Each year, The Yale ISM Review selects a theme drawn from human experience, and asks how sacred music, worship, and the arts illuminate and interact with this theme. The theme of our current issue is poverty—not the sort of spiritual poverty that means simplicity and freedom from material things, but the harsh reality of deprivation and want. Read on to discover how artists, poets, musicians, and liturgists have used their craft to “speak a new word” in a world where poverty and injustice too often reign.
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“Poverty, in the sense of simplicity and freedom from the desire for material wealth, is an ancient virtue and a requirement for the religious life. Poverty, in the sense of deprivation and a depth of suffering inflicted on individuals and vast groups by the negligence and malice of those in positions of abusive power, however, is not to be confused with the understanding of poverty as freedom and simplicity. One form of poverty liberates. The other crushes.”
This observation of Ayla Lepine, in her discussion of church architecture and poverty, sets out one of the tensions discussed in this issue of The Yale ISM Review. To consider poverty, one must acknowledge deep and often complex conditions that cause real human suffering. Yet even in the midst of such conditions, it is possible to discover glimmers of the divine presence. Music, worship, and the arts have the potential to mediate and deepen such discoveries.
Our first three articles arise within specific contexts in the United States. Sara Miles shares her perspective on the Eucharist in connection with her experience of feeding the hungry at her parish in San Francisco. Patrick Jordan writes about Dorothy Day and how liturgical prayer was formative in her life and in the Catholic Worker movement that she co-founded in New York. Ron Jenkins describes what happened to inmates in a Connecticut prison when they read and explored Dante’s Divine Comedy in poetry and drama.
Our next two contributions hail from Central America. Spencer Reece’s translation of a poem (“Los Pobres”) by acclaimed Honduran poet Roberto Sosa, offers us haunting verbal images of life and death among the poor. Carlota Duarte’s reflection on the Chiapas Photography Project, which she began in 1992, introduces us to the hardships as well as the beauty of that region of Mexico. Her article is accompanied by a series of stunning photographic images from the project, whose goals of justice and empowerment reach beyond the art itself.
Faith invites us to step into a new world where the poor, as much as the rich, are valued and respected—as the reign of God requires. We therefore have included four articles that concern how Christians at worship celebrate the reign of God in ways that challenge us concerning poverty.
Hymn writer Adam Tice wrestles with provocative questions about what believers at worship might sing, and to whom our hymn texts are addressed. Are we to sing “blessed are the poor” while omitting “woe to you who are rich”?
Theologian Don Saliers draws our attention to the psalms, and discusses how they reveal a divine preference for the poor. The psalms stand as a powerful witness to this preference. How do we hear their message in cries of desolation and lament?
Ayla Lepine takes us on a tour of several church structures located at crossroads of human need, each revealing a different synthesis of architecture, poverty, and the call to holiness. What sort of story does a chapel made with scrap wood and duct tape by migrants at Calais have to tell?
Finally, Ruth Myers looks at ways that clothing in worship has played a role through the ages in crafting symbolic structures of meaning in communities of faith. From baptismal garments to clerical vesture, how might our decisions about what to wear in worship relate to the church’s mission?
In “One Final Note,” Helen Rhee then changes the direction of our theme by looking not at poverty but at wealth—specifically the role that wealth played in the transformation of early Christian worship. There are moral tensions here, which church theologians and pastors identified from an early date: “Material possessions and wealth in God’s creative intent are not intrinsically evil although through them their possessors may encounter a real and powerful temptation, danger, and a potential for wickedness and destruction.” How they understood and addressed these tensions in a critical time of transition has had consequences ever since.
There are no easy answers to the problems and struggles associated with poverty in the world today. The contributors to this issue of The Yale ISM Review show nonetheless that sacred music, worship, and the arts remain part of our human response and attempts at faithful grappling with this reality. We hope that what you read in these pages will spark new insights and enrich your own views.
People may come to the assembly wearing clothing that reflects their economic status, yet differences of wealth and poverty have no place in the Christian community.
The letter to James admonishes the Christian community: “Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:1–5). People may come to the assembly wearing clothing that reflects their economic status, yet differences of wealth and poverty have no place in the Christian community, says James, reflecting the reversal that is also proclaimed in the song of Mary, “he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 2:53).
The Radical Equality of Baptism
Presenting a vision of radical equality in Christ, in which distinctions are erased, the apostle Paul told the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:27). While there is no indication that baptism in the apostolic age included a literal clothing with garments representing Christ, nor that baptized Christians wore special garb when they assembled, Paul’s assertion that in Christ “there is no longer slave or free” (Gal. 3:28) suggests that divisions arising from class, status, and wealth are overcome in resurrection life in Christ. Clothing serves as a metaphor for a new identity and unity in Christ.
By the fourth century, newly baptized Christians were literally clothed in new garments. At the beginning of the baptismal rite, the candidates stripped off their old clothes and entered the font naked, symbolically dying with Christ. Cyril of Jerusalem interpreted the nakedness of the candidates as an imitation of Christ’s nakedness on the cross. When they came up from the water, resurrected with Christ, the neophytes were clothed in white robes. Cyril explained the symbolism by quoting Isaiah: “He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10). Cyril urged the neophytes to keep their spiritual dress “truly white and shining,” even though they would not always wear white clothing on their bodies. John Chrysostom interpreted the white robe as a sign of Christ, alluding to Galatians 3:27: “Now the neophytes carry Christ himself, not on their clothes, but dwelling in their souls with his Father, and the Holy Spirit has descended on them there.”
During the fourth century, Christians were often baptized at the Easter Vigil, and it became customary for the neophytes to wear their garments throughout the octave of Easter, during which time they received additional teaching. After this first week of baptismal life, new Christians removed their baptismal robes and took their place among the faithful, as Augustine explained, “Today, as you see, our infants mingle with the faithful and fly as it were from the nest.”
The interpretations of the baptismal garment emphasize salvation, resurrection, and new life, rather than signifying economic equality. Yet as a garment common to all newly baptized, the robe also points to unity in Christ in which there are no distinctions among the baptized.
The practice of clothing the newly baptized continued throughout the Middle Ages as infant baptism became normative. The Sarum rite stipulates that the “chrismal robe” is the property of the church and must be returned to the church after the baptism: “the cloth must not be put to common uses, but brought back to the church, and kept for the uses of the church.” Requiring the baptismal garment to be maintained by the church may have served a practical purpose, providing a robe during an era when clothing was very expensive and most people had a very limited wardrobe. Yet a common baptismal garment also reflects the Pauline vision of the unity and equality of Christians as baptized members of Christ.
The Emergence of Distinctive Clerical Vesture
Until the early fifth century, Christians did not adopt vesture that distinguished the presider from other members of the assembly. It is likely that all Christians, including the presider, wore their finest clothes for worship, reflecting both reverence and rejoicing.
When differences in clergy and lay vesture began to emerge in Gaul, Celestine of Rome objected, “The true distinction between a bishop and his flock is to be found in his doctrine, not in his vesture.” Eleven hundred years later, Martin Luther criticized clerical dress, emphasizing the common priesthood of baptism: “That a pope or a bishop . . . prescribes dress unlike that of the laity—this may make hypocrites and graven images, but it never makes a Christian or ‘spiritual’ man. Through baptism all of us are consecrated to the priesthood.”
Despite Celestine’s disapproval of clerical vesture, distinctive liturgical garb for clergy gradually emerged during the early Middle Ages. The alb, a white linen tunic, became the basic liturgical garment for clergy. Both the alb and the chasuble worn over it were once common clothing in the Roman empire. As fashions changed, clerical dress did not, though vestment design varied over the centuries.
The ancient Greco-Roman world distinguished rank in the civil hierarchy with particular insignia and forms of dress. As clergy came to be regarded as a distinctive class, or order, within civil society, they added signs of civil office to their liturgical dress. Eventually the stole became customary liturgical vesture for deacons and presbyters at Rome, worn in different ways to differentiate the orders.
Distinctive liturgical garb served not only to identify the ordained ministers presiding at liturgy but also to reinforce power and authority.
Distinctive liturgical garb served not only to identify the ordained ministers presiding at liturgy but also to reinforce power and authority. For centuries, ecclesiastical garb was markedly similar to imperial vesture. The use of distinctive liturgical vesture thus served not only to reinforce clerical authority but also to ally ecclesiastical authority with the power of the emperor, thus supporting the class structure of medieval Europe. The radical equality of baptism did not eliminate distinctions in daily life.
By the twelfth century, both laity and clergy were critiquing clerical clothing. Clerical critiques were aimed at “the skewed distribution and uses of wealth within the church, particularly the making and use of ornate liturgical vestments when the poor went hungry and raggedly clothed.” Wealthy laity, however, continued to donate resplendent liturgical vesture. Their critique of clergy dress focused on street attire, and ecclesiastical legislation required that street clothes were to be “modest and dark in color.”
