Friday, January 23, 2009

The riches of poverty and the heights of humility.

Poverty can be a contentious topic in Jesuit communities. Although the vow of poverty that we profess has certain objective characteristics - obliging us, for example, to give up control of any money or real property that we may have held before entering the Society - we often disagree about the practical implications that the vow has for our common life. Conflicts over the vow of poverty often center on whether or not we can justify having particular things. Is it acceptable for individual Jesuits to have cellphones or laptop computers? How about private television sets? How many television sets (or DVD players, or cars, or appliances) should a Jesuit community have? What kind of food and drink should we consume, and how should our houses be furnished? A proper answer to any of these questions requires careful discernment and the consideration of a number of different factors, including the nature of the particular apostolic demands that we face and the cultural and social contexts in which we work and live. Even so, it strikes me that communal discussions of poverty often betray a certain materialism. Despite our efforts at cultivating a sense of spiritual detachment, we sometimes allow our understanding of poverty to be reduced to debates about what material goods we should or shouldn't have.

Though very few Christians take actual vows of poverty, we are all called to follow the poor Christ. Poverty is an integral element of our shared vocation, yet we often fail to understand what poverty really consists in. Father Alexander Schmemann gets at the heart of the matter in an entry from his Journals dated October 8, 1974:
"It is difficult for the rich . . ." It is quite obvious that at the center of Christianity is the renunciation of wealth, any wealth. The beauty of poverty! - there is also, of course, the ugliness of poverty, but there is beauty. Christianity is enlightened only by humility, by an impoverished heart. Poverty does not consist always of lacking something - that is its ugliness - but in being content with what there is.
Whether we're in vows or not, we would all do well to reflect on how Father Schmemann's words speak to our understanding and experience of Christian poverty. Am I truly able to appreciate the beauty of spiritual poverty? Am I humble enough to be content with the gifts that God has given me, or do I find something lacking? Can I pray for the grace of "an impoverished heart"? AMDG.


At 1/23/2009 11:06 AM, Blogger Wan Wei-Hsien said...


The spiritual director who was the first to form me in the vows told me to always keep love at their center, for that is their end. Over the years, it's allowed me to catch myself when I drift toward focusing on what things I ought or ought not possess. She told me what she heard an abbess tell her sisters once: "When you open the toiletries closet to get a bar of soap, do you take the one that is in front of you, or do you pick and choose? To take the one in front of you--that is poverty." I I think this abbess would've liked Fr. Schmemann.

My spiritual director also used to repeat the Italian adage which goes: "The one who is content is joyful." I've realized that this joy borne of contentment is one of things that keep poverty vital rather than drab.

Thanks for this reflection. I hope you get to keep up with posting because I always look forward to what you have to say.



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