Living the Vow of Poverty in a Privileged Society

Blog Published: September 22, 2009
By Sister Julie

I have been meditating on the Vow of Poverty this morning after receiving a question about discerning a call to religious life and encountering the question of privilege. Here’s the question in part:

I am struggling mightily with a concern that 21st century American religious life may place many of its new or younger entrants (post-1990s, say, and I did just pull that out of my hat) in a tremendously privileged life and socioeconomic/cultural class in this society. That the matter of who legally owns the resources can be, in real terms, very much “semantics”, placing many religious and communities well and even deep within the ranks of the “non-poor” in terms of both concrete resources and the stew of privilege (or not) that is “class”, a powerful possibility in this society.

Poverty and the vow of poverty are not easy realities to get one’s head around! But it is good to tangle with them as you are considering your calling in life and exploring religious life. I pulled your comments to the fore because I know I thought about them when I was discerning religious life (still do!) and I know others are as well. So I think this conversation will be helpful to many. All are welcome (as always) to participate in the conversation.

Although not all sisters and nuns profess a vow of poverty, one of three evangelical counsels (the other 2 are chastity and obedience … Jesus’ advice to those who wish to dedicate their lives to God), all religious strive to live this virtue in their personal and communal life.

Here are a couple of my thoughts on the vow of poverty … one comes from my reading of Pope Benedict XVI’s book on Jesus of Nazareth and the other comes from a visitor’s question a while back about the different dimensions of poverty. It’s important to note that poverty in the sense of the vow, the evangelical counsel, is not the same as poverty in the sense of destitution or lack of subsistence or means of supporting oneself or one’s family.

I would like to hear more from you about the topic of living poverty as a religious. If you are a sister or nun, what does this mean for you? If you are discerning like Jean, what concerns do you have? And for all visitors, do you find echoes of the evangelical counsel of poverty in your own life?

Archived Comments

Sr. Liza September 22, 2009 at 9:23 am

I went to an excellent talk given by Sr. Dianne Bergant on religious life. But that is for another time. Back to the vow of poverty. In my heart, I don’t see poverty as a good state. Actually, society is called to level the plain and reduce incidents of poverty. That is the insight on poverty from a world perspective. But our vow of poverty is more as a vow of simplicity and a daily call to use resources in a way that many will benefit. Kind of like the early Apostles. They would work, do service, inherit goods, but would bring those goods to the greater group to be distibuted according the needs, not wants. That is how I see our vow of poverty, being very savy about how we use our resources and working hard to make sure that not only us, but many around us have what they need for daily basic cuality of living. What other insights are there?

Sister Rosangela September 22, 2009 at 10:02 am

Poverty is hard to define in today’s world. As a religious Sister I definitely have more than our Sisters did years ago. The question we need to ask is how attached am I to the things I have? Can I share or give up what I have? I read one time that it is not how much we give away, but how much we keep that makes a difference. In other words I may have only a few things but be very attached to them. So it is not the amount but the willingness to let go. God wants to fill us with himself so we must be empty of ourselves. It is hard to do in today’s world because there are so many things available to us.

Michael Hallman September 22, 2009 at 12:00 pm

Thank you, Sister, for this post. This has been one of the things I have been struggling with myself in my very early days of religious life. I tend to long for a more austere observance of the vow of poverty, but then I find myself very easily appreciating the comforts that I have. The big joke with me has always been that I frequently tell the Augustinians that I’m looking forward to the vow of poverty because I can use the raise 

The other thing, of course, and this is I think part of what you were getting at, is that the vow of poverty doesn’t necessarily mean a vow of destitution (not even for Franciscans!). The main thing is a matter of simplicity that liberates the religious to be able to be devoted entirely to service of the Gospel.

St. Augustine based his rule of community living around that passage of Acts that you referenced. It had a tremendous effect on him. I think when we consider “each according to his or her needs,” it’s helpful to think not only in terms of temporal needs (i.e. the sharing of goods), but also spiritual needs. Perhaps for some people a stricter observance of the vow of poverty is a spiritual benefit for them; perhaps for others it actually is spiritually harmful. Each according to his or her needs. Maybe the spiritual component of that is something we can reflect on as we look at the future of our religious orders.

