To Lack and to Abound: Embracing Poverty in the Palace



Despite my tendency to comment, somewhat frequently (but always in jest) that Notre Dame is much too flat, I would never hesitate to admit that it is, without a doubt, simply beautiful.

I am reminded of this every time I step into the quiet nave of the basilica, pause for a glimpse of Our Lady glimmering atop the dome, or rest for a moment on the edge of St. Mary’s Lake. These are some of the many priceless treasures of Notre Dame. But in early fall and late spring in particular, this beauty is enhanced by the fact that campus (with the exception of anything within 100 feet of Campus Crossroads) is always immaculately groomed. The sidewalks are polished, the grass unfailingly trimmed, and the yellow brick buildings scrubbed clean.

In a word, campus is—with some notable exceptions—beautiful. But as I move from building to building throughout the day, I am often forced to note that this beauty cannot be attributed only to the natural charm of the lakes and the trees or even to the historic grandeur of the basilica or the Main Building. Undeniably, what contributes to and enhances the aesthetic appeal of Notre Dame is the sheer lavishness of everything.

I mention this because I believe that it is one of the primary, though typically overlooked, challenges of being a Notre Dame student. I am not only referring to the well-groomed quads, but to the opulence of everything—from the nearly endless list of fellowships and grants available to the state-of-the-art athletic facilities.

We are tremendously fortunate to live and study in a place that is rich not only in aesthetics but also in opportunities for personal growth and advancement. Money is poured into adorning the flower beds, but it also flows steadily into everything aimed at student success.

My intention here is not to analyze, nor to criticize, Notre Dame’s financial decisions—that is necessary, but inappropriate for this editorial. Nor do I intend to propose that students should not eagerly take advantage of the opportunities that a school with a ten billion dollar endowment offers. What I hope to suggest, however, is that such luxury demands an intense poverty of spirit from students seeking to live authentic Christian lives, as all of us, no matter our state of life, are called to do.  

Christ did not simply instruct His followers to help the poor, though He did insist that service is an indispensable element of discipleship. Notre Dame boasts relentlessly of its commitment to service, and the university’s impact is, without a doubt, impressive. But Christ also exhorted His followers that they must be poor themselves. “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me,” He said (Matthew 19:21). And later, “I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” (Matthew 19:24).

I have often wondered: if we are to take the Gospel seriously and become true imitators of Christ, who was born into the poverty of a feeding trough and who died naked, alone, and abandoned on the cross, how can we live comfortably amid the opulence of Notre Dame? How can we not be somewhat uneasy as we survey the overabundance of options in South Dining Hall or return in the afternoon to the plush corridors of our residence halls?

There are hundreds of saints whose lives offer responses to this question, but the most satisfying answer that I have encountered was in a figure who is unknown to most, but whose name might be familiar to many readers of the Rover. Saint Jeanne Jugan, known in religion as Sister Mary of the Cross, is the humble foundress of the Little Sisters of the Poor. She died in 1879 in obscurity, more than a quarter of a century after a cleric had stripped her of the title of foundress and given authority within the order to younger sisters.

More recently, the congregation has been featured frequently in the Rover as a champion of religious liberty, so I will not dwell on St. Jeanne Jugan’s biography or on the Little Sisters’ recent dealings with the judiciary. To summarize briefly, the Little Sisters, whose unwavering refusal to violate their Catholic faith in the face of the HHS Mandate led them to the Supreme Court and made them the unlikely focus of media attention, were also the recipients of the Center for Ethics and Culture’s Evangelium Vitae Medal in the spring of 2016.

Since working for the Little Sisters two summers ago, I have discovered that I am part of a small but extremely dedicated group devoted to St. Jeanne Jugan. Among us are the Little Sisters themselves, as well as many priests, religious, and laity who have recognized the immense wisdom of St. Jeanne Jugan’s life, which, I believe, could be summarized in that simple phrase from the Gospel: poverty of spirit.

“It is so good to be poor, to have nothing, to await all from God,” St. Jeanne Jugan rejoiced. This notion of total dependence upon God is the essence of her life and the answer to my question about embracing true poverty in a place where warm bagels can be delivered to residence halls and students can choose between more than sixty study abroad programs. It refers to a poverty that is ultimately not material, though it is not unrelated to material poverty. It is a poverty that perceives all things, including the circumstances—both positive and negative—of one’s life, as coming from God, continually blesses Him for them, and seeks simplicity and, ultimately, sanctity within them.

In his biography of St. Jeanne Jugan, Poor in Spirit, Gabriel-Marie Cardinal Garrone defines spiritual poverty as consisting not so much in love for the poor, nor even in material deprivation, as society so often suggests. “The resignation of oneself into the hands of God is obviously not what most people would regard as the first, or principal, still less indispensable, aspect of poverty … When people, as now, so imperiously demand it of the Church, this is certainly not what they have in mind … Either they think of poverty as material deprivation or, if any motive for this is envisaged, they talk of love: love for the poor, love for Christ. To be poor is to want to be detached from one’s possessions; to want to identify with the poor in the life they live and to want to imitate Christ in love.”

This understanding of poverty, Cardinal Garrone continues, is noble, but it is nevertheless incomplete. “Where people go wrong is in ignoring the essential quality of poverty,” he explains, “which consists in ‘finding God enough’ for our life, in trusting him to support us, in refusing to rely on material things for the props that they are naturally supposed to afford us; it means making God the sure foundation which we need if we are to keep our balance and make progress along the road of life.”    

He sums up true spiritual poverty in the words of Saint Paul: “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound; in any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want,” (Philippians 4:12). “The essence of poverty, Cardinal Garrone concludes, “does not lie in loving, though loving is what inspires it and forms its basis, but in the act of ‘faith’, in the grand biblical sense, in the fatherhood of God as sufficient for sustaining our existence.”

Recently canonized Mother Teresa of Calcutta offers a similar reflection: “If Jesus puts you in the palace, be all for Jesus in the palace, and if He takes your life and cuts it up into 1,000 pieces, they are all His.”

No matter where they come from, students arrive at Notre Dame and find themselves in the palace. For some, our call might be like Mother Teresa’s—to renounce the luxury of the palace for the material poverty of the streets. But for many others, we are called to embrace the poverty of being “all for Jesus” within the confines of the palace—not only through acts of service to the poor and to our peers, but also in “awaiting all from God” as St. Jeanne Jugan urged.

This is truly how we learn to “be abased” and to “abound.” It is the difficult spiritual poverty of accepting joyfully the circumstances in which God places us and making Him, rather than any material possessions or even any human being, the sure foundation of our lives. If we are able to repeat, with St. Jeanne Jugan, “Blessed be God!” to all that befalls us, our lives have the potential to be abundantly fruitful.

Nicole O’Leary is a junior theology and history major living in McGlinn Hall. Hearing Archbishop Chaput speak on campus was a dream come true for her. Share in her joy by contacting her at noleary@nd.edu.

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