JESUS LIVING IN MARY: HANDBOOK OF THE SPIRITUALITY OF ST. LOUIS DE MONTFORT
I. Two Preliminary Observations: 1. Our social awareness; 2. The problem of impartial objectivity. II. Aspects of Real Practical Living: 1. Who are the poor? 2. The poor in Montforts time; 3. The poor in Montforts view: a. The religious concept; b. A realistic view; c. Good and bad poor people; d. Dignity of the poor; e. Justice and charity; f. Alms; g. Sharing ones table; 4. Evangelizing the poor; 5. Montforts poverty. III. Doctrinal Aspects of Poverty: 1. Poverty and wealth: a. Wealth/poverty; b. Idolatrous wealth; c. An outrage to ones neighbor. 2. A question of wisdom; 3. The poverty of Jesus Christ; 4. Slavery of love and poverty; 5. Voluntary poverty; 6. In the steps of the poor apostles. IV. Conclusion.
Father de Montfort interpreted, understood, and incarnated the ideal of evangelical poverty. He did so, though, in a social, economic, cultural, and religious context radically different from today. To imitate Montforts poverty in every aspect would be anachronistic and practically impossible. However, to imitate does not mean to copy exactly. To imitate implies first of all to contemplate and to admire. This leads one to discover and to assimilate the truest and purest motivations of ones model. In this way one can discern what is common to and different from ones own spiritual journey. We must accomplish everything within the context of our own unique lives. We must recognize the reality of the new forms and new situations of poverty that are characteristic of our modern world. For example, we cannot be oblivious to our contemporary capacity for mass producing goods, which has become integral to our way of life. It has increased immensely the wealth of those who control these means of production, and has intensified the problem of the lack of an equitable sharing of the worlds resources. The Word of God, the Gospel, is always there to clarify the ultimate meaning of wealth and poverty. Montfort taught and gave witness in his life to the value of authentic poverty. Other spiritual authors also enlighten our understanding, encouraging us to live the Gospels attitude to the poor and suffering. The Gospel message is a universal one, which calls us to make the best possible use of the goods that we possess or control today.
I. TWO PRELIMINARY OBSERVATIONS
1. Our Social Awareness
It is difficult to speak of poverty or suffering without personal experience, or without at least having been close to the poor and their suffering in the style of the good Samaritan of the Gospel (Lk 10:29 37).
Montfort did not produce any treatises on poverty. Apart from two hymns (H 20, 108), which treat of the "treasures of poverty" and are illuminating but brief instructions on the subject, no sustained discourse on poverty can be found. However there are enough solid indications, precise allusions, ardent exhortations (for example in LCM), and even realistic descriptions to warrant the conclusion that the theme of poverty is uppermost in his thought and is definitely an essential aspect of his spirituality. It is, in a sense, the door opening up to the fuller meaning of total Consecration, Mission, Providence, Incarnation, the Cross, Charity, Alms, Humility, etc. In reading his biographies,1 it is apparent that for Montfort poverty was a real spiritual experience, strong, original, and deep, which left its mark on his entire existence and governed his life. From his youth he always deliberately wanted to draw near to and be close to the poor with respect, tenderness, piety, and veneration. This speaks volumes on the love he felt for the poor in the purest evangelical spirit. As with many saints (e.g. Francis of Assisi, Benedict Joseph Labré), it could be said that he rediscovered and reappraise evangelical poverty by identification with the poor.
2. The Problem of Impartial Objectivity
There is a serious difficulty, almost an impossibility, of treating themes on poverty with absolute and unruffled objectivity. Complex, confrontational, and even contradictory feelings and thoughts arise within and around us, ranging from rejection and contempt to welcome and commiseration, from ignorance and indifference to involvement and effective solidarity with the poor, from passive and fatalistic acceptance to revolt and rejection of imposed conditions. Our reactions reveal the measure of human and spiritual as well as personal and social maturity or immaturity. No doubt Father de Montfort, opting for the evangelical preference for the poor and poverty, got himself into an uncomfortable and even conflicting situation with his family, his friends, and certain social and ecclesiastical groups. Finally he received frank approval only from the poor themselves2 and from his most fervent and loyal disciples such as Marie Louise Trichet and the first Daughters of Wisdom.
II. ASPECTS OF REAL PRACTICAL LIVING
1. Who Are the Poor?
Given that community living is a struggle, it could be said that the poor are those who do not manage honorably to survive the struggle for life. They could be individuals, families, groups, or even entire populations. They are poor simply because they are deprived, prejudiced against, stripped of elementary needs of life. Other adverse factors also confront them. Despite themselves they are disadvantaged in the struggle for life.
At the source of poverty there could be "natural" causes such as climatic, geographic, historical, and cultural factors. These, normally, would not explain the poverty of masses of people in one sphere nor poverty on an international scale. Poverty reveals itself swiftly and smoothly, not only as a social phenomenon, but more so as a social evil, a physical and moral evil. It is spawned by a malignant and malicious society quite incapable of producing the fruits of justice and humanity one might expect. Thus the poverty of those who are poor seems to be the exact opposite of wealth, and the result of the selfish indifference and injustice of the well-to-do.
