Phenomenology of the Vows: Poverty

December 17, 2012

*see also:
Introduction to the Phenomenology of the Vows
Phenomenology of the Vows: Chastity
Phenomenology of the Vows: Obedience

“Why do you hate money and possessions?” I think this is the first thing that many people, especially non-Christians think when they hear about the vow of poverty – the voluntary acceptance to live a materially simple life, with all things held in common. “That sounds like communism!” This is not an unreasonable reaction to the religious vow, yet I think it is mistaken in what it sees as the meaning of the vow. As we discussed in the introduction to this series, Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method can be helpful in understanding what the vows are all about, and what they are not about. In particular we noted that phenomenology has two key notions: intentionality and givenness.

“Christ of the Breadlines” by Fritz Eichenberg

Intentionality means that we never just think, we always think about something. Givenness means that our perception of reality, of any individual reality, is shaped by the mode it is given to us – we don’t impose terms on the world but receive the world according to its own terms of presentation. We made this specific in relation to the religious vows by saying that vows are always for something, not just acts of the will without purpose. And the vows are always about being open to something given to us, in the case of the vows, the person of Jesus Christ as poor, chaste, and obedient. Phenomenological analysis can help us correct our thinking on the vows and help us to appreciate them more as well as the person we receive through them. Let us now turn to the vow of poverty under these two notions: intentionality and givenness.

Intentionality – the vow of poverty is not the rejection of something, it is not against money, possessions, or wealth; it is for something first and foremost. The intentionality of the vow is to be for Christ in a particular way. The Second Vatican Council notes this aspect in its reason for taking vows:

“First, in order to be set free from hindrances that could hold him back from fervent charity and perfect worship of God, and secondly, in order to consecrate himself in a more thoroughgoing way to the service of God (LG 44).”

Religious taking the vow of poverty are not running away from the world or some part of it, but running towards the world as free men and women in Christ. And this running towards may entail letting some things go. Think of it this way: when you go swimming you generally remove your winter coats and snow shoes – but you would not say that swimming is an act that rejects winter coats and snow shoes; rather to swim you must unburden yourself of these things. The vow of poverty is similar; the vow is not about rejecting material things but about unburdening oneself of material goods in order to be closer to Christ. For as the Catechism teaches:

“In the consecrated life, Christ’s faithful, moved by the Holy Spirit, propose to follow Christ more nearly, to give themselves to God who is loved above all and, pursuing the perfection of charity in the service of the Kingdom, to signify and proclaim in the Church the glory of the world to come (CCC 916).”

For Dominicans the vow of poverty is undertaken in imitation of the first apostles, the ones sent by Christ to preach the Gospel: “Saint Dominic and his brothers imitated the apostles who, without gold, silver or money, proclaimed the kingdom of God (LCO 30).” This notion of poverty was immediately implemented in the Church, as we read in the Acts of the Apostles: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (Acts 4:32).” 
Holy Father Dominic meets Holy Father Francis
Evangelical poverty is about freeing ourselves for a mission of preaching and for a deeper union with Christ. The Dominican Constitutions put it this way:

“This spirit of poverty urges us to put our treasure in the kingdom of God’s justice, with a lively trust in the Lord. That spirit offers release from servitude and indeed from solicitude about earthly matters, enabling us to move closer to God, to be more readily available to him, freer to speak about him fearlessly (LCO 31).”

It is all too easy to think that poverty is about practicality, about being “freer” in the sense of more able to respond to current situations, moves, crises, etc. But the freedom given in poverty is deeper than this practical freedom; as these quotations make clear poverty is about being free for Christ and union with God first; all practical benefits are secondary or accidental to this evangelical freedom.

Givenness – Poverty is not just about giving something up, it is most importantly about receiving something, or rather receiving someone – the poor Christ. For in becoming poor ourselves, we strive to know Christ as poor. There are many ways to know any object. I can know a football asbrown, or as soft or hard, or as leading to a friendly and enjoyable game. We can know Christ in many different ways, but his poverty seems to be a particularly important way. St. Paul speaks of the poor Christ in II Corinthians 8.9: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” The Catechism highlights Christ’s birth as an example of this poverty, a wonderful theme to think about this Advent and Christmas: “Jesus was born in a humble stable, into a poor family. Simple shepherds were the first witnesses to this event. In this poverty heaven’s glory was made manifest (CCC 525).” The Lord makes his poverty known to a would-be disciple: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head (Matt. 8.20).” And St. Paul sings of Christ’s poverty in his marvelous hymn:

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name
that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6-11).” 

The vow of poverty allows us to experience, to meet the poor Christ, the suffering Christ. Of course we take this vow because we have had some experience of Christ in his poverty that draws us to seek him more. Here the dynamic relationship between intentionality and givenness stands out. Christ gives himself to us as poor, under the aspect of his poverty. We may have met him in the Gospels, in an image of the cross, in humble service to others. We respond to this encounter by taking a vow, not just any vow, but a vow of poverty. We want to know poverty more intimately so that we can know him more intimately. Our intentionality in the vow of poverty gives us more of Christ, who first gave himself to us.

*see also:
Introduction to the Phenomenology of the Vows
Phenomenology of the Vows: Chastity
Phenomenology of the Vows: Obedience

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