Having spent time as a missionary in Haiti, I’ve seen poverty up close and personal. I’ve held children whose swollen bellies are crying out in hunger. I’ve rubbed ointment on the scabies sores of an elderly woman who lived alone. I’ve been covered in the same dust that sticks to your sweaty skin when you travel anywhere. I’ve served in a cramped hospital in the stifled city air, and at an orphanage in the wide open mountains dotted with huts. I’ve fallen in the mud after it rains and felt the earth move beneath my feet. But I’ve also laughed. Oh, how I laughed. And rejoiced in blessings and cried in frustration and felt the rawness of human life and loved without measure.
The rich man literally had to step over Lazarus every time he left his house. What would my life have looked like if I stepped over the poor?
What would my soul look like?
God unexpectedly called me back home to serve my physical neighbors, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Because once you’ve touched the poor, especially the poorest of the poor, doing anything else seems like simply stepping over them. The home that God called me back to is one of the wealthiest nations on earth, and I am surrounded by the rich man everywhere I look.
At first I felt so angry, wanting to scream at the top of my lungs that if we all just shared what we have, no one would have to go to bed hungry or die of a curable disease. But this anger can quickly turn to apathy, and unfortunately has from time to time, if I’m not careful. Material goods can numb you if you’re around them long enough.
One of the virtues of the soul is interior poverty. On the surface, it means having a detachment from material goods. It’s one thing to choose to live simply, but if you still desire the things you are lacking then your heart is not fully detached. St. Francis himself, the king of poverty, would still struggle sometimes with this detachment. Taking it a level deeper, interior poverty is a detachment from anything else we love more than God or takes our attention away from Him - we can binge on Netflix or Facebook the same way we can binge on food or shopping. And at it’s deepest level, interior poverty is the recognition that our souls are nothing without God. We are all poor in this sense.
Jesus lived this total, deep detachment on all levels. He was born in a humble manger, lived a simple life, and only desired what the Father wanted. This in turn freed him to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, and heal the sick. He became poor so that we could become rich (2 Cor 8:9). You can’t have true interior poverty without also being sensitive to the outward poverty surrounding you.
The biggest lesson God has shown me is that I can find my Lazarus anywhere, can see Him disguised in anyone. While we still have our physically poor in the States, we also have those suffering mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. These can be your own family members, those in your parish or workplace, or the homeless man on the side of the road. Mother Teresa said that the first world countries are in one sense poorer than the physically poor nations, because we thirst for love and hunger for God. This hunger is harder to remove than the hunger for bread. Sometimes it’s just easier to step over, especially if you feel worn out yourself. But imagine a society where we all bent down?
So instead of letting myself become numb again to the plight of the Lazarus at my gate, I will not step over. I will choose to love - to give an encouraging smile, a listening shoulder, or a helpful hand to those around me. I will “live simply so that others may simply live.” Lent is a perfect time to grow in both interior poverty and the works of mercy, by practicing fasting and almsgiving. These two practices, combined with prayer, help us to recognize the Lazarus at our gate and stoop down to encounter him. I promise your life will never be the same.
Prayer for Holiness
Breathe in me, O Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy. Act in me, O Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Draw my heart, O Holy Spirit, that I love only what is holy. Strengthen me, O Holy Spirit, to defend all that is holy. Guard me so, O Holy Spirit, that I may always be holy. Amen.
Prayer for Peace of Heart
Almighty and Eternal God, Give me, I beseech You, the great gift of inward peace. Command the winds and storms of my unruly passions.
Subdue, by Your grace, my proneness to love created things too much.
Give me a love of suffering for Your sake. make me forbearing and kind to others, that I may avoid quarrels and contentions. And teach me constantly to seek after and to acquire that perfect resignation to Your Holy Will which alone brings interior peace. Amen.