The consequences for the poor are a life of privation and abasement, extreme limitation of their freedom and power of action, an outlook of dependence and frustration, effective marginalising which puts them at the bottom of the social ladder and makes them rebels, outcasts of society, excluded from and denied everything valuable, and led by way of poverty to premature and undeserved death. Thus the great resource of the poor person, and to some degree his salvation, resides within his own being and in what remains of his humanity, his driving force and ingenuity, his qualities of heart and soul and his sense of solidarity provided that these have not been ravished, enslaved to those dark and lying powers that feed on his poverty.
From all this, it seems that there is little margin between poverty and Gospel. "The poor are evangelized" can mean two things. The first is that to be truly evangelized one must be poor in one way or another. The second is that the Gospel truly is good news, first of all for the poor, since the promise of freedom, salvation, and life is for them.
2. The Poor in Montforts Time
To have full insight into the social situation in France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, one must refer to specialized treatises on the subject.3 Clearly Montfortlike any contemporary saint, and like his biographershad no intention of analyzing or issuing conclusive descriptions of the society of his epoch in his writings. However those holy people were not lacking in delicate insight and observation. Anyone immersing himself in their writings easily discovers the atmosphere, the stamp of life, the social levels within which facts unfolded and points were made. Examples such as those of the peasant and his apple (TD 147), the miller, the sculptor (TD 22022), and allusions to clothing and fashion, worldly gatherings, and such, allow us to recast in imagination the complex and variegated society of the mainly rural France of the ancien régime, in which the middle-class were set to carve a decisive role for themselves between the nobility and the proletariat.
With broad strokes Montfort divides this society into rich and poor,4 and the social and geographic landscape into town and country (RM 7). In the towns live the people of status, the robed and the sword-bearing, and there also are found the merchants and the jacks-of-all-trades. But if we follow Montfort into the slums of Poitiers, the suburbs of St. Donatien and St. Similien at Nantes, or the Loges de Fontenay and Villeneuve at La Rochelle, we find ourselves in the midst of poor, humble folk and squalid bands of deprived, untutored children. We also know that Montfort visited and frequented general hospitals, which in most towns welcomed and housed hundreds or even thousands of poor and sick people (the "cloistered poor").
But if Montfort required his future missionaries to prefer country over town (RM 17), that was because the vast majority of the population lived in the country, poor and neglected. Large landowners were few compared with the tenant farmers, servants, and day laborers who seasonally and down the years became beggars and tramps. All these little folk were held in preference by Montfort. M. Blain, friend and colleague of Louis Marie, noted very early on his extreme love of poverty and the poor and his apostolic abandonment to Providence.5
3. The Poor in Montforts View
a. The religious concept.
Montfort saw everything, especially the reality of the poor, from the standpoint of faith. Precisely in them he saw and served Jesus Christ himself. His formation, which above all was theological and spiritual, and the special grace which inspired him, spontaneously raised his vision to that level. He considered and saw all things in their relationship to God, the Creator and Savior. To the question, "What is a poor person?" he himself replied: "It is written / he is the living image, / the lieutenant of Jesus Christ, / his finest heritage. / But to put it better, / he is Jesus Christ himself" (H 17:14); or: "They are true likenesses / of Jesus Christ, poor for us. / They are his brothers just like him, / worthy of being honored by all" (H 20:17). "The poor person is a great mystery which must be grasped. Beatus qui intelligit super egenum et pauperem."6
Thus, in the eyes of Montfort, the poor are the intimate friends of Jesus Christhis chosen portion, his lieutenants, his elders, that is to say those from whom the heritage is derived; even more, they are Jesus Christ himself. Of this last definition he gave a striking example when he hailed the doorkeeper of the house at Dinan where he was lodging when he returned one evening carrying a leper on his back: "Open up to Jesus Christ!" "He entered bearing his precious burden, settled the poor man on his own bed, warmed him as best he could, then passed the rest of the night in prayer."7 Here one must see and read in outline the chapter on judgment of Matthew 25 (cf. H 17).
b. A realistic view.
An evangelical view of the poor and poverty does not preclude realism in a view of things or in action. When a man like Montfort suffers deprivation, abandonment, or rebuff in an unjust and humiliating manner, it is very difficult for him not to ask, "Why?" as Job did. On many occasions Montfort preferred to suffer in silence, peace, and joy, plumbing the depths of the mystery. Such complaints as sprang from his sensitive heart were very few, but they gushed out with rare vigour as cries of grief and cries to arouse dormant consciences. It is in that sense that one must understand Hymn 18, "The Cries of the Poor," and hearken to the reply of God, Who in His Goodness and Justice shows Himself as the God of the poor: "O dear poor at heart, / I hear your just complaints; / I feel your grief; / I receive the same blows. . . / All the evil done to you, / is done to me. / Anyone who alleviates your suffering / shows his love for me" (H 18:78).
c. Good and bad poor people.
Montfort is not so naïve as to be unable to distinguish between good and bad poor people. About the latter he presents a list describing their failings and vices, such as impatience, avarice, idleness, and impiety (H 20:4346). But when it comes to alms, moral judgments take second place: "Simply see God alone / in all the wretched. / Give to them, only for him, / your charitable help. / Be they good or wicked, / You give to Jesus. / Enough that he is to be found in them / in his own person" (H 17:42; cf. RW 128).
d. Dignity of the poor.
