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Quodlibet 21 - The Vow of Poverty

Thursday, June 03, 2010
What is the Dominican understanding of the vow of poverty in the modern world, asks a Godzdogz reader.

To answer this question, it is helpful to think a little bit about St Dominic's motivation for living a life of poverty. The primary motivation came from scripture. Concerning poverty the constitutions of the Dominican Order say:

Hearing the Lord say, "Go sell what you have, and give to the poor, and come follow me," we have decided to be poor both in fact and in spirit, so that while we endeavour to convert people to heavenly things and to rescue them from the domination of wealth, we may be ourselves conquerors of greed by conformity with Christ, "who for our sake became poor, that by his poverty we might become rich."

St Dominic did live a much more extreme form of poverty compared to the vow of poverty lived by friars today. This is understandable in terms of the situation in which he lived. It was a time when the Catholic Faith was under severe attack from the Cathars, a sect which taught that the physical world was evil. As the extreme poverty lived by many Cathar preachers seemed to give them a veneer of holiness and credibility, St Dominic realised that Christian preachers would also have to live lives of extreme poverty if they were to be taken seriously. Although in today's society, it is perhaps not necessary to live a life of poverty to the same degree as St Dominic did, the vow of poverty is still an important means of being available and ready to effectively preach the Gospel. The way we live it should provide a valuable witness to the Gospel. The vow of poverty is not meant to be a rejection of the physical world, but rather it is a matter of giving up something that is good in order that we can enjoy something that is even better; it is a sign that all the riches in the world cannot compare with the joy of being totally united with God in the world to come.

On a day to day level, we try to live the vow of poverty by living a simple life in which we are not overly attached to material possessions. When I joined the Order, I was told that I could only bring a car boot full of possessions with me – in the past, it used to be just a suitcase. If a brother has any savings when he joins, he is not allowed to use them, and if he goes on to solemn profession he has to dispose of his savings, although it is generally up to him how he does this. Also on making solemn profession, the ownership of all personal possessions passes to the Order, although a brother may continue to keep using them if this is compatible with the community life.

When living in community, the priory pays for things such as food, clothing and books needed for study and preaching. There is always a danger when losing financial independence and having all one's basic needs taken care of that the value of money is forgotten. It is very important that this doesn't happen, as one of the motivations for the vow of poverty is solidarity with the poor, who are often only too aware of the value of money. We do get a small allowance each month called an ad honesta. Having a small amount of money to spend on little luxuries helps us to remember how to handle money responsibly. Having a job can also help foster a sense of financial responsibility. Many brothers have jobs such as teaching or chaplaincy work, and usually the money they earn goes straight to the priory. Because when we work, it is not for our own financial gain but for the whole community, this way of living the vow of poverty is an expression of fraternal love.

Dominican communities also receive donations from benefactors. This means that it is important that we try to live frugally and avoid wastefulness so that we don't cause offence to those on whose generosity we depend. We can receive personal gifts, but if they are worth over a certain amount, we have to ask for permission to receive them. We have to be careful that we don't start accumulating too much stuff, so when we are offered personal gifts, we need to discern carefully whether accepting them would be in keeping with the vow of poverty. Sometimes we do fail in our resolve to live this vow. This was something that was noted in the acts of last General Chapter where it says:

We entered the Order abandoning everything we had in order to hold all things in common. Over time, have we slowly reclaimed what we had once renounced?

Whilst we have to be careful that our life doesn't become too comfortable and cluttered, we also have to be careful we don't go to the other extreme. If a brother didn't understand why we vow to live a life of poverty and had radically different views from other brothers on how this vow should be lived out, it could cause a lot of animosity in a community. Therefore it is vital that we always remember that the vow of poverty is rooted in our love for God, our love for the Gospel and our love of each other.

Robert Verrill OP


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