Lessons from a Monastery: Poverty

“Come, let us bless Joseph of eternal memory, * Who came to Pilate by night, * Who begged for the life of all * ‘Give me this stranger, who has no place to lay his head!’” (Sticheron from Jerusalem Matins)

A borrowed tomb is where the Savior of all was laid to rest. This stranger among men was born in a cave, and buried by the noble Joseph in a tomb not his own. He, who could have all the riches of the world if He wanted, was a poor man on earth. We know by His own life that He knew what it was to suffer poverty and to not be attached to things of this world. When Christ tells us ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ and “blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” it is from His own experience which He speaks to us. How are we called to imitate Jesus Christ in His poverty?

A vow of poverty (along with the vows of chastity and obedience) is made by a monk or nun when entering a monastic community. This vow is taken not to make one destitute but to free one of possessions and to live a life of simplicity; in order to be free to follow Christ. The degree that one may embrace poverty does vary depending on the monastery or order a monk (or nun) is in.

Some people embrace a more radical poverty in order to live alongside the poor and serve them while embracing the same lifestyle which the poor have no (or little) choice but to live. I decided to talk to someone who has taken a more radical approach to poverty for this article. He is not a professed religious but is certainly living a monastic lifestyle. I sat down with Tomás Murray of the Alliance Catholic Worker House to discuss his commitment and life in Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement.

Tomás has a heavy Irish accent and is a wonderful storyteller. Whatever he does, it is obvious he does it with intentional purpose. I asked him what drew him to live a life of poverty in the Catholic Worker Movement.

“I had just come from Ireland and was in Philadelphia working with the Redemptorists at a homeless shelter as a volunteer. It was 100 degrees out, the kind of weather I am not used to, and I was dripping with sweat. I saw all of these people living in the shelter with no A/C and all we had was a small fan. There was something about being there with the homeless, the self-denial of working there in the miserable heat that gave me peace. I like creature comforts, good food and A/C, I didn’t like the heat at all, but I felt like I was throwing my lot in with the poor by being there. I remembered Pope Benedict said, ‘The world offers you comfort. But you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.’ By throwing my lot in with the poor, living alongside the poor community that I serve, I am able to be freed from attachments, from things of the temporal order, and focus on true happiness and the eternal. A/C won’t save us; the consumerism which drives our society won’t save us, but focusing on eternity and serving Christ in the poor will.”

I asked Tomás to explain a little bit about the Catholic Worker Movement founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin. “Dorothy Day founded the Catholic Worker Movement during the Great Depression in 1933. Other lay movements in the church (Opus Dei, etc.) were founded around this time, as reminders of the holiness of our baptismal calling. Dorothy Day believed that the evangelical counsels of chastity and poverty, were not the preserve of the monastic life but a part of the universal call to holiness, it was upon this thought that the Catholic Worker Movement was founded; the life of radical poverty and living a life of service to the poor can be done by anyone and everyone.”

Living a life of radical poverty the way that Tomás does is not for everyone of course. People with responsibilities to others, family, children, etc. cannot neglect their own vocations. However there is an interdependence that exists between someone like Tomás and the people who support his work. “I need others to provide for me and the people I serve at the Catholic Worker House. It has taught me humility to accept help from others and be so dependent on their generosity, and it also helps them, they are given the opportunity to serve Christ in the poor—to do works of mercy.”

For those of us who cannot live such radical poverty or voluntary poverty, the life of someone like Tomás is a valuable witness.  Such a life shows us an example of detachment and purity and of focusing on things of eternity and not the temporal. All of us who profess to be Christian must be “poor in spirit” and detached from things of the world. We must learn to depend on God and not our possessions, “No one can serve two masters ….” (Matt.6:24)

“Divine Providence” came up regularly during my visit with Tomás. Learning to depend on God and His providence should be the fruit of living a voluntary life of poverty. For the Catholic Worker Movement it is important to have people who voluntarily live among the people they serve and embrace the same lifestyle; not to be an outsider who comes in and out of the situation to offer help. Again, not everyone is called to live such a life, but it is still an important witness to the Church, for those of us either living in poverty due to financial circumstances or needing to learn to detach ourselves from our belongings.

Of course, the lack of many worldly possessions doesn’t automatically make someone detached from things; it doesn’t mean they have embraced their poverty. There are even stories of monks fighting over the few old rags which they owned and then there are stories of saints who possessed much material wealth and served the needs of others with this wealth.

For me, this witness is inspiring and makes me think about my own attachment to comforts and possessions, and my own lack of faith at times. It reminds me to “Consider the lilies of the field” (Matt. 6:28-33) and to take an honest look at areas in my life where I can cut back, make changes, and sacrifices and throw my own lot in with those in need (albeit in a much smaller way). This witness makes me look at my own faith in Divine Providence to care for my needs and those of my family and ask myself, how far I am willing to let go of worldly things in order to help someone else. Dorothy Day gives us something to think about, “Nobody is too poor to help another. The stories in the New Testament are of the widow’s mite, of the little boy’s loaves and fishes, of the cloak, of the time given when one is asked to walk a second mile.”

We each have to ask ourselves, ‘what am I called to do,’ ‘how am I called to give and embrace poverty in my own life.’ For each of us the answer will vary but the goal is always the same—a simplified, purified, and self sacrificial life aiding those in need and serving Jesus Christ in our neighbors. Jesus Christ—the second person of the Holy Trinity who was born in a cave, a stranger among men, and buried in a borrowed tomb.

Author’s Note: The Alliance Catholic Worker House is the charitable mission of the Romanian Diocese of St. George in Canton, Ohio. Please visit the website to learn more about their important work.

image: meunierd / Shutterstock.com

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Jessica Archuleta blogs with friends at Engage the Culture where you might find a movie review, a piece of poetry, a work of art, or any other number of culture related topics being discussed or shared from a Catholic point of view. She also blogs at Every Home a Monastery where she shares her experience of being a Monastic Associate (oblate) of Holy Resurrection Monastery located within walking distance of her home. She and her family moved across the country to Wisconsin from California after the monks had to make the move themselves. Jessica is a Romanian Greek-Catholic (Byzantine), mother of ten, and has been married for 20 years to her most favorite person in the world.

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