What matters is to give back to the poor an awareness of dignity and stature, of true wealth and happiness. "For the kingdom of my glory / belongs to their poverty. / Believe me, the poor man is master / of all my joy" (H 20:8). These words of Jesus to the poor are a repetition in popular language of the first Beatitude, as are: "I will make you, poor little ones, / great lords in paradise / and true kings," (H 108:12) and: "A truly virtuous man, / were he the poorest of beggars, / is far more respectable / than all kings and doctors, / if they have no virtue in their hearts" (H 4:13). Similarly: "He has made you his kings and priests by the Christian faith and the priestly ordination he has conferred on you, and your voluntary poverty gives you an additional right to be called kings" (LCM 5).
e. Justice and charity.
One had to wait for the industrial revolution of the nineteenth century for the theme of social justice to penetrate consciences and public debate. Montfort is not a precursor in this sphere of ideas. He did not feel the "social question" to be a matter of urgency. However, taught by Scripture and the holy Fathers, Montfort did not fail to promote the rights of the poor and the duties of the rich. "Do not deprive the poor man of his due, / says Holy Scripture. . . / Know that any possession you hold onto, / even when useless to you, / belongs to the poor; it is his, / as the Gospel says" (H 17:1617).
In the sphere of charity Montfort was not content with transient deeds. He knew that no enterprise would bear lasting fruit unless established subject to precise rules carefully drawn up. He attempted in the General Hospital at Poitiers a reform of customs and rules for the benefit of the "cloistered poor." But it was at La Rochelle that he successfully devoted his energy, in concert with Bishop de Champflour, to the founding of charitable schools for the instruction of poor children of the town. The Daughters of Wisdom were founded in response to this double need: to teach children and to care for the poor.8
It is interesting to note that his short admonitions on the duties of justice are found in the hymn "The value of alms." We know that for a Christian it is difficult to separate the virtues of justice and charity even when putting conscious emphasis on one or the other. Certainly, Montfort during his life and in his preaching put the emphasis on charity, that quite divine virtue exercised by alms in many forms.
Montfort practiced almsgiving as a matter of course. "I could rightly call him the begging brother for the poor, for he made that his lifes task. Nothing of his own, nothing which did not belong to the needy. Money, clothes, as a matter of course, stayed in his hands no longer than necessary before passing to the needy."9 "Counting, if possible, all the poor whom this worthy priest, so poor himself, nourished during the entire course of his missions, it will be seen that he has perhaps sustained, single-handedly, more than all those clergy who had a better idea of how to put the goods and wealth of the Church to use."10
g. Sharing ones table.
Where Montfort excelled was in his sense of sharing with the poor. Just as he wanted to share their way of life to the limit, so also he contrived to gather the poor to his table as being his best and greatest friends. For him the table was always for sharing with the poor, welcomed with joy and honored. The lesson was repeated at every turn of his life, each time he was somewhat in command of the situation: at Poitiers, Rennes, Montfort, Pontchâteauto the point where it became the norm in the mission he gave in Lower Poitou. He made it a rule for his missionaries in the course of a mission (RM 5, 16, 48, 89), and for the Daughters of Wisdom, "who, in honor of the Blessed Virgin, will give food to a poor person every day" (RS 139). "All my entourage and my glory / are these poor beggars. / If I have to eat and drink, / I share with them" (H 144:20).11
4. Evangelizing the Poor
Like many other missionaries, Montfort took as his motto (RM 7) the evangelical text (Lk 4:18) adopted by Jesus from the prophet Isaiah (61:1). Indeed, amidst all the services, all the honors he could bestow on the poor, above all his works of charity, he could not overlook the most important: announcing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Like St. Paul he made it a duty. In the first years of his priesthood (17001706) Montfort sought his missionary path amid numerous difficulties. Finding it was what troubled him most, and he mentions it in all his letters to his spiritual director, Father Leschassier (L 5, 6, 9, 10, 11). Torn between the service of the poor in difficult conditions, and the needs of the mission, he came to define his missionary project in these terms: "I feel a tremendous urge to make our Lord and his holy Mother loved, to go in a humble and simple way to teach catechism to the poor in country places and to arouse in sinners a devotion to our Blessed Lady" (L 5). "When I am teaching catechism to the poor in town and country, I am in my element" (L 9). At that time, therefore, his vision of his missionary work was restricted to catechizing. He aimed at a somewhat reduced audience, viz. the poor, meaning by that the poorest, such as beggars, tramps, and those poor closeted in hospitals.
