Spiritual Things Jesuit: Living in Poverty

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I’m starting a series of posts on some Jesuit considerations on spiritual matters. The first couple will be on poverty, and then the others will follow.

My intention is not to cause a stir among Jesuits about whether or not we live poverty well.  Many will argue that Jesuit poverty is an oxymoron, “just look at the Jesuit residence at Georgetown” they will say.  Fair enough.  But the scandal is not restricted solely to religious communities.  It is only compounded in them, since they have taken a vow precisely against what can be called the worst of modern vices: consumption.  However, this vice is just as rampant among “orthodox” Christians as well.  Nor do we need to look far to other “orthodox” groups like the Legionaries to see what money does.  It ate away at their spirituality and became central to their very identity. Though they themselves did not always consume, they provoked consumption in the worst possible way among many in the Church, so that an infatuation with money ruined part of the order — and those Churchmen who were too close. Jesuits have a problem, and a serious one at that. But we are not the only ones.  And it has nothing to do with being “liberal.”  It has to do with straying from the Gospel and our own founding charism.  

As I wrote a few days ago, the peculiar modern vice of consumption is mimetic as all consumption is.  But it is compounded in our own times.  Because it is not really objects that we desire, but the-object-that-someone-else-desires, advertising companies sell, not objects, but people.  This explains the naked woman who seems to have nothing to do with the jeans she is selling and not even wearing.  And so when we consume, we consume nothing, or more precisely, the image of a person or vague group of people we want to be like.  Hence the inability to ever fill the hole inside us by buying more.  When we consume, we consume people.  In the eucharist, Christ consumes us.  The Mystical Body is in shreds today because — as de Lubac once pointed out — we think “mystical” means spiritual.  But it is very concrete.  It is a real body, no less than the eucharist is a mystery but also a real presence.  Whenever we consume one more object of mimetic desire that is not the eucharistic Christ but another person, we wreak havoc on the body of Christ. Ignatius will have a lot to say about how we desire as we will see.

Flowing from this peculiar form of consumption is the other vice of our age: disposability. Because we do not desire objects but images, objects themselves are made to be disposed of, thrown away.  As soon as we buy them, we no longer want them.  Corporations know this of course, so they make things to be thrown away.  Such is the age of plastic.

Religious life, and indeed all people of faith, are called upon to resist these two vices by living out the gospel.  Do all Jesuits live poverty well?  No.  Unequivocally no. Is the particularly Jesuit way of doing this?  Yes.  And like many of Ignatius’ very “modern” precepts, they have powerful application to our own world.  In this post I will focus primarily on what the Spiritual Exercises have to say about living a life of poverty and simplicity that I hope all can find applicable to their own lives.  In the next, I will point to more particular examples.

The Spiritual Exercises lay the groundwork for a life of authentic poverty in the Jesuit tradition.  Not everything can be quoted from the Exercises, so I will pull out what I find most salient for a wider audience.

1.   Right before the Third Week of the Exercises when the exercitant will mediate on the passion of Christ, Ignatius proposes a foundational principle of Christian living in paragraph 189:

For every one must keep in mind that in all that concerns the spiritual life his progress will be in proportion to his surrender of self-love and of his own will and interests.

This principle is the bedrock upon which he builds his doctrine of poverty.  The emulation of Christ in the emptying of the self in the Incarnation serves as model for authentic poverty.

2.  This first principle of renunciation of self leads to his second important principle found in a meditation on Three Classes of Men. I personally believe that there is no principle so rich for general Christian living as that which Ignatius lays out in this meditation.

First, he explains in paragraph 154 the wrong approach to a Christian relationship with God.  A Christian who has an unhealthy relationship with God will proceed thus.  Having received a large sum of money (or talents or personal gifts or whatever) will

want to rid themselves of the attachment, but they wish to do so in such a way that they retain what they have acquired, so that God is to come to what they desire, and they do not decide to give up the sum of money in order to go to God, though this would be the better way for them.

Here we have probably the majority of Christians who are well off.  They have received quite a bit.  But they will serve God on their own terms, rather than on God’s terms.  They have decided in advance that giving up the “large sum of money” would not be a good thing, and so look for all kinds of ways to serve God that does not comply with this.  They want God to come to “what they desire.”  Here as in many parts of Ignatius’ writings, we see that the radical transformation that he is looking is a change of desire.  Most Christians decide how they will live, and then try to fit God into that.  But God wants us to meet him where he is at, not make him come to where we are.  He already did that, and he died in the process, to give us the right idea of how this works.

Ignatius goes on in paragraph 155 to describe the right kind of Christians.  They are people who

seek only to will or not to will as God our Lord inspires them, and as seems better for the service and praise of his Divine Majesty…. They will make efforts neither to want that, nor anything else, unless the service of God our Lord alone move them to do so.

