01 October 2017

Everyone is called to the Evangelical Counsel of Poverty

In the readings from two Fridays** ago one of the themes which stood out was that of poverty especially expressed in the phrase "the poor in spirit" of the responsorial psalm. In my own life I have recently been reminded of the various ways this crucial value has been embodied in the life of the Church. For instance, a cloistered nun may have a solemn vow of poverty and this means she is unable to own anything at all; even more it means she must get permission for anything she needs in order to accept gifts, etc. I was reminded of this recently because I am in contact with a cloistered nun who is discerning a vocation to eremitical solitude and wishes to discern a vocation to canon 603 or solitary consecrated eremitical life. One of the things which will need to change significantly should Sister make the transition to exclaustration and then eventual profession as a diocesan hermit is her theology and vow of poverty; this is just one of the things which will take real discernment, prudence, and courage on her part. I say this because diocesan hermits are self-supporting, have no religious community with communal resources or others to administer our property, and must shape the content of our vows of poverty and the way we approach material wealth  accordingly.

Apostolic religious also vow poverty but generally speaking they have greater freedom than cloistered religious to do what they determine is needed in making purchases and so forth. Communities work out budgets and something akin to allowances for each Sister and most will have credit cards which allow them to buy what they need with appropriate discretion. The Sisters I know include what is called a cession of administration which cedes the administration of any property, inheritance, etc. they may receive or be given to another (usually the community or congregation). This is required by canon law and some diocesan hermits have been required by their dioceses to do the same despite the fact that poverty seen in this way is an essentially communally oriented vow. Meanwhile for apostolic religious the major expenses of each Sister are taken care of by the congregation. Still, such Sisters today will require Medicare or Medicaid and other assistance because congregations are increasingly poorer while their Sisters get older. Even so, these Sisters too vow a very real poverty and though it is shaped differently than that of the cloistered religious it is embraced with joy as one of the "Evangelical counsels" it is.

My own vow of poverty must reflect the fact that I, as a diocesan hermit, have much greater responsibility for money, bank accounts, possessions, insurance and other expenses than the average Apostolic Religious. At the same time it must be a vow of poverty that is recognizable as such. Thus, I defined poverty therein first of all in terms of my own radical human poverty and my complete dependence on the Life and presence of God. Everything else in my life and in my Rule flows from that. I affirm both poverty and great wealth in my vow but these have little to do with day to day finances. On the other hand to live this vow is to ensure that I do not turn to material goods for a sense of wealth or wellbeing. It asks that I see all of reality with a reverence for its sacramentality as God's creation and that I use it with appropriate care. Because I am self-supporting I could not vow the kind of poverty cloistered monastics do; neither could I embrace the kind of poverty my director does, for instance --- though my life is much closer to hers than to my friend who is a cloistered nun. As noted above some c 603 hermits do have a cession of administration, especially if they own property, a hermitage, hold inheritances, or become a 501c(3), but I do not (I do not own a hermitage or property, have not  become a 501c3, and because I am a solitary hermit my diocese did not require it).

The vow reads:  [[I recognize and accept the radical poverty to which I am called in allowing God to be the sole source of strength and validation in my life. The poverty to which my brokenness, fragility, and weakness attest, reveal that precisely in my fragility I am given the gift of God’s grace, and in accepting my insignificance apart from God, my life acquires the infinite significance of one who knows she has been regarded by Him. I affirm that my entire life has been given to me as gift and that it is demanded of me in service, and I vow Poverty, to live this life reverently as one acknowledging both poverty and giftedness in all things, whether these reveal themselves in strength or weakness, in resiliency or fragility, in wholeness or in brokenness.]] I wonder who among us could not embrace the values in or make such a vow in some way.

So why is all this important? It is important because the readings from two weeks ago were meant to give us all a strong sense that each of us is called to embrace some real and recognizable form of poverty. What may not be known particularly well is that every Christian is called to embrace poverty in some real sense. The Evangelical Counsels are just what they say they are: namely, Gospel counsels binding on every baptized person who is called to proclaim the Gospel with their lives. These Counsels are not just for religious but for every Christian! Now, granted, this does not mean that every person will make vows in the same sense that Religious men and women do. Those responsible for families could not possibly make a vow like my director or I much less like my cloistered nun friend. It would be irresponsible. Instead Such persons must earn money, buy property and pay for all the things involved in living a healthy family life which allows children to be adequately educated, clothed, etc. And yet at the same time such folks are responsible for living the Evangelical Counsel in some substantive way.

As I understand Christian poverty it means our affirmation that God is our treasure and the ONE who is necessary if we are to live reverently and treat all things, places, and persons as gifts and as sacred. I believe if we can accept our own very human poverty in light of the unconditional and gratuitous Love of God, we will use material wealth and goods with a similar reverence. We will hold these things lightly, use them carefully, and buy them only as needed. We will be generous with them as God is generous with us (remember the parable of the two servants we also heard recently). My own vow may be a kind of paradigm of a vow that allows individuals to shape what it means in concrete material terms. In a cloistered context the congregation's proper law as well as canon law will spell out what this means. In an apostolic Religious' congregational context the institute's constitutions will spell out the shape the Evangelical Counsel of poverty will take. In the life of a diocesan hermit, the hermit's own Rule of Life will include a theology of poverty and specific ways the counsel is shaped in order to honor both poverty and the need to be self-supporting. A family or a single person, a retired widow or widower will shape these things as they discern they are called to.

Again, as I have written here before, [[the heart of religious poverty for me is dependence upon God which issues in a reverence for all that is part of my life. This attitude shapes my approach to owning and spending, to using and having, to acquiring or giving back, but it also shapes the way I see myself and others. Because God is first and last in importance, because he is the source of my life's meaningfulness and richness, and because I am committed to allowing that to be more and more true as life goes on, this means that I really have less need to own things, less need for novelty instead of the real newness God brings to everything and less need to shore up my own poverty and brokenness with "stuff."]] We are each called to embrace the Evangelical Counsel of poverty and shape it as is appropriate for our state and form of life. We do this as persons who are rich in God, secure in Christ, and made capable of proclaiming this in the power of the Spirit.

N.B., I should note that there are a number of "Evangelical counsels" but the three we recognize immediately are poverty, chastity and obedience. While not everyone is called to  enter the consecrated state by making public profession of these with vows and are not called to chastity in celibacy, religious obedience with legitimate superiors, or religious poverty, every Christian is meant to live some version of these three Counsels as significant values.

** 1Tim 6:2-12, Ps 49:6-10, 17-20, Lk 8:1-3