Later, especially after his visit to Pope Clement XI (1706), the objective of his mission broadened; it became "to renew the spirit of Christianity" (MR 56) by means of parish missions. The audience extended to the bulk of the people and thereby to folk of every condition. However, even then Montfort did not abandon his preference for the poor, having "a greater obligation to the poor than to the rich" (MR 89). Every day of the mission, after catechetical instruction, soup was prepared, uniting the participants around the same table unless they were received at the table of the more generous families (RM 47, 48). There is no doubt that this emphasis on the poor gave the mission an unprecedented evangelical quality. It could be a sign of authentic conversion and of effectiveness in the mission. Montfort sharply rebukes the recalcitrant worldling: "You have nothing for your neighbor / but a pitiless heart. / You have nothing but contempt / for the wretched poor" (H 107:6; cf. H 29:80). On the other hand, the converted worldling never ceases praising poverty and charity: "Poverty and deepest humility, / poverty at its worst, / most fruitful charity: / These are all your assets in this world, / Poverty" (H 143:24).
What are the most pressing motives, the deepest reasons, for these preferences and missionary tactics in favor of the poor? Quite simply, to "share in the most tender inclinations of the heart of Jesus, (our) model" (RM 7). These are the choices and practices of Jesus, the poor one.
5. Montforts Poverty
There is no preferential love of the poor without some personal involvement in poverty. Not content with loving the poor, serving them, sharing his board, handing out to them all he had, and catechizing them, Montfort also wished to be poor like them, in close touch with them. Never was he happier than when treated as a poor person, as we see each time he arrived at a town or place where he was unknown. In a letter to Father Leschassier he describes the first reception accorded him by the poor of Poitiers, who, he said, "all agreed to take up a collection for me." In conclusion: "I blessed God that I had been taken for a poor man wearing the glorious livery of the poor and I thanked my brothers and sisters for their kindness" (L 6).
Certainly he was not just playing the poor man, but truly being one. He was really poor because he lived his poverty in the presence of God, finding in Him all the unfailing richness of Providence. He was really poor because he consented to suffer all the upsets and all the trials which are the normal lot of the poor. Montfort fully appreciated the intimate bond created by the poverty of Jesus Christ and his own personal poverty, no less voluntary than that of Jesus. He also valued the bond created by the poverty of the poorhis friends and brothers, with whom he associated in the name of Jesus Christand his own poverty, which was as real and effective as theirs. Only saints, by the simplicity of their outlook on faith and the interior coherence that moved them, are capable of this kind of powerful and flawless theological synthesis. This is illustrated by the testimony of J. Grandet, his first biographer: "Father de Montfort, supported by these great truths of Faith (the poverty of Jesus Christ and the apostles), made himself poor, renounced his patrimony and all kinds of benefices, took a vow of poverty and persuaded all the workers who followed him in his mission to do likewise."12
It cannot be overlooked that at times poverty and deprivation reached extreme limits in his life, especially when the Church through some bishops stole from him such rightful goods as good reputation, open friendship, the faculties needed to exercise his ministry, acceptance, and understanding. It is reported that only once did a complaint pass his lips: "Is it possible that a priest could be so treated in the seminary?"13 In 1703 he wrote to Marie Louise Trichet: "I am infinitely more impoverished, crucified and humiliated than ever." Montfort knew from experience that poverty never came alone; it came with "sufferings, humiliations and other crosses which his servants must carry all the days of their life" (FC 7): "They form the accouterments and retinue of divine Wisdom which he brings into the lives of those in whom he dwells" (L 16).
III. DOCTRINAL ASPECTS
1. Poverty and wealth
In Montforts words and spirit these two words are intentionally and closely connected, as if to invite us to grasp an entrenched, enigmatic truth. One cannot speak of poverty, implying lack, privation, denial, without at the same time speaking of the opposite, wealth which connotes ideas of plenitude, abundance, life and happiness. All aspire to such plenitude of life and happiness, and exert all their efforts to obtain it. After all, this aspiration is rooted in a fundamental, inalienable right. By contrast, poverty, especially extreme poverty"wretchedness" is an evil to flee from or to fight. Who fails to see that the poverty that results in stunting our being and diminishing life in every aspect is to be rejected and condemned? Our deep human calling is to life, with the inalienable right to a sufficient share of the goods necessary for its maintenance and conservation and for developing and procreating. Among these necessary goods are a degree of status and a degree of familial or social ownership of possessions. The social doctrine of the Church caps this by corroborating, explaining, applying to circumstances of time and place this universal maxim, which is also that of Scripture and Christian Tradition.14 Montfort is not unaware of this truth (e.g. TD 207), but spiritual man that he is, this is not what he directly expounds and develops.
The truth he prefers is different. It relates to the difficulty or danger posed by a certain kind of wealth to the Christian. Speaking of the "rich at heart," Montfort says, "It [wealth] is full of idolatry / against his [the Christians] sovereign God. / It is full of barbarity / towards the poor and ones neighbor" (H 20:36).
b. Idolatrous wealth.
The difficulty experienced by the budding Christian as to possession and use of this worlds goods arises from considering two orders of things. In the first, thanks to the Gospel, we learn to see God as the Supreme, Absolute Good, Infinite, alone able to fulfill us now and for eternity. Consequently, every other good has worth that can only be relative, symbolic, supplementary, or instrumental (Montfort speaks of "material, temporal and perishable things" [TD 137]). On this score no good in this world can bear comparison with God, the Supreme and Infinite Good. According to the Gospel, the Kingdom of Heaven is the greatest treasure to be found, and one should be prepared to leave and sacrifice everything in order to gain it (Mt 13:4446; Mk 10:21; Lk 12:3334; 14:33). Even though this worlds goods are necessary, we refuse to give them absolute primacy, or to bow to them as to another god. However, we know the danger is there and plagues us always. The human heart has an infinite yearning, yet is inherently limited: it attaches itself to the goods of this world and pursues them as alone true and final, and thus becomes insatiable.
