poverty of spirit

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A few months ago, I quit the full-time job I’d landed right out of school, married a college senior, moved four states away, and planned to find work. It was taking longer than we expected, so in the meantime, we pinched our pennies: no bottle of wine to celebrate our first home together, no haircuts (which we both desperately wanted), no dinners out, no beer in the fridge, no dessert. Between the yardwork, freelance writing, babysitting, tutoring, and violin lessons, we wondered if we’d even be able to visit family for Christmas.

And so, I whined. I spent the whole three months pining after chocolate chip cookies, a haircut, and some new clothes (even if they came from a thrift store). I wanted so badly to have friends over frequently and cook fancy dinners for them, or at least provide them with snacks without secretly squirming. I sometimes got angry at my husband, who kept telling me (in that helpful way he has) that things will be okay – I only got angrier. God’s definition of okay is not the same as my definition of okay. I want a job so I can stop worrying about rent and finally get a cute haircut. In God’s idea of okay, maybe I wouldn’t find a job, and we would run out of money, get evicted, awkwardly ask family if we can move in with them, feel like total failures, and – well, I don’t know, grow in holiness, then praise God for it all. He does that to people. Haven’t you ever read a saint’s life?

I got a call the other day – a job offer. My vision cleared. Suddenly I’m embarrassed by my whining and panicking and the dirty looks I sometimes gave Our Lord in the tabernacle. Mary, I’ve got you. I know what you need and I will take care of you. Yes. Okay. Fine. You win. You love me, and I’ll stop trying to prove to you that you don’t.

Wouldn’t this have been easier if I believed all along what I knew?

Saints often speak highly of poverty, but it’s easy for us lay people to assume that since we’re not called to religious life, we’re not called to poverty. We hear about camels and needles’ eyes, and we comfort ourselves knowing that it’s not bad to have things, only to be attached to them – and we often don’t realize how attached we really are. I didn’t take a vow of poverty, but I’m living a kind of minor poverty, and I’m learning what poverty teaches best – detachment.

“Just as self-love is violent, turbulent, and impetuous, so the care that comes from it is full of trouble, uneasiness, and disquiet. As love of God is sweet, peaceable, and calm, so also the care that proceeds from such love, even if it is for worldly good, is amiable, sweet, and agreeable.” –St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

I couldn’t get that cute haircut I wanted, couldn’t buy new clothes, couldn’t order pizza on the days I didn’t feel like cooking. I need a job, just enough for rent and groceries, and a cute haircut – I’m not being selfish; we don’t need a yacht or a vacation to Europe. Let’s forget that foregoing the yacht and the vacation to Europe aren’t real sacrifices. I’m not greedy – and I’m proud of it. I wanted a haircut. It was frustrating, and I fought it, crying my little tears about how I just wanted to be financially comfortable.

I’m reminded here of a kid I babysit. He’s too young to know what a yacht is, but his tears look just like mine – frustrated and angry when he doesn’t get what he wants. His mom looks at him, shakes her head, and asks him “Are you two?”

He is. I’m not. I haven’t been two for more than twenty years. I still want pizza, but is spaghetti really that bad?

The job offer was a glimpse at things being okay. I looked back and saw that we hadn’t run into any disasters. I didn’t die of boring hair or even get a maiming disease from not having another cute shirt. I didn’t really need those things, and I don’t really need them now. Spaghetti isn’t that bad. The clothes I have are fine. We were always able to pay rent on time, and we never went without groceries. We even kept chocolate chips as a staple. Did I really forget to be grateful for my wonderful husband? The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want – but when I don’t let him lead me, I start wanting. And I start panicking, because I’m lost and I don’t have a shepherd.

I haven’t decided whether to accept the offer – there’s still a lot to think about. If it doesn’t work out, we’ll remain in financial limbo a little longer. No pizza, no long drives, no dinners out for a while yet – but I can be okay with that now. And I can be at peace.

Note: After I wrote this, but before it was edited and published, our job situation fell into place beautifully. Thanks be to God!

