Charlie's Blog: Minimalism Versus Voluntary Poverty


Minimalism Versus Voluntary Poverty

And he would answer and say to them, "The man who has two tunics is to share with him who has none; and he who has food is to do likewise."

Some years ago, I became interested in lifestyle minimalism. I was not Catholic at the time, and my interest in a minimalist lifestyle grew from the candid observation of a co-worker that most of the people that own Harley-Davidson motorcycles don't actually ride them. They make the payments on them and store them, but they never use them for daily or even weekly transportation. They were just so many unused and expensive toys. I noticed the same phenomenon when it came to personal watercraft, bass boats, and exercise equipment. I made a resolution then and there to not be one of those people, so I pared down my wish list to only essential items that I needed and expunged some items from my life that were not needed. I went to the internet to see if I was the only one who thought this way, and I was surprised to discover that I was not alone. This is how I got into minimalism.

I read and still read many websites about decluttering, voluntary simplicity, and minimalism. I agree with the basic thrust of all these bloggers that your life should be simpler, and you should eschew acquiring as many material possessions as possible. On that, we are on common ground. Where I started to have problems was answering the question of why. Why should we pursue a simpler life?

The biggest reason for much of this minimalism is to have less stress and worries in life. I can agree with this. Peace and tranquility are laudable goals in life. Unfortunately, I think much of this tranquility comes from not working. When you need less, you can work less. This makes the minimalist one degree removed from the shiftless bum. This creates the dichotomy between the maximalist who overworks to meet the payments on possessions he doesn't have time to use and the minimalist who has nothing and all day to enjoy it. The common element between them is their selfishness. Minimalist or maximalist, the end is always me me me.

Voluntary poverty is not the same as minimalism. In fact, the term "voluntary poverty" is scandalous to many ears. This is because voluntary poverty embraces the lifestyle of the minimalist and the work ethic of the maximalist. Voluntary poverty is pursued for the sake of God and fellow man. The goal is to have a surplus of wealth. If you work hard and live simply, you will have little trouble with money. You will end up amassing a nice little chunk of cash. Then, you have to decide if you want to be miserly like Ebenezer Scrooge or to be generous like St. Francis of Assisi who gave away his possessions to help the poor. St. Francis showed by his example that you only find your life when you give it away. Your life should not be hoarded but poured out like an offering to Almighty God.

When I explain the concept of voluntary poverty to people, I know the image that springs into people's minds. Some fool spends his entire week earning a fat paycheck, cashes it, and then flings the money all over the street for lazy bums to snatch and run off to the liquor store to get their bottles. This extreme picture comes from people's desire to remain selfish, so they paint the selfless option in the most foolish light possible. But charity demands that we practice the same due diligence we would on any investment. Find worthy causes to support. Volunteer your time and labor to help others.

How much should I give? This varies and depends on the individual's circumstances. A widow might only have the mite to give while the billionaire can give much more. I can't decide for people, but I can tell you that the right amount is somewhere between everything and nothing. Start small and work up from there.

How much should I keep for myself? This also varies because the answer is that you should keep what you need. I don't know what you need in your life, but it is almost always less than what you have now. I've always been frugal, so I've learned to buy fewer items with greater durability, to eschew the fancy brands, and to not pursue expensive hobbies like golf or hunting. I can say that your austerity should hurt a little. This could mean going down to cattle class from first class on an airplane. It could mean eating at a local mom and pop place instead of the fancy place and giving the difference to the poor. It could mean driving a Ford instead of a Mercedes. This is where many minimalists will depart because they insist that their few things be the best things which is why they are willing to spend so much money on Apple products and designer T-shirts that cost over $100.

When it comes to voluntary poverty, I think the best rule of thumb would be to adopt the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi as a guiding light in all things material. For instance, I don't think St. Francis would go to the mall to buy clothes but would go with me to the thrift store. He would buy his food from the scratch and dent store. It doesn't take much for me to imagine these things because I see religious from various orders who take vows of poverty and live that spirit of St. Francis. I can also look to Pope Francis as an example of voluntary poverty.

Finally, there are those things that I call the "small luxuries" in life. A life of perpetual austerity is not Catholic but Puritan. The small luxuries I enjoy in life are listening to the radio, having a beer, drinking coffee, or reading a used book from the Friends of the Library sale. A small luxury is something that is not expensive but still enjoyable. When I look at and reflect upon the poor around the world, I am always amazed at how they can snatch some joy in even the most miserable of circumstances.  So many of our pleasures today are derived from those small luxuries. Music springs readily to mind as the most potent example. Whether it is jazz, the blues, blue grass, or some choral melody, music overwhemingly finds its birth among the poor. The same can be said for food and drink as most ethnic food is merely the homecooking of poor people from foreign countries.

To pursue voluntary poverty is to be poor in material things but to be rich towards God. The thing that you will discover is that you become more alive when you give of yourself. As it says in the St. Francis prayer, ". . .it is in giving that we receive." I can honestly say that I have received back way more than I have given in this path of voluntary poverty. This receiving is not monetary like the prosperity evangelists preach but in joy and comfort and goodwill from those I have helped and from the smile I know that I put on God's face when I did something good for someone. There is joy in almsgiving and works of mercy. It is way more fun than being a really bad golfer or allowing a motorcycle to rust in a garage as you drink yourself to sleep watching a ball game each weekend.