On this point the teaching of the Gospel is perfectly clear and explicit. Father de Montfort takes this Gospel teaching into account and incorporates it into his thought and life, so that what might at first sight appear to be a problem for him can be seen as a sign of his maturity and complete freedom of spirit. One who is stripped of everything, after the spirit of the Gospel, becomes entirely free to love and serve God and "to save his poor neighbor" (cf. H 22:1). The person dedicated to God can experience the goods of the Kingdomsuch as pardon, grace, insight, wisdom, virtues, spiritual gifts (cf. 1 Cor 1:5), and even apostolic missionas true goods, since they affect us and enrich us not in what we have but in what we are, not by their quantity but their quality. We are thereby reminded that "having" is an illusion of being, and that no wealth of having can compensate for or replace the wealth of being and living in God. The former without the latter represents failure and true human and spiritual poverty. Poverty by contrast is the condition sine qua non that allows us to be "rich in God": "Provided I stay / very poor and rich in God" (H 91:16; 137:16). "I hail you Mary / in your rich poverty" (H 90:55).
c. An outrage to our neighbor.
The second difficulty with regard to worldly possessions experienced by even a fervent Christian arises from the rooted and sordid selfishness to which he, as all mankind, is born, molded, educated, sustained, and almost enveloped (by reason of a gamut of cultural, judicial, philosophical, and ideological concepts that aim rather to protect the individual than to encourage growth of personality). This selfishness, often mixed with fear, is called cupidity or avarice, and is clearly the greatest obstacle to the spirit of communion and to the formation of truly human and Christian communities.
On the one hand, we know from all our catechetical instruction that the human being is called by God to giving, to sharing, to communication and solidarity with his brothers and sisters, in the image of his Creator Who is Love. On the other hand, the hard reality of daily life in a complex world pushes the Christian, only human, to look upon the next human being, not as a brother or sister, but as a rival, if not an enemy. Thus the civilizing action of love and universal brotherhood is constantly blocked by the cult of gain, which is at once a cult of inequality, injustice, conflict and violence.
Father de Montfort could have no idea, even by presentiment, of the wars and revolutions that would batter the world and tear Christianity apart in the following centuries. However, in unmasking and denouncing the false wisdom propounded by the world in opposition to the divine Plan, in guiding the faithful to surrender themselves by absolute consecration to Jesus through Mary, by shifting the core of the struggle towards each ones heart, by practice of evangelical poverty in a spirit of sharing and service, and by appealing to and rallying good Christian folk, he strove in the best way possible for the Kingdom of God, always a kingdom of truth, life, justice, grace, holiness, peace and love. "This attachment to earth, / this cupidity, / sparks war everywhere, / causes all evil. / How fatal is its revenge! / It hardens the heart. / It emaciates the soul, / and plunges it into total gloom" (H 28:26).
2. A Question of Wisdom
"Goodness, how wisdom is needed / to unmask that treacherous value / which compels even the wise / to pursue it to destruction!" (H 20:28).
Problems concerning poverty and wealth and their connection are themselves problems concerning wisdom. Wisdom may derive from a purely human and worldly viewpoint, or from a viewpoint of faith helping us to see things according to Gods vision in the light of revelation. At a personal or community level conclusions will vary. Divine Wisdom alone can instruct us, guide us, enrich us. "How unfortunate are the rich and powerful if they do not love. . . Wisdom!" (LEW 6). On the other hand, "Wisdom is so rich and generous; how can anyone who possesses him be poor?" (LEW 59). "When divine Wisdom enters a soul, he brings all kinds of good things with him and bestows vast riches upon that soul. All good things came to me along with him" (LEW 90).
Thanks to this Wisdom we know how to place supreme and utter worth on the blessings of salvation in Jesus Christ. We know also that these endowments are eminently communicable, bonds of brotherly and sisterly communion, since they are given entirely and freely and destined for all men and women. In this line of thought we are invited and called upon to recover the true significance of earthly goods, be they material, cultural, or technical. It would, first, consist of a sense of submission to the supreme Good, God and his Kingdom. Then in a sense of communication and service to all, beginning with the poorest, in such a way that material goods become again instruments of communion and salvation, no longer roots of division, oppression, hate and death.
The standard for this struggle is the Cross of Christ which, material, vile, and abject as it is, received the signal honor of being the instrument of our redemption. "It is our natural and supernatural philosophy, our divine and mystic theology, our philosophers stone, which by patience transforms the basest metals into precious ones, the bitterest pains into delight, poverty into riches, the most profound humiliations into glory" (FC 26).
3. The Poverty of Jesus Christ
In the life and thought of saints everything springs from contemplation and imitation of Jesus Christ. So it is with Montfort, struck by the poverty of Jesus: "A God defenseless / before the beauty of poverty, / loving it to the point of / assuming the poverty of our humanity" (H 20:4). Montfort has Jesus declare: "In poverty I find / such splendor and majesty / that I espouse it" (H 108:4).
