March 29, 2010

Holy Poverty

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.


Qualis Rex said...

Great post, Father Charles. Poverty is absolutely relative. The fact that one lives sine proprio does not make one poor, necessarily, if others provide a home, food, medical attention etc for them. I think this was the point Our Lord made clearly. In Africa, I saw REAL poverty where 2 years of crop failure and you lose EVERYTHING; your land, your home, and eventually your health and family to malnutrition and death. No support network or help of any kind because those around you are in the same condition.

Thankfully, as we are evolving as human beings (Deo Gratias) and socieities, the West is now able to help out in ways we couldn't just 100 years ago. I absolutely believe it is in no small part (or "not for nothing" as we say) due to the legacy of people LIKE YOU!!!

The trend Our Lord started, and the legacy of an Italian rich kid who threw it all away to follow Him has been continued through YOU. And the impact/benefits are felt in places we just cannot fathom.

ben in denver said...

"I have the temptation to tell myself that with such and such education and background I shouldn't have to doing whatever it is."

This is my greatest temptation, I fight with it nearly every day!

Although to get my job requires a BA, I must say that it doesn't really require anything more than a 10th grade education to perform my assigned tasks.

4.5 years of college and 3 years of graduate school have not translated into any sort of professional work.

Thank you so much for this post. While I've often seen this struggle as a cross to bear, I've never understood it as relating to holy poverty. This is so very helpful.

Buck George said...

I would add to your Director's advice: I have found that the man who has a bunch of stuff is also perpetually anxious.

You also write, "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."

Welcome to the club.

Greg said...

When I was researching Taming the Wolf I came across wonderful passages regarding poverty and humility in the works of Ilia Delio. (Franciscan Prayer and The Humility of God.)

She made the point, which I quote in the book, that Francis' love of poverty did not have to do with poverty for its own sake but rather was an attempt to remove factors that inhibited relationship with others.

His poverty and humility were all about strengthening relationship, the loving relationship Christ wants us to enjoy.

Your post echoes those words, particularly in your understanding of the resentment that builds as we find ourselves working for others.

I am a long, long, long way from living the life of Francis as you do but I find the lessons very pertinent.

Tausign said...

If you trade all your books for an iPad, then you can easily fit all you own into a single carload and thus qualify as 'poorer'. Peace and all good.

Judy said...

I find this enlightening! Any chance I could have a copy of it? evangelical poverty gives me the biggest questions of my life.