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.

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