I was thrilled to meet Pope Francis in a private audience at the Vatican last week.
My friend, the Rev. Richard Rohr, needed a traveling companion to push his wheelchair, and I happily tagged along as part of his entourage to meet the Pope. Rohr is a Catholic theologian known for confronting the social justice issues of our time and sparking a renewal of contemplative Christian practices.
It was an honor to be at the meeting between the two men and their similarities struck me deeply. Both revere St. Francis of Assisi and share a vision of a more inclusive and contemplative Catholic Church that is less about judging and more about loving.
Yet they radically differ in their lifestyles: One lives in the Vatican surrounded by priceless art with control over a global financial empire. The other lives amid the poor in Albuquerque.
As an investment adviser and former Benedictine monk, I feel pulled toward both worlds. So which is the better path to follow, wealth and power, or voluntary simplicity?
On the one hand, the energy of money can seem miraculous. We can have almost anything we desire with enough wealth. I’m writing this article from a 5-star hotel in Italy after a day at the spa and a four-course meal, and having spent 20 years in poverty as a monk, I must confess that the gilded life is way more fun.
Money is also an essential tool for selfless service, love, and compassionate action. Without some wealth, it is hard to feed the poor or tend to the sick.
Of course, the flip side of this is the damage money can do in the wrong hands. Every week, there seems to be another billionaire who inflicts unnecessary suffering on the world through his or her narcissism.
Voluntary simplicity, on the other hand, tempers our delusions of grandeur, conserves the planet’s resources and allows us to live in solidarity with the poor. It makes us more conscious of the glaring inequities summed up by a study in MIT News: in the U.S. today, the wealthiest 1 percent live almost 13 years longer on average than the poorest 1 percent.
Compassion means “to suffer with,” and poverty nurtures compassion and humility, which are essential to spiritual maturity.
However, rejection of money can also produce a spiritual ego that is hard to eliminate.
For example, a monk in my community refused to touch money for years because he believed it polluted the soul. But for his hands to stay clean, the rest of us needed to handle money more often and work harder to keep the community financially afloat, which was hardly selfless of this pious monk.
To make things worse, he also became increasingly self-righteous. I’ve often found that the price of piety is chronic irritability.
So, who to emulate – the Pope or the pauper?
Perhaps it’s not a dualistic choice. Instead, our contemplative wisdom traditions can help us overcome the desire to make this a simple black or white issue.
Despite their differences in power and wealth, it seems that Pope Francis and Father Rohr both have learned the way of non-attachment. They appear to have a healthy relationship with money and status, which they use to serve the world without attaching their ego to any of it.
Both use their platforms to offer spiritual guidance to millions of people, and to weigh in on issues of justice and human dignity. Neither is attached to having a soft bed or an elaborate meal, but they don’t disavow the occasional luxury, either.
Both have found a way to let the energy of money flow in harmony with the power of love, which is a middle way we could all embrace without reducing the issue of wealth to a false dualism that is likely to produce unnecessary suffering for ourselves and the world.
The Pope and the pauper show us that there is no correlation between your socioeconomic status and spiritual maturity. You don’t have to choose between wealth or poverty to develop a rich and meaningful spiritual practice — the only choice is to be kind and loving, regardless of your income.
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