St Clare and the Problem of Poverty

This post is little more than a question. St Clare, whose feast we keep today, is very closely associated with what is known as the privilege of poverty. She fought hard to ensure that her nuns should live as St Francis and she had desired, owning nothing, reliant on the goodness of God to provide for their needs. Today, most religious take a vow of poverty. The way in which it is interpreted depends on the individual Order or Congregation. Benedictines, of course, don’t take vows of poverty, although as part of our vow of conversatio morum we undertake to live with the frugality proper to monastic life, and our being in solemn vows means that individually we own nothing at all. In practice, whether you visit a small Benedictine monastery such as ours, or a Poor Clare community such as the one nearby at Much Birch, you will see buildings and material goods being used by the nuns. Poverty in this context does not mean destitution; it has much more to do with detachment.

My question is very simple. Those of us who live religious life know how important it is to strip ourselves of attachment to anything we can ‘privatise’, including the status it is sometimes thought to confer. What I would like to know is whether this has any significance or value to those who are not in religious life. Sometimes one hears people saying, ‘Oh, you’re a nun, you don’t need such-and-such’ or even, as has happened to us, ‘I was going to throw this out as it’s worn out but thought maybe you could use it’. Clearly, there is some conception of religious poverty at work, even if it is a rather strange one, but does it connect with the search for God and the attempt to live a holy life? In other words, is poverty one aspect of religious life we need to present differently if it is to be seen for what it truly is? Thoughts, please.


25 thoughts on “St Clare and the Problem of Poverty”

  1. Perhaps, in our modern consumerist society, an aspect of poverty might be that we only acquire and own the things we actually need, not things we just want.

    Of course, every person will probably have a different idea of what they need.

  2. Poverty is a gift which we must all learn to embrace. It is only by untying the bonds that hold us to our personal possessions – that treasured photo, our friends, our homes – that we can become truly free to untie ourselves to the One who created us and loves us beyond all measure. In the depths of our soul there is only room for one other – Our Father – the more we clutter ourselves with belongings, busyness, people the less room there is for God. In poverty we empty ourselves, in suffering all else is pushed aside. However what we decide to fill the void with (love of Our Lord, or feelings of hurt, despair, anger) will decide whether poverty and suffering are jewels or worthless contaminations on our journey through life.
    So, what is the value of religious poverty? In so many ways religious are the Olympic coaches of the world; living by example, showing others the way. Quietly, behind the spotlights coaxing, instructing, knowing the right path and helping lead others to find it. Without these ‘coaches’ so many more would remain couch potatoes planted in earthly matters rather than joining those who have set themselves free to fly with God.

  3. Here’s one shot at a response. If we think of this as a counsel of perfection, perhaps we’re going to go down a wrong track. We’re talking about a fundamental direction of attitude, required of all Christian people, whatever their state of life. St Ignatius gives us a handle on it in his famous ‘Principio y fundamento’ (Exx 23) : ‘Human beings have been created in order that they should praise, reverence, and serve our Lord God, and by this means, save their souls. The other things on the face of the earth have been created for human use, to help us pursue the purpose for which we have been made. It follows from this, that humans have to use these things in so far as they help us in this pursuit, and that we should disposess ourselves of them in so far as they impede it. To this end we need to become indifferent to all created things, in all things that are open to the freedom of our free will, and are not forbidden ; such that we for our part should not seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honour rather than dishonour, a long rather than a short life, and so forth in all else ; solely seeking and desiring what is most conducive to the purpose for which we have been created.’ The potentially tricky word there is ‘indifferent’ (indiferentes), by which Ignatius – like Jesus — means we should not *set our hearts* on created things ; our treasure should be in Heaven, as in Matthew 6. 19-21 — Ubi enim est thesaurus tuus, ibi est et cor tuum.

  4. I think that for those of us for whom the question has any importance, the needs of Religious are a duty to the wider Christian community, as indicated by the early Church fathers.

    The propaganda relating to monastic wealth, a notion actively promulgated by the Tudors, is still believed by many people.

    The situation is further complicated by the widely-held belief that the Church’s perceived wealth is available to all her institutions and communities.