In the sixteenth century, Protestant reformers like Martin Luther rejected the ornate vesture of the medieval West. The black academic gown became customary in Reformed churches, while Anglicans eventually adopted the surplice, a variation of the alb, as the primary liturgical garment.
Both baptismal garments and liturgical vesture serve symbolic functions in the liturgical assembly. Neither is essential to Christian worship, yet both have endured over many centuries, taking on different meanings in different times and places. What might Christian assemblies today consider as they discern whether and how to use these symbols?
Baptismal garments. In the Roman Catholic Church, the baptismal rites introduced after the Second Vatican Council include clothing with a baptismal garment as an “explanatory rite,” and some other churches have introduced this practice as an optional element of the celebration of baptism. The robe signifies not only the baptizand’s identification with Christ but also the radical equality and dignity of baptized Christians. Where the baptismal garment becomes a standard element of the baptismal rite, it can serve as visible sign of the new identity given in Christ. The use of the garment also offers a teaching opportunity, inviting members of the assembly to consider the implications of the proclamation, “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).
Liturgical vesture. In a recent study of clergy clothing, Maureen Miller observed, “at the very origins of Christian liturgical dress there were within the church those who embraced majesty and solemnity in the name of honoring God and those who found ornament offensive as a betrayal of Jesus’ message.” This tension may remain for churches deciding whether and how clergy and other worship leaders will be vested. Yet vestments can not only enhance the dignity and festivity of the rite, they can also shift the focus from the individual presider to the shared action of the assembly, emphasizing “the primacy of the institutional role over the personality” of the worship leader.
The admonition in the letter of James, warning against showing favoritism in the assembly, suggests the importance of radical hospitality, embodying Christ’s all-embracing love and welcoming all regardless of how well-dressed or wealthy they are. The choice of vesture for worship leaders is but one dimension of crafting worship that celebrates the reign of God, one that is of far less importance than the primary symbols of water, bread, wine, and the members of the assembly, the body of Christ.
Ruth Meyers is Dean of Academic Affairs and Hodges-Haynes Professor of Liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California, and an assisting priest at All Souls Episcopal Parish in Berkeley. Her recent publications include Missional Worship, Worshipful Mission: Gathering as God’s People, Going Out in God’s Name (Eerdman’s, 2014), which explores the dynamic interplay of worship and mission, and a revised and updated edition of Leonel Mitchell’s Praying Shapes Believing (Church Publishing, 2016).
 All citations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version.
 Edward Yarnold, S.J., The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: The Origins of the R.C.I.A., 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994), 76.
 Cyril of Jerusalem, cited in Yarnold, Awe-Inspiring Rites, 89.
 John Chrysostom, Baptismal Instructions 4.17, cited in Yarnold, Awe-Inspiring Rites, 32.
 Augustine, Sermon 376, cited in Yarnold, Awe-Inspiring Rites, 33.
 “The Sarum Rite,” in Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy, ed. E. C. Whitaker and Maxwell E. Johnson, 3rd ed., Alcuin Club Collections 79 (London: SPCK, 2003), 301.
 See, for example, Maureen C. Miller, Clothing the Clergy: Virtue and Power in Medieval Europe, c. 800–1200 (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2014), 21: “For the mass of the population in early medieval Europe, garments were too valuable to be thrown away. They were passed down, patched, and reused.”
 Christa C. Mayer-Thurman, “The Significance of Vestments,” in Raiment for the Lord’s Service: A Thousand Years of Western Vestments (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, 1975), 43.
 Celestine, Letter, 26 July 428, cited in David R. Holeton, “Vestments,” in The New Westminster Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship, ed. Paul Bradshaw (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 466.
 Martin Luther, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), 66, accessed 12/1/17, http://bit.ly/2EcwLa5.
 Miller, Clothing the Clergy, 15; Pauline Johnstone, High Fashion in the Church: The Place of Church Vestments in the History of Art from the Ninth to the Nineteenth Century (Leeds, UK: Maney Publishing, 2002), 7, 10.
 Karel C. Innemé, Ecclesiastical Dress in the Medieval Near East (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992), 6.
Albert Schilling’s “Suffering Christ” altar cross, pictured on the cover, stands in the Basilica Church of the Redeemer, an Evangelical Lutheran Church in Trier, Germany.
The Basilica Church of the Redeemer was formerly the throne room of the Emperor Constantine. It was badly damaged when the city was bombed during World War II. In its reconstructed form the interior is exceedingly spare and simple. The bare character of the space today is intentional. It expresses the worshipping community’s acute awareness of the need to distance themselves from the building’s former pomp and splendor. Their own description of the church interior expresses it well:
In its unadorned size, the rebuilt Basilika [sic] has reaped the necessary consequences from the experiences of the Nazi era. If the altar of the Protestant church stands where formerly the throne of Roman emperors stood, then the structure must emphasize in its entirety that the power emanating from Jesus Christ differs fundamentally from all worldly claims to power. . . . For what Jesus Christ began is founded not on the power of wealth and money. It is founded on love, the love that God gives to individuals, the love which becomes real in Christ Jesus.
The Schilling altar cross, depicting the suffering Christ, brings into focus the close connection between deprivation and blessing:
This fundamental theological conviction is illustrated by the altar cross. The figure created by Albert Schilling embodies the solidarity of Christ with those who suffer. With his representation of Christ the Basel artist also demonstrates that the compassion of Jesus for the suffering people of the world leads beyond the most extreme consequence of death. The power of powerless love is stronger than the power of death. Thus the Crucified Christ becomes the Resurrected One offering his blessing. The altar cross reveals exactly this, as seen from the side. Schilling’s Christ figure is not hanging on the cross—it is standing in front of it, with hands raised in blessing. Thus the cross becomes the central symbol of Christian hope: death does not have the last word. God’s love leads beyond death.
Historic churches and cathedrals are both responses to and shapers of socio-economic circumstances. The glory of God and the pride of humanity can appear to be startlingly similar and even masquerade as one another in raising funds and establishing foundations for a major building project, whether this took place in the twelfth century or the twentieth. Buildings consecrated as holy places for the worship of God are, regardless of their style or period, beacons of counterculture that insist upon lives lived by the standards of the Beatitudes and good news for the poor, and a promise—no matter how often disregarded or broken—to follow Christ in humility and simplicity.
Poverty, in the sense of simplicity and freedom from the desire for material wealth, is an ancient virtue and a requirement for the religious life. Poverty, in the sense of deprivation and a depth of suffering inflicted on individuals and vast groups by the negligence and malice of those in positions of abusive power, however, is not to be confused with the understanding of poverty as freedom and simplicity. One form of poverty liberates. The other crushes.
The pain of poverty is the pain of exclusion, whether arbitrarily or systematically. In his influential book The Poetics of Space Gaston Bachelard writes, “Outside and inside form a division. . . . The dialectics of here and there has been promoted to the rank of an absolutism according to which these unfortunate adverbs of place are endowed with unsupervised powers of ontological determination.” Bachelard speaks of architecture that reflects social thresholds and can contribute to the common good or reinforce division. He desired both inclusion and intimacy in meaningful architecture that can create community cohesion, tearing down what divides us by building spaces that encourage flourishing.
A church deliberately established in an area of profound urban poverty may be intricately ornate, offering a glimpse of radiant beauty in the midst of hardship. In contrast, some would suggest that simplicity and a more minimalist approach to beauty would breathe peace into the bodies of worshippers regardless of socio-economic circumstances. Still others would suggest that the way a church looks, its age, or its interior ornamentation and furnishings, have little if anything to do with the community that it houses. In this view, a building would be a mere envelope within which the riches of God’s grace are available to all, responding to profound economic injustice on a global scale with a resounding hospitality of fellowship that is not rooted or expressed in the architecture that merely surrounds it with a covering. The Bible offers multiple views on the relationship between sacred space, architecture, and simplicity (or ornate ostentation), from opulent temples and palaces to the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head.
This article explores Christian architectural history in relation to poverty by considering a cluster of case studies in British contexts from the nineteenth century to the present, aware that the ideas presented here are a brief and focused interpretation of a theme that is as urgent as it is universal.
The “Tin Heaven,” Hadlow Down, East Sussex
In 1885 the Baptist minister Henry Donkin moved to the village of Hadlow Down in East Sussex and founded a new mission. With slow beginnings, it became a fully-fledged mission chapel in the early 1920s, with permission to officiate marriages and take a full and public part in local Nonconformist worship. The building that Donkin commissioned was one of the thousands of “tin tabernacles” that dotted the United Kingdom, the British Empire, and North America, purchased and erected by every type of Christian denomination, from the mid-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth. Most of these affordable prefabricated corrugated-iron sacred spaces have long since been demolished or have rusted away, but the one in Hadlow Down survives. When he founded it in the 1880s, Donkin named his new mission chapel “The Tin Heaven.”
