An Experience on Las Ramblas, a Reflection on Poverty

I had an idea to devote the next few entries on this blog to my reflections on the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, which I just professed on August 2nd, exactly a week ago from today. So perhaps it is good timing (and no coincidence) then that I had an experience today which shook me and challenged my own practice of that first vow: Poverty.

I am currently on vacation in Barcelona with some friends. Today is day three of our trip and this afternoon, during a very crowded train ride near Las Ramblas, my wallet was pickpocketed from me. I usually pride myself as a savvy traveller, having lived in New York and traveled extensively for many years. Today was the first time my wallet was stolen directly from my person and I know exactly who it was, since that person seemed unusually touchy when offering his seat to me. I only realized what had happened when I was exiting the train station and I immediately did what one ought to do right away in this situation: I cancelled the two credit cards I had in my wallet. Aside from some Euros, my driver’s license, insurance card, and the two credit cards, I didn’t have anything of monetary value in my wallet. The most significant items for me were relic cards of St. Thérèse and Bl. Solanus Casey.

Though the situation certainly could have been worse – my passport and social security card were safe and sound in the hotel – I immediately became angry, frustrated, and irritable. My friend Ria consoled me when my frustrations turned to myself for being so careless and unaware. As I grew more and more annoyed with myself and as my angry mind went off in every direction, I took a step back and realized that perhaps this is not how I ought to behave as a professed Franciscan friar.

My thoughts then turned to the man who pick pocketed my wallet and I felt pity that he has found himself in a situation that forces him to commit these acts for his personal sustenance. And although the Euros in the wallet were not so much, I imagined that he needed the money more than I do.

I have always found that God communicates to us in many ways, usually very round about ways, and when I was logging in to Facebook to complain to a friend about what just happened to me, I found a post from a fellow friar about today’s Second Reading from the Letter to the Ephesians:

Brothers and sisters:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God,
With which you were sealed for the day of redemption.
All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling
Must be removed from you, along with all malice.
And be kind to one another, compassionate,
Forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.

So be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love,
As Christ loved us and handed himself over for us
As a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.

My friends and I had heard this reading at Mass this morning in the Santuari Sant Antoni de Pàdua here in Barcelona. The Mass was said in Castellano, so I did not know what was being said, apart from the usual responsories and prayers. When I read the readings for today on the USCCB’s website, I was startled by how pertinent the second reading from Ephesians was to my feelings and how great a reminder it was to not be unmoored by experiences such as this. God spoke to us ahead of time, and in Spanish!

I reminded myself of the understanding of Poverty that was cultivated in me during my Novitiate year. In the quiet and security of the Novitiate, I nearly all but abandoned a purely spiritualized and ascetical understanding of Poverty. The reasons for this were manifold. In a certain way, I became more and more aware of the disparity in the etymological, literal definition of “poverty” and the way it is lived out by Franciscans and many other religious orders today. I also came to realize that certain things I took for granted as part and parcel of this life, for instance graduate education, time set aside for prayer, vacation, and even basic necessities like food and shelter, are all but secured for me as a Friar Minor.

And so for me, the question of Poverty was not about a pious exercise in asceticism and a put-on-destitution. Rather, it became a statement, a goal, and a vision that I tried to live out in the Novitiate, however imperfectly, not because I thought God necessitated it, but because I came to realize, through grace, that there are so many of my brothers and sisters out there who have so little and must make do with so much less. For me, it then became a matter of responsible stewardship, of integrity, of solidarity, and of preparedness for an encounter with those who are on the margins, so that when I do meet them, they can recognize in me their brother.

This philosophical/conceptual understanding of Poverty was challenged today. Despite my resolve and desire to identify with those on the margins, my initial reaction to being pickpocketed was anger and frustration. I was angry and frustrated at the man who stole my wallet and I was angry and frustrated at myself for being so careless as to be an easy target for pickpocketing.

And yet in spite of these valid emotional responses, I can appreciate that perhaps this experience was a lesson in Detachment and more importantly, in Integrity. Detachment because I did take the vow of Poverty after all, even though it can sometimes be reduced to an exercise in mental gymnastics, and Integrity because if I say that I am a Friar Minor, then I must behave like a Friar Minor, so that when one of my brothers from the periphery does come to meet me, I may be more generous and more easily identifiable as their brother in Christ. I realize that I have a long way still to go on this journey, and so I ask for prayers so that I may be a better imitator of God and so that I may live in love.

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