    The question, I suppose, is how to demonstrate, or prove, poverty to critical observers of communities and their members. Perhaps the circle cannot be squared, Mother Teresa’s example notwithstanding…

  5. Yesterday you mentioned the ‘intellectually impoverished’ and the ‘spiritually poor’. My confusions over the idea of poverty in the monastic or lay Christian life arise when these notions are confused with simplicity.
    Living a simple life or ‘living simply so that others may simply live’ seems a Christian imperative. (I’m sorry I forget where the quote comes from.) It is well expressed in Quaker literature to incorporate shunning superfluity, leaning on God and honesty.
    Impoverishment in intellectual, emotional or spiritual life is something not to be tolerated, but to be tackled alongside physical deprivation or poverty.
    But ‘spiritual poverty’ is a tricky phrase. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ and ‘holy poverty’ are, in my experience, phrases that lead to much confusion.
    On a more practical note, as one in the middle of a ‘fie-out’ (good Norfolk word for turning out a room, cupboard or indeed chicken pen), it makes you feel good to sling some of the books and papers you’ll never look at again. Sorry, for ‘sling’ read ‘recycle’.

  6. Well first of all, I took Clare as my Patron when I became a Benedictine Oblate, so today is my feast: thank you for this focus on Clare and what she might stand for.
    What does poverty mean for those of us not in religious life?
    I was interested to read Patricia’s comment about confusing poverty with simplicity, because the notion of voluntary simplicity is how I try to live out part of the Rule.
    Clare’s notion of poverty was probably more extreme than Benedict’s, although as I understand it, because her ‘ladies’ were forced to be enclosed rather than wander as beggars, they were in turn less extreme than Francis himself.
    I have a lot of thoughts about voluntary simplicity, more than this comment will hold, but one observation is that it’s very fashionable right now! There are endless blogs devoted to living simply but a lot of them seem just another way of competing as human beings: “look how little I can get by with”.
    To my mind, real simplicity is both mental and material. It’s a letting go. You mention non-attachment in your post and I think that’s important. Not to be attached to competition or ideas or emotions or certainties or ego (sigh…) as much as to material things.
    I don’t believe our call as humans is to grinding poverty or destitution, I believe it is to joy. And except for rare odd birds like Francis and Clare, it is probably difficult to be joyful and totally destitute. Also poverty is not only material. I’m thinking of the poverty of the homeless alcoholic and addict, the poverty of refugee camps in Africa, the poverty of violence. These all go way beyond not having ‘things’.

  7. I don’t think poverty means having no money in the bank and depriving yourself of this and that… you need money and you need this and that. Poverty is that ill at ease feeling with the superfluous and if you don’t have that ill at ease feeling with the superfluous then you are very much attached to the wealth and other man made riches of our society.

  8. Attachment to “stuff” and the responsibility that so often comes with it is not necessarily something to be discouraged. However, if/when all that stuff starts to weigh heavily on the shoulders and prevent one looking up towards the cross, it is then that action is needed. It is often only by experiencing the weight being lifted from your shoulders that the person living in this materialistic world can begin to glimpse the possibilities that such freedom can offer.

    Being able to experience the simplicity of life, free from attachments that hinder our development into the person that God wishes us to be, is a fundamental need for every human being, whether they yet know it or not.

    Perhaps, by enabling those outside their walls to better understand this aspect of poverty, the religious can offer insight and growth……just a few thoughts of mine.

  9. Thoughts:

    To live with only what one needs and not a thing more, and to give to where it hurts to those in true need… may be a thing to strive for in whatever life, religious or lay.

    To cultivate poverty is to add richness to one’s life, whereas to live fat, so to speak, impoverishes us, morally, spiritually. To give what we no longer want or need, or what is ‘old and worn’ is not true or fruitful giving, I think. We might ask ourselves would I give this to Christ? When we give to the poor, we give to Christ seen through/in the poor? Shouldn’t we give our all to Him? Let us unburden ourselves of our treasure material, to empty ourselves for gifts spiritual?

    It is a question of what we treasure more: material or spiritual. But I think we must cultivate both. Material need must be seen to, but excess and attachment must be guarded against. Spiritual attainments are rightly sought but only in all humility. Greed and vanity in spiritual attainments are as deadly to one’s soul as material stagnation. And this whether in religious life or lay…

    • I would note also that what we have to offer, to give to others in need, is not only material things to the materially deprived, but spiritual sustenance to those in material plenty but who echo hollow in spirit.

