December 18, 2008

Slightly Imperfect Socks

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.


Anonymous said...

Hello! I happened upon your blog and hope to visit from time to time. Thanks for your insights into poverty...something always to be wrestled with.

Please keep me in prayers. I'm a new Vocations Director for the T.O.R. Franciscans. God bless you!

Fr. Jonathan St.Andre, TOR

GrandmaK said...

It really is a challenge to be "poor." I'm not very good at it. My efforts to be poor are less than serious. This has been a reminder that I NEED to focus of the poverty that leaves me open to the will of God...not my will. Thank you! Good day to you! Cathy

4narnia said...

another great topic, Fr. C!
so sorry to hear that you were treated like that when you were just trying to buy a pair of socks! at the college bookstore where i work part-time, many of the college students (of all ages and of all income levels, i'm sure) often come into the bookstore throughout the day for little purchases such as a candy bar(.85) or a pack of gum ($1.19) and, yes, even socks (we sell socks for less than $10) and they will often use a credit card for these single purchases. we don't have a limit - they can charge any amount - even under $1.00! the only thing is that the college bookstore only accepts the two major credit cards, which are visa & mastercard. (next time, come to our booksore for your socks! lol! i'll even give you a discount!) yes, i will certainly keep your regular confessor in my prayers. what is his first name and what hospital is he in?
tara t

ben in denver said...

I think religious are poor in different ways than other people. One of the things that I really strggle with at times in my life when I have less money than at other times is anxiety. Early in our marriage, we had very very little (I was a full time graduate student, and we we living on my teaching stipend of $1000/month. We already had 2 kids and number 3 was on the way and my wife was staying home as a full time mom. More than anything else, it was the anxiety associated with poverty that was the most difficult element for me. I used to wake up in the middle of the night in an panic and ask my wife if the rent was paid.