One of the three monastic vows, poverty is not the sole purview of monks. Christian poverty implicates the whole of our vocation as creatures before God. Br. Sean Glenn invites us to discover the new, countercultural freedom to be found in accepting our true poverty as creatures and receiving God's alms of love.
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Br. Sean Glenn, n/SSJE, was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. In his previous life, Br. Sean worked as a church musician and academic, interested in writing about the theological significance of music for the life of Christian communities. When not at prayer or work, Br. Sean enjoys cutting quills, calligraphy, languages, and making or listening to music.
a life open to alms of love
Christian tradition places a notable emphasis on poverty, because Scripture is emphatic that God’s solidarity is with the poor. Many familiar examples in scripture and in Jesus’ own teaching emphasize leaning away from the crutches of material gain or financial security. “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed,” writes the author of Proverbs. Elsewhere in the same text we read, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Significantly, Saint Luke inaugurates Jesus’ ministry by having him repeat the famous proclamation from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” With these words, Luke brings his gospel within the wide biblical horizon of God’s solidarity and identification with the poor.
The life we live together at SSJE seeks to align our hearts with this divine affection. At our profession, we take a vow of poverty (alongside those of celibacy and obedience). As our Rule puts it, “Our vow [of poverty] binds us to ruthless self-examination as to our real solidarity with the poor.”
Yet poverty is not the sole purview of monks. The Christian conception of poverty covers more than material lack and extends to us all. In fact, Christian poverty, before it refers to any material condition, implicates the whole of our vocation as creatures before God. Poverty is a statement about the kind of creature God has made—and called—us to be. It is a central aspect of the on-going summons to become fully human. It is a shameless proclamation that we are joyfully contingent creatures, dependent on God for all good things.
Meditating on this spiritual expression of poverty, Johannes Metz writes, “Being is entrusted to us as a summons, which we are each to accept and consciously acknowledge. We are never simply a being that is ‘there’ and ‘ready-made,’ just for the asking. From the very start we are something that can Be, a being who must win selfhood and decide what it is to be.” Poverty is fundamental to us, because it is fundamental to how we are made: as God makes room for time and space by emptying God’s self, so too God makes room for you and me. We, in turn, draw near to God when we empty ourselves.
We see this most clearly lived out in Jesus, our exemplar. Becoming human was, for Jesus, an act of supreme self-emptying. In his humanity, Jesus was completely dependent upon the Father for his being. He was dependent upon God for his very identity, and did not pretend that his own creaturely will was anything other than the emptiness it is without God. So too we each are invited to make room in our hearts, declaring by our pattern of life our total dependence on God’s grace, mercy, and love. Spiritual poverty draws us, by the Holy Spirit, away from the broken ideas and broken values that surround us. It teaches us that only love has the power to save us.
Poverty is an attitude that invites us into a new, countercultural freedom. Saint Paul writes of this freedom in his second letter to the Corinthians, saying, “but [the Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” The spirit of poverty transforms all that we might find weak or lacking in ourselves into occasions whereby God’s power and freedom are perfected in us. By accepting our creaturely poverty, we admit with joy that we no longer have to agonize over what is sufficient or insufficient in ourselves; God becomes the source and end of our sufficiency. As our Rule of Life says, “Our whole spirituality should bear the mark of [poverty], showing that God is freeing us from dependence on feelings of success and happiness.” As this attitude develops, we learn to pray: We stretch out our empty hands to you, O Father. Only you can fill them with the bread of life.
This is the unexpected grace of poverty: to know that God, who knows all that we can be, has not formed us as completed, self-sufficient subjects, but as living vessels of God’s life and grace. Remember that you are poor in love; only God can provide such an alm.
The Rule, The Society of Saint John the Evangelist, 15
Johannes Baptist Metz, Poverty of Spirit (New York: Paulist Press, 1968), 3
2 Corinthians: 12:9
The Rule, The Society of St. John the Evangelist, 16
A nugget of wisdom from the monastic tradition, illustrated with suggested spiritual practices to try today, reflection questions, and further resources.
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