Poverty, mysticism, action and the occasional bottle of wine

By Steve Atherton
June 26, 2017

One of the first things Pope Francis said on his election four years ago was to wish that the church would be “a poor church for the poor”. What would a ‘poor church’ look like and what transformation will be necessary before we become such a church? Can we say we want to be part of the “poor church for the poor” that Pope Francis spoke about?

When I look at the church in Rome, where I find great strength and great support, I don’t see a poor church. My own daughters tell me they are scandalised by the wealth of the Vatican.

And it’s not just us RCs who have ostentatious wealth. The other week I walked past Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury ... a bishop in a palace!

I look at my own parish in Wigan where we have two beautiful church buildings, two presbyteries, two sets of parish rooms and a school. I don’t see a ‘poor church’. Slightly shabby, seen better days perhaps but not poor.

I look at myself: I have a home, a car, a bank account, savings, etc. Am I living as a member of a poor church? A letter in this week’s Tablet railed against a feature on wine where a bottle of Amarone had been called ‘a snip’ at £16. I’d bought one and it was delicious.

I wonder how many of us feel comfortable with that level of scrutiny. Do our lives match the things we say?

But, are we actually asked to be poor? Are we required to give away all our money and become poor ourselves? Aren’t we rather called into solidarity, into a way of thinking and feeling that asks us to treat our possessions as a gift that we can share? I’d not drunk the wine on my own.

That’s how Jesus lived his life. His kingdom was a place where people thrived, where lives were transformed, where sickness was cured, where the blind could see, the lame could walk and the dead could live again. Our faith invites us to be part of such a life-giving movement.

We can help people out of poverty, we can make a difference, we can show solidarity. We can put our resources to good use. It’s not a cop out to seek to be ‘poor in spirit’.

When I look around, I see that it is already happening: Pope Francis installed showers for rough sleepers in Rome and given a home to some Syrian families; the archbishop of Canterbury has put some Syrian families into Lambeth Palace; our archdiocese is preparing to be part of the Community Sponsorship Scheme; the two cathedrals run the Hope+ food bank; the churches in Liverpool have set up Feeding Liverpool; church people are involved wherever there is struggle against poverty.

I don’t let myself off too easily because I know that I am not as involved as I could be.

In January, the Rev Raj Patta, a Dalit Lutheran currently studying for his doctorate at Manchester, gave our Memorial Lecture. He said that in our times Reformation translates as Hospitality. We are called to care and to show that we care – not just for ourselves and our families but for our neighbour – and we all know what an inclusive word ‘neighbour’ is for Jesus. The focus of our hospitality is not to be ourselves, our families or people who are like us but must include those who are most in need. We know this as ‘the option for the poor’.

It is good fortune and God’s grace that have placed us where we are, rather than some worthiness or virtue of our own. ‘The poor’ is what we would be if it wasn’t for all the support structures that hold us up. I am convinced that ‘the poor’ reflect back to us how fragile we all are.

This realisation is followed by a call to action. We have been helped and we can be part of this virtuous circle of help. At this particular moment in the UK, we can ask ourselves and others whether our votes helped make our country a fairer and less unequal place. And since the current political system has just delivered a resounding ‘Don’t know’, maybe we need to look seriously at how the church can be a positive influence at a local and national level and find a way for our parishes and church communities become places where the Kingdom is seen in action, helping to bring vulnerable and excluded people into a place where dignity given to all.

Is it foolishly optimistic to believe in the goodness of people, our kindness and generosity, our capacity to forget ourselves and put others first?

In terms of whether religion is a force for good that promotes this unselfish behaviour, Karl Rahner famously said that “The Christian of the 21st century will be a mystic or he won’t be a Christian at all.” What a challenge! How can we move the practice of our faith beyond mere observance: beyond attendance at church and the following of rules of behaviour – good though these are – so that we move towards developing the deep, personal relationship with God that is implied in the call to be a mystic?

This raises the question of what is a ‘mystical’ attitude. No one can look at another person and say with any certainty “He’s a mystic!” or “She’s a mystic!” It’s hardly even a label that we’d be comfortable putting on ourselves. So, what does it imply? Is it simply that we must spend more time in prayer or does it call for a radical renewal of the way we look at the world and our place in it?

To my mind, it calls for an openness to the connections between creation and the Creator, a willingness to see that God is truly part of our world. As Ignatius of Loyola would say, if we look carefully, we can see God in all things. Since a world which God created must be good, it follows, that, as well as an openness to prayer and reflection, any search for mysticism calls for an awareness of how we relate to the rest of creation, to other people and to the world around us.

When science brought home to us that the world is interconnected, even that the universe is interconnected, it was putting into modern language an insight that religious faith has always had. We operate at a level of interconnectedness.

Mysticism isn’t a retreat into an inner world of fuzzy holiness, rather it’s an entering into the mystery of God’s involvement with the world, an awakening to the world as it is. Unfortunately, our world is being disfigured by poverty and starvation, by wars and warmongers, by injustice and oppression. The world desperately needs us to set free our human potential for goodness so that we become mystics who take action, able to live in service of God through service of others instead of spending our time worrying about our own survival and comfort.

After the installation of the statue of Blessed Oscar Romero in the Metropolitan Cathedral recently, Sr Martha Zechmeister CJ said that we bump into God in our encounters with the troubles of people: “Christian mysticism is always a mysticism of the way: following Jesus – risking ourselves for the sake of those who are in danger of getting trapped between the cog-wheels – losing ourselves in the mystery of God.”

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© Steve Atherton is the Justice and Peace field worker for the archdiocese of Liverpool and sees adult faith formation as part of his role.

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