Montfort closely observes the pattern of Eternal Wisdom: "in order to draw closer to men and give them a more convincing proof of his love, eternal Wisdom went so far as to become man, even to become a little child, to embrace poverty and to die upon a cross for them" (LEW 70, cf. Ph 2:8 ff). He was struck by the infinite disparity between the wealth, splendor, and glory of the Word, Wisdom of God, and the poor, lonely, suffering life of the Savior. Such is the mystery of Divine Wisdom: "To smother us in wealth, / his Majesty became impoverished; / to cradle us, / this great Lord became poor and lowly" (H 64:4; cf. 2 Cor 8:9). In "The Treasures of the Cross," Jesus says: "In my wisdom I find / treasures in poverty, / splendor in humility, / greatness in lowliness" (H 123:3)
The conclusion is that Jesus became poor by free choice: "I chose poverty / to make it respectable. / I chose poverty / to enrich it with holiness" (H 58:7). By dint of resemblance, Jesus is also the friend of the poor: "I cherish and make much of / those who here below / are considered wretched. / Those who seem to be last / for me are first. / Those poor little beggars / are my best friends / for they are my counterparts" (H 108:3). In return the poor look upon Jesus as their friend: "The poor, on seeing him poorly dressed and simple in his ways. . . felt at ease with him" (LEW 124). To them was addressed "the first beatitude, / the greatest utterance ever made, / needing long study: / Blessed are the poor in spirit" (H 20:7).
Finally, if Jesus is poor in this world, that is merely to demonstrate his richness in God: "In the midst of poverty, / Jesus is rich in truth, / in all abundance, / since he is replete, clothed / in all the great treasures of virtue" (H 4:4).
4. Slavery of Love and Poverty
"Mary is my great wealth, / my all next to Jesus, / my honor, my tenderness, / the treasure of my virtue" (H 77:4).
Perfect consecration to Jesus through Mary is the complete offering we make to them of all that we are and all that we have. After the gift of ourselves, we give all that we have and yield even the right to dispose of ourselves and everything belonging to us, without exception. In the TD Montfort explains the scale and depth of this offering (TD 121ff). He insists more on interior than exterior goods or fortune, undoubtedly with the intention of attacking the precise point at the core of our being where our aspirations and desires are born and become embroiled. Left to ourselves, we will be betrayed by our desires (cf. RW, MRL). True devotion to Mary, therefore, is in a way the education of desire.15
In particular our desire to possess is so strong and tenacious that it is found within the coils of our souls and is hidden in every aspect of our spiritual life. Within us there are totally reserved and protected areas, such as our desires, our rights, our liberty, etc. Strictly speaking these areas cannot be called the "evil that is rooted in us," but they are our most sensitive areasmost fragile, most exposed, most touchy; easily and quickly they risk being clouded and led astray in the absence of light and divine grace. The practice of our Marian consecration therefore becomes therapeutic: it reeducates and redirects us towards God and our neighbor in a way that is sacrificial and God- centered, and frees us from bondage and selfishness. In a school of radical poverty we learn to live without regard "for selfish gain" (TD 110) and "to rid ourselves so easily of the possessiveness which slips unnoticed even into our best actions" (TD 137). We can develop within ourselves a sense of free service, generosity, magnanimity and welcome, person to person, "one poor person to another."
At this point of our spiritual experience and encounter with God, poverty becomes synonymous with humility. Normally, at any rate, poverty should lead to humility. Montfort imbues the words "lowly" and "poor" with the significance of the humility of those who mutually recognize themselves, by some experience or other, as limited, deprived, conditioned, and needy. He associates the words "poor" and "sinful" to imply that we are poor in the sight of God and in need of His gracious mercy by reason of our sinfulness. The well-known formula "poor sinner," consecrated by use and much employed by Montfort, far from losing impact, as in such expressions as "poor folk," "poor peasant," etc., here retains its fuller sense. We are poor, even wretched, before God when we are alienated or cut off from Him by sin. Thereupon we understand better that God alone can endow us anew by the grace of Jesus Christ. "How loving and gentle he [Jesus, Incarnate Wisdom] is with men, and especially with poor sinners whom he came upon earth to seek out in a visible manner, and whom he still seeks in an invisible manner every day" (LEW 126). With Montfort we can also sing of the Virgin Mary: "She is my Ark of the Covenant / where I find holiness. / She is my robe of innocence / with which I clothe my poverty" (H 77:5).
5. Voluntary Poverty
"True happiness on earth consists in voluntary poverty and imitation of me" (MLW 1).
In the catalogue of all forms of human poverty, real or imagined, often tainted with as much vice as virtue, there is one kind calling for special attention: voluntary poverty, or poverty of heart and spirit. For "only the voluntary poor / are the predestined poor" (H 20:43). This poverty is not come to under protest and with detestation, but is chosen with love, accepted with a full, patient heart, and assumed with "great zeal." "It is a virtue for the courageous, / not for the faint-hearted" (H 20:22).
