Love, the driving force: a journey of discernment

Chronicling my formation with the Loretto Sisters (IBVM)


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Renewal – Poverty

The pilgrim Mary Ward, free to refer all to God, free to live the vow of poverty.

Poverty continues to be something I wrestle with, especially after my experiences in the Philippines. I am drawn to it, desire it, long for it. And I am challenged by how to live it here in Canada. I find comfort and inspiration in the words coming from the 1967 Chapter of Renewal.

Poverty is not dependent solely on lack of material things, nor even modern ‘insecurity’; rather it is dependence upon God from whom we receive all we have, a dependence which should also be a ‘shining’ witness.

Common life, devotion to labour, sharing with the poor, and ‘frugal’ living are all manifestations of the reality of the spirit of poverty. Ultimately, poverty means total dedication – of time, talents, all circumstances – a gift of self to Christ in others, a response to Christ who emptied Himself.

Mary Ward’s Vision of the ‘Just Soul’ would seem to embody our Foundress’ concept of the total dependence upon God and ‘perfect liberty…(to) refer all things to God’ – in that state before the Fall when, receiving everything, they experienced no clinging, and in reality were never so poor.


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Poverty (II) – Free to Give and to Receive

interdepedence-2

Living the vow of poverty is an invitation to live in interdependence – mutual giving and receiving. It sounds fairly simple and straightforward but in practice it isn’t all that easy. Growing in interdependence is appealing to me but also makes me apprehensive. Up to this point in my life, I have been growing in independence – going from living at home to studying at university to embarking on a career to becoming financially successful and being totally responsible for myself. It sometimes feels scary to think that I am actively working on giving up security and control over my life.

When I left my job in the federal government last year, I was making a six-figure salary. I had never dreamed that I would earn a salary like that, and yet, there I was, in my mid-thirties as a single woman, earning more than some families do with two incomes. I had a house, a car, and a dog. I thought I was set. But now all of that is getting turned on its head. My life aspirations have changed dramatically over the last few years and now I’m in the process of formation for a lifestyle that will see me hand over any future paychecks to the IBVM and be reliant on the community to have my needs met. This really is a process of growth, not something that happens all at once. I am being stretched to see my life very differently and I’m being challenged to both let go and to embrace.

Letting Go of Stuff

When I first entered the IBVM as a candidate two years ago, I was quite concerned about my stuff. I had put my house up for rent and I had a storage unit full of the furniture and accessories of my former life. In the process of moving, I gave away several things to friends and mailed sentimental items home to my family, and yet I still managed to bring a lot of stuff with me to Toronto (two carloads full!). Stuff I thought was really important (perhaps even essential) to my well-being and happiness (for example, my collection of Wes Anderson films on DVD). Some of the things I brought with me have been useful and have made my new home feel like home, but at the same time, some of the things that I brought with me were about making me feel secure in my new environment.

Living in the Philippines is giving me a broader perspective on stuff. When I arrived in January, I brought the maximum weight allowance possible with me – two suitcases full of clothes, books, various medicines, etc. – just in case I needed something important and couldn’t find it here. I’ve since discovered that while most of things I brought have been useful, some definitely have not and could have been left at home.

And actually, the less stuff I have, the more free I feel inside. Less to keep track of or be distracted by. I’ve discovered how little I truly need to be happy and content. (I think the popularity of current minimalist movements demonstrate a desire people have to be free of too many cumbersome possessions.)

Of course, interdependence is not only about having less stuff, but for me, having less gives me greater interior freedom which I believe leads to greater generosity.

Letting Go of Social Status

Another area in which I am growing towards interdependence is my shifting perception of social status – moving away from thinking of myself (and others) based on occupation, income, societal power, etc. I feel kind of conditioned to think this way but the vow of poverty invites me to let go of valuing my work based on the income it earns, or its associated prestige, and to let go of valuing myself based on what I earn or do.

I admit that working for the government had a certain element of prestige to it and made me feel special. Working to support the government in power and the people of Canada made me feel good about the work I did. I was fortunate to travel internationally a few times to participate in meetings and I met some well-regarded and important government officials. I don’t yet know what the future holds for me in terms of employment or ministry work but it probably won’t involve hobnobbing with government officials or big decision-makers.

So I am being called to embrace any kind of work for the glory of God and to value myself and others for who they are and not what they do.

