I lives ‘neath the arches, unheard and unseen.
I once craved a palace and got me a box,
I longed for the good life but just took the knocks.
I’m a lonely no-hoper, a blot on the land
A cause without meaning what don’t understand
Why you can’t beg a penny, while luggin’ yer bags
Cos they say you’ll just blow it on booze and on fags!
Yes, I’m just a Bag Lady from Paddington Green
I live’s ‘neath the arches unheard and unseen.
Excerpt from ‘The SMart Review’, by Maureen Grayson
St Francis was the son of a rich cloth merchant, and he lived a privileged life until he encountered a poor knight. He was so moved with compassion that he exchanged clothes with the knight. Some- time later, instead of riding into battle, Francis fell ill. A voice told him to return and “serve the Master rather than the man”. So he obeyed, and back home he sought solitude walking in the hills. When he met a leper he was again so overcome with compassion that he gave him all the money he carried with him. This was the beginning of a way into a different kind of life. Francis began to visit hospitals, and the shelter for lepers which was a place avoided by everyone who could. On a pilgrimage to Rome he exchanged clothes with one of the beggars there, and then he stood and begged all day, thus experiencing the disgrace of being poor. When he had begun to live a life in poverty his father disinherited him and he then was truly a beggar for the cause of God. He even stripped himself publicly naked to return to his father the clothes he wore because, as Francis said, “my clothes also belong to him”.
Who, I ask you, would have the courage to do these things in the western world today? Giving away all the money I carry with me, swapping the clothes I wear, and literally stripping naked is not my idea of the Glorious Christian Life. Quite apart from the fact that this might upset the people in the immediate environment this may also have wider implications. Imagine a person is employed by someone who is immorally making money and finds out. He quits his job since he does not wish to be part of it, but he will still have to suffer the consequences. When that man applies for benefits the result may be a reduction of money on the grounds that it was the man’s own fault that he became unemployed. This event could very easily lead into an ever tightening spiral of poverty and exclusion and we may then find him as a rough sleeper.
Recently I met one of the residents of the hostel opposite St Matthew’s, and I got to talking to him and listening to his story. From his story it emerged how a person can be decent one moment, and homeless and destitute the next. Without a bit of money and a passport a man is literally a non-person in the eyes of the authorities and the world. Some years ago I was house-sitting with my husband at a friend’s and was burgled. Among other things the thief stole were our passports. Of course I was still respectable in the usual sense, but the feeling of being bereft, poor and non-existent was not very nice and nowadays I would avoid anything like it at all costs.
How different the attitude of Francis:
“If I am truly poor, then I am dependent on others for everything, and I feel useless and worthless, and I realize deep within that everything is a gift from the Father. Then in this attitude of dependence, I become useful again, for then I am empty of selfishness...
I write these words in pain, Lady Poverty, for I have wept bitter tears because I was poor and had to beg from others, and I felt like a burden to people and God ... And I have grown weary of Christ’s words not to worry about tomorrow”. Murray Bodo (From the Northumbria Community’s Meditation for the day of the month)
What does this mean for us today in a world of affluence and free market? How can a person be rich and poor at the same time? The United Nations have a set of descriptions for poverty. Extreme poverty is when people live on less than $ 1 per day. Absolute poverty is a little less harsh as it describes a state where a number of material things we consider necessary for a civilized life are missing but the basics are still there. Another kind of poverty takes into account other issues that determine whether a person is poor or not, such as for example a lack of relationships or the inability to travel. Under the latter description may even count a person who is financially rich.
The rich young man (Luke 18:22) also comes to my mind as having a different kind of poverty. Clearly he had all we can think of that makes for a good life: a good position in society, no material want and a faith he followed literally to the letter. At that time it was believed that material wealth and a good life indicated that a person was blessed by God. So, like young Francis, he had it all. But Jesus points out that to love God means to go beyond the call of duty and be generous to a fault. I do not think Jesus means we all should make ourselves deliberately destitute. But what this story illustrates is that God’s desire for us is that we should be dependent on Him alone, and not succumb to the assumption that having money will protect us or keep us in good standing.
Apart from financial and food poverty, what other kinds of deprivation can we think of? As a church we are called to look after the ‘widows and orphans’ in this world. This may not literally mean seeking out these particular groups of people, but what it means is to give, in Christ’s words, food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty; to visit the sick and the prisoners (Matthew 25:35-36). That would also include people who live alone and have no one to visit them, the housebound, the mentally ill and many others. Where are these people? They may come to St. Matthew’s or they may live opposite or next to you. They may also live at the other side of the world.
What they have in common is that they all lack something the rest of us may take for granted, such as food, clothing, a home or companionship – or all of these. There is no rule to it except that we are called to share whatever riches we have with others who are less fortunate. What are the riches we have in the place where we are? These may be very different for everyone but one valuable opportunity often overlooked is time. If money is scarce, and other opportunities do not come to mind, taking time to listen to other people is always welcome – and needed.
Often just having a chat with a stranger on the bus or in the park may be exactly what it means to share the love of Christ in the world. We have a tendency to want to do big things for Christ but I have reluctantly found that the small ones are just as important and joy giving.