Thursday, 19 February 2009

POVERTY - the question

As we approach Lent I get to thinking about all kinds of different things. Poverty is a hard thing to tackle and something that makes most of us uncomfortable on some level. Of course we are all poor in our own way, we are all flawed and weak in one way or another - alongside the good stuff obviously-our gifts, talents and relationships. However, because we are all poor after our own fashion we find it difficult to confront and understand the suffering faced by the material poor. I know I do - what can we do? REALLY do to make it better?

 I have not experienced a great deal of severe material poverty but of course I have seen poverty both in England and elsewhere.  The most extreme I have witnessed was probably on the trip I took to see my friend who was living  in Tanzania, East Africa. You couldn't fail to confront the extreme conditions those people face every day -it was everywhere- often in direct contrast to the hotels and  wealthy hot spots next door to it or on the other side of the street. The people touched my heart - in particular the children. I find they are often with me, they appear in my mind at the oddest moments or times. I see them and am aware of them whenever I consider the theory of poverty. The smell of urine in the orphanage, the wet tears on their cheeks, their way of clinging and holding on to any part of you they could clutch - it wipes away the theory with a sharp stab. I think of their strength, their love, their beauty and most of all I think of their pain.

I think many of us have an idea that the poor should somehow be naturally virtuous, that they should be good because they are poor. Why? when each of them is a person just the same as the rest of us with more reason than most to feel angry, hurt and cheated. Their poverty is not chosen it is enforced. Yet these are the people Christ chooses to walk with. One of my favourite writers is Elizabeth Gaskell - she lived in mid-Victorian England and was the daughter of a clergy man and later married a Vicar. She moved to the north of England, to the very centre of industrial poverty - here she worked among, and wrote about England's poorest yet most essential workers in a society which believed that poverty was really the fault of the poor themselves. In the 1840's there was a famine in the north  and whole families starved to death. Elizabeth Gaskell was brave enough to write from the perspective of the poor and I wanted to share a little of her wisdom - since she has been a great teacher to me. I hope you will find some of the following quotations interesting- Elizabeth Gaskell saw the value of life where others failed to and there is so much wisdom in the writing of this ordinary Christian wife and mother:

From the novel Mary Barton
John Barton, a good man who suffers in poverty, tries to make known the cause of the poor in London but is shunned. He tells his daughter:

"Mary, we must speak to our God to hear us, for man will not  listen; no, not now, when we weep tears o' blood."

This always makes me fear that I am one of those not listening to the cries of the poor - I know they are there, that they are crying out but what am I doing? I mean this about all forms of poverty not just in Africa or the developing world but next door, down the street, maybe even in my own family?

Elizabth Gaskell was writing at the beginning of the era of materialism where poor men were simply seen as instruments of work and their children were dismissed. In fact they were often criticised for having too many children (sound familiar to anyone?) Yet Gaskell fought against this view writing, in a message that could be constructed for our own society, about the value of life beyond the material contributor:  

"But remember! we only miss those who do men's work in their humble sphere; the aged, the feeble, 
the children, when they die, are hardly noted by the world; and yet to many hearts, their deaths make a blank which long years will never fill up."

Materially we might be rich but socially? Are we missing the greatest wealth life has to offer us?

This one however, is my favourite quotation in the whole novel and it comes when Gaskell talks about the suffering of families during the famine: 

"there was "Love  strong as death"; and self-denial, among rude, coarse men, akin to 
that of Sir Philip Sidney's most glorious deed. The vices of the  poor sometimes astound us here; but when the secrets of all hearts shall be made known, their virtues will astound us in far greater degree. Of this I am certain."

When I was in Tanzania who did I find walking with the poor? Answer: The Church. I cannot tell you in words of the difference various orders are making in the communities in which they work - I could see this simply as a visitor. I spent a short time with the MSFS (Missionaries of St. Francis de Sales - whose mural can be seen on the school building above) and found them at the very centre of the community in which they lived. They threw open the doors to me at the schools they ran and showed me where they had set up an optician and a therapy hospital. The children flocked to them and they responded with so much love that I felt a flood, a realisation that our Church does hear those cries, and that does not admonish my personal responsibility to hear them but it gives me hope that I will be able to act, I will be able to follow. 

I am proud to be Catholic for many reasons that I am sure you have picked up on in this blog but most of all I am proud to be Catholic because I am proud to be part of an institution that does see the poor. It does not think itself above the poor, nor does it see empty materialism as the answer to poverty. It recognises itself as poor and raises up the lowly- it is the Church who finds its roots in the small town of Nazareth, in a family protected by a simple carpenter and a child born in a stable. It is a Church that recognises that when Our Lady returned to earth she did not appear in a palace but in the natural beauty of the mountains to a little girl whose life exemplified poverty AND virtue because she had faith. Its ultimate answer wipes away all poverty, all anguish because its answer is LOVE. We simply have to open our hearts and our ears and do all we can to act on this love. A challenge for Lent if ever there was one. 

Children playing happily in MSFS playground:           One of the Sisters who run the MSFS                school:


Veritas said...

This a fantastic post, Squelly.
I've come back to read it a second time. A few weeks ago we had Fr John come to visit our parish. He is a Holy Ghost Father from Tanzania and is at the moment based in Dublin as part of a promotion and fund-raising team.
Like you Squelly I am proud of my faith and my church and most proud of what the Church does in its work on the missions and with the poor and marginalised everywhere.
Whenever scandals break in the Church and we are prone to becoming disconsolate, the knowledge that the Church in all its beauty is still there in the forms you describe is truly cosoling and heartening.

SQUELLY said...

Thanks so much! I am so glad. Yes it can be so easy to become bogged down with all the negative events - priests or nuns who have acted against their faith. It becomes easy to lose sight of the fact that there are so many things to be proud of- we just don't hear about them very often. I am filled with admiration for priests and nuns - like the Holy Ghost fathers who are there living their life among the people and living the gospel. Even when they are back at home it is great to hear of them sharing their experiences and raising funds. It is wonderful! thank you for your lovely comment.


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