If you’re going to voluntarily live poor, there are right and wrong ways to do it.
1 After these answers, we must make a consideration of the ways in which devotees of voluntary poverty must live.
2 Now, the first way, that is, for all to live in common on the proceeds of possessions that are sold, is one which will work, but not for a long time. So, the Apostles instituted this way of living for the faithful in Jerusalem, because they foresaw through the Holy Spirit that they would not remain together for long in Jerusalem, both because of the persecutions to come from the Jews, and because of the imminent destruction of the city and its people. As a result, it was not necessary to provide for the faithful, except for a short time. Consequently, when they went out to other peoples, among whom the Church was to be established and to continue to endure, there is no account of their establishing this mode of living.
3 But the fraud which can be committed by the distributors is no argument against this way of life. For, this is common to all modes of living in which people dwell together—less so, in this way, since it seems more difficult for followers of perfection in life to commit fraud. Also, a remedy is provided against this, in the prudent selection of trustworthy distributors. Thus, under the Apostles, Stephen and others were chosen who were deemed worthy of this office (Acts 6:3ff).
Notes Besides, we all need accountants.
4 Then, the second way is also suitable for those who embrace voluntary poverty: that is, for them to live on common possessions.
5 Nor is any of the perfection to which devotees of voluntary poverty tend lost by this way. For it is possible for it to be arranged that possessions be obtained in a proper manner through the effort of one of them, or of a small number of men, and so the others who remain without solicitude for temporal things may freely give their time to spiritual matters, which is the fruit of voluntary poverty. Nor, in fact, do those who take over this solicitude for the others lose anything of their perfection of life, because what they appear to lose by a lack of free time they gain in the service of charity, in which perfection of life also consists.
6 Nor, indeed, in this way of life, is concord taken away as a result of common possessions. People should embrace voluntary poverty who are of the type that hold temporal things in contempt, and such people cannot disagree about temporal goods that are common, especially since they ought to look for nothing from these temporal things except the necessities of life, and, besides, the distributors ought to be trustworthy. Nor can this way of life be disapproved because certain people abuse it, for bad men use even good things badly, just as good men use bad things in a good way.
7 Moreover, the third way of living is appropriate to those who embrace voluntary poverty; namely, they may live by the labor of their hands.
8 Indeed, it is not foolish to give away temporal things so that they may again be acquired by manual labor, as the first argument to the contrary suggested, because the possession of riches required solicitude in getting them, or even in keeping them, and they attracted the love of man to them; and this does not happen when a person applies himself to the gaining of his daily bread by manual labor.
9 Besides, it is clear that but a little time is enough for the acquisition of food sufficient for the support of nature by means of manual labor, and not much solicitude is needed. However, to amass riches or to acquire a large amount of supplies, as worldly workmen propose, requires the spending of much time and the application of great care. In this, the answer to the second argument is evident.
10 However, we should bear in mind that the Lord in the Gospel did not prohibit labor, but only mental solicitude for the necessities of life. For He did not say: “Do not work,” but, rather: “Be not solicitous.”
This He proves from a weaker case. For, if birds and lilies are sustained by divine providence, things which are of lower estate and unable to labor at those tasks whereby men gain their living, it is much more likely that He will provide for men who are of more worthy estate and to whom He has given the capacity to seek their livelihood through their own labors. Thus, it is not necessary to be afflicted by anxious concern for the needs of this life. Hence, it is evident that there is nothing derogatory to this way of life in the words of the Lord which were cited.
11 Nor, in fact, can this way of living be rejected because it is inadequate. The fact that in a few cases a man may be unable to gain what suffices for the needs of life by manual labor alone is due either to sickness or some like disability. However, an arrangement is not to be rejected because of a defect which occurs rarely, for such things happen in nature and in the order of voluntary acts. Nor is there any way of living whereby things may be so arranged that failure cannot occur at times, for even riches can be taken away by theft or robbery; so, also, the man who lives from the work of his hands can grow feeble.
Yet there is a remedy in connection with the way of life that we are talking about; namely, that help be given him whose labor is not enough to provide his living, either by other men in the same society who can do more work than is necessary for them or else by those who have riches. This is in accord with the law of charity and natural friendship whereby one man comes to the assistance of another who is in need. Hence, while the Apostle said, in 2 Thessalonians (3:10): “if any man will not work, neither let him eat”—for the sake of those who are not able to gain a living by their own labor—he adds a warning to others, saying: “But you, brethren, be not weary in well doing” (2 Thes. 3:13).
