Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Reflection on Poverty


Recently, I wrote a lengthy reflection on celibacy. A few days later, I wrote a reflection on obedience. It makes sense that now I would offer some thoughts on the vow of religious poverty.

I confess that I am struggling with articulating anything meaningful on this vow, even though it was the vow I felt most essential to my own vocation when I was exploring religious life.

I always felt a greater attraction to live in simplicity than to live in an unmarried state. Indeed, for awhile, I tried to justify the celibate life-style by trying to convince myself that one could not live poverty with integrity as a married person.

I was inspired by the poverty of Saint Francis, who literally lived in caves, fasted 150 days per year, walked barefoot in the snow and owned nothing but a simple habit and his breviary. He also associated with the lowliest people, like lepers, who were considered outcasts in his day.

This may sound a little strange to many people living in America today, and we may wonder what is so holy about owning almost nothing.

I did not think of the vow of poverty so much as sacrifice as freedom. My Dad once said to me that there are two ways to get everything you want out of life. One is to have unlimited resources, such as immense wealth. The other is to not want very much.

To Americans, this represents an incredible lack of ambition. In a Gospel context, the way I saw it was to place seeking the reign of God above seeking material success.

Saint Francis said somewhere that the friars should avoid living in houses lest they need to buy locks and protect their belongings. He had an aversion to owning things because he saw those things as tying him down.

In early Christian tradition, the desert fathers emphasized a state of detachment from worldly things that freed one to pursue a deeper relationship with God.

I was twenty four when I entered formation with the Franciscans and I was naively idealistic when it came to poverty. I actually had daydreams that I would be permitted by the order to live under a bridge and minister with the homeless, and I expected that other friars would gladly join me.

I remember discussing it with my spiritual director in my first year of formation. He asked, "What are you going to do for the homeless while you are under that bridge?" I responded, "I don't know. I'll just let the Spirit guide me."

I felt called to ministerial priesthood too, and part of my vision was that I'd be doing baptisms, saying Mass and hearing confessions under that bridge.

Of course, I know now that few women would want to live under a bridge with me, but at the age of twenty four, I thought it possible that there was a Saint Clare out there who might share my vision.

That's how I viewed poverty, and I was willing to give celibacy a try if it enabled me to live such radical poverty, but I never felt primarily called to celibacy.

I was willing to submit to obedience as an openness to be formed in whatever mystical experience was going to help me live in chaste celibacy so that I could become a priest living under a bridge.

I had doubts about my ability to live celibately before I entered, and I voiced those doubts to my formators.

The truth be told, at the age of twenty four, I wasn't real sure why I couldn't be married and live under a bridge and say Mass for the homeless. I half expected to meet a like minded nun and fall in love. Of course, there are too few young nuns these days to make that likely.

My understanding of poverty as it is actually lived in religious life changed during the six years I was in formation. I came to see that the greatest poverty I would face if I embraced religious life was not material poverty.

As a friar, I lived with greater material security and more access to material goods and "pleasures" than I have ever had at any other point in my life.

The poverty of religious life for me was going to be living in community: accepting that others had different visions than me, and that the vow of obedience was going to preclude any priestly ministry exercised under a bridge.

What were some of these other visions of poverty?

Many of the friars believed that the vow of poverty was really a witness that communal ownership is better for the individual than living for yourself.

In this view, poverty had to do with the fact that none of us had a penny to our name, yet we lived better than those who own homes and cars and so forth in their own name. It was a witness to communism, and some of the friars proudly stated we were living the perfect communist life-style.

It is legally true that we had not a penny to our names. I recently received my income history from the social security administration, and there are straight zeros in the years during which I was in formation. Legally, an individual friar owns nothing.

Other friars believed that the vow of poverty did imply some sort of simplicity or frugality of life-style. They pointed out that with a professional graduate degree like the Masters of Divinity, which was a 106 credit hour rigorous program including internship experiences, a minister should earn as much as doctors, lawyers, and other professionals with such degrees.

Since none of us were living like doctors or lawyers, they rationalized that our life-style was frugal in comparison to other professionals.

Some of the older friars remembered days before the invention of television, computers, radio, and so forth. For them, poverty was a resistance to all this new technology and all of modern culture.