Donkin’s project, one tin tabernacle among many, was connected to the proliferation of cheaper industrially produced materials and, paradoxically, to a desire for social outreach and simplicity as a counterbalance to the oscillation between economic boom and bust. On July 10, 1857, John Ruskin delivered an explosive lecture at the Manchester Art Treasures exhibition. Britain, like much of the world, was gripped by an anxious mood brought on by a major economic crisis. Ruskin turned his full attention to the relationship between art, religion, and the socio-economic issues of poverty in both general cultural and specific local terms. He argued that, when wealth was not fairly distributed, all suffered both culturally and spiritually, and he pointed out that the acquisitive and territorial attitude to wealth in the modern age could never be compatible with Christian ethics.
Modern socio-economic suffering was the outcome of a rampant greed that resulted in the double-impoverishment of the souls of the wealthy and lives of the poor. One response was to reconsider Christian forms of worship and architecture in light of economic justice and ethics.
With references to the Book of Proverbs, Ruskin claimed that “where there should have been providence, there has been waste; where there should have been labour, there has been lasciviousness; and wilfulness, when there should have been subordination.” A decade later, Ruskin returned to Manchester and lectured again on the “Spirit of Poverty” and its positive medieval connotations, firmly connected with simplicity and Christ-like humility rather than with the deprivation, hunger, and suffering that he and his contemporaries saw around them.
Modern socio-economic suffering was the outcome of a rampant greed that resulted in the double-impoverishment of the souls of the wealthy and lives of the poor. One response was to reconsider Christian forms of worship and architecture in light of economic justice and ethics. Out of this debate, and not without Romanticism and idealism alongside depth of commitment to improving lives both spiritually and pragmatically, many advocated a return to medieval styles of architecture to signal a return to a mind-set in which medieval monastic simplicity (though perhaps not the stratification of the feudal system) could breathe new life into a gluttonous and greedy capitalism. Ruskin was simply one voice, albeit an influential one, among many. In 1869, inspired by the Rule of St. Francis, Ruskin wrote to a friend that he wished to “form a society—no matter how small at first, which shall vow itself to simple life in what is called poverty, that it may clothe and cleanse, and teach habits of honour and justice—to as many as will receive its laws among the existing poor.”
All Saints Church, Margaret Street, London
A short walk north from one of the world’s busiest and most lucrative shopping districts, Oxford Street in London, the spire of All Saints Margaret Street rises high above the buildings established for commerce and materialism. In 1849, the Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield set about designing All Saints in collaboration with the Ecclesiological Society, a group of Anglican clergy, historians, and architects who sought to revive architecture of the Middle Ages and a theology for the Church of England built afresh on the foundations of Christianity prior to the Reformation. This Anglican church would become the seat of a new movement in the Church and in the arts, its strident polychromatic brick exterior giving way to a glittering and stirring interior iconographic program in marble, tiles, painting, and stained glass. Its monumental reredos, painted across the whole of the east wall, vividly tells the tale of Christ’s Nativity, Crucifixion, and reign in heaven. Originally designed by the artist and church historian William Dyce, it was repainted by the designer Ninian Comper in the early twentieth century, when the sanctuary’s vaulted ceiling was also repainted deep blue with glittering stars and shields featuring instruments of the Passion. At the same time, a frieze of child martyr saints of the Early Church was inserted on either side of the reredos. Taken together, this iconographical program weaves together the life of Christ and the witness of Christians to the reality of suffering and hope.
Directly opposite, on wooden chairs at the back of the nave, on any day of the week, groups of homeless people are asleep. Each day the clergy offer the Eucharist to the sound of rhythmic snoring. Some are awake and sit drowsily through the services. Other visitors wander in to take in the radiant narratives of symbol and figurative art in the glass and on the walls, taking a moment or two in their schedule of meetings and shopping to breathe peace. These lives lived in parallel worlds come together in an uneasy yet authentic way, day by day, adjacent to the vast strip of luxurious shops and seemingly endless cash flow.
The church was designed to bring the beauty of holiness to life in liturgy and in the human heart. For now, in the midst of cuts to social services and challenging economic circumstances for so many, exhausted homeless people stretch out along the chairs in the warm, golden glint from the colorful reredos, the manger, the cross, and the angels of heaven surrounding them.
St. Michael’s Ethiopian Church, Calais
A few miles of land and ocean away, during the summer of 2015, the crew of a popular British Broadcasting Corporation television programme was filming in France. Specifically, they arrived at a church in the refugee camp in Calais to film a Christian music program titled Songs of Praise. The episode drew controversy and raised awareness of living conditions in this in-between place, filled with people—many of them children—hoping to make their way from France to Britain.
St. Michael’s is—or was, as it has since been demolished—an Ethiopian Orthodox makeshift church constructed from any materials that were available: scrap wood, duct tape, plastic cladding, fragments of carpet. The Anglican priest Giles Fraser described it as “a place of raw prayer and defiant hope.” He spoke with one of the refugees, who grinned when he told him that the people who originally built St. Michael’s had made it to England.
The contrast was stark, and it remains so, a deliberately piercing monument to the power of the cross and the urgency of the global refugee crisis.
There is a parallel with the arrival of a Lampedusa Cross to the chapel of Pembroke College, Cambridge, one of the many crosses made in Sicily from the wreckage of migrant boats overflowing with people desperate to make their way across treacherous waters to Europe. The chapel was designed by the renowned Baroque architect Christopher Wren, and its noble Classical interior features finely veined marble columns. When the migrants’ cross first arrived, the Dean and Chaplain, James Gardom, lashed it to one of Wren’s marble columns with bright blue rope designed for marine use. The contrast was stark, and it remains so, a deliberately piercing monument to the power of the cross and the urgency of the global refugee crisis.
Another report from Calais explained that the priest at St. Michael’s was fearful that the BBC programme could draw both positive and negative attention, and did not want to risk giving his name or the names of others to the broadcasters. The church, with its A-frame roof and defiant little wooden cross, looked remarkably like a Victorian tin tabernacle: a symbol of the Church’s quest for simplicity as much as the crushing reality of poverty and its desperate outcomes. A symbol of hope and sign of God’s compassion, it is also a symbol of the socio-economic inequality that continues to ravage our world, “rich and poor, one with another.”
Ayla Lepine is a Fellow in Art History at the University of Essex and is training for the Anglican priesthood at Westcott House in Cambridge, England. Following her PhD in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, she was an ISM Fellow (2013) and has lectured and published widely. Her publications include books on revivalism in the arts and articles on Kenneth Clark and the Gothic Revival, modern monasticism, and music in Victorian visual culture. Her research focuses on nineteenth- and twentieth-century modern Christian art and architecture.
 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1969), 211–12.
In his memoir, Survival in Auschwitz, Primo Levi recalls the day when he struggled to remember a passage from Dante’s Inferno. He and a French prisoner were carrying a hundred-pound pot of soup suspended on a pole. As they walked Levi felt compelled to recite the “canto of Ulysses.” He is frustrated by his inability to recall a particular tercet accurately. When the words come to him, he is overcome with emotion.
Remember your birthright You were not made to live like brutes But to pursue wisdom and virtue. (Dante’s Inferno, canto 26, lines 118–120)
Levi recalls the moment “like the blast of a trumpet, like the voice of God. For a moment I forget who I am and where I am.” His fellow prisoner was equally moved. “Pikolo begs me to repeat it. . . he has felt that it has to do with him, that it has to do with all men who toil, and with us in particular, and that it has to do with us two, who dare to reason of these things with the poles for the soup on our shoulders.” (Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi; New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959, 211).
“Many of us aspire to escape from our own dark forests to better places. In prison the need is more urgent.”
I have spent much of the last decade listening to incarcerated individuals read and reimagine Dante’s Divine Comedy in prisons from New York’s fabled Sing Sing to Indonesia’s notorious Kerobokan jail to the Sollicciano prison in Dante’s home town of Florence. Like Levi, the men and women I meet in prison temporarily forget where they are when they immerse themselves in Dante’s poem. The medieval epic inspires them to write about their own voyages from past hells to future heavens. People behind bars identify with Dante for the same reasons that anyone might who takes the time to reflect on the poem. Many of us aspire to escape from our own dark forests to better places. In prison the need is more urgent.
For several years I have been bringing Yale students to prison to listen to incarcerated men reimagining Dante’s poem on their own terms. My course, “Performance Behind Bars,” is hosted by the Institute of Sacred Music, but students sign up from all over the University, from the Drama and Business Schools to the Schools of Music and Public Health. Undergraduates also enroll.
One semester we chose Ulysses’s speech as a point of departure. Jennifer Donelson, a specialist in medieval music from Saint Joseph’s Seminary of the Archdiocese of New York, set part of the Italian text to a Gregorian chant so that the Yale students and their incarcerated collaborators could sing together as a first step in entering Dante’s world. They chanted the tercet that Levi found so compelling, “Fatti non foste a viver come brutti/Ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza.”
The Italian language of these lines was foreign to them, but like Primo Levi, men living in a Connecticut maximum security prison found it easy to relate to characters who refused to live “like brutes” and chose instead to pursue “virtue and knowledge.” Prison in America is a dehumanizing experience. Incarcerated individuals have their names replaced by a number and often feel that their humanity is erased by the stigma associated with the label of “convict.”
“Their stories from the past were grim, but their dreams of paradise were touchingly simple: hearing the laughter of their children, hugging a loved one, attending a family barbecue.”
At first, the incarcerated men in our course were wary of Dante’s medieval epic, but as the weeks passed they enthusiastically followed the poet on his journey from Hell through Purgatory to Paradise, and found many parallels to their own life stories. They were particularly impressed to learn that Dante, like them, was a convicted criminal, and had written his masterpiece under a sentence of death, exiled from his home and family. Dante underwent a profound transformation during his journey and men in prison are also in the process of transformation. Sometimes the changes experienced in prison are for the worse, but the men who had chosen to be in our class were determined to emerge from incarceration better than they had come in. Reading about Dante’s journey became a catalyst for re-examining the hells they had lived through and the heavens they hoped to find in the years ahead. Their stories from the past were grim, but their dreams of paradise were touchingly simple: hearing the laughter of their children, hugging a loved one, attending a family barbecue.
The final performance script wove together the words of the incarcerated students and fragments of Dante’s poem. Their overlapping stories demonstrated the lasting relevance of the medieval text. Lines from the opening passage of Dante’s Inferno (here in italic bold) inspired an incarcerated student named Ivan to write the following:
I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.
I came to myself in Level 5 Maximum security, where you find murderers, thieves and gang members, a place of lies and loneliness, manifestations of physical, mental and emotional agony.
And so. . . I lost hope of reaching the heights.
Another incarcerated student named Lawrence was moved by Dante’s discussion of justice in canto 18 of Paradiso and decided to redefine the word in terms that matched his experience as a young African-American man:
Is this “justice” or is this “just ice”? Only one who has knowledge of self can serve “justice.” “Just” is the reward, and “ice” is the penalty. When one is penalized, he or she is served with “just-ice” meaning to be frozen in a mental state of 32 degrees below zero. Is this “justice” or is this “just ice.” Because of the color of my skin I’m a usual suspect. A drug dealer is what some suggest. They lock us down for years and use us as test subjects.
Listening to the perspectives of writers like Ivan and Lawrence, Yale students also underwent a transformation. Many had read about America’s criminal justice system, but learning about its flaws first-hand inside a prison provided a deeper level of understanding. Hearing Dante’s poem read and interpreted by men in prison gave them insights into the text’s contemporary relevance that would be hard to duplicate in an ordinary classroom setting. Their goal was to help create a theatrical performance that interwove fragments of Dante’s medieval poetry with the street-savvy vernacular of their incarcerated collaborators. Each semester’s script was completely different from the one before, but the results were always astonishing when they were performed in the prison by the writers for an incarcerated audience. The performances at the Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel were charged with a different kind of power. At Marquand the Yale students performed the scripts written by their incarcerated classmates for an audience that included the campus community and the families of the men in prison. Family members were not permitted to attend the performance in prison, so coming to Yale was their only opportunity to hear the words that had been written by their loved ones.
These long-distance reunions were often tearful as mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters of the incarcerated students heard stories that had never been expressed to them in person. At one performance in the Marquand Chapel a Yale undergraduate was performing the words that had been written by her prison partner, a man named Preach. Preach’s young daughter had died while he was in prison, and Dante’s depictions of parent-child relationships had led Preach to write about parental relationships in his own family. His rap rhythms echoed the propulsive forward momentum of Dante’s terza rima verse form.
My father left me at an early age Sending me into an early rage Some of the reasons why I’m in this cage
And God knew all this? All this was preordained and staged? What? He’s the author, and I’m some character in the book? And he’s just turning the page?
When I was out in the world I was so godless About my crime, found guilty on all charges. I just hung my head low, but my mother took it the hardest
Now I’m in prison, hoping my young daughter doesn’t get knocked up She looking for love in all the wrong places Daddy’s not there, Daddy locked up. Sins of the father!
I remember hearing a woman gasp when the student said, “My mother took it the hardest.” I thought the cast had arranged the off-stage interjection as a well-planned sound effect, but I hadn’t noticed it in rehearsal. Eventually I realized that the interjection was not planned. The gasp had come from a woman sitting in the front row of the audience. It was Preach’s mother.
In the post-performance discussion she spoke to the audience through her tears. She said that his living with Dante’s text was the best therapy her son had received in prison while working through the grief of losing his daughter. Her comments suggested that she and the other spectators may have experienced their own form of transformation. “It was very emotional and heartwarming,” she continued, “to see the inmates’ true life stories acted out by the students. It helps me to better understand the part we [parents] played in our loved ones being incarcerated. Yes, even us, the good parents. It was helpful but painful.”
Ron Jenkins, a recipient of Guggenheim, Sheldon, and Fulbright Fellowships, is a visiting Professor of Religion and the Arts at the Yale Divinity School and the Institute of Sacred Music. This year his Yale students collaborated with formerly incarcerated men on the creation of “A Freedom Oratorio,” inspired by their reading of Dante and performed at Marquand Chapel in New Haven, St. Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan, and the Mott Haven Reformed Church in the Bronx, located in a 1.8 square mile neighborhood where over two hundred children have parents who are incarcerated.
A National Public Radio feature on “Performance Behind Bars” can be found at the following link. To hear the voices of the incarcerated men reading their work and discussing what Dante’s poem means to them scroll down and click on the sound cloud. http://wnpr.org/post/connecticut-inmates-emerge-dantes-inferno
In the opening lines of The Other America, Michael Harrington’s classic study of mid-twentieth-century poverty in the United States, the author acknowledges that it was through “Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement that I first came into contact with the terrible reality of involuntary poverty and the magnificent ideal of voluntary poverty.” His eye-opening portrait revealed a depth of poverty in the United States that had been largely hidden at the time. Yet it was in fact the “economic underworld of American life,” he wrote, “a culture, an institution, a way of life.” Harrington had spent two years (1951–52) at the Catholic Worker house near New York City’s Bowery. While his study of poverty would take him to the far corners of the land—from inner cities and migrant camps to the forgotten hollers of coal country—Harrington nonetheless wrote that his Catholic Worker experience had been “the one place in the Other America where the poor are actually the sum total of misfits from all the social classes.” The end of the line for the Bowery, he noted, “is the hospital and potter’s field.”
For nearly half a century, the poverty of New York’s Bowery was the chosen home and daily experience of Dorothy Day (1897–1980).
For nearly half a century, the poverty of New York’s Bowery was the chosen home and daily experience of Dorothy Day (1897–1980). In 1933, she and Peter Maurin (1877–1949) founded the Catholic Worker movement, a radical alternative to the poverty-generating culture of American capitalism. As Maurin put it succinctly in one of his “Easy Essays”: “I want a change, and a radical change, from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”
The Catholic Worker’s platform was based on the daily practice of the works of mercy (feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, caring for the sick, visiting the prisoner, burying the dead, and forgiving one’s enemies), all at a personal sacrifice. The aim was to create small communities based on what Maurin called “cult, culture, and cultivation.” The Catholic Worker was not meant to be just another social-service agency, designed to alleviate the privations of the poor. It was a personalist and communitarian movement, inspired and maintained by sharing the poverty of the crucified Christ in the poor. As Day wrote in 1950: “It is our greatest message, to be poor with the poor.” In fact, she elaborated, “We cannot even see our brother in need without first stripping ourselves.” Further, the Catholic Worker’s life of voluntary poverty was meant to arouse “indifferent Catholics to the crying need of a return to the spirit of Franciscan poverty and charity.”
Still, Dorothy Day was never content simply to direct others about what they should be doing. First and foremost, she undertook to live these hard teachings herself. “In what does our poverty consist?” she was asked in 1961. “In toilets out of commission in town, dishwashers who wipe their noses on the dish towels, people who are mental cases.” There was but one means of being able to live in such a challenging environment, year in and year out, fully and humanly. “Without the sacraments of the Church,” Day wrote, “primarily the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper as it is sometimes called, I certainly do not think that I could go on.”