Notes In “compassion” this first verse is oft forgotten. Indeed, entire countries build systems of no-questions-asked (as it were) welfare, with all the predictable deleterious effects.
12 Moreover, since a few things suffice for the needs of life, those who are satisfied with little need not spend a great deal of time in gaining what is necessary by manual labor. So, they are not much hindered from the spiritual works on account of which they embraced voluntary poverty, especially since, while working with their hands, they may think about God and praise Him and do other practices like this which people living alone should do. However, so that they may not altogether be precluded from spiritual works, they can also be helped by the benefactions of the rest of the faithful.
13 Now, although voluntary poverty is not adopted for the purpose of getting rid of idleness or controlling the flesh by manual work, since this even possessors of riches could do, there is no doubt that manual labor is useful for that purpose, even without the need of gaining a living. However, idleness can be avoided by other more useful occupations, and concupiscence of the flesh conquered by stronger remedies. Hence, the need to work does not apply, for these reasons, to people who have, or can have, other means on which they may properly live. For, only the necessity of livelihood forces one to work with his hands, and thus the Apostle says, in II Thessalonians (3:10): “if any man will not work, neither let him eat.”
14 The fourth way of living, from those things that are offered by others, is also suitable for those who embrace voluntary poverty.
15 For, it is not inappropriate that he who has given away his own goods for the sake of an objective which contributes to the benefit of others should be supported by the gifts of these others. Indeed, unless this were so, human society could not endure, because, if every man took care of his own possessions only, there would be no one to serve the common welfare. So, it is quite fitting to human society that those who have set aside concern for their own goods, and who serve the common welfare, should be supported by those whose welfare they serve. Indeed, it is for this same reason that soldiers live on stipends paid by others and that the rulers of a republic are provided for from the common funds. As a matter of fact, those who adopt voluntary poverty in order to follow Christ renounce all things so that they may serve the common welfare, enlightening the people by their wisdom, learning, and examples, or strengthening them by prayer and intercession.
16 As a result, it is clear that there is nothing disgraceful in their living on the gifts of others, because they make a greater return: on their part, receiving temporal support; but in regard to others, contributing to progress in spiritual matters. Hence, the Apostle says, in 2 Corinthians (8:14): “Let your abundance,” that is, in temporal things, “supply their want,” of the same things, “that their abundance,” that is, in spiritual goods, “also may supply your want.” For he who helps another shares in his work, both in its good and in its evil.
17 Now, by their examples they incite others to virtue, for it develops that those who profit by their examples become less attached to riches when they observe other people completely abandoning their wealth for the sake of perfection in life. But the less a man loves riches, and the more intent on virtue he is, the more readily, also, does he distribute his wealth for the needs of others. As a result, those who embrace voluntary poverty and live on the gifts of others, rather than causing loss to the poor by taking the benefactions which would support the lives of others, become more beneficial to other poor people, because they by words and examples stimulate other men to works of mercy.
Notes On the other hand, every man cannot and should not be a priest.
18 Moreover, it is clear that men of perfect virtue, such as they must be who adopt voluntary poverty, since they hold riches in contempt, do not lose their freedom of mind because of the petty amount that they accept from others for the maintenance of life. As a matter of fact, a man does not lose his independence of mind unless it be because of things which are dominant in his affections. Hence, a man does not lose his independence because of things he despises, even if they are given to him.
Notes Accept only small gifts!
19 Now, although the maintenance of those who live on the gifts of others depends on the will of the givers, this is not, for that reason, an inadequate way of supporting the life of Christ’s poor. For it does not depend on the will of one man but on the will of many. Hence, it is not probable that, among the vast number of the faithful, there would not be many people who would readily supply the needs of those whom they hold in reverence because of the perfection of their virtue.
20 Nor is it unfitting for them to declare their needs and ask for what is necessary, whether for others or for themselves. Indeed, we read that even the Apostles did this: not only did they receive what was necessary from those to whom they preached, which was rather a matter of rightful authority than of mendicancy, because of the rule of the Lord that they who serve, “the gospel should live by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:13-14), but they also did it for the poor who were in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27ff .; 2 Cor. 8 and 9) and who, having given up their possessions, were living in poverty, yet were not preaching to the Gentiles; rather, their spiritual manner of living entitled them to such support.