This last line is devastating every time I read it.  It is the solution to the problems of our entire culture, but it would also destroy advertising businesses everywhere. Ignatius, recognizing the mimetic character of desire, tells us that if we want to be Christians, we must change what we want. This would only work if desires and wants were malleable — which they are.  We are to want only what is in the service of Christ.  Once we have done that, the power of consumption is broken.  Yet this is not yet enough.

3.  Ignatius has one more spiritual step for us.  Listen to these two paragraphs.

The first is from paragraph 167, the Colloquy at the end of the meditation on the Two Standards. The second is a note in paragraph 157 following the meditation on the Three Classes of Men:

A colloquy should be addressed to our Lady, asking her to obtain for me from her Son and Lord the grace to be receied under His standard, first in the highest spiritual poverty, and should the divine majesty be pleased thereby, and deign to choose and accept me, even in actual poverty.

It should be noted that when we feel an attachment opposed to actual poverty or a repugnance to it, when we are not indifferent to poverty and riches, it will be very helpful in order to overcome the inordinate attachment, even though corrupt nature rebel against it, to beg our Lord in the colloquies to choose us to serve Him in actual poverty.  We should insist that we desire it, beg for it, plead for it, provided, of course, that it be for the service and praise of his Divine Goodness.

Remember that Ignatius is not writing these things just for Jesuits.  Jesuits live a particular kind of poverty that is Religious, built around sharing all things in common.  But Ignatius intends that all Christians beg for the grace of actual poverty, since it is indeed the best manner of life provided that it is in Christ’s service.  This last line should not be tossed aside either.  Actual poverty is not a means in itself.  It is in the service of Christ. But Ignatius new, as we know and often don’t like to admit, that a lifestyle of actual simplicity is usually better for the service of Christ.  And so Ignatius demands that we “beg for it, plead for it” since this is the only way that we can bring our wills around and our desires around to the idea of actually giving up many things in order to serve Christ in a greedy world.

4.  Finally, Ignatius gets practical.  Renunciation as a principle is all good unless we are willing to practice it.  We have to get over our repugnance to simple living.  If we still have even a faint whiff of it, Ignatius calls it an “inordinate attachment.” After all, we don’t know if we can give something up until we actually do. That is what detachment is all about.  So in a little section at the end of the Exercises called Rules for the Distribution of Alms, Ignatius recommends:

For these and many other reasons it will always be better and safer in all matters concerning himself and his household, if one is saving and cuts down expenses as much as possible, if he imitates as closely as he can our great High Priest, model, and guide, Christ our Lord.

It was in conformity with this doctrine that the Third Council of Carthage, at which St. Augustine was present, decided and decreed that the furniture of the bishop should be cheap and poor.

The same consideration applies to all stations in life, but attention must be given to adapting it to each one’s condition and rank.

In matrimony we have the example of St. Joachim and St. Anne. They divinded their resources into three parts.  The first they gave to the poor.  The second they donated to the minstrations and services of the Temple.  The third they used for the support of themselves and their household.

It is probably true that most of us could live off of a third of what we own.  Not only this, but we would be better members of the body of Christ, especially in America, where we, though members of Christ’s body, think nothing of depriving the rest of the world through corporate greed.  Ignatius has the answer.  It is about changing desires, conforming them to Christ, begging for the gift of actual simplicity, and then proving our detachment by giving as alms two-thirds of what we own.  Such true Ignatian living would change the very fabric of our economy and world.

Nathan O’Halloran, SJ

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3 Responses to Spiritual Things Jesuit: Living in Poverty

  1. Joseph Fromm says:

    Nathan,

    A colloquy should be addressed to our Lady, asking her to obtain for me from her Son and Lord the grace to be received under His standard, first in the highest spiritual poverty, and should the divine majesty be pleased thereby, and deign to choose and accept me, even in actual poverty.

    Mary, Mary, Mary,Yes, Yes, Yes…..

    You point out very correctly, but it is hardly mentioned that the Exercises were not written expressly for Jesuits. Since they were written before Ignatius was ordained and the Society was created. Yet, Manresa was not solely for Ignatius either, since that Divine spark is so necessary for the internal spiritual framework of the Society. How many laymen have had the opportunity to participate with the Master? And how many of them have gone on to become Jesuits?

    I have always wondered what the net asset value of a Jesuit is?

    Cash on hand, + value of all real estate holdings, + value of the entire investment portfolio divide by the number of Jesuits, equals?

    JMJ

    Joe

  2. Andrew Frazier says:

    I agree with you. Consumption is a sick disease that is often supported by the church. Unfortunately for ministers, priests, and lay people how do we actually fight against consumption without being accused of hypocrisy?

  3. Andrew,
    People recognize our priorities by the decisions we make. They will see that there are certain things that are up to us, and others that are not. As Ignatius often said, “insofar as we have a choice.” When we do have a choice, we must choice the poor option. This means rejecting elaborate and expensive restaurants, receptions, cars, memberships, clothing, etc. People will notice your preferential option and recognize your authenticity. Sometimes that is the best we can do, “insofar as we have a choice.”

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