    • Thanks for these stimulating thoughts here on material/spiritual treasure. But I find your words
      “To give what we no longer want or need, or what is ‘old and worn’ is not true or fruitful giving”
      a little puzzling. I agree we should give of our best, but maybe some old or worn things (though not completely worn out) can be our greatest treasures to give. I’m thinking of the teddy that had been my Godfather’s and my mother’s wartime quilt. But perhaps it is just the museum curator in me that has an especial fondness for the pre-used object?

      • Thank you for your insight, Patricia, and point taken! Perhaps I was not clear in what I meant to express. Family heirlooms, and ‘old and worn objects’ of sentimental value or historic importance were not in mind as I wrote. I agree, being old and worn of itself does not make an object unworthy… spoken like a true curator of a museum. 🙂 And a good thing too or some of us ‘old and worn objects’ of a certain age might otherwise be destined to a bad end! 😉

  10. While reading about Clare, I stumbled upon the term ‘Privilege of Poverty’ which really struck me, as we seem to struggle for more privileges of one kind or another.
    I cannot think of a religious woman whom I know living in anything else than simplicity… Priests, on the other hand, can be another story.
    I was not aware that Benedictines did not take the vow of poverty.
    Tess above mentioned ‘voluntary simplicity.’ I too find this very attractive. But then, of course, today, it can include electronic gadgets which invade one’s silence and focus…
    I find it a very challenging ‘privilege’. As my patron saint, St Clare is quite a challenge for me and I will need to go on many walks with her for chats 🙂

    • Claire – oh yes, those electronic gadgets. Is a book still a book if it is downloaded to the Kindle rather than sitting on a bookshelf? What might we miss by unsubscribing to those newsletters? I’ve consciously been cutting down on social media recently, and have taken a rest from writing my blog, for reasons related to these matters. They seem to eat away at my authenticity.

  11. Just yesterday I resigned a position I took in May. I was so ill-treated no other course of action was possible. This means I will have had 3 months’ employment in 2012 thus far. It’s the death knell for my 34-year life in the San Francisco Bay Area. I just can’t make it here anymore.

    For me, poverty is saying: all right LJ, I understand the conventional wisdom. I also understand my decision will be anxious-making for those who love me. But I trust you.

    Sometimes you have to let go and live by that trust. Poverty means surrendering security even if it goes against the grain. Clare did that. Thank you, Clare.

  12. I find this a very hard question, not because of material things in themselves, or of a vow to live with utter simplicity, which I admire as much among Amish people as enclosed religious orders and strive within broader perameters to follow.

    But, personally, if I were to be closed off from the world’s great artistic creations, especially the manifestations of the Spirit to the glory of God, I should feel emotionally stunted and afflicted by blindness. It would be like groping around in the dark. I’m prepared to concede, though, that this may be due to our complex material-orientated world that these touchstones are vital.

    St Clare and St Francis did live among such and renounced them, tainted as they often were by pride and displays of wealth.

    I will always think of St Clare, warding off the Saracens by the power of the Monstrance. And I will constantly appeal to St Francis for adventures in permaculture and simple living and for saying that he hoped that the Lord’s Day would find him digging his garden. This is cogent truth.

  13. Divesting oneself of material things unclutters one’s spirit and makes room for peace. Although “stuff” can make our lives comfortable, it can also fill spaces in our minds and hearts and cause worry and stress. To keep only the basics that one needs and to know that one can walk away from these without emotional attachment gives one wings: it creates a sense of freedom and allows for living in the present in a mindful way. When one is in the present and mindful of one’s actions, one is in the zone of prayerfulness and connection to God. Time seems then to exist only in the now and one’s spirit feels full.

  14. Having read many answers to your question it seems to me that it is unanswerable.
    There are too many ifs and buts , many opinions on the same theme.
    All we can each do is the best we can, either in religion or for us ordinary folk in our daily lives. Jesus was conscious of the poor but also encouraged us to use our money wisely,” do not bury it in the sand”.

  15. Thank you for engaging at so many levels. There is no one answer, no single ‘right way’ to respond to this question; but you have confirmed my view that it is an important one, perhaps especially so in theses days of self-proclaimed austerity.

  16. Having glimpsed or tasted the goodness of God diminishes greatly the appetite for things of this world, I have found… Though I remain in constant need of reform… 😉

  17. I have thought abou this a lot recently. I think that we all have tolet go of material things, at least to some extent, in order to have a closer relationship with Christ. There is too much in the way otherwise. I find He leads us to it.

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