Because of the economic order, she wrote later during the Vietnam War, our “streets are alive with not just drunk and drug addicts but with the saddest of all victims of our war economy, the ‘insane.’”
From the beginning of their movement, both Maurin and Day were in contact with the Benedictines at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. At the time, both Abbot Alcuin Deutsch and Dom Virgil Michel were pioneers in the liturgical movement in the United States. Day wrote to Deutsch in 1934: “We have been trying from the start of our work to link up the liturgy with the Church’s social doctrine, realizing that the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ is at the root of both.” That same year, Virgil Michel requested that the abbot send copies of all the books published by the abbey’s Liturgical Press to the New York Catholic Worker, “to help you [as he wrote to Day] and to spread the work of the liturgical movement.” The abbot did so, and also instituted an exchange subscription between Orate Fratres (later Worship), the abbey’s heralded periodical on liturgical matters, and The Catholic Worker paper. Both Day and Maurin traveled to Collegeville in those early years, and Virgil Michel in turn visited the Catholic Worker in New York in 1935. His article in Orate Fratres that same November (“The Liturgy the Basis of Social Regeneration”) underscored the many concordances his analysis shared with themes in The Catholic Worker, particularly the emphasis on societal cooperation rather than competition, and on community rather than individualism—the latter, Michel noted, a hallmark of capitalist societies. To this, Day boldly added: “It is the present social ‘order’ that brings on wars today,” which is why “it is impossible save by heroic charity to live in the present social order and be Christians.” Because of the economic order, she wrote later during the Vietnam War, our “streets are alive with not just drunk and drug addicts but with the saddest of all victims of our war economy, the ‘insane.’”
In her February 1941 “On Pilgrimage” column, Day wrote that “food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul. Hence, leaders of the work, as many as we can induce to join us, must go to daily Mass.” In a similar vein, reflecting on the renewal of the liturgy instituted by Vatican II, Day wrote “the Mass begins our day; it is our food and drink, our delight, our refreshment, our courage, our light.” It enables us, she continued, “literally ‘to put on Christ,’ as St. Paul said. . . . Only by nourishing ourselves as we have been bidden to do by Christ, by eating His body and drinking His blood, can we become Christ and put on the new man.”
But putting on the new man would entail taking on the suffering of others, for, as Day noted, “our sacraments flow from the fountain of the Cross.” In her copy of Louis Bouyer’s Liturgical Piety, she had underlined a passage about taking up one’s cross. If one hopes to refuse doing harm to others, Bouyer wrote, one “cannot avoid taking the burden of their pain upon himself. But this fact also is what causes the Christian to love the world with the love of Him Who ‘so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son.’”
It was because of the liturgical movement that Day and the Catholic Worker came to emphasize the importance, not only of the Mass, but also of praying throughout the day, including community evening prayer. “It was the liturgy which led us to praying the psalms with the Church,” she remembered, “leading us to an understanding joy in prayer.” Without prayer, she repeated in 1969, “we could not continue. As breath is to the body, prayer is to the soul.”
Dorothy Day began her own day by savoring a cup of coffee and reciting the psalms. (When traveling, she carried a jar of instant coffee, which allowed her to rise early without troubling her hosts: all she had to do was add tap water.) “Often,” she remarked, “I find that I have started praying before I am really awake, just as I fall asleep praying Lord Jesus, have mercy on us sinners, over and over.” She valued repetitious prayer, particularly the rosary and the psalms. “Strange how repetition, reading the [psalms] each day, instead of becoming stale and repetitious, becomes even fresher: verses stand out, a light glows on what was obscure and hidden. There is an increase in understanding.”
For Day, faith (and prayer) came first, which in turn led to an increase in knowledge and understanding. Her prayer was neither fuzzy nor ethereal, but concrete and sacramental: “Woke this morning with the feeling very strong—I belong to someone to whom I owe devotion. Recalled early love and that joyous sense of being not on my own, but belonging to someone who loved me completely.” Ten years after her conversion she had written that “one cannot properly be said to understand the love of God without understanding the deepest fleshly as well as spiritual love between man and woman. The two should go hand in hand. You cannot separate the soul from the body.” The following year she recounted that, “The other day at the Communion rail it was as though the Lord held my shoulder tightly in his clasp.” Similarly, writing in 1970 for the Third Hour, an ecumenical journal, she described prayer as “the clasp of the hand, the joy of keen delight in the consciousness of the Other. Indeed, it is like falling in love.”
It should be clear by now that Dorothy Day had a highly attuned aesthetic sense, one that included an appreciation of both physical and natural beauty. This sense extended to the arts and music, particularly to orchestral works and opera. In the liturgy, she appreciated the sung psalms of Joseph Gelineau and invited the composer Mary Lou Williams to present her jazz Mass at a Catholic Worker peace conference. She loved the 10:30 Puerto Rican Mass at her local parish, she wrote in 1979, the year before she died, because “the entire congregation sings so heartily.” She was particularly appreciative that the Vatican Council had “broken down barriers between the clergy and the laity.”
In 1967, Day attended the Congress on the Laity in Rome, where she was chosen to be one of two American representatives (the other being astronaut James McDivitt) to receive Communion from Pope Paul VI. It was not a particularly prayerful experience for her. (She and the other 150 communicants chosen to approach the pope had been herded into a special staging area prior to the Mass.) But, she recounted, when she did receive the Eucharist, she felt happy to be “representing the men from our soup line, the pickets from Delano and all of Cesar Chavez’s fellow workers, and the little babies and small children of the agricultural workers who are present at our day-care center at our farm at Tivoli.”
Three years later, Day and her friend Eileen Egan of Catholic Relief Services were flying to Australia, where Day was to address a Vietnam Moratorium rally at Sydney’s Town Hall. As they crossed the International Dateline, Egan remarked to Day that fortuitously they had missed the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. “Don’t rejoice,” Day told Egan. “We are missing the feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord.”
At the Eucharistic Congress held in Philadelphia in 1976, however, Day did not miss the feast—or the anniversary. That Hiroshima Day she gave a major address to 8,000 attendees at a session titled “Women and the Eucharist.” (As it happened, downtown at the cathedral, Mass was simultaneously being offered for the armed forces.) In her remarks, Day said that she had probably been asked to speak at the assembly because she was associated with “breadlines, with hungry men and women, and all the destitute in our big cities.” She then recalled her conversion fifty years before, the gratitude she felt for her daughter Tamar’s birth, and her own subsequent love of the sacraments. The Church, Day said, was her mother and nourisher. It taught her “the crowning love of the life of the Spirit.” She then reminded her listeners that penance must come before Communion, “otherwise we partake of the Sacrament unworthily.” Finally, Day pivoted to the most painful part of her address: that on that particular August 6 in Philadelphia, a Mass was being “celebrated” (“how strange to use such a word” in this instance, she said) for the military. Had no one in charge of the Eucharistic Congress remembered the significance of Hiroshima Day? “Why not a Mass for the military on some other day?” she inquired. “I plead,” she concluded, “that we will regard that military Mass, and all other Masses today, as an act of penance, begging God to forgive us . . . for the sin of our country, which we love.” When she had finished, there was thunderous and prolonged applause.
At the end of an article she had written for Commonweal five years following the bombing of Hiroshima, Day quoted the French author Georges Bernanos on how to maintain hope in the nuclear age: “Every article of Christ’s divine charity is today more precious for your security—for your security, I say—than all the atom bombs in all the stock piles,” Bernanos had written. It is only by our love—exemplified in the works of mercy, Day noted elsewhere—that we will be judged: a love strengthened and sustained by Scripture and the Eucharist, which in turn have a “strength no power on earth can withstand.” For Dorothy Day, the life of witness, of poverty, and of prayer were all of a piece. But it was the last—what Peter Maurin called “the primacy of the spiritual”—that enlivened and sustained the others.
Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of both Commonweal and the Catholic Worker. He studied with the Franciscans at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley; did nursing care with the Hawthorne Dominicans; read Martin Buber under Maurice Friedman at Pendle Hill; and met his wife Kathleen in 1969, when both were working at the Catholic Worker in New York City. He is the author of Dorothy Day: Love in Action (Liturgical Press, 2015), and the editor of Hold Nothing Back: Writings by Dorothy Day (Liturgical Press, 2016), and Only Wonder Comprehends: John Garvey in Commonweal (Liturgical Press, 2018).
Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 5, 23, 10, 91.