Younger friars had the attitude that some of these things were now tools of the trade, which Francis always approved. For example, how could you write for a theological journal without a computer?

The older friars also had some legalistic understandings of poverty based on the way they were formed before Vatican II. Some of their ways of expressing poverty did not make much sense to me.

For example, one of the legalistic ways the older friars expressed poverty was to say that one should only eat for breakfast what would fit in a single bowl. Apparently, they all followed this rule at one point.

What they would do is find the biggest bowl in the house, and fill it as much as possible with cereal, even packing the cereal down and piling in more. Then they would slice fruit on top, and pour sugar, milk, coffee and orange juice together on the mix. It probably tasted awful, but was packed with more calories than if they simply ate a normal breakfast.

As another example, they would fast during lent on soup and bread, but the soup would be the richest soup you could imagine and the bread would be fresh baked breads so that the fasting meal was more filling and better tasting than a regular meal.

One of the relatively younger friars in his forties had a vision more like mine. He worked hard to get the order to take on an inner-city parish, and he became a pastor and guardian there.

Some other friars were assigned to the house, and complained that the house had no air conditioning.

The guardian told the friars to look out the window across the street. He asked if they saw any air conditioners hanging out the windows of the row houses and apartment buildings. Then he said that when the neighbors get air conditioning, the house can get it. I liked this vision of poverty.

Even in the houses like this, where some like-minded friars tried to live very simply, there was the phenomenon of accumulation of common goods.

One friar might decide that living simply meant giving away all his possessions except for his books, which he would add to the household library to make a decent collection of books. Another gave away everything except his collection of CD's, and so the house would gain a decent CD collection.

The people of God are also very generous, which is a good thing. Sometimes, this generosity is expressed by way of personal gifts to religious or priests. It is always a struggle for one vowed to poverty to discern whether to accept a personal gift or not.

During a visitation by the minister general, I expressed my desire to serve in a house in the inner city. The minister general stated that I needed to learn to love the rich and middle class as much as I loved the poor.

He stated that even if I am assigned to a ministry like the ministry I desired, it will not be my only assignment as a friar.

As a friar, I needed to learn to love all people inclusively and that meant learning to love and minister well to wealthy Catholics living in upper middle class neighborhoods too.

On a daily basis, through my interaction with friars with a different vision of poverty than mine, and through comments like that of the minister general, I began to realize that poverty of spirit involves an openness to other people.

It is not so much something you measure by material things in your possession, as it is an openness to accepting others where they are. Poverty of spirit is the humility to make compromises out of love.

Yet, I took the vow of poverty understood on a material plane very seriously on a personal level while I was with the friars.

I once gave all my books away to a diocesan candidate for priesthood. It was one of the hardest things I ever gave up. My collection of books is back up into the hundreds these days. I love books, and it drives my wife a bit crazy to have books all over the house.

Not only did I give my books away, but as far as clothing I had only my habit, one sports jacket with matching slacks, dress shirt and tie, a clerical shirt matching the slacks, a pair of jeans, a pair of shorts, and three T-shirts and a flannel shirt for when it got cold.

I had enough socks and underwear to get through five days without doing laundry. I had a pair of cheap sandals and three pair of shoes: a pair of sneakers, a pair of cheap dress shoes matching the slacks and jacket, and a pair of steel toed work boots.

It was more clothes than Francis, but probably fewer than most American have.

I slept on a board which I kept covered with a quilt so that nobody looking in my room would notice there was no mattress. There was little in the way of decorations other than a cheap religious kitsch: a plastic crucifix, some holy cards, and dashboard statues of saints.

I once went to a soup kitchen in my habit wearing sandals in the snow. I become a vegetarian while I was in formation as an expression of poverty.

Through formation, the order was wise enough to give me ministry experiences that fit my own vision a little better than the rest of reality.

Maybe they sought to keep me excited. I was never sent to an upper middle class parish as the minister general indicated might happen one day. I ministered in a federal prison, at soup kitchens, in inner city schools and nursing homes, and among Latino immigrants.

It was in ministering with the poor that I began to really revise my vision of poverty the most. As I served a meal at a soup kitchen and sat down to eat the same meals I served with the homeless, I had to ask myself what is so "blessed" about this condition.

