When a Dominican nun takes a solemn vow of poverty, she “loses the capacity of acquiring and possessing” (Canon 668.5). She relies upon her Divine Spouse who knows that she needs these things (cf Matthew 6:32) and upon her community who provides what is necessary or useful.
I glimpsed the true radically of such voluntary poverty at the conclusion of my first temporary vows. After it was discerned that I would not renew, I walked through the beautiful, well-supplied motherhouse with the realization that none of it was mine, not even the clothes I was wearing. Never before had I felt so truly poor. Fortunately, the sisters were generous and practical and did not send me away naked and penniless.
Ridding myself of almost everything I had accumulated in my first 27 years of life to enter the convent was remarkably freeing. So when I next entered the monastery, after only a year and a half at home, I had less possessions, but dispossessed myself of them more thoroughly, giving up things that I had not been able to part with the first time.
Last year when I left the enclosure, I determined to keep my life uncluttered and have succeeded somewhat. I admit that the “old man” likes to add things to the “necessary and useful” list that maybe really are not, but even without a few superfluous contributions, that list has a way of growing and growing.
And it's not always a question of having money to spend. Once when the junior professed sisters in the novitiate were changing cells (a cell is a nun’s bedroom), I was clearing out my dresser/desk. I opened a little drawer in the center of the desk part and like a can of worms out burst the overflow of a frightening collection of scraps of paper, bits of string, paper clips, etc. It was a veritable rats nest of little bits that “might be useful later”. I had to face the fact, even living religious poverty, I still had strong pack rat tendencies. The bags of fabric scraps in my closet at present show that this is still the case.
A couple months ago, when a new job necessitated a car for commuting. I set out to find four wheels attached beneath a decent cabin with a reliable motor under the hood that could get me safely from home to Church, work or Allan’s house and back again. Soon I found myself engrossed in exciting choices about horsepower, transmission type, colors, accessories, makes and models and all well out of my almost non-existent price range. Fortunately, the Lord worked through my sister and brother-in-law to generously provide four wheels attached beneath a well-kept cabin with a fairly reliable motor and bring me back to my senses.
As much as luxury, comfort, having stuff and pizazz can be appealing, simplicity brings joy. I would not have picked out this particular car, but I am grateful for it every day as it takes me where I need to go and back home again.
Over the years, I have learned more and more profoundly that the evangelical counsel of poverty to which all Christians are called according to their state in life is not about blind frugality or destitution. It is about simplicity, gratitude, trusting dependence on Providence and healthy detachment.
“Consider your possessions loaned to you by God.” St. Catherine of Siena
Saint Paul says in one of his letters that he knows how to live with want and how to live with abundance. We all experience both realities and in both we are called to imitate the poverty of Christ.
When I have little, I am invited to practice detachment through self-denial and stricter frugality. I have to weigh prices, wait for sales, and sometimes accept less or different than what I desire or simply do without.
When I have much, I am invited to practice detachment through liberality. I can afford to pay the full just price for what I need -- even if it is higher than I like, and, if appropriate for charity or excellence, even exceed it. I can share my goods with others, as my sister and brother-in-law did with me, even when it pinches a little. I can take into account environmental and social impact of my purchases and the witness my shopping habits give to others.
In all cases, I can be grateful. In want and in abundance, I can try to avoid wastefulness and over-indulgence for love of Christ who though rich, became poor for us.
I cannot take a solemn vow of poverty living outside of a religious community, but before I acquire property or as I look through my possessions, I can ask does this help bring be closer to God?