy Spirit sends me experiences from time to time to show me that I am not yet poor. Today was a great example.
Because I was able to get away for part of today, I went to Manhattan to do a couple of errands and go to confession. (My regular confessor here in the friary is in the hospital. Pray for him--things don't look good.) On my way home, switching from train to bus in downtown Yonkers, I had a break of a few minutes. Remembering my desperate need for new socks, I went to the big discount department store. I found exactly what I wanted right away: a sack of six pairs of black cotton crew socks with the "slightly imperfect" sticker on them. Just what I need for just $3.99.
After waiting in line for several minutes, I put my new socks on the counter and gave the nice lady my credit card. Clearly annoyed, she informed me that one could not charge a $3.99 purchase on a credit card, but that I would have to spend $10 for that privilege. Not having $3.99 in cash, I had to leave without my new, slightly imperfect socks. It was a remarkable encounter between me and this annoyed woman. I was stunned at the idea that I would use something besides my credit card for any purchase more profound than a newspaper. She looked at me as if someone who had a credit card but not $3.99 was at least a little crazy.
The encounter reveals the challenge of professing poverty. Being rich or poor is not just about having money or not. Richness and poverty are also sets of beliefs and practices, in short, cultures. The rich/poor distinction is also inextricably wrapped with whether one possesses cultural or educational capital, and these are almost impossible to alienate from the individual. Even though I might have looked like a hobo, even though I was acting poor, my belief about how I would pay for the socks shows my thinking and my cultural identity as an affluent person. My unconscious belief that one would use a credit card for a purchase of $3.99 shows in me a certain class and cultural identity. "Cash is the poor man's credit card," as my father used to say.
All of this shows that our vocation to holy poverty has to go beyond material austerity and beyond practices within our community--though it would be nice if we even had these things! If we really want to be poor, we have to go and live with the poor and let them be our teachers.