Poverty and obedience
are heavy words. They are, in a way, old-fashioned terms that seem almost out of place in 21st-century American culture. You don’t hear them too often on commercials or see them printed on magazine covers. They are words people can easily dismiss as irrelevant and outdated. After all, who wants to be poor? And isn’t obedience for pets?
Let’s start with poverty, which can be confusing in the sense religious communities use the word. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven” (6:20). But if it is a blessing to be poor, why do so many people around the world spend so much time, money, and energy trying to get rid of poverty?
Perhaps simplicity is the word to use. This is the goal, after all. How can we live more simply, especially in the midst of a culture that is doing its best to persuade us that we always need more? The words new and improved are the two most common descriptors in advertising. Look at how quickly a computer becomes outdated, a car depreciates in value, or clothes become unfashionable. It’s a struggle just to keep up—that is, if you’re trying to keep up.
Reprinted with permission from Brothers: An Inside Look, by Brother Larry Schatz, F.S.C., © 2002 St. Mary’s Press, Winona, Minnesota, www.smp.org. All rights reserved.
Although some religious brothers live with very little in extremely poor areas of the world, the vast majority have a pretty good life. They have their basic needs taken care of, are well-educated, and live in comfortable residences. For me, it comes down to how I handle the money I earn.
As a brother, my money is not my own; it belongs to the community. I turn my paycheck over to the community, and I receive a monthly stipend for personal spending. This is not to say I have no personal money at my disposal. Like most people, brothers have to live within their means. I like going to movies and eat popcorn, so I try to hit matinees whenever possible. This helps my monthly stipend last a bit longer.
Generally, religious community members use their stipend for personal items, while community funds go for things such as groceries and household supplies. The goal is to try to live simply and to realize that it is easy for money to control me rather than the other way around. In this sense life in a religious community is countercultural. Today’s money-driven culture insists that I need to make more and more money to get all the things it says I must have. The pursuit never ends. At times I am down to a dollar or two by the end of the month, a situation not much different from that of millions of Americans. The big difference is that I have a community to support me. I will not get evicted at the end of the month for not paying the rent.
How much is enough?
The ongoing challenge for individual brothers and particularly for their local community is to witness to a simple, shared life. Some houses and congregations are better at this task than others. Witness is not easy. Take the simple fact that in my area brothers live together in community but do not work in the same ministry, so it is not practical to share one or perhaps even two cars.
It all comes down to a simple but continually challenging question: How much is enough? This is a question for brothers to ponder as a group and as individuals. As the saying goes, “I will live simply so others may simply live.” We each have to ask ourselves, What do I really need? How do I draw the line between wants and needs? I will never forget the example of a young man who was hosting a group during a mission service trip to Tijuana, Mexico. I had accompanied some college students who were spending their spring break there. He explained that whenever he receives a new shirt as a gift or buys one, he gets rid of two old ones. His clothing collection stays minimal. He has what he needs rather than a closet full of clothes he seldom wears. His comment had an impact on me. Since then I’ve tried to avoid impulse buying. Do I really need this item, or am I getting it because I like it?
Such questions keep me honest and focused on trying to live simply. I have the hardest time with books and music because I like both a lot. I do try to find the lowest price I can, which helps. It is not easy in contemporary America to live simply. A brother’s needs will always be taken care of. It is the wants that are the challenge!
Obedience isn’t always blind
You and I learned early on that we ought to obey our parents. We might not have been very good at it, but we knew that it was important. If you are a teacher, you expect—or at least hope—that your students will obey you. But to whom does an adult need to be obedient? Maybe to a boss or to a police officer. Or perhaps to God?
Think back to the gospels and to how often Jesus would do something because it was his Father’s will. He was simply obeying God, his Father. Aren’t you and I called to do the same—to do the will of God? The vow of obedience is a public acknowledgment of the fact that I am not really in control of my life. Oh, I think I am. I am even told that I should be, and in some ways this is good advice. No one else can make certain decisions for me about my health, my future, or my relationships. I need to make these decisions and live with the consequences. But in a larger sense, I know that much of what happens to me and within me is beyond my control.
When a brother takes a vow of obedience, he is saying, “I admit publicly that I am not entirely in charge of my life. I admit that a Higher Power is truly in charge. I need to listen to God working within me and around me.” Obedience is about listening. It’s also about realizing that I alone do not make significant decisions about my life; I make them in the context of my community. In other words, the decisions are not just about me; I always need to acknowledge that I am part of something bigger. For example, when I am discerning a change in ministry, I begin talking it over with my community, my friends, my family, and especially with God. Where can I best serve? How can I best use my God-given talents and strengths? Discernment is a part of my life that has made me stretch and grow. Every new place I’ve gone to has involved a process of obedience. I have listened to what is going on inside of me, to what others are saying about what I might be good at, and to where the needs are. In the end I try to obey the call of the Spirit in my life as that call is mediated through other persons. In your life, as you listen, talk, and pray, where do you feel called?
Obedience is much more than just saying, “Yes, sir!” It’s anything but blind. Obedience helps me to see more clearly and focus more sharply on where I am and where I am hoping to go. Maybe I can sum it up best by reminding you of what you’ve heard coaches and teachers say: “Now, listen up!”
God is relationship No. 1
The vows are designed to help those of us in religious life to get our priorities right. God is No. 1 in our life; no other relationship is more important. Because of the example Jesus set for us, we strive to live simply; he called the poor blessed. The church invites us to pay special attention to the needs of poor people while we work to remove the conditions that contribute to poverty. We are called to love everyone who comes our way, to see the face of God in people, especially in young people and poor people. We are called not to obey our own will but to follow God’s design expressed through the events and persons in our life and the stirrings in our heart. All Christians are called to poverty and obedience; those in religious communities are summoned to profess these virtues publicly and to live them intensely and with integrity. All that said, living these vows is a constant challenge. They help keep us on the path toward God, the only path worth following and worth giving my life for.