Hope you’re doing well. Thanks again for another insightful post 

Curtis September 22, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Since the evangelical vows are ordered towards God, they tend to lack certain defects that their naturally-occurring, disordered counterparts tend to develop. True destitution consists in more than just a lack of possessions. The truly poor in our communities tend to have substance addictions, to be heavily in debt, to be in destructive relationships, to have mental illnesses, to have a lack of role models, resources and support; their habitations are dirty and vermin-infested, and a host of other things. These things warrant our compassion but they are not to be imitated. God does not wish anyone to have these things. They arise from the fallen state of our world and are not part of the evangelical call to poverty.

Even St.Anthony in the desert, without a single possession in the world, does not know the crushing poverty of a single mom, addicted to alcohol, an abusive boyfriend, kids to feed, etc…

So, we do need to stop thinking of a vow of poverty as placing ourselves in the worse possible condition in life, as though this was an end in itself, but as rightly ordering our poverty away from self-interest and towards God alone.

Another Sister Julie, CSSF September 22, 2009 at 7:37 pm

I just moved to our provincial home in New Mexico after living 25 years in California where all you needed was a car, a station wagon or a pick up truck to haul your belongings. That made it far too easy to accumulate. I had to do some serious weeding for this move, yet I still have far too much crappola, esp clothes and craft items. The crafts I can justify bc I am now the coordinator of our Ladies’ Auxilliary and they have a craft fair next month. But the clothes! I do have a pile for donations, and any time I see a sister close to my size, I put a thing or two in her hands. (I’ve already dressed my neighbor for her jubilee next year!)

I guess the question of poverty boils down to this–Do I own my things or do my things own me? Yeah, I have to sit down with that poverty question and have a serious “Come to Jesus” event with my vows vs. my stuff.

Jeannie September 22, 2009 at 9:13 pm

You all have given me some serious food for thought. I am currently discerning and never really gave as much thought to the vow of poverty as I did to leaving my family. I realize that purging oneself of the things that can hinder us is helpful. It feels good to give the things we don’t need to someone who truly needs them. I am currently studying to be a teacher and when my family asked what I wanted for Christmas, I immediately said school supplies. An elementary school teacher can never have too many school supplies to provide for her kids in need. I agree with what everyone said about how a vow of poverty is not a vow of destitution, but rather a vow to live a simple life. Thanks again for the wonderful posts.

Jill September 23, 2009 at 9:08 pm

This is a response to some of the points made by Curtis. If I understand your post correctly, you are making a direct correlation between poverty & destitution (i.e., material poverty) and disorderedness.

My experience in working for and with, and on behalf of materially poor and homeless individuals has taught me otherwise. I consider myself middle class, so I am going out on a limb here…over the past 10 years, I have worked in social services in a variety of areas (including: a foster care agency, a soup kitchen, a food pantry/clothing closet, employment support, adult education, disaster relief, advocacy for homelessness), and I’ve come to learn that there is no more ‘disorder’ (i.e., abuse, addiction, debt, destructive relationships, mental illness, poor role models, etc., etc, etc) among the materially poor than there is among middle and upper-class individuals. A big difference is, those with more resources (money, but also education, power, connections, understandings of systems (social, political, etc) and how to influence them)…can hide it better, or engage in more socially acceptable forms. A simple example: I, as a middle-class person can be as messy as I want…and hire someone to clean up after me. We bemoan welfare recipients, yet look at the recent federal funds allocated to bail out the banks.

There are elements of personal choice & responsibility at play, and yet we also need to look at social structures that support patterns of abuse, addiction, etc. that are part of economic poverty. When schools receive inadequate funding, jobs do not pay living wages (if in fact there is a job to be had), public transportation systems are unreliable, neighborhoods have nowhere to buy fresh produce, and health care is non-existent….these are all constructs of our existing social-political structures in the US, and I think it’s the responsibility of those of us who can to advocate on behalf of the poor, to have access to the institutions we have benefited from.

Curtis, I agree with your statement, “God does not wish anyone to have these things. “ I truly believe that God desires good for all of us…and this world of brokenness and beauty.

Jill (who is stepping down from her soap box now…thanks for bearing with me!)

