That the Vow of Poverty Is the Foundation of Evangelical Perfection

by admin on May 15, 2011

BLESSED are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. v. 3).  With these words Christ our Redeemer opened that sov­ereign Sermon on the Mount and the eight beatitudes. And though some doctors and saints explain these words as applying to humility, others with much reason understand them as recommending voluntary poverty, especially that which we religious profess. And in that sense we will take them here, which is the sense of St. Basil and of many other saints. It is no small praise of this poverty of spirit that Christ our Redeemer began with it that sovereign ser­mon and put it for the first of the beatitudes. But a greater praise of it is that He taught it all His life by word and example. This was the first lesson that great Master read us at His birth from the chair of the manger. That is what was taught us by the stable, by those poor swaddling clothes, by the need that He had of the hay and the breath of beasts to warm and cover Him. It was also His last lesson—a lesson which, to impress it more upon us, He would leave behind Him, reading it to us from that other chair of the Cross, dying stripped and in extreme poverty, so that for His shroud they had to buy a winding sheet as an alms. What greater poverty could there be than that? And as was the beginning and the end, so was the whole tenor of His life, for He had not a shilling to pay the trib­ute that they demanded of Him (Matt. xvii. 24-27). He had no house to rest in, nor room to celebrate the Passover with His disciples, but all had to be lent him. The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air their nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head (Matt. viii. 20).

The Redeemer of the world would lay poverty for the foundation stone of evangelical perfection, saying: // thou wouldst be perfect, go sell what thou hast and give to the poor (Matt. xix. 21). And to enforce this counsel, He would leave it confirmed and authorized by His example. Thus we see what a settled thing this foundation of pov­erty was in the primitive Church, as is related in the Acts of the Apostles; for at that time there was no mine or thine among the faithful, but all was in common, since all who had houses or inheritances or other possessions sold them and took the price of them and laid it at the feet of the apostles, and out of that fund distribution was made to each according to his need (Acts ii. 32). St. Jerome observes that they laid it at the feet of the apostles, to show that riches are to be trampled on and despised and thrown underfoot. And St. Cyprian, St. Basil, St. Jerome, and oth­ers say that the faithful at that time made a vow of pov­erty, and they prove it by the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira, who, because they had hidden away part of the proceeds of the sale of their inheritance, were punished with sudden death, which is a sign that they were under a vow, otherwise they would not have deserved so severe a punishment. The Church, then, being taught this divine doctrine, the saints and all the founders of religious orders lay down the vow of poverty as a necessary and most firm foundation of their orders. So our Father, following this ancient doctrine, begins to treat of poverty with the words: “Poverty, as a firm wall of religion, must be loved and pre­served in its purity as far as ever shall be possible with the grace of God.” Poverty is the wall and foundation of a religious house. Contrary to the way of the world, in which the foundation of rights of primogeniture and estates is property and riches, with us it is the other way about. The foundation of the religious state and of the height of per­fection is poverty; for, as the building that we have to erect is different from the buildings of the world, the foundation also is different.

This is what Christ our Redeemer wished to teach us by those comparisons which He draws in the holy Gospel, saying: What man is there who, wishing to build a tower, does not first sit down and reckon the cost, if he have suffi­ciency for it, lest after he hath laid the foundation, and hath not wherewith to finish it, all who see it may begin to scoff at him, saying: This man began to build, and had not wherewith to finish. Or what king, going to war with another king, doth not first sit down and deliberate whether he is able, with ten thousand men, to meet him who cometh against him with twenty thousand; otherwise, while he is still afar off, he sendeth an embassy and asketh for terms of peace (Luke xiv. 28-32). Thence he concludes and draws the inference: 80 then everyone of you who doth not renounce all that he possesseth, cannot be my disciple (xiv. 33), Hereby He gives us to understand that what for fight-ting purposes is the size of the army, and for building pur­poses the abundance of funds, poverty and the renunciation of the things of the world are for spiritual building and spir­itual warfare. So the blessed St. Augustine explains it, saying that by the building of this tower of the Gospel is signified the perfection of Christian life; and the cost and capital needed to build it is the renunciation of all things; for in that way a man is more free and disengaged to serve God, and better secured against his enemy, the devil, by pre­senting less surface for his enemy to attack him and make war upon him.

St. Jerome and St. Gregory, following out this argu­ment, say that we have come into this world to wrestle with the devil, who is naked and possesses nothing in this world. It is necessary for us also to strip ourselves of these worldly things to be able to wrestle with him. For if a man with his clothes on wrestles with another who is naked, he who has his clothes on will soon fall to the ground, because he gives the other a hold to overthrow him. Would you fight manfully with the devil ? Off with your clothes, strip yourself of all earthly things, let the devil get no hold upon you to make you fall. For what are the things of earth but as clothes to the body? He who has more of them will all the sooner be overcome, because he gives the devil a greater hold to seize him and throw him to the ground. St. Chrysostom asks how it is that Christians in the primitive Church were so good and fervent, while today they are so slack and remiss; and he answers that it is because then they went out to wrestle with the devil naked, stripped of their goods and estates; while today they go out heavily clad in benefices, estates, and honors, and all this clothing gets in their way and hinders them terribly. That is why we religious give up riches and divest ourselves of all the things of the world, that so we may be free and unimpeded in our wrestling with the devil and our following of Christ. The wrestler is stronger in the struggle for being stripped; the swimmer divests himself of his clothes to pass the river; the traveler travels more lightly for leaving behind him his burden and wallet.

On this account the first vow that we make in religion is of poverty, as the foundation of all the rest. As St. Paul says that covetousness is the root of all evils (I Tim. vi. 10), so poverty is the root and foundation of all good things and all virtues. St. Ambrose enlarges upon this. As riches are the instrument of all vices, because a man with money in his pocket has the wherewith to carry out his desire in the matter of all the vices and sins that he has a mind for, so the renouncing and divesting of oneself of all things for Christ engenders and preserves all virtues, as may be seen by running through the list. St. Gregory says: Paupertas bonis mentibus solet esse custodia humilitatis— “Poverty, to good minds, is apt to be the guardian of humil­ity.” As for chastity, it is easily seen what a great help poverty is, and austerity in diet and in dress, which makes also for abstinence and temperance. And so we might run through all the virtues. Therefore do the saints call poverty sometimes the mistress and guardian of virtues, and sometimes they call it their mother. And our Father uses this latter appellation in his Constitutions: “Let all love poverty as their mother;” for poverty, like a good and true mother, engenders and preserves in our souls the rest of the virtues and keeps afoot religious discipline. So we see that the orders which have given up poverty have given up religious life; they are as children that are not like their mother. Let us, then, cherish this holy poverty as. a mother, which means not any sort of love, but an intense love, a tender love, a love accompanied by reverence and regard. The blessed St. Francis spoke of Lady Poverty, And in the Rule of St. Clare it is said: “We bind ourselves to our Lady, Holy Poverty.”

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