“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”
-Blessed Teresa of Calcutta
There is a common and yet mistaken idea that poverty is solely a financial state, and that helping the poor consists primarily in providing them with food, clothing, and other material goods. In a way, this idea is understandable, for materials needs are the most easily seen and met.
But there is a second kind of poverty perhaps more devastating than material neediness, a greater and still more tragic poverty—the poverty of soul.
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta saw this second kind of poverty most clearly, and spoke about it often. She knew what it was to work among the truly materially desolate in the slums of India, and yet, among these men, women, and children whom the world would pity, she saw many hearts full of joy, gratitude, and even contentment. In their utter desolateness, many were happy. Paradoxically, it was among the rich of the world, those who had everything materially, that she saw this second poverty in the form of depression, anger, hurt, isolation, loneliness and despair.
Jesus acknowledged that poverty would exist even among material plenty when he said, “The poor you will always have with you.” Some have twisted this into a financial prophecy of sorts, and have used it as an excuse not to help those in need—to their own condemnation, I might add, for the poor are Christ. But Jesus meant something more than the financially poor, although he certainly meant them also. He meant that the needy we will always have with us. And in the materially wealthy West, the needy most often are the emotionally and spiritually hurting.
As evidence of this, I daresay that many of us would be hard pressed to think of anyone we know who is without the necessities of food, clothing, and shelter—and so we think we do not have any poor toward whom we can show compassion. But this simply isn’t true.
I can say confidently that every one of us knows someone who is hurting emotionally—someone who feels abandoned, lost, lonely, doubting, despairing, or hungry for affection—but so often we are ignorant of it because we simply do not take the time to notice or to listen. And the hurting, in their isolation, often put on a mask of happiness so that their pain will not be discovered.
These are the poor and they are Jesus. If we are so self-absorbed that we do not notice, or we notice but do not care, we are quite literally abandoning Christ, and no amount of prayer or work in God’s name will matter to him if we are not serving with love the silently suffering around us.
How frequently, too, are the spiritually poor in our own families. Our husbands, wives, or children are hurting and craving affection, and yet they are the last ones we think of when we think of the needy. They are so close that we no longer see them. We must give ourselves to them with our time and attention.
This is love and it is not easy. In fact, in many ways, it is more taxing than meeting material needs. Distributing our money or possessions—paying the bills or donating to charity, for example—doesn’t cost us nearly as much as giving of our time and emotional energy to listen, and more importantly, to hear, with true understanding. Yet, it is what we must do if we would follow Christ.
Jesus solemnly promised, “When you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.” Let us then pray for hearts overflowing with compassion, so that we can hear and help with joy the hidden Christ veiled in the faces of our friends.