Letting Go of Financial Control

Another way that I am moving towards interdependence and learning to live the vow of poverty is letting go of control of my personal finances. When I joined the IBVM I had a house, RRSPs, a pension plan with the federal government, insurance policies, bank accounts, etc. I still have these things actually but I’ve entrusted them to my father during my novitiate. Before I make my first vows, I will need to take the next step and sell my house and convert my financial assets into a patrimony.

My patrimony will consist of the assets I acquired before entering religious life. It will be set aside for the duration that I live in religious life. I won’t be able to access any money from it but it will be there if one day I discern that religious life is not where God is calling me to be. Basically, I am letting go of control of my own financial security and learning to trust that I will be taken care of by the community. And I am committing to taking care of others with what I contribute.

Embracing Interdependence

The point of all of this letting go, of course, is to embrace interdependence. By letting go of independence (in mostly financial and material ways at present), I am opening myself up to receive what is offered by the mutual giving and receiving that occurs in community. It really mirrors my relationship with God and the journey I have been on during this year of novitiate: emptying myself to be able to receive what God wants to give me and to be able to give myself freely to God. Growing in generosity as well as in vulnerability.

I think our Constitutions (Vol. II) express this so well:

4.16     We live the vow with liberality and gratitude,
supporting and encouraging one another
to distinguish between needs and wants.
We strive to be free from acquisitiveness
that we may give;
free from self-centredness that we may readily share,
free from self-sufficiency that we may receive.

 


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The Vow of Poverty (I) – It’s Not About Deprivation

money-fight

Image courtesy of Forbes.com

The vow of poverty is complex. I’ve been trying to think about how best to frame this blog post and I think I will have to split it up into two parts. I’d like to first share what I have been learning about the vow of poverty from our in-house formation sessions and then in the second post share about my personal experiences of letting go of material goods and resources and how I have come to think about the vow for myself.

In our in-house formation, Sr. Christine Burke, ibvm, has been leading us through an understanding of the evangelical vows (vows taken in religious life). She has really helped me (and my fellow novices) to think more deeply about the vows and she has guided us through some meaningful discussions. I think our most complicated discussion has been about poverty.

We first talked about poverty on a global scale – absolute poverty, extreme poverty, extreme deprivation. We can give it many labels. This kind of poverty is identified by a significant lack, usually of the basic needs of life – access to adequate housing, food, education, health care, employment, etc. Extreme poverty is dehumanizing. It takes away the dignity of a person and renders them invisible and voiceless and nearly always powerless. I see this kind of poverty on an almost daily basis in the Philippines and it is crushing. It is crushing to live and experience and it is also crushing to witness. This kind of poverty can seem hopeless and entrenched. This kind of poverty is a result of unjust and broken economic and social systems at the local and international levels.

The Church tells us that extreme poverty is a sin. Extreme deprivation is something that we must fight against – we want people to be lifted out of these conditions, to experience life fully and equitably. Choosing to live according to the vow of poverty therefore is not about choosing a life of extreme deprivation but it is about choosing to live with less in order to give more to others. Some religious congregations live a very austere life (think of Mother Teresa’s congregation, the Missionaries of Charity) but not all are called to live like that.

As an IBVM Sister, I will take a vow of poverty in relation to mission and community. In taking the vow of poverty, I will give up personal ownership of goods and control of finances. Within the community our resources are shared so that everyone has access to what they need, regardless of whether they are making an income. By living simply, we are also able to use our resources for mission, that is, to help those in need in society. Our Constitutions (Vol. II) express the beauty of the vow:

4.13            God is the true wealth of the human heart.
The vow of poverty that we profess
is an identification with Christ,
poor in his self-emptying love
and his total gift of self to all.
Like Mary, who stands out among
the poor and humble of spirit,
we proclaim the greatness of God
and our dependence on God’s provident care.

4.14            By the vow of poverty we choose a life
where material goods are held in common
and generously shared in the spirit of the Gospel.
We renounce the independent acquisition,
use and disposal of anything of significant value.
By this vow we commit ourselves
to sharing our Institute resources across provinces.

4.18            Our vow of poverty calls us
to right relationship with all around us,
to practical solidarity with those who are poor,
to a responsible care and use of earth’s resources.
In the interdependent community of creation,
we humbly join the prophetic voices of our world
who work to preserve its beauty and dignity.

The vow of poverty asks me to become interdependent – to let go of independence (financial) and risk becoming interdependent. Interdependence requires maturity and a willingness to learn how to give to others what they need but also to receive from others what I need.

And how is the process of becoming interdependent going so far? For that answer, you’ll need to wait for Part II!