Hence, the Apostle urges, not as a matter of obligation but of good will on the part of the givers (2 Cor. 9:7), the aiding of such people by means of alms; and this is nothing but begging. Now, this begging does not make men objects of contempt, provided it is done with moderation, for need and not to excess, and without undue insistence, with consideration for the circumstances of the persons from whom the request is made, and for the place and time—all of which must be observed by those devoted to perfection in life.
21 As a result, it is clear that such begging has no appearance of the disgraceful. It would have, if it were done with insistence and lack of discretion for the sake of pleasure or superfluity.
22 Of course, it is evident that mendicancy is associated with a certain humiliation. For, as to suffer an action is less noble than to do it, so to receive is less noble than to give, and to be ruled and obedient is less noble than to govern and command, although by virtue of some added circumstance this evaluation may be reversed.
23 However, it is the mark of humility to accept humiliations without hesitation; not in all cases, of course, but when it is necessary. For, since humility is a virtue, it does not work without discretion.
So, it is not proper to humility, but to stupidity, for a man to accept every kind of humiliation, but what must be done for the sake of virtue a person does not reject because of humiliation.
For example, if charity demands that some humiliating duty be performed for a neighbor, one will not refuse it through humility. Therefore, if it is necessary for the adoption of the perfection of the life of poverty that a man beg, then to suffer this humiliation is proper to humility. Sometimes, too, it is virtuous to accept humiliations even though our job does not require it, in order by our example to encourage others who have such a burden, so that they may bear it readily. For, a general may at times serve like an ordinary soldier, in order to spur on others.
Sometimes, moreover, we use humiliations virtuously for their medicinal value. For instance, if a man’s mind is prone to undue pride, he may make beneficial use, in due moderation, of humiliations, either self-imposed or caused by others, in order to restrain this tendency to pride, provided that through bearing these things he puts himself on a level, as it were, with even the lowliest men who perform low-grade tasks.
Notes You do not always turn the other cheek.
24 Now, the error of those who regard all solicitude for the gaining of a living for oneself as forbidden by God is altogether unreasonable. Indeed, every act requires solicitude. So, if a man ought to have no concern for corporeal things, then it follows that he ought not to be engaged in corporeal action, but this is neither possible nor reasonable. In fact, God has ordained activity for each thing in accord with the proper perfection of its nature.
Now, man was made with a spiritual and bodily nature. So, he must by divine disposition both perform bodily actions and keep his mind on spiritual things. However, this way of human perfection is not such that one may perform no bodily actions, because, since bodily actions are directed to things needed for the preservation of life, if a man fail to perform them he neglects his life which every man is obliged to preserve.
Now, to look to God for help in those matters in which a man can help himself by his own action, and to omit one’s own action, is the attitude of a fool and a tempter of God. Indeed, this is an aspect of divine goodness, to provide things not by doing them directly, but by moving others to perform their own actions, as we showed above. So. one should not look to God in the hope that, without performing any action by which one might help oneself, God will come to one’s aid, for this is opposed to the divine order and to divine goodness.
25 But since, in spite of our having the power to act, we do not have the power to guarantee the success of our actions in attaining their proper end, because of impediments which may occur, this success that may come to each man from his action lies within the disposition of divine providence. Therefore, the Lord commands us not to be solicitous concerning what pertains to God, namely, the outcome of our actions. But He has not forbidden us to be concerned about what pertains to us, namely, our own work.
So, he who is solicitous about things that he can do does not act against the Lord’s precept. Rather, he does who is solicitous concerning the things which can result, even if he carries out his own actions, so that he omits the actions that are required to avoid these eventualities, against which we must rather place our hope in God’s providence, by which even the birds and the flowers are supported. To have solicitude of this kind seems to pertain to the error of the Gentiles who deny divine providence. This is why the Lord concludes that we must not be “solicitous for tomorrow.” He did not forbid us, by this injunction, from taking care in time of the things necessary for the future, but, rather, from being concerned about future events in despair of divine help. Or, perhaps, He forbade preoccupation today with the solicitude which one should have tomorrow, for each day has its own concerns; hence, He adds: “Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof” (Mat. 6:34).
26 And thus, it is clear that those who adopt voluntary poverty can live in various appropriate ways. Among these ways, that is more praiseworthy which makes man’s mind free, to a greater degree, from solicitude about temporal matters and from activity in connection with them.