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.
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.