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.