Poverty and Life In Common

Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.
Luke 12: 15

 

In the Working Paper on Life Form that is part of the Xaverian Charism Study, we read:

The Xaverian expression of the life of the evangelical counsels has always included a consciousness of living ordinary lives in common. Our sense of poverty inspires us to live ordinary lives, appreciative and grateful for the gifts of creation with a consciousness of living with less rather than more so as to share in the prodigality of God’s love. It challenges us to care for the gifts that we hold in common and to carefully confront any movement toward preoccupation with possessiveness and autonomy.

In his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si, Pope Francis sees St. Francis of Assisi as the great exemplar of humankind’s proper relationship to creation, to the world and all that is part of it. As the Working Paper says, we, as Francis, are to live in appreciation of and gratitude for the gifts of creation. We misuse creation when we relate to it as an object for our consumption.  When, on the other hand, we live in our proper relationship of humility in ourselves and respect toward all that is other, we discover that dispositions of appreciation and gratitude spontaneously well up from our hearts.

The evangelical counsel of poverty is one that is not easily understood by us. At least part of the reason for this is that our capitalist-consumerist form tradition tells us that it is by accumulating and possessing that we experience happiness. The goal is to rise on the ladder of affluence, and the measure of one’s worth as a person is where one stands on the social scale. We tend to feel that life is something to be grasped at and possessed, rather than revered, appreciated, and enjoyed by means of our proper relationship to all of life’s manifestations. The result is that we are constantly measuring our lives and their worth by the persons and things that we possess.

One of the first victims of a culture of greed and possessiveness is “life in common.” Recently the Washington Post did a survey of people in Texas who had received a significant amount of federal aid in order to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. A significant percentage of them thought that hurricane victims in Puerto Rico should not receive federal aid. When our human tendencies to over attachment and greed have taken hold of us, we live in a world not of abundance but of scarcity. What is due others we mistake to necessitate deprivation of ourselves. When we feel the compulsion to have and possess more, then the needs of others become a threat to us. On the other hand, when we require less, we grow in appreciation and gratitude for what we have, and we increase in our desire to share what we have as a sign of “the prodigality of God’s love” for all.

In this light, the experience of religious community in recent decades in the West may prove to be emblematic of the current state of western society. For some decades now, apostolic religious communities have experienced a deterioration of the quality of their life in common. When imposed rules of living and behavior were eliminated, many discovered that their bonds of community were quite weak. There was a certain camaraderie and sentimental historical connection that members enjoyed at times of community celebration, for example, but, as the Working Paper puts it, the desire for “living ordinary lives in common” consistently weakened as the limits of such shared life seemed to far exceed any value in it. Instead of its being a facilitating condition for the mission, the common life felt like a drain on it. Many experienced that the selfishness and neediness of others in the community drained the life and energy that they longed to bring to their ministry and service to others. As a result, the sense of brotherhood became more a more a sense of historical connection with a tradition than a lived reality based on a shared and common life.

The history of religious life throughout the ages reflects the human struggle with the counsel of poverty. Most religious communities are born in the reality of poverty and scarcity. Its members are bound together with their shared commitment to the Lord “who had no place to lay his head,” and are thus bound to each other in their common need. How often, when asked what their best experiences of community life have been, religious will respond with a description such as, “We had very little, but we had each other.” It is human nature that we tend to live with greater appreciation and gratitude when we have less than when we have more. As we began to have more and more possessions as individuals, which of course was also related to the financial growth and success of our works, our relationships to each other inevitably changed.

The Buddha said that “Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as ‘I’ Or ‘mine.’” There cannot be a “common life” when individuals possess things, including persons and themselves, as “I” or “mine.” The reason for this is based on the very structure of the human heart. If a community is to consist of those who devote their lives to love God above all, they must, without ceasing, work to free their hearts from all other attachments. The pure heart is a poor heart, poor as regards possessiveness and attachment but rich in appreciation and gratitude for “the prodigality of God’s love.”

If our primary value system and form tradition is one that fosters and strengthens our human tendencies to attachment and possessiveness, then, perhaps, the dissolution of any sense of the “common wealth” is inevitable. it cannot be doubted that our desire for comfort and wealth can be a powerful motivation in the economic sphere. Yet, it is also playing with fire. Without living it out in constant dialogue with the directives of a transcendent form tradition, we run the risk of becoming the victims of what is supposed to be merely our tool or technology. The other day, while I was working at my computer, I was drawn to a notice about a new Apple device. I immediately left my work and went online to check it out. Within some moments I realized what was happening and how easily diverted I was from my own work by my interest in/attachment to/desire for a new product. In the words of Elder Thaddeus, “when we see something that attracts us, we get attached immediately to it—and that is tragic, terrible.” When we don’t grasp at and possess but hold everything in common, then our hearts are free to respond to the truth of what is being asked of us. Then we are together without competition, for we are holding on to nothing as our own.

True community is impossible without “a spirit of poverty.” By extension, we perhaps could say that nations who know no greater value than that of the market will inevitably lose their ability to recognize their responsibility for the common good, within and beyond their borders. The gospel call to poverty may well sound quaint and unrealistic to our ears. To ignore it, however, is to mistake selfishness for virtue, and solipsism for strength. We human beings have a choice about where to give our hearts. As Jesus says, “You cannot serve both God and money,” (Matthew 6:24) When our hearts are free of greed and possessiveness, we experience being rightly ordered. We love persons and things not as potential possessions but as gifts of the prodigal love of God. It well may be that our way back to community, in religious life and in society at large, will require us to renew in ourselves Jesus’ call to “guard against all greed.”

The angelic orders are not slaves of their thoughts or to the things of this world.  Their gaze is turned towards created things but their thoughts are not subject to them because they are centered on the service of the power of God through which they love all creation.  But for us, when we see something that attracts us, we get attached immediately to it—and that is tragic, terrible.  If it lasts a long time, then that thing becomes an idol for us.  Regardless of whether it is a lifeless object, a living animal, or a human being, it occupies in our hearts a place that belongs to God.

Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica

2 Comments

  1. charles m. warthen says:

    John, a fine reminder of the demands of poverty, so misunderstood in our caplitalist society awash in $$$. If you’re a fan of Diarmuid O’Murchu (I’m a true addict of Diarmuid), you might look into his 1998 title Poverty, Celibacy and Obedience.
    I’ve read almost all of his books and seen him numerous times in the past 10 years. Our monthly prayer group is doing his INCLUSIVITY, an outstanding view of who is in and who is out, and based on the Scriptures and our checkered tradition. My personal favorite, though, is IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE SPIRIT. See Genesis and John’s Gospel.

  2. charles m. warthen says:

    John, a fine treatment of poverty, so misunderstood in our capitalist society so awash in money and its grasp. If you’re a fan of Diarmuid O’Murch – I’m a true ADDICT, you might look into his POVERTY, CELIBACY AND OBEDIENCE 1998.
    Our prayer group is now reading his INCLUSIVITY, a great reflection on who’s in and who’s out, based on Scripture and our checkered tradition. My own personal favorite (and I’ve read most of his works, some more than once) is IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE SPIRIT. Brilliant take on GOD, the title hints of Genesis and John’s Gospel.

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