(This blog post is adapted from my blog on discernment, CoAuthorYourLifewithGod.com.)
“I couldn't do without my...car, own place, movie collection, ____________.” In a recent poll I ran asking people the main reason they don’t consider religious life, this statement was checked off by a large percentage of those polled. I guess it’s not surprising in our materialistic culture.
When I entered the convent, I didn’t yet own a car, and I was still living with my parents. But I did give away my music collection, my books, and pretty much everything I owned except a few clothes and some holy cards which I brought to the convent with me. Was it easy? Not at first. But it was incredibly freeing. Personally, I see the vow of poverty as an amazing trade. As religious, we “trade in” the right to possess material goods, and we receive a greater intimacy with and a closer following of Christ.
(As an aside, poverty has many practical benefits for a religious too—for example, making me available to be sent on mission anywhere, because I’m not tied to personal possessions or particular places.)
I think that the vow of poverty is perhaps the easiest vow to understand today. People are more aware of the extremes between the lifestyles of those who are wealthy and those who are poor, and the shocking realities of global hunger and poverty:
- nearly half of the world’s population (3 billion people) live in poverty
- over 1 billion of the people living in poverty are children
- 22,000 children die every day because they are too poor to receive what they need
- hunger is the #1 cause of death in the world today
- more than 750 million people do not have adequate access to clean drinking water*
* All statistics are taken from the website: https://www.dosomething.org/us/facts/11-facts-about-global-poverty, accessed June 9, 2016.
Sharing what we have with others is the only way that everyone will have what they need. Choosing to make sacrifices—giving up material possessions or comfort—in order to provide necessities of life for others is becoming more common, but it needs to become part of the everyday life of every Christian—actually, of every person in the world who has a secure place to live, and enough to eat and drink. Religious life can be a helpful witness to encourage this sharing.
Other motivations for living a poor or simple lifestyle are:
- Living in a way that preserves or restores the resources of the earth is part of the Church’s official social teaching.
- Pop culture today advocates the wisdom of simplifying or de-cluttering our lives as helpful in living with greater focus and purpose.
The Religious Vow of Poverty
The main reason a religious takes the vow of poverty is to more closely imitate Christ, the Poor One, both in his poverty and in his absolute trust in the Father. Different religious congregations will practice poverty a little bit differently, depending on their mission. While I have found that the vow of poverty is not always easy, I have always found it helpful on so many levels:
- A religious sister has nothing of her own but shares everything in common with her community. The community then provides for the needs of each religious. It’s not that individual sisters are completely free of financial concerns, because each sister is a responsible member of the community. Rather, it’s that every sister shares this burden with her superiors and the community in discerning expenses together.
- Most of the Daughters of St. Paul’s resources go directly into our mission of evangelization with the media, but we share whatever we can with those who suffer from genuine want. Living our vow of poverty, we live in solidarity with those who are “on the margins” of life—those suffering from spiritual and material poverty.
- There’s a certain comfort and security in possessing materials goods, but this very security can become like a fog that blinds us, preventing us from taking risks and restricting our freedom. The vow of poverty clears away the “fog” of today’s materially obsessed culture and enables us to focus on Christ as our Treasure, and to take risks to serve others—the people Christ came to save.
- On a spiritual level, poverty helps us to continually renew our trust in God, so that we learn to rely on God for everything, in every situation.
- Poverty is very freeing spiritually: it frees our hearts from possessions, from the need to possess, from greed, and from attachment to even interior things like our opinions and pride. Poverty helps us to be grateful for the most valuable things in life—which are certainly not possessions—but our relationship with God, the sacraments, the people in our lives, and our vocation.
A Personal Confession
My two biggest ongoing struggles with living authentic poverty with regard to material goods are books and tools for our mission. Books—especially books of theology and spirituality—are a real weakness of mine. Not only do I love to read, but we are encouraged to have a small library of books—the writings of our Founder, the resources we need to do our mission, books that we have used in our studies that we foresee using again in the near future. With my work of writing and giving workshops on a variety of subjects, it’s handy to have a larger library. So every couple of years I need to re-discern the choices I’ve made with regard to books I've kept, giving away what is truly not needed.
Because our mission of evangelization involves the media, using technology is essential. Our Founder wanted us to have “the latest means” so that we could reach the greatest number of people with the Gospel. Sometimes to carry out certain aspects of our mission, we need the latest technology. And it might seem easier with the “latest gadget.” For example, a smartphone is essential for my work in social media. But do I really need the latest iPhone model? The discerning answer to this for me is: I need a solidly functional smartphone to effectively use social media, but I certainly don’t need the latest model.
The Vow of Poverty in 5 Words:
Blessed James Alberione, the Founder of the Pauline Family, said, “Poverty is the greatest wealth.” I have found this to be true because living the vow and virtue of poverty enables me to consistently focus on Christ Jesus as my greatest Treasure—my only Treasure—and to dedicate all my efforts (without distractions) to living my vocation of growing in union with Christ and in serving his people.
(Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash)