A Reflection from Chris Holownia
The most compelling reason for taking a vow of poverty, in my opinion, is to help us become more like Jesus by preventing occasions for sin: the fewer attachments we have to this physical world, the less likely it is that the Evil Spirit will be able to use them against us. Poverty leaves us fewer ways to satisfy (or become addicted to) our passions, and it also frees us from certain kinds of suffering. In our world, possessions quickly lead to hierarchy (whose stuff is best?), and property automatically leads to division (between “mine” and “yours”). This framework works against the ideal – i.e. unity – for which we should strive. Poverty is a grace to be desired which frees us from honor, entitlement, power, prestige, and pride, a lifestyle recommended throughout the New Testament, and causes us to rely more heavily on God. Our relationship with God heavily influences our life experience and puts into perspective what really matters, and when we live in poverty, the difference between our needs and our wants quickly becomes more obvious. With God as our raison d’être, things don’t have to define us or fill us up as much, and this new reality leaves room for receptivity to novel (and perhaps even divine) ideas and emotions. Ideally, it allows us to be at peace having or not having, unpreoccupied by material stuff, and open to transformation. In poverty, taking things for granted becomes difficult.
We see the world differently when we’re not in total control and need to consider more carefully how to spend money and time. We come to a better, deeper understanding of the poor’s neediness because we experience it ourselves and thus begin to empathize. Stripped naked, as it were, of our possessions and financial resources, we are forced to consider what and who we truly are since there is nothing left to hide behind. This condition generates a genuineness, an honesty, and an authenticity that would otherwise be easy – and expedient – to eschew. Poverty is the great equalizer which obliges us to realize with honesty our true, total reliance and dependence on God and neighbor. We need help. We cannot do it all by ourselves, for we are created and correlative beings. Thus we allow our concept of self to broaden, free to loosen our grip on our egos, reflecting God’s self-emptying love. Our discomfort, our “feeling the pinch,” is a sign of accepting God’s invitation to help and support us.
Forgetful of and detached from ourselves – literally selfless – we grow into new life and find ourselves ready to serve gratuitously others in need. One may be poor in various senses (mentally, physically, psychologically), and all the people on the fringes to whom Jesus ministered experienced poverty of some sort. Becoming vulnerable and weak permits us to experience humiliation and shame, and therein lies a mystical power. Jesus told Paul, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'” Then Paul went on to say, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). This seems like utter folly to many people, and indeed, part of the purpose of taking such a vow is to be a prophetic witness, a living and counter-cultural contradiction that edifies those around us and shows another model and logic for living. Responding to such conditions constructively, we can and should live the Gospel joyfully and compassionately, for Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20). Doing so gives us credibility in the face of criticism.
My experience of attempting to live the vow of poverty so far in the Novitiate has manifested an internal freedom, complacency, and indifference in the most literal and positive sense of those words, a spontaneous compassion for those around me, a love for, reliance on, and understanding of my need for the mutual support of my brothers, a greater dedication to my work and to charity, and the freedom to say “yes” or “no” according to my heart and that of my superior.
I believe the vow of obedience, like the vow of poverty, supports us who desire to take it in our effort to become continually more Christ-like. Jesus was obedient to His Father’s will – he listened, served, and paid attention to Him alone (Jn 8:29) – so by imitating Jesus, I become more able to live the life to which God invites me. My deepest desire is to discern God’s will for me, and freely vowing obedience within the structure of the Society of Jesus and the Church demonstrates my confidence that submitting to my superior’s will is my surest hope of achieving that goal. Self-renunciation helps me to remove obstacles along the pathway to God, to avoid self-deception, and ultimately to transcend my own self-conception as well as the limits I might place on it. Yielding my will to that of my superior affords me more freedom from ambition and self-absorption and, thus, a humility that allows me to live more fully and joyfully for others. When I sacrifice my own independence, I make myself available for the service of God, neighbor, and the Church. Freedom from attachment to my own will also implies freedom from the need to be “successful” or “productive.” Furthermore, freedom from my own affections, desires, opinions, and interests encourages in me a more total dedication to what God loves. I don’t need to analyze or interpret what I do; I can leave that to others. What a grace! What a gift!
Another way I understand obedience is as a grateful response to the love and mercy God has shown me. So far at the Novitiate, I have become more aware than ever before of God’s presence in my life and the joy which accompanies that awareness. Following His commandments and loving my neighbors are the only right, worthwhile replies I can think offer in thanksgiving. I empathize with the woman whose sins were forgiven (Lk 7:36-50). As God gradually reveals me to myself, I realize more and more that full-fledged autonomy is illusory and undesirable because it would mean cutting myself off from my source, denying my true identity as a reliant and dependent creature of God, and, thus, living in sin. Because I know better now who I am and who I am called to be, I am also more willing to place limits on myself in order to be better disciplined in serving God and neighbor in the mission of evangelization. Indeed, my very identity lies in my obedience to God – the great commandments – and that obedience in turn helps me to become freer from coercive forces that stem from other spheres (e.g. myself, family, friends, the media). What a blessing that His “yoke is easy” and His “burden is light” (Mt 11:30). I see more clearly now the mistakes and illusions to which I, relying on my own unaided opinions in the past, was liable. Regulating all my actions by my own judgment did not lead to the best outcomes. I think having a prudent, enlightened, and trustworthy guide encourages me to become more sincere, more generous, and at the same time more likely to “succeed.”
Religious obedience does not aim to reduce me to a state of passive inertness, nor does it mean to remove my agency or make me feel insecure or worthless. It does not free me of responsibility or suggest an infantile dependency free from the anguish of decision-making. It has nothing to do with being fearful, guilt-ridden, servile, or childish. Obedience does not prevent the use of the faculties I possess, but rather sanctifies their use. It does not forbid me from taking initiatives, but rather encourages creative fidelity under prudent control in order to preserve me from indiscretion. Far from a lifeless body, I see nothing “killed” by the religious vow of obedience except vanity and self-love and, optimally, their opposition to God’s divine will. Good communal discernment of the one Spirit requires a great deal of honesty, transparency, and trust on behalf of all.
My experience of living the vow of obedience so far is not so much a lesson memorized as a truth lived out. Intimacy with and trust in God leads my heart to know peace and to develop zeal. I also consider obedience to be an essential component of community life as I strive as often as possible to submit my desires to those of my brothers. When working properly, such a life becomes an inspirational, prophetic witness to God’s Kingdom and its values, a “sign of the possibility of human communion, deference, and love that our world so sorely needs” (GC 35).
Ad maiorem Dei gloriam!
Chris Holownia, n.S.J.