This poverty is voluntary, a free choice of the will (LFC 7, 1416, 54, 57). It is a considered response to the Masters call: "If anyone, therefore, wants to follow me thus abased and crucified, he must glory, as I did, only in the poverty, humiliations and sufferings of my Cross" (LFC 17). This poverty is entirely inspired by the Gospel (see the main oracles of the Eternal Wisdom in LEW 133 ff), and in particular by the eight Beatitudes. If it is spiritual, it is no less real and effective: "Try to put into practice / this holy spirit of poverty; / otherwise it is fanciful / and full of pride" (H 20:49). This spirit of poverty is also the open door to "faith . . . your secret fund of divine Wisdom" (TD 214), and a sign of authentic conversion. "The poor in spirit are rich in faith and the other virtues" (LCM 7; H 108:2). Voluntary poverty is a source of joy and happiness: "Holy poverty of heart / is the true happiness / of the children of Light" (H 108:7). The one who is poor in spirit is "rich in divine consolations" (LCM 7). "He even counts heavenly glory as part of his wealth," for "The man who is truly poor in spirit possesses God himself in his heart" (LCM 78).
One chooses to live poverty by contemplation of Jesus Christ who willed to be poor and identified himself with the poor. "Poor Jesus, I want to follow you, / poor as the poor, until death" (H 20:59). Jesus chose poverty in solidarity with the poor who, lacking possessions and human support, put all their trust in the Lord. These are the poor of YHWH in the Old Testament and "the poor filled with faith" in the New Testament, those of the Church and the whole world (for whom Mary, "lowly, humble handmaid of God" [TD 52], is the unique example and the compassionate Mother [H 159:46; H 151:57]).
At every opportunity Montfort sought to involve as many as possible, friends, relatives, spiritual directors, fellow missionaries, to follow him in the path of voluntary poverty (L 7 and L 12 to his sister, Jeanne Guyonne; L 20 to his mother; L 30 to Anne Régnier). To a community of lay-people he proposed the Rules of Voluntary Poverty of the Early Church (GA 549-551), the first part of which (nos. 19) is a plan of the "fundamental truths of this poverty of spirit." Montfort does not hesitate to give to his Company the name of "company of the voluntary poor" (RM 18).
In RW, out of a total of thirty-nine allusions to the poor and poverty, there are nine references to the work of the sisters regarding the poor (organization, service, care, etc.), nine references to their customs and community life (habit, meals, room, personal relationships, etc.), and finally ten references to their spirit or virtue of poverty and to the poverty of Jesus Christ. Of these, the most important would be those referring to the spirit of poverty, "preferring to lose their gown and cloak rather than hold on to one or the other and lose peace of heart and poverty of spirit" (RP 10). In the hymn "To the Daughters of Wisdom" we find the same insistence on the spirit of poverty: "O Daughters of Wisdom, / help the poor who are shunned, / those bowed down by grief, / the ostracized, the rejected. / Those whom the world spurns / should appeal to you most" (H 149).
6. "In the steps of the poor Apostles" (RM 2)
If evangelical poverty must be enjoined on all Christs disciples to some degree, it specifically concerns those dedicated to apostolic mission. Evangelical poverty then becomes apostolic poverty, for it has to do with the apostles in the exercise of their mission (Mt 10:916). It is rooted in the example of the apostles themselves: the example of St. Peter, "who entered the great city of Rome without entourage, penniless, friendless, with only a stick in his hand and as dowry the poverty of a crucified God";16 that of the great St. Paul, who "made so many journeys,"17 with destitution, persecution and adversity of every kind (2 Cor 4:718, 6:110); and that of all those apostolic men who followed and emulated them. More profoundly, it is rooted in the example and teaching of Jesus, the Incarnate Wisdom and the envoy par excellence of the Father to such poor sinners as we are.
If an apostle has to be poor, stripped of everything and attached to nothing, "free from every other occupation and unimpeded by the administration of any temporal possessions which might hold them back" (RM 6), that is so that he may respond to the needs of the mission without ambiguity, in the greatest freedom and with perfect docility to the Holy Spirit. His abandonment to Providence also shows clearly that the work to which he is dedicated is strictly Gods work and not his own, and that it is supported chiefly by the charity and solidarity of Christian communities.
Montfort observes with sadness and nostalgia that for lack of this detachment not enough good is achieved in the Church. "How many useless priests, / with great talents, sterile / for want of detachment" (H 22:24). "We do not see in our midst / such true apostles as those / who shone in days gone by. / There are no longer any voluntarily poor ones; / a secure position is required; / even though obliquely, / money is wanted for their own concerns" (H 22:25). "Priests, let us follow in the steps / of a God poor and crucified; / since He begs us, / let us hearken to his voice, / think only of his concerns, / march under his flag, / be voluntarily poor; / that is the better part" (H 28:4243).
Montfort required apostolic poverty of his collaborators and missionaries (RM 1019), and he strove to inculcate it by means of precise rules concerning house, way of life, alms from the faithful, Mass offerings, etc. Every material preoccupation was to be eliminated through the effect of abandonment to Providence. It must however be noted that Montfort was not ignorant of the real needs that a community of missionaries could face both for living and the work of the mission. Proof of that lies in his RM (RM 12, 1518), and in particular in his will,18 which is a real deed of management and administration, drawn up and signed in due form, in which Montfort indicates that goods from different sources are destined for different institutions, works, and persons.