I recall having a meal in the soup kitchen with a transvestite, a prostitute, and a man who believed aliens were sending him messages through his thoughts. Were these the people who the beatitudes said would inherit the reign of God?

As I saw how hard immigrants struggle, often working three jobs while living in cramped quarters in dangerous neighborhoods, I had to ask myself what is so "blessed" about this condition.

As I listened to a prisoner confess to me that he was in jail on a drug possession charge, and was afraid of his upcoming release because he had murdered people who had friends and wanted him dead, I had to ask myself what Christ meant when he said the poor are "blessed".

Did he mean this thug who grew up on the mean streets?

Funny thing is that I actually liked the guy, despite his sins. I was learning to see Christ in unexpected places.

My view of poverty shifted from the selfish desire to be free of responsibility, to a desire to change the conditions that lead to people living in dehumanizing conditions.

Despite my efforts to live simply, I was finding as time wore on that material poverty was not really as important or as much a sacrifice as I originally thought.

Saint Francis may have undergone a similar conversion in his life. He once apologized to his own body at the end of his life for treating it so harshly. He died at the age of forty three.

The question my first spiritual director asked me about what I would do for people living under a bridge began to make more sense to me as time wore on in formation.

I began to realize that the vow of poverty is less an ascetic practice to gain freedom from belongings, and more a state of solidarity with the poor to improve their condition.

Poverty of spirit is not denying the human desire, and even need, for material security.

Human persons have an inherent right to a certain minimum living condition, and much of the world is being denied basic rights. It is a sin that people starve or do not have adequate health care.

The proper response to this sin is not to simply live frugally as an individual, but to examine the structures of evil that cause this condition, and then change those structures - not by hatred of the rich, but through evolutionary processes of non-violent confrontation.

Poverty of spirit, by definition, is entering into a state of the insecurity of being poor. It involves taking risk to speak the truth to power in love.

I also began to realize that the insecurity of needing to pay rent or a mortgage is more an act of asceticism than walking bear foot in the snow and returning to a cozy friary to warm up later.

I began to take an incarnational view of poverty. God emptied himself into the human condition, and Paul says that Christ did not see divinity as something to be grasped at. We are called to empty ourselves for the sake of others in love.

Poverty is a state of discomfort with the world as it is - a cry for justice - the demand to see people treated as human persons with human dignity and persons with the right to the means for a dignified life.

Wherever these conditions are not met, we enter into the spirit of poverty by peaceably seeking to change that condition.

When I left formation, it was partly because I realized that poverty means the combination of working to change the conditions of poverty, and being open to living with other people in humility leading to loving compromise.

I did not need to live under a bridge or be a celibate to do this.

In fact, married people know as much or more about the humility leading to loving compromise as any celibate. If a married person also takes up the cause of the poor, they live poverty with the same integrity as those under vows.

There was still the issue of feeling called to priesthood at the time I decided to leave, but I had learned to abandon my vision of saying Mass under a bridge, because it wasn't going to happen. The Vatican strongly frowns on outdoor Masses, though the Franciscans have a special dispensation to say them. However, they don't use their dispensation to say Masses under bridges.

I began to examine priesthood separately from poverty. This was new for me. In high school, when a diocesan priest had explained to me that he took no vow of poverty, I had naively said to him, "So, you're not a real priest?"

I grew up in a Franciscan parish and the image of the poor Christ, and I always considered poverty and priesthood linked. Once I separated the two, I wasn't sure I was called to priesthood.

I had met full time lay volunteers who were single but dating or even married and who were living more simply than the friars, doing great work, and learning from one another. It began to dawn on me that I did not need to be celibate, nor even a priest to live the life of poverty as I was beginning to understand it.

I also became very strongly infatuated with a woman lay volunteer at one point. At another point, I was strongly infatuated with a woman who grew up in the inner-cities and worked with me in a nursing home. I knew that celibacy was always going to be challenge, and that I would likely break that vow, since I never really desired it for its own sake.

While I finally was able to separate poverty and priesthood, the Church does not allow me to separate celibacy and priesthood. Since I came to realize that poverty can be lived without celibacy, I no longer felt motivated to stay in religious life.

Today, I continue to live simply and in many ways simpler than I could have lived as the average priest or many friars. Yet, poverty is not about what one does and does not own. It is about an openness to others and a willingness to fight for those who are marginalized.