 Peter Maurin, The Green Revolution: Easy Essays on Catholic Radicalism. Second revised edition (Fresno, California: Academy Guild Press, 1961), 63.
 Dorothy Day, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day [hereafter Diaries]. Edited by Robert Ellsberg (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2008), 143.
The Catholic Worker, May 1952. See, By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day [hereafter Little]. Edited by Robert Ellsberg (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), 109.
 “The Scandal of the Works of Mercy,” Commonweal, November 4, 1949. Reprinted in Hold Nothing Back: Writings by Dorothy Day, edited by Patrick Jordan (Collegeville, Minnesota, Liturgical Press, 2016), 65.
The Catholic Worker, June 1972, in Little, 316.
Poverty is endemic in a world that hordes wealth and exults in it. Many of us have come to understand that poverty and the problems associated with it are astoundingly persistent. We so easily make peace with the sharp co-existence of utter wealth with utter poverty. In the United States, this contrast has become a cliché of everyday news and political analysis. Some who are well-trained in economics and social history say that such human disparity is simply the way it is. At the same time, those who stand in the religious tradition of the Hebrew prophets are continually struggling with this humanly destructive reality in our social/political world. The enormous gap between the rich and the poor is not what “ought to be.” This conviction is deeply written in both the prophetic and the wisdom literatures of the Bible. When the church and Christian theology turn our attention to the enormity of the problem, we need look no further than the Psalms for sources of insight. There is, of course, much more than economic disparity at stake.
In his seminal 1971 work, A Theology of Liberation, the Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez used the expression “preferential option for the poor” to describe the radical idea that God, as described in the scriptures, chooses to take the side of the marginalized and the oppressed. Since that time, this idea of a “preferential option” has become central to liberation theology and has found its way into the moral and ethical teachings of the Christian churches–in the United States most notably through the writings of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. My question is: What can be discerned of God’s preferential option for the poor in the Psalms, which play such a central role in Christian liturgy and prayer?
Much of the Psalter, I contend, is born of the gap between what ought to be and what actually results from our habitual arrangements of power and possession.
Much of the Psalter, I contend, is born of the gap between what ought to be and what actually results from our habitual arrangements of power and possession. This essay explores some of the deep questions about human poverty that emerge in the poetic prayers of the Psalms, and in certain texts from the book of Proverbs.
There are several distinct ways in which poverty appears in the Psalms:
1) the voice of the suffering poor in laments
2) judgment on those who oppress the poor
3) the righteous who consider and aid the poor
4) the divine hesed (the foundational loving-kindness and justice of God toward all creation) and the way poverty in all its forms is to be addressed.
These are linked together through the rhythms of the entire Psalter. Each mode is intertwined with the others.
The plight of the poor is right on the surface of many Psalms. Take, for example, the first lines of Psalm 41 that concludes Book I of the Psalter: “Happy are those who consider the poor; the Lord delivers them in the day of trouble. The Lord protects them and keeps them alive; they are called happy in the land.” Those who care for the weak and poverty-stricken are blessed. By contrast the wicked are those who oppress the poor: “The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy. . . ” (Psalm 37:14). It is notable that the great motif announced in Psalm 1—the contrast between the ways of the wicked and the ways of the righteous—so often refers to the treatment of the poor and oppressed. How those who are impoverished, materially or spiritually, are treated becomes a key index of the difference between those who delight in Torah and those who stand in God’s judgment.
When the Psalmist laments the arrogance of the wicked who persecute the poor (as in Psalm 10), God is called upon to “arise” to do justice. God is expected to answer. The divine response to this plea is made clear in Psalm 12. “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the Lord. . . (v.5). God consistently promises to come to the defense of the poor and needy. The primal contrast between the wicked and the righteous continues throughout the entire collection of psalms. In the lengthy Psalm 37, God provides both rescue and refuge against the plots and violence of the wicked. Again the voice of the poor is given a prominent place: “The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows to bring down the poor and needy, to kill those who walk uprightly. . .” (v.14). Yet there is social realism here; this is not a sentimental prayer simply for material riches to be given to the poor. “Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked” (v.16). The spiritual gift of divine safe-keeping is itself a release from captivity and from the devices and desires of those who would oppress the poor.
Some Psalms celebrate the ways in which the righteous (who may indeed possess some wealth) come to the aid of the poor. Psalm 112 contrasts them with the wicked who are angry at such generosity given to those whom the wicked think unworthy. The righteous are described as “gracious and merciful” and as those “who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice” (vv.6–7); “They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor” (v.9).
At the same time, it is clear that it is God’s compassion that works in and through such generosity. Psalm 113 claims that God “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap. . . .”
Some forms of poverty are discovered only by paying attention to cries of desolation and despair.
Some forms of poverty are discovered only by paying attention to cries of desolation and despair. Some of these are etched in the laments that are most difficult to hear, as in Psalm 88. We hear the voice of a deeply troubled soul, “I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead” (vv.4–5). Unlike most of the lament Psalms, this one does not turn to praise at the end. “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness” (v.18). This, too, must be understood as a severe form of poverty—the experience of the absence of divine and human assistance. While this Psalm has traditionally been interpreted as the expression of deep sickness, it is also a cry of loss, of diminishment. We do well to read and pray this Psalm on behalf of those in exile, in desperate conditions. This form of human impoverishment demands the compassion of God as well. The church must learn to cry out for those who have no social or political voice.
At the same time God’s pronouncements characteristically contain a reply to poverty in all its forms. Psalm 132, for example, speaks of God inhabiting Zion: “I will abundantly bless its provisions; I will satisfy its poor with bread” (v.15). This is contrasted with those who have no bread and who are subject to social conditions that have taken their bread! The Psalms are not shy in speaking of human poverty and of the plight of the poor under the image of bread. Material poverty is clearly in the mind of the Psalmist, but so is the plight of those who are broken in spirit and under the oppressive hand of the wicked. The appearance of phrases about those who “eat my people as they eat bread” (cf. Ps. 14:4, 53:4 and elsewhere) reveal overtones of consumption on the part of those who practice exploitation of the poor.Such exploitation is a violation of the divine covenant. In this sense, the Psalms present us with a set of permanent tensions placing the hesed of God in relation to the demand for human justice for the poor and marginalized.
Psalm 109 is one of the most challenging and disturbing psalms relevant to our theme. It has been treated as an angry, cursing prayer. But Walter Bruggemann has given it a startling fresh interpretation. It contains a passionate plea for actual justice under the sovereignty of God’s reign of justice. The figure who accuses the righteous is the one who “did not remember to show kindness, but pursued the poor and needy and the brokenhearted to their death” (v. 16). While we may not find the strict retributive justice fully satisfying, the Psalmist dares speak the angry hope that many in our world have. This is the voice of the poor that we must hear. Not vengeance, but justice in and through social processes—both judicial and political. “The truth is that the God of the Bible is committed to a public justice that is not sentimental. . . . The voice of this psalm is the voice of the poor who insist that human solidarity (hesed) matters to the quality of our common life.” His conclusion strikes at the heart of our theme. “When that voice is absent from our conversations, we likely will end with a protected religion and with a God who is not pressed enough about abiding commitments to the poor.”
A Concluding reflection
The Psalms contain both the prophetic critique of the conditions of human degradation and elements of wisdom found in the explicitly moral instruction of Proverbs and the wisdom literature more generally. The human heart cries out to God to come to the rescue of the poor. To pray the Psalms is thus to participate in the cry against injustice and to the continuing supplication for the orphan and the widow who represent all who are relegated to poverty and neglect. The fact that the Psalms also speak of abundance and material blessing as gifts (as in Psalms 66, 67, and 147) throws into bold relief the social reality of those deprived of the good things of creation. Poverty, both spiritual and material, is not what God wills for the children of earth.
Lament, complaint, and supplication all lead both to and from doxology. That is the profound rhythm of the Psalms. Thus, it is no accident that even in the midst of great doxological praise, the poor are not forgotten. In the Hallel Psalms we hear that the Lord God “raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes. . .” (113:7–8). The whole of the Psalter concludes with breathless praise (Psalms 146–150). In the midst of doxology we hear Psalm 146 sing of the God “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry (v.7). “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down. . . watches over the strangers; upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked is brought to ruin” (vv.8–9). Thus, when we sing and pray Psalm 146 (and the great Hallel) in the liturgy the Christian assembly echoes Isaiah 61, and recognizes the theme of justice for the poor proclaimed by Jesus in his inaugural sermon (Luke 4).