One could sum up Montforts spiritual doctrine on povertyseeing it as a triangular form which depicts the relationships between Jesus Christ, the poor, and Christs apostles. Side one shows the connection between Jesus Christ and the poor: Jesus Christ loves the poor and prefers to identify himself with them and proclaims a Gospel of liberation; the poor accept Jesus as their Savior and go to him and the Heavenly Father, moved by the Holy Spirit, by faith, hope, and charity. Side two shows the connection between Jesus and an apostle. Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Wisdom, Master of Wisdom, instructing and commissioning; the apostle, at once disciple and friend of Wisdom, knows that he can achieve nothing unless united with and dependent on his Master; with Jesus he learns to do the will of the Father, abandoning himself to Providence. Side three shows the relationship between the poor and the apostle, a mutual friendship established and strengthened by fraternal sharing and evangelical interchange, dignifying the poor and building the Kingdom conforming to the Beatitude: "Happy the poor in spirit; theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven" (Mt 5:3).
There can be no doubt that poverty is an essential element of Montfort spirituality. Montfort poverty of spirit yearns to share the wealth of Jesus and Mary; however, to enjoy authenticity, it must express itself in simplicity of life and in sharing with the poor. Identification with the poor entails being the voice of justice and mercy for the disenfranchised, the new immigrants who experience prejudice, the single parent, the handicapped, the homeless vagrant, the hungry. The Montfort spirit of poverty cannot remain speechless when a wealthy country manipulates a poorer one for its own profit. But above all, Montfort poverty must be firmly rooted in the total lived out surrender of the self to the Eternal and Incarnate Wisdom through Mary.
Notes: (1) The first and oldest biographers (Grandet, Besnard, and Blain) seem to have best seen the importance of various aspects of poverty in St. Louis Marie de Montfort. (2) See the letter from the poor of Poitiers: "We, four hundred poor people. . ." in Le Crom, Un Apotre Marial: Saint Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort (A Marian Apostle: Saint Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort), Librairie Mariale, Pontchateau 1942, 128. (3) See L. Pérouas, Grignion de Montfort, les pauvres et les missions (Grignion de Montfort, the poor and the missions), Cerf 1966, 7487; 16170; Grignion de Montfort, un aventurier de lÉvangile (Grignion de Montfort, An Adventurer of the Gospel), Paris 1960, esp. ch. 1. (4) "They will bring to the poor and lowly everywhere the sweet fragrance of Jesus, but they will bring the odour of death to the great, the rich and the proud of this world" (TD 56). (5) Blain, 18. (6) "Not only had he [Fr. de Montfort] an exceptional predilection for poverty, but I make bold to say that his tenderness towards the poor went to excess! He looked upon them as sacramental, holding Jesus Christ in their repellant exterior. A poor man, he said, is a great mystery to be unravelled; Beatus qui intelligit super egenum et pauperem. By such principles M. Grignion not only cherished and embraced the poor as children and brethren; he honoured and respected them as lords and masters. When he came across some in the street he hailed them, spoke to them cap in hand, kissed them, washed their feet, set them at his right hand at table, served them first of all with the choicest morsels, drank from their glasses and ate their left-overs. He embraced the ugliest, full of ulcers. He left the table only when no poor person remained, saying: Im off to find the good Jesus. Every day during missions he had soup served to any poor people who turned up; he even supplied clothing made up by pious persons in the course of the mission, and finally established ladies of charity in the parishes and from them sallied forth to visit the poor and the sick and help with their needs. That was one of his chief objectives in the institution of the Daughters of Wisdom. He had the poor walking two abreast in all processions. With Cross raised at their head and Rosary in hand, he instructed and taught them to love God with all their heart, and to serve him faithfully, thus setting poverty to holy use" (Grandet, 35457). (7) Besnard II, 114. (8) L 29:4; RS 1. (9) Blain, 23. (10) Besnard II, 217. (11) See L. Pérouas, Grignion de Montfort, 140, 163n. 20. (12) Grandet, 347-348. (13) Blain, 179. (14) On this topic cf. Gaudium et Spes, 1133; Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, (1967), 6, 1422; Jean Paul II, Centesimus Annus (1991), 33 34; and the documents of the Latin American Bishops from Medellin and Puebla. (15) Montforts thought is shot through with references, implicit and explicit, to the threefold concupiscence. The desire to have or to possess is the first of these, and poverty of heart is the remedy for this. There is an up-to-date presentation of this traditional doctrine of the Church in J. Morinay, Marie et la faiblesse de Dieu (Mary and the Weakness of God), Nouvelle Cité, Paris 1988, ch. 1. (16) Grandet, 98. (17) Blain, 18590, provides the whole of the conversation between Louis Marie de Montfort and Jean Baptiste Blain. (18) Cf. P. Eijckeler, Le testament dun Saint, étude historique (The Testament of a Saint, Historical Study), Maastricht 1953.
Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).
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