3 Nov 2011

Feeling the Financial Pinch? Read the Wife of Bath's Tale for Wisdom about Poverty

My husband and I are by no means economically poor. We own a home. We both are professionals employed full time. We are not worried about being laid off. We have health insurance. We do not use credit cards. We do not worry about making our mortgage payments or paying for groceries. And yet, like so many Americans, we are pinched. Right now, we need to replace our oven, our washing machine and, we just found out today, the engine on our used minivan. (That will cost us $2,100. Yikes.)

It's easy for both of us to feel burdened by the bills, to focus on how we are getting by instead of ahead financially. It can feel suffocating when I start to define myself by the bills we owe.

Thank God for the gift of literature. My high school juniors are reading Geoffrey Chaucer's  Canterbury Tales, the medieval story about 29 pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. He paints a portrait of life in 14th century England and directs much criticism at the corruption of the Church. His characters are so vivid, so true to life, it is easy to forget his pilgrims are merely a product of his imagination. I begin to think these pilgrims truly existed. As they journey, they tell stories to while away their time.

The wisdom found in the Wife of Bath's Tale, as she speaks of the value of poverty, spoke to my heart from across the centuries. Today we read these words out loud. (This is a Modern English translation of the original, which is in Middle English.)


True poverty, it sings right naturally;
Juvenal gaily says of poverty:
'The poor man, when he walks along the way,
Before the robbers he may sing and play.'

Poverty's odious good, and, as I guess,
It is a stimulant to busyness;
A great improver, too, of sapience
In him that takes it all with due patience.

Poverty's this, though it seem misery-
Its quality may none dispute, say I.
Poverty often, when a man is low,
Makes him his God and even himself to know.

And poverty's an eye-glass, seems to me,
Through which a man his loyal friends may see. 

How ironic that the Wife of Bath, a bawdy fictional character, led me tonight to meditate on the words of Monsignor Giussani:  
 
"To make us rich (God) came to share our poverty. He could have
descended to earth and changed us completely, given us wealth in a flash and then gone away again. Instead he did not, he descended to earth and became poor like us. Charity is to share."


And so tonight I realize that to be human is to be truly poor. To be human is to be a question in search of an answer. We will always be poor in our hearts during this life because our longings will ultimately be fulfilled only when we enter the Mystery and see God face to face. Today's financial struggles merely are a reminder of my true nature and my ultimate destiny.

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