The Psalms sing of a justice which is the heart of God’s covenant with God’s people, the compassionate commitment (hesed) of God to the poor. God responds to the cry of the oppressed. The lyrical mode of the Psalter is firmly rooted in the Book of the Covenant (Exodus 22). There God speaks: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan, if you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry. . . . If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor. . . . If your neighbor cries out to me I will listen, for I am compassionate.” This is the great theme of God’s preferential option for the poor. From our brief sampling, here we can conclude that the Psalms continue to sing and pray these things in our time and place. This is why, for the Christian communities, these Psalms are essential to our prayer, “Your kingdom come.”
Don E. Saliers is Cannon Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Theology and Liturgy at Emory University. He has served as president of the North American Academy of Liturgy and the Society for Christian Spirituality. Among his many publications are Worship As Theology and A Song to Sing; with his daughter Emily Saliers he coauthored A Life to Live. An active musician, he is organist/choirmaster at Emory’s Cannon Chapel, and teaches in the summer sessions at the Yale Institute for Sacred Music, as well as leading seminars and retreats.
 “The obligation to provide justice for all means that the poor have the single most urgent economic claim on the conscience of the nation.” Economic Justice for All, paragraph 86 (The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1986).
 Walter Bruggemann, The Psalms and the Life of Faith, ed. Patrick D. Miller. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 281.
Material things exist to assist with life; surely they were not given as a provision for wickedness? They constitute a ransom for the soul; surely they were not provided as an occasion for your own destruction?
What can we say, in this issue dedicated to poverty, about the use of wealth in the early church and its role in relation to early Christian worship? Reflected in this quote of Basil is a general attitude toward wealth in early Christian writings: that God created the material world, including material things and wealth, for sufficient provision of the needs of all humans through common use, enjoyment, and flourishing in their right relations toward God and one another. Material possessions and wealth in God’s creative intent are not intrinsically evil although through them their possessors may encounter a real and powerful temptation, danger, and a potential for wickedness and destruction.
Since the problem is the state of the human soul (e.g., greed), not wealth itself, wealth in turn can be a potent means of loving God and one’s neighbors through compassionate sharing and generous giving in imitation of God’s philanthropia (compassionate generosity). As such, by using earthly wealth toward the eternal purpose, one lays up heavenly treasures for oneself (Matt. 6.19–20). When patristic authors address or make references to wealth, they have in mind Christians who are already in the journey of Christian faith and yet must persevere to the end. Wealth then presents the faithful with a unique challenge and opportunity to demonstrate their spiritual state and persevere in their journey of salvation by eliminating vices (e.g., greed/avarice) and cultivating virtues (e.g., almsgiving and detachment), and thereby to secure their eternal salvation.
Accompanying this foundational theology, consistent in early Christian communities, was the practice of generous sharing (koinonia) and sacrificial giving to meet the needs of their own members. By the mid-second century, along with scripture readings, homily, congregational prayer and Eucharist, offerings for the needy were clearly part of the regular Sunday worship in Rome and slightly later in Carthage, as attested by Justin Martyr and Tertullian respectively. Worship and life belonged together. The early Christian communities operated the “common chests” (adopted from Jewish practices that were followed by Jesus and his disciples) from the voluntary offerings and donations of their members, especially the wealthier ones. Out of them the churches served and cared for the poor, widows, orphans, confessors, the sick, elderly slaves, ship-wrecked mariners, and other vulnerable people in their midst. By the turn of the third century, for average Christians, almsgiving became the most effective means of washing away their post-baptismal sins, second only to martyrdom. By the mid-third century, as the church grew as an institution with a developing hierarchy and administration to meet the spiritual and physical needs of growing members, it centralized its charitable ministries under clergy headed by the bishop, and it supported the clergy and the poor from the common chest. Bishop Cornelius’s famous account of the Roman church (c. 250 CE) supporting 154 clergy and 1,500 widows and others in distress suggests a well-organized and broad-based community with substantial resources at its disposal.
One would imagine already formalized liturgies and worship spaces woven together with well-organized care of the poor and vulnerable, with significant ecclesial wealth and social prominence of Christians before the Constantinian “revolution.”
Along with the episcopal centralization of almsgiving (offering) and its distribution, the institutional strength of the church manifested itself in its growing ownership and management of various properties that affected its worship. Throughout the third century, churches in major cities around the Mediterranean world, despite their illegal status, de facto owned cemeteries, altars, and buildings. Space dictates possibilities for worship and liturgy. Christians worshiped at cemeteries and at remodeled house churches with an elongated assembly hall, interior baptistery, and a separate room for catechumens, such as the domus ecclesiae in Dura-Europos, Syria (c. 240 CE). Bishop Cyprian of Carthage (250 CE) mentions an elevated pulpit and separate seating arrangements between clergy/presbyters and laity, and between laymen and laywomen, the latter of which is also attested in a Syriac church manual Didascalia. By the time of the Great Persecution in the early fourth century, it is clear that church buildings resembling the basilical structure of formal elongated halls became well-identified by the general populace and government authorities, as Diocletian’s first edict included the razing of churches. Moreover, churches owned various resources for liturgy such as gold and silver cups, lamps of gold, silver, or bronze, candles, and even libraries of sacred books. There were also resources for charity in storage rooms, such as men’s and women’s clothing, shoes, food, oil, and money. One would imagine already formalized liturgies and worship spaces woven together with well-organized care of the poor and vulnerable, with significant ecclesial wealth and social prominence of Christians before the Constantinian “revolution.”
No longer merely serving the Christian poor with the offerings from the faithful (especially the wealthy), the churches were bound to serve the poor of the empire as a public service in return for public privileges.
The Emperor Constantine’s legalization of Christianity in 312 CE and his and subsequent pro-Christian imperial policies throughout the fourth century brought about a watershed in every aspect of the church and Christian worship. Constantine’s unprecedented imperial patronage of the church, including financial subsidy, tax exemption, and clerical exemption from compulsory public services, along with “a system of gifts of food to churches, grain allowances to nuns, widows, and others in church services,” was revolutionary in two specific areas pertinent to our topic. First, it exponentially increased the scale of the church’s charity and wealth and the impact that this had on Roman society as a whole. No longer merely serving the Christian poor with the offerings from the faithful (especially the wealthy), the churches were bound to serve the poor of the empire as a public service in return for public privileges, now accountable to the imperial throne.
This change linked Christian identity even more closely to the church’s care of the poor in Roman society, and the bishop consolidated his position as the “lover of the poor” and the “governor of the poor” par excellence. It did not prompt the development of any new theological base for the work that the church had been doing for centuries; but it highlighted the identification of the poor with Christ that was found in Matthew 25:31–45 in particular: in every poor person, Christ is fed, given to drink, and welcomed as a guest. As Ambrose had written: “Minister to a poor person and you have served Christ” (De uiduis. 9.54).
Second, Constantine’s grandiose church building projects throughout the empire, particularly in Rome, Antioch, Constantinople, and the Holy Land, opened a new horizon for contextualizing and re-envisioning worship with a new sense of scale. For example, Christians worshipping at the basilicas of St. Peter’s, St. Paul’s, and St. John Lateran in Rome, the octagonal Golden Church in Antioch, and the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople, with its cruciform plan, found their liturgy transformed to fill the massive spaces of their churches, which now included colossal marble columns and capitals and gold-laid roofs. Constantine insisted that the church buildings should “surpass all others in beauty . . . for it is only fitting the most marvelous place in the world should be worthily decorated.” Bishops of metropolitan cities, such as Ambrose of Milan and Pope Sixtus III of Rome, also became great patrons of grand basilicas and advocated decorating churches with biblical wall mosaics of great visual splendor. The combined imperial wealth and ecclesiastical/episcopal wealth created newly constructed sacred spaces which worshippers were led to identify with the heavenly Jerusalem of the Apocalypse, built of gold, pearls, and precious gems. This joint effort of church and state also incorporated aspects of Greco-Roman civic religion into Christian worship, such as sacred images and processions carrying relics, icons, and palladia. Wealthy laypeople, both ascetics and non-ascetics, increasingly chose to give gifts to build and adorn the churches for the ransom of their souls.
Can the church for and of the poor and the church of such gilded splendor be reconciled? Eusebius made clear that it was Constantine’s love for Christ and his church that drove Constantine’s costly projects. In words of Dominic Janes, “Adornment of churches was accepted as morally good, as one form of Christian gift; just as another was giving doles to the poor.” In the newly contextualized (imperial) Christianity, these two forms of giving were both appropriate and valuable means to demonstrate the givers’ love for God and their neighbors and to lay up heavenly treasures for their salvation. Furthermore, while church leaders regularly denounced jewels and ornaments worn and displayed by rich Christians as a form of self-glory, even ascetic bishops had no qualms about precious metals and exquisite decorations of the church, which they interpreted as revealing the inherent beauty and worth of Christian liturgy and space.
