My friend Karen (you can read more about her and her beautiful book at the end of this post) has provided this post, describing a story of personal transformation. Through financial crisis, she learned an important lesson we all need.
This year, during Easter Vigil at Old St. Pats Catholic church in Chicago, I sat in the wooden pew as the Light of Christ was carried slowly and reverently up the aisle by Father Hurley. The flickering flame cast shadows on the intricately painted walls and ceiling and my thoughts wandered to a year ago, in the same service, when I was confirmed as a Catholic.
My husband and I had been attending Old St. Pats for about five years before I finally made the decision to make it official. Having grown up Protestant (Baptist, to be exact), I’ve reveled in the richness of the Catholic rituals, symbols, customs and Sacraments that hold so much meaning and give my faith ballast.
One Catholic custom is to choose a confirmation name–usually the name of a saint that you admire and want to emulate. After much deliberation, I chose the confirmation name of Clare, after St. Clare of Assisi.
I chose the name because St. Clare was a follower of St. Francis of Assisi, and like him, she gave up her wealth and status to devote her life to God. She founded a religious order that later became known as the “Poor Clares.” They lived without money, wore no shoes, ate no meat, and lived in a poor house.
We admire people–like saints, and those in religious orders–who take vows of poverty. But not many of us, short of joining a religious order, choose to be poor. I certainly didn’t choose it. In fact, I’ve spent my whole life terrified of ending up on the streets, and working hard to try to create material security and abundance.
But in 2009, like many Americans, I lost my job due to the lousy economy. For 10 long months I couldn’t find work. My husband was in school, in the process of changing careers, so we were without income for almost a year. We had very little money in reserves. There were times when I felt like I was just a few financial steps away from being the woman begging on the street corner, or the homeless person walking with a cardboard sign through the line of cars stopped at an intersection.
David and I limped along until I found a long-term contract job, and David finished school and found some part-time jobs. Eventually, thankfully, we were both working full-time, but our time of unemployment had set us back. We had debt, and now we had to work our way out of it.
Our financial crisis shook me to the core. But after I spent a few weeks panicking, I was overcome with peace. One of my worst fears had come true, but we were still alive, we were healthy, we had each other. The sun still came up every morning. We had family and friends who loved us and who could take us in, if needed.
I started paying attention. As the months wore on and we were scraping the bottom of our bank account and taking money from my (small) 401(k) to pay the mortgage, I began realizing how tightly I had been clinging to the idea of money as the key to an abundant life. I was on a treadmill running faster and faster, and working harder and harder to accumulate more “stuff” to create a comfortable existence and to buy myself a happy life. When I got off the treadmill, I realized all of my frantic striving hadn’t been working. No matter how hard David and I worked, no matter how well we budgeted, or how much education we had (I have a master’s degree, my husband has two), it wouldn’t guarantee an abundant life.
We Americans like to believe we can always pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Now I know that’s not true. We don’t always have that much control. We can’t control housing prices (the value of our condo has plummeted 50 percent since the recession), we can’t control the economy, and we don’t have total control over our health or whether our employer chooses to lay off workers to keep the company solvent.
What a relief. I finally understood that it wasn’t all up to me. That something–or Someone–was in control, and I wasn’t.
As the months wore on, I also noticed that I was looking at those around me differently.
Whereas before I felt compassion for the homeless, and often tossed spare change into their paper cups, now I feel a kindred spirit. I didn’t know what it was like to live on the streets, but during my unemployment, I started understanding what financial desperation looked like.
My deepening compassion was something I wanted. And it was something I wanted more than I wanted a new couch or a bigger house.
In Luke 12:32-33, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is the father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms . . .” (New Revised Standard Version).
It’s interesting that he tells us to “sell our possessions” directly after talking about how God wants to give us the kingdom. Could these two things be related?
Richard Rohr writes:
“We are at a symbolic disadvantage as a wealthy culture. Jesus said that the rich man or woman will find it hard to understand what he is talking about. The rich can satisfy their loneliness and longing in false ways, in quick fixes that avoid the necessary learning. In terms of soul work, we dare not get rid of the pain before we have learned what it has to teach us. That’s why the poor have a head start . . . They remain empty whether they want to or not . . . We must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit upon a new shore and understand our call.”
During my unemployment, I went inside the belly of the whale and tried to learn what it had to teach me. I was spit upon a new shore a changed person.
I chose the name Clare as my confirmation name because I wanted to be reminded of what I had learned during our financial crisis. And I wanted the example of St. Clare to be a guide as I swam (and continue to swim) against the raging waters of this culture that places so much value on material wealth, status, and success. Those things run like sand through our fingers–and can come and go so quickly–even as we try to cling to them so tightly.
“Behold, what I have desired, I now see; what I have hoped for, I now possess,” wrote St. Clare after she left her worldly possessions behind and committed her life to God. “I am joined to him in heaven, whom I have loved on earth with my whole heart. I am espoused to him whom the angels serve, whose beauty the sun and moon admire.”
On the night of my confirmation, as the light of Christ cast shadows on the walls and ceiling, the priest anointed me with oil by making a sign of the cross on my forehead as he said, “Karen Clare Beattie. Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” I can still feel the warm oil on my forehead.
Karen Beattie is author of Rock-Bottom Blessings: Discovering God’s Abundance When All Seems Lost (Loyola Press). She lives in Chicago with her husband and 3-year-old daughter.
© 2013 Amy Simpson.