I heard a nurse speak about her missionary work in Africa. She worked in several former Portuguese colonies, such as Cape Verde, and was telling us about how the poverty there touched her in a positive way.
“I’m not talking about misery… there is a difference between poverty and misery. I also saw misery there. Now I’m talking about poverty.”
She meant poverty in the simplicity of the people, their detachment from material goods, their openness to others. “The toys,” she said, “My children have so, so, so many toys. Those children did not have toys. They played with what they found outside.”
This made immediate sense to me. The Church has always valued poverty. It’s an Evangelical counsel (CCC 915). Christ was born in poverty, lived in poverty, died in poverty.
A Tale of Two Houses
I recently went to a friend’s house for the first time. I was impressed beyond measure by how much effort she put into her family and her house, something especially rare here in Portugal. She is not living in her ideal house, but rather in an apartment too small for her growing family, but she does the best she could with her conditions. It was four o’clock and she had her dining room table already set for dinner because after she picked up her children from school it would be “too difficult”. There was a nice tablecloth, full place settings and two taper candlesticks. Her one-year-old was wearing a dress and nice shoes and even my friend looked put together. She brought out toys she thought my kids would like and brought out her guitar and sang some songs while her one-year-old danced. She insisted on making me a coffee. I especially liked a little corkboard she had made in her hallway with papers and coloring sheets about virtues for her kids.
I left feeling refreshed and my heart full.
This experience contrasted with most other houses I go to, but one, in particular, stands out to me. At this house, there is a deep feeling of misery that seems to permeate the air. The house is not dirty or disorganized, but you can tell things are not personal. You can tell things were not carefully chosen, planned with hope and expectation. Things are more thought of for the adults, and for everyone’s pleasure-seeking, with entertainment and electronics at the forefront, and not so much for the kids or the whole family. There is a lot of verbal aggression and a whole lot of projecting the blame for problems to the husband or to the children.
I left feeling like I went to volunteer somewhere and had every ounce of energy taken out of me.
What is the difference between these two houses? I came to the recent conclusion that it is virtue and vice. What makes a person, a family, an environment miserable is the abundance of vice. It is easy to think of the misery in a family with the vice of drug addiction or alcoholism. Those movies come to mind where the addicted parent is so focused on their addiction that children are neglected, forgotten, dirty, hungry and generally not taken care of. Perhaps a good definition of addiction is that the addict is completely focused on serving himself, whereas in the first house I described there was the mark of loving service to the other.
Everyone is an addict in varying degrees. Whether we have a full-blown substance addiction or not, vice is an inner battle we all have to wage or be a slave to. Perhaps it is pornography, an addiction that touches more and more people each day. Perhaps it is food or control of our body through obsessive dietary restrictions and diets. Perhaps it is a TV or the internet. Whatever it is, it is something that is easier. It gives us momentary pleasure and feeds our pleasure-seeking ego. When we reach a bump in the road or times get tough, what can keep us from turning to our familiar vices, turning inward, playing the blame game like Adam and Eve?
The first house I described also housed sinners and weak human beings, just like the houses that permeate misery. However, the sheer amount of WORK and EFFORT that was put into those tiny, personal details of their home, the WORK and EFFORT that went into little, daily habits like dinner together as a family or playing an instrument were noticeable. I know this couple has their faults. However, I also know how much they pray and receive the sacraments.
This is the reverse side of the vice coin: good habits. Try to implement a good habit, like prayer or exercise or getting up early, just try it, for an extended period of time with perseverance and you will see how hard it is. Try to implement a habit when you have kids and it will be a million times harder.
Prayer is a habit. It took me forever to realize this. I have a wonderful booklet called “7 Daily Habits for Faithful Catholics” by the Mary Foundation and it says it might take a year to implement those new habits. I have been trying for a year and a half and still am not able to make prayer a habit like I’d like to. However, I have noticed that the more I am able to pray consistently, the more time I have (the less I waste) and the more likely I am to implement other habits like reading and playing piano that I’d like to implement into my day.
Prayer is the mother of all good habits and the source of energy to do anything remotely good with your day. Without it, you will not be stronger than your vices. With it, you might be able to implement some good habits of self-care and service to others into your day.
Two More Houses
In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s book These Happy Golden Years, she stays in a house which is full of misery and sharply contrasts with her parents’ house, which is full of fiddle-playing and cozy family evenings.
“Mrs Brewster let the housework go. She did no sweep out the snow that Mr Brewster tracked in; it melted and made puddles with the ashes around the stove. She did not make their bed nor even spread it up. Twice a day she cooked potatoes and salt pork and put them on the table. The rest of the time she sat brooding. She did not even comb her hair, and it seemed to Laura that Johnny squalled with temper that whole week. Once Laura tried to play with him, but he only struck at her and Mrs Brewster said angrily, ‘Leave him alone!’ After supper he went to sleep on his father’s knee, and Mr Brewster just sat. The air seemed to smoulder with Mr Brewster’s silence, and he sat, Laura thought, like a bump on a log. She had heard that said, but she had not realized what it meant. A bump on a log does not fight anyone, but it cannot be budged.” (From the chapter “A Stiff Upper Lip”)
“Breakfast was so pleasant. Then briskly, and still talking, Laura and Carrie did the dishes, and went upstairs to make the beds. While they were tucking in a sheet, Laura said, ‘Carrie, do you ever think how lucky we are to have a home like this?’ Carrie looked around her, surprised. There was nothing to be seen but the two beds, the three boxes under the eaves where they kept their things, and the underside of the shingles overhead. There was also the stovepipe that came up through the floor and went out through the roof. ‘It is snug,’ Carrie said, while they spread the first quilt and folded and tucked in its corners. ‘I guess I never did think, exactly.’” (From the chapter “Sleigh bells”)
The home that Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in her books is one marked by poverty and hard times. There is a hard winter when they almost starve to death. Yet there is not an ounce of misery. With the very little they have, they use their material goods for the whole family. They value the little food that Pa is able to provide and Ma prepares with such love and care. We do not hear a word about anyone’s vices, but only of their good habits: prayer and reading the Bible, chores, cooking, cleaning, farm work, sewing, music and singing, reading aloud and poetry.
Let us cultivate this Evangelical counsel of poverty within us by our detachment to material goods and pleasure-seeking in vices. Let us work with grace to cultivate habits and virtues that will bring light to our bodies and to our homes for all the world to see