Finally, a deeper theological justification lies in the physicality of faith. Given God’s creative intent, material things such as gold, silver, and icons can be used to communicate spiritual realities. According to John Chrysostom, the Old Testament Temple with its gold and jewels was a “type” for spiritual realities of the new covenant in Christ; its true significance was in the spiritual realities that each of the beautiful and radiant objects represented. The beautiful objects and actions of liturgy in a beautiful church serve as a type or representation of glorious spiritual realities as they lead the believers to “see one thing and believe another.” In this the realities of salvation have indeed become concrete to the eye of faith.
Rev. Dr. Helen Rhee is Professor of History of Christianity at Westmont College, Santa Barbara, CA. She graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in history and earned a Master of Divinity and a Doctor of Philosophy at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is an ordained minister of Free Methodist Church Santa Barbara. Her books include Early Christian Literature: Christ and Culture in the Second and Third Centuries,Loving the Poor, Saving the Rich: Wealth, Poverty, and Early Christian Formation, and Wealth and Poverty in Early Christianity. Her latest book project is Pain, Illness, and Healthcare in Early Christianity in conversation with Greco-Roman medicine in Late Antiquity.
 A. E. Siecienski, “Gilding the Lily: A Patristic Defense of Liturgical Splendor,” in Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society (ed. S. R. Holman; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 218.
Many diverse factors mark the unique context of the Chiapas Photography Project. Its geography and landscape are very much part of its character: the large array of climates is due to altitude variations ranging from volcanos, forested highlands, and mountains to various lower elevations that contain a complex system of pine-oak forests, valleys, tropical rainforests, coastal plains, and beaches. Chiapas is one of the most environmentally rich and diverse regions of Mexico and, as a consequence, suffers from exploitation of various kinds.
The colonial city of San Cristobal de Las Casas, with a 2010 population of 186,000, is the commercial center for the highlands. Its tourist industry is served both by the luxurious commercial tourist services and itinerant indigenous vendors who are mostly women. In sharp contrast to the material prosperity of tourists, the street environment commonly involves poor, malnourished, often shoeless women and children weaving among the tourists, offering handcrafts for sale or begging. Outside the cities, the population is dispersed among rural areas, small town centers, and tiny hamlets, many of which are accessible only by footpaths.
The diversity of Chiapas is also cultural: around 70% of the population is mestizo, mixed race and Spanish-speaking, while the other 30% or so is indigenous. Many of the indigenous are monolingual in one or another indigenous language, and relatively few can read or write in either their first language or Spanish.
Political and social unrest have troubled the region, including an armed uprising in 1994 of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. Its ongoing effects, such as blockades, marches, protests, and social conflict among different communities and ethnic and religious groups, have involved both ordinary citizens, the military, and paramilitary groups. These have prompted specific fears and an ongoing environment of worry because of the interruption of daily life in transportation, schooling, and commerce. Perhaps worst of all, the state itself is increasingly militarized, ostensibly to protect the tourist industry, but the indigenous communities simultaneously suffer in a variety of ways from such forces and the flourishing paramilitary groups. This situation even gives rise to conflict between different indigenous communities, adding yet another source of tensions for daily life.
Natural disasters add to an atmosphere of instability. These result from earthquakes and a six-month rainy season that can prompt landslides and other natural effects that close roads and limit communication. These are not sufficiently relieved by the generally inadequate services in health and education and are made worse by the lack of electricity and paved roads. More than seven of every ten persons live in poverty, some of this already extreme poverty becoming increasingly precarious. It is thus not surprising that many find themselves forced into migration, whether internal—from the countryside to cities—or out-migration, to seek work elsewhere in Mexico or in the United States. Because Chiapas shares a border with Guatemala, it also serves as the entry point for migrants from Central and South America, as well as for people from countries outside the Americas who seek entry into the United States via Latin America. Sadly, many indigenous people suffer from the indignity of another, non-material poverty: discrimination and exclusion, ridicule, exploitation, and being treated as children, their culture reduced to merely folkloric entertainment for tourists.
Of special note, and all too easily missed from the bases of tourist hotels and restaurants, is the fact that their undeniable material poverty exists alongside a wealth of cultural expression within a natural setting of rich natural life. Art-making within such a context can enhance the lives of the participants both through enjoyment and by the community enrichment of shared learning experiences. A real solidarity stems from the mutual support, understanding, and empathy that go along with the photography activities.
The people have long been researched, photographed and represented by outsiders, but I wanted to offer them the opportunity to decide how to use photography for themselves.
My interest was, and remains, in addressing what I feel to be an injustice; at the same time, as a visual artist myself, I felt an aesthetic eagerness to see the images that the project participants would make. As one of the Mexican states with a significant number of ethnic groups, most of them Mayan, Chiapas was of particular interest to me. The people have long been researched, photographed and represented by outsiders, but I wanted to offer them the opportunity to decide how to use photography for themselves. My role has been not just to provide cameras and materials but to support the participants in the use of photography, with others of their own families and communities but also with other ethnic groups. Soon after starting the project, it became clear that sharing the photographers’ work with outsiders would complement the work and serve to extend its reach, providing the opportunity for appreciation of the lives and cultures of Mayan peoples.
Thus, the title of this reflection is not about the poverty of the people of Chiapas and the wealth of the affluent West. It instead speaks of the fact that these people, poor in material things, are also rich.
ABOUT THE PROJECT
The Chiapas Photography Project (CPP) provides indigenous Maya peoples of Chiapas, Mexico with opportunities for cultural and artistic self-expression through photography. Since 1992, more than 500 indigenous men and women from diverse ethnic groups and religious backgrounds have learned how to use photography as a mode of personal expression, and many have undertaken projects that include members of their communities.
CPP is based in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, the commercial and cultural center of the Chiapas Highlands. The Project’s activities are both local and global in scope. CPP photographers have exhibited their work in their own towns, as well as in museums, galleries, and alternative spaces in Mexico and abroad. More important perhaps, is that the participants have photographs of that which is important to them and their communities; new skills have provided self-confidence and an eagerness to learn new things. CPP has earned recognition from the Mexican and international press, the academic community, and the art world. CPP has also provided opportunities for volunteers and photographers to work with indigenous participants in CPP activities.
Sometimes, I think that CPP is incidentally about photography, because its activities, not intended from the start, have always addressed issues related to ethnic, religious and political conflict and harmony as well as promoting gender equality. Workshops and other activities bring together individuals of distinct ethnic groups, religious practices and political positions, and instruction is carried out by both women and men. Because photos offer the chance to observe and ask questions, fears and misconceptions about others can be modified.
Originally financed by donations from friends, the project expanded thanks to a number of small grants and private contributions and, from 1995 to 2012, significant funding from the Ford Foundation. CPP continues to rely upon individual donations.
The subject matter ranges from family portraiture and representations of traditional beliefs, to meditations on corn and chilies and the production of posh, a local alcohol used in traditional religious rites and ceremonies.
The primary goal has always been to provide opportunities for indigenous peoples to use photography for their own purposes. Most photographers associated with CPP have engaged in personal or group projects about their lives, families, cultures and communities. Many of their images have appeared in CPP exhibitions and publications. The subject matter ranges from family portraiture and representations of traditional beliefs, to meditations on corn and chilies and the production of posh, a local alcohol used in traditional religious rites and ceremonies. Texts are in Maya languages, Spanish and English. Some participants have gone on to establish their own small photography businesses. Some are independent artists and others use photography to serve their communities. Some have received grants and awards, created their own exhibitions and participated in those of others. Several have had their work included in art, academic and other publications.
In 1996 I was asked to be an invited researcher at the Center for Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology, Southeast (CIESAS Sureste), an academic research center in San Cristóbal de Las Casas. My appointment, which later was tenured, was to establish and manage the Archivo Fotográfico Indígena/AFI. Staffed by indigenous men and women from several ethnic groups. The ten-year program brought together participants from several ethnic groups and served as a place to store, catalogue, and provide access to images from the collection resulting from the training programs.
CPP exhibitions and publications are both collective as well as are the result of projects by individuals. The photographers often speak of their projects as a way of honoring their cultures, giving back to their communities, and preserving traditions for future generations. Always open to serving those interested in using photography, recent workshops have been provided for women inmates and weavers.
It pleases me that what began and continues to be a local project has had a strong presence in Mexico and abroad.
Carlota Duarte is a Catholic sister, a member of the Society of the Sacred Heart. She is a Mexican-American artist, and holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design. More information about the Chiapas Photography Project can be found at www.chiapasphoto.org.
Recommended Citation: Duarte, Carlota (2018) “A Place in the World: The Chiapas Photography Project in a Context of Poverty and Wealth,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 5. Available at https://ismreview.yale.edu