Mary C. Tillotson

Mary C. Tillotson

Mary C. Tillotson is reporter for Watchdog.org, covering education reform issues across the country. She is co-founder and blogger at The Mirror Magazine and founder of Vocation Story. She tries to blog at The Earth and the Ether. A Michigan native, she lives in Virginia with her husband, Luke.

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6 thoughts on “poverty of spirit”

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    “In God’s idea of okay, maybe I wouldn’t find a job, and we would run out of money, get evicted, awkwardly ask family if we can move in with them, feel like total failures, and – well, I don’t know, grow in holiness, then praise God for it all. He does that to people. Haven’t you ever read a saint’s life?”

    Many times I say “Thy will be done” with reluctance, in a fearful way, because I think exactly like that.

    Well, perhaps that my be His will, to some. Or to me, someday. I don’t know which are God’s plans for us, no one knows.

    But at the same time, He doesn’t burden us with more than we can carry, and He’ll give us the strength to carry our burdens.

    Taking our Cross is not all that easy… specially if we count with our strength only.

  2. Avatar


    Thanks for your comment! I am reminded of a quote from St. Francis de Sales that’s stuck on the dryer at my in-laws’ house:

    “Do not worry about what may happen tomorrow; the same Everlasting Father who cares for you today will care for you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it.”

  3. Avatar

    Mary, I can so identify with you! When I got married, my husband was a grad student and I was moving to where his school was, far from both of our families. It took me nine months to find a full-time job that I considered “real,” and even a year and a half later, with both of us making decent incomes, we still take to our newlywed habits of rarely going out to eat, unplugging everything when we’re done with it, and arguing about how much we (ok, I) “need” new clothes. I’m so humbled reading this, because I definitely fought against being poor in spirit. You’re inspiring me right now, reminding me that poverty isn’t just in material things.

  4. Avatar

    Stephanie, thanks so much for your comment! I highly recommend “Introduction to the Devout Life” by St. Francis de Sales. It is exactly what the title says (“if you want to build a good spiritual/virtuous life, here’s how to start” sort of thing), and in his St. Francis de Sales way, he’s gentle but firm and very practical.

    In his section on poverty, he says that it’s often good (read: God’s will) to increase our wealth if we can do so through just means, but that we should make sure we live poor in spirit. Pharmacists keep lots of poisons (drugs), but they don’t get poisoned by them; in the same way, we should be careful not to let our material wealth poison our hearts.

    He says: if you have to appear publicly somewhere and you forgot and left your nice clothes at home, if you go traveling and the place where you spend the night turns out to be a dump, if guests come over and you don’t have the right kind of wine – there is some poverty for you, even if you’re otherwise wealthy, and to be poor in spirit means accepting this humbly without getting all flustered and worked up about it. (Is this not timeless? I think I’ve had all these experiences.)

    He says a bunch of other amazing things, too, so you should read the book!

  5. Avatar

    Thank you for being so honest. I definitely identify with the broke and newlywed experience. I didn’t realize how much I coveted “stuff” until we got married and had to scrimp and pinch to make ends meet.

  6. Avatar

    It isn’t just newlyweds who experience this. We have been married for 14 years, and we are expecting our 8th baby in February. My husband is in the military so we often move to new places away from family and everyone we know. Yes, we must live frugally (I homeschool our children), and often go without many desires…and occasionally some needs. But never has God forgotten us! Things do improve. So glad you have a devotion to St. Francis deSales!!! He is so often overlooked in the calendar of saints. He’s one of my favorites as well. My husband had a terrible experience in Iraq on one of his deployments, and I credit St. Francis for saving him–it was Jan. 24, his feast day. Our new one will have DeSales as his or her middle name because if this. Our oldest was baptized Francis DeSales because the priest required a saint name. Noah Moses apparently wasn’t fitting for baptism, buy I was pleased to use my longtime friend’s name. Think that is part of the reason he watches out for my husband when he’s in harms way. You know, St. Francis was a soldier as well

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