One of the adventures of religious life is to take note, over time, of how one's sense of the vows expands and shifts. Today I'm thinking about my vow of poverty, or, more precisely, my vow to live sine proprio, as we Franciscans say, "without property," or "without anything of my own."
I guess that when I first started on this Franciscan journey I understood our poverty as a fairly material thing. It was the desire and effort to live a life materially stripped down, so as to be more free for God. I still believe in this, of course, and try to live it. I know a friar who insists on having only one car load of stuff. I'm probably a little beyond that myself. Books are the real trouble.
Though simplicity of life is indispensable for any Franciscan, in recent years most of my day-to-day reflection on holy poverty has been about work rather than stuff. I remember once back in studies when I was telling my director about feeling stressed. My spiritual problem was that I resented having to feel stressed with school and formation; I just wanted to live a peaceful and prayerful life without all the distraction. My director cut through my resentment with this simple statement: "The poor man is perpetually anxious."
Since then I have tried to train myself to accept stress as a sharing in the suffering of the poor, as a solidarity with those who have only God to depend on, as a union with those whose prayer lives are not protected by any of the conceits of the professionally pious. Sometimes we religious shield ourselves from work we might do by saying to ourselves and each other, "That's not what I'm about," or "That's not what I'm called to." But these are sometimes just religious life double-speak for 'that's not what I feel like doing.'
There are lots of boring little chores associated with my employment. Sometimes in the midst of them--having already missed the chance to be praying the Jesus Prayer or meditating on one of the mysteries of our faith--I have the temptation to tell myself that with such and such education and background I shouldn't have to doing whatever it is. There are other times, because I'm not in charge, that I have to do things in some other way than I would want them done.
I thank God that I have had spiritual and formation directors along the way who have helped me to make such things into opportunities for holy poverty rather than occasions for temptations to the destructive passion of resentment. It is the condition of poor people that they have to work for a living, and a job is a job. Poor people have to take orders and are grateful to be working regardless of whether the work is interesting or suited to their gifts. Do I think that my brothers and sisters with children don't work in patience at countless tedious tasks in the name of their parenthood? Should my life as spiritual father in the care of souls be any different?
I must be willing to do the work that the Holy Spirit puts in front of me through the obediences I receive in the Order. I must pray for the willingness to work, and for diligence and honesty in working. I must be grateful not only when the work is enjoyable and interesting, but also when it is tedious and stressful. Only then will I be able to embrace a holy poverty that is not an insult to the poor.