Curtis September 25, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Jill, I agree with your comments. I do not mean to say that only the poor have disorders – that certainly is not the case. Perhaps I could phrase things better by saying that people who take a religious vow of poverty should be aware that they do not incur the indignity, humiliation or abjection of involuntary poverty. St. Francis de Sales wrote: “Everybody respects and pities a pious hermit shivering in his worn-out garb; but let a poor gentleman or lady be in like case, and they are despised for it,—and so their poverty is abject.”

Karen September 25, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Wow – you have all posted wonderful things to think about. I am a wife and mother, and I also struggle with the idea of poverty and what it means, both overall and to me personally. Before we married, my husband lived in a 3 room apartment and had very little funds, but he creatively made use of every inch of space he had and learned to buy only what he needed to live on one week at a time – no room for hoarding. We learned to make wonderful meals out of salt, pepper, olive oil, potatoes and an onion – those were some of our happiest memories. Now that we have a house and kids, I strive to be in the world, but not of the world, or a product of it, and what it tells me I “need” to have in order to be happy. When I feel like I’m being sucked in by the latest push for material comfort, I think back to those days where we had little and relied on God. Maybe that is the true benefit of poverty – both material and otherwise. Learning to reply on God one day at a time. Sometimes the poverty we experience is not material but emotional – going through a hard time and being “out of resources” to deal with it – and yet we go on to do so with the sustaining help of God, one day at a time. That is a kind of poverty many, many people live with who may have all the financial resources in the world. Like the widow in the Gospels who gave all she had, we are often called to give all we have – and then some. And we can only do that by the provision we get from God when we reach the end of our own human limits.

Melissan September 27, 2009 at 9:10 pm

I am looking at religious life and to me the vow of poverty means to live more simply and not have lots of extra “stuff” you don’t need because “stuff” gets in the way of truly being poor in spirit and serving God and each other. There is also a certain freedom to not owning one’s own house like I do now, but our society says everyone should own one. I think it means also valuing ourselves and others despite what we have and don’t have.

Linda McCullough September 28, 2009 at 5:01 am

I have to say, there is nothing like the sharp anxiety of not having health insurance or being evicted to focus one’s mind on whether God is enough. St. Francis did seek to be destitute. I do not see how a modern institution could responsibly place its members in real jeopardy like this, but to know, feel and understand you have nothing but God is a truly bracing spiritual experience.

Sister Julie October 1, 2009 at 7:19 am

Hi Linda, A good point about Francis … and I think, if my memory is correct, the Franciscans had a difficult time moving from that original charism of Francis and Clare to becoming an “institution” … I think all of our founders had a similar challenge … one could say that for Jesus’ movement that eventually turned into the Christian Church.

Karen September 29, 2009 at 11:05 am

A follow-up to my previous post…I went on retreat this weekend and the Retreat Director runs a shelter for the homless in NY. After hearing him speak, I guess I have come to the realization that while we who are materially comfortable can choose to “live simply”, the poor have no choice in most situations, and therein lies a chasm of difference. When your choices are removed and you are living in poverty day in and day out and see your children go without, it’s different than choosing to give away stuff you don’t really use anyway. It should make us pause and reflect. My question to myself now is this: is there an area of my life where I too have no choice about something and so in that place, I can identify with the poor from that perspective? I don’t know – I’m thinking on it…but I wanted to share that thought. It just seems to me that while living more simply is a noble thing in and of itself and something I strive to do, my real call is to concretely help the poor.

Chris W December 23, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Hello, I have been reading your discussion, as I am pondering taking a personal Vow of Poverty. I am not Christian per se, although I feel the pull of “god” or “spirit” in my life more and more. What hits me the hardest is how I see the beautiful Earth being destroyed by so many people clamoring to be wealthy or live wealthy lives– buying clothes, cars, exotic foods, gadgets, etc. I want to step out of this aspect of American culture. I want to live very simply on purpose, and use my talents, time, and possessions for the common good. I am grateful for the religious models of how to do this, how to choose poverty intentionally. I admire people, like Anonymous Novice and all of you, who have committed to the Vow of Poverty and you inspire me. Thank you.

Sister Julie December 24, 2009 at 7:05 am

Chris, Thank you for writing. Our prayers are with you as you continue to discern how God is calling you. We support you and keep you in our prayers.

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