In the Pauline Family founded by Blessed James Alberione, there is an Institute for married couples called the Holy Family Institute. In this institute, married couples take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. When I share this with people, they want to object: Vow of poverty? Vow of chastity? Vow of obedience? I thought these vows were just for nuns and priests.
I respond to them…how wrong you are!
Every person is called to live chastity! Every person is called to live a spiritual poverty! Every person is called to live a spiritual obedience! It’s called being a Christian. Though I don’t have a lot of space in a small blog like this, I can say something briefly now about poverty.
Recently, during a special Mass, I received the vows of a couple that were committing their lives to Christ as part of the Holy Family Institute. During the homily at the part regarding poverty, I said to them…
The poverty vow is not first and foremost, renouncing material possessions, rather it is first recognizing my need for God. I am weak and need God. I have at times failed and need His forgiveness. It involves a great deal of humility. Yes, I must bear in mind a call to some physical poverty, a life of simplicity. I must keep examining my possessions and my attachment to the things of this world to make sure I am living out that poverty; but the invisible struggle to live a life of poverty of spirit is equally if not more challenging. Poverty helps me to continually renew my trust in God, so that I learn to rely on God for everything, in every situation. Poverty is very freeing spiritually: it frees my heart from possessions, from the need to possess, from greedy grasping for stuff, and from attachment to even interior things like my opinions and pride. Poverty helps me to be grateful for the most valuable things in life—which are certainly not material possessions—but my relationship with God, the Sacraments, my spouse, my family, people in my life, and my call to spread the “good news” of Jesus Christ. Blessed James Alberione said, “Poverty is the greatest wealth.”
So, there you have it…the vow of poverty in 5 words: “Poverty is the greatest wealth.” I have found this to be true because living the vow and virtue of poverty enables me to consistently focus on Christ Jesus as my greatest treasure—my only treasure—and to dedicate all my efforts to living my call to grow in union with Christ and to serve His people. The vow of poverty will help me to strive to continually detach myself from the things that compete with God for my time and attention without neglecting my basic needs to live the life to which God calls me.
By living the vow of poverty of spirit, we are living our lives with open hands to God. We are saying that our lives belong to Him. Vows, in their essence, are like saying to God, “I open my empty hands to you…I am ready to receive all that you want to give to me.”
We are taught in our present world that if we want something, we better grasp it quickly. If we want to keep something, we better clench it tightly so that nobody takes it from us. We must hold onto things for dear life. In short, we’re taught that the “good life” is lived with a closed hand. Yet, if we live like this, we will always be worried that things are slipping from our hands and we’re constantly afraid something or someone will escape our grip. Holding tightly is exhausting, but we can’t let go, because letting go means giving up the control we think we have and, thinking we have control comforts us.
Though the feeling of control might comfort us, it is actually destroying us. This is where the vows become counter cultural. The vows teach us to open our hands, especially to God, but also to our brothers and sisters. They tell us, we must let go…and let God.
Our vows will teach us that…God alone is in control and we do have a choice: either we trust God or we don’t. It’s only when we surrender control and trust God that we’re able to live life with open hands. If we truly understand all we’ve received from the open hands of God the Father and God the Son, we’ll be compelled to live our lives with open hands. It will mean extending others the mercy, grace and forgiveness that have been lavished upon us. When we live with open hands, we commit to the possibility that life may take things from our hands, things we thought we needed to keep. Living with open hands also comes with the possibility that life may drop something into our hands that we thought we could never hold.
Let us not forget that our open hands are offered to God. He will give us all we need and a hundredfold more. Living with open hands, true poverty, allows us to give and to receive.
Fr. Michael Harrington, a native of Swampscott, MA, is a Catholic Priest for the Archdiocese of Boston, and Currently the Pastor of St. Mary’s of the Annunciation Catholic Church in Cambridge. In the past he served as The Director of the Office of Cultural Diversity for the Archidiocese of Boston and is currently a Consecrated member of the Institute of Jesus the Priest (the Pauline Family).