The Lady Poverty

by Digitalnun on August 11, 2013

As a Benedictine, I have always admired, although I do not share, the Franciscan understanding of poverty. For us, a strict renunciation of private ownership and a communal commitment to frugality are contained within our vow of conversatio morum. The beautiful buildings and fine libraries that many communities have acquired through the centuries are not ‘owned’ by the present generation: they are on loan, as it were, and the monks and nuns who are blessed to be stewards of them know they have a duty to preserve them as best they can. But St Clare’s whole-hearted espousal of poverty, the privilege of poverty she fought so hard to attain, has become, so to say, the norm of religious life. Even the Code of Canon Law ignores the older monastic tradition in favour of vows based on the Evangelical Counsels.

To many today, the idea of religious ‘poverty’ makes no sense at all. They point out that lots of people live lives of greater material want; but, of course, religious poverty is not the same thing as destitution. Others are quick to attack what they see as failures of religious to observe the standards of poverty they think should apply (e.g. we were criticized for meeting our postulant-to-be off the Queen Mary II, though it was never clear to us how her mode of getting to England was any reflection on the community). The point about religious poverty, whatever particular ‘take’ on it a community or Order has, is that there should be nothing superfluous in our lives and that we should live by the providence of God. That usually means hard work and austere living so that, as St Paul says, we always have something with which to meet the needs of others. It means living simply, gratefully, generously.

Today we might think about what is superfluous in our own lives, and what we could and should share with others.

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8 comments

“… there should be nothing superfluous in our lives and that we should live by the providence of God. That usually means hard work and austere living so that, as St Paul says, we always have something with which to meet the needs of others. It means living simply, gratefully, generously.”

Thank you, Sister Catherine. Clarifying, and attainable by us all, whatever our calling.

by John Radice on Sunday, 11 August, 2013 at 9:48 am. #

Thank you, John. I think you are yourself a wonderful example of living simply, gratefully and generously as a layperson.

by Digitalnun on Sunday, 11 August, 2013 at 8:46 pm. #

What very wise words on a much misunderstood subject.

by Marion Luscombe on Sunday, 11 August, 2013 at 12:56 pm. #

Thank you, Marion.

by Digitalnun on Sunday, 11 August, 2013 at 8:47 pm. #

I too have always admired St Clare. Along with St Francis, she was one of the very first saints I became aware of and it was their espousal of poverty which did attract me as a teenager.

Stewardship, however, is something which also comes to the laity. For it is our duty to preserve in good order that which may have come down to us, so that we too may be able to pass it on. It cannot just be frittered away.

I have never found the reality of both of these statements an easy circle to square, and the problem seems to become more testing as Pope Francis challenges us to embrace a simpler lifestyle. Having grown accustomed to my creature comforts I know there is always going to be much for me to work on here.

by Lorraine Canning on Sunday, 11 August, 2013 at 2:12 pm. #

Exactly, Lorraine. We are all challenged by this notion of living biblically, and today’s gospel is especially good at reminding us.

by Digitalnun on Sunday, 11 August, 2013 at 8:48 pm. #

There is of course the danger that Religious Poverty can also become an end in itself. Many of us who have lived within the cloister will have seen a brother or sister eat little at meals – only to be found stuffing their face in the kitchen when they think no one is around. Or wearing a shabby habit or work clothes with something akin to pride… The true value of this poverty is evident in the quality of their relationships with their fellow brethren or sisters. Anyone who thinks a good deal about outward appearances (including apparent poverty or material detachment) has really missed the point! Poverty, like humility, cannot be enjoyed for its own sake. If we take pride in our humility then it is valueless, as it is converted into pride and we’re back where we started from. Therefore we cannot really know when we’re being humble and any attempt to own humility for some form of gratification immediately nullifies its worth – to ourselves and to others; humility is a form of giving and is bound by the same prohibitions (cf. Matthew 6:3).

I would suggest the same is true for poverty. We cannot own our poverty for our own gratification and pride. True poverty is being content with one’s lot. Poverty is akin to penitence: any move away from the basic facts of one’s circumstances (be that compunction or being content) is really just an act of self-justification and a possible occasion of pride. It is possible to be proud of one’s poverty as it is possible to be proud of one’s sin – and still play the part of the penitent and the impecunious soul…

The important factor in matters of poverty or penitence or humility is where does one’s hope lie and what is the desire of one’s heart. I am sure one could be a king and still live a life of poverty – even amid great opulence; just as I am sure there are beggars who are covetous and bitter with envy and therefore their poverty is useless.

For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Luke 12:34

by Peter Denshaw on Sunday, 11 August, 2013 at 8:08 pm. #

Allow me to say that as an ex-layperson I have also known lay people guilty of all the things you mention, but, more importantly, to me at any rate, I have known people, both lay and monastic, who have been a wonderful example of how to live with gospel simplicity and generosity. I think it is their charity and kindness which have most struck me.

by Digitalnun on Sunday, 11 August, 2013 at 8:53 pm. #


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