Poverty is love before it is renunciation.
The vow of poverty is much related to that of celibacy. In the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ, we notice a direct relationship between poverty and virginity as the two cornerstones in the monastic life.
We elect to be poor. Similar to our Lord’s words regarding the eunuch (cf. Mt. 19:12), it is not that poverty is forced upon us like those who are poor by birth. We also have not become poor due to the efforts of others. We are not victims of economic decline. Rather, we have made ourselves poor for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
The reward for those who live the life of poverty and celibacy is the Kingdom. So we become poor for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, just as those who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Matt. 19:12).
The Old Testament introduces us to a God Who is “for the poor” while the New Testament shows us a God Who Himself becomes poor. The Old Testament is replete with passages about God Who “listens to the cry of the poor,” Who “shows pity to the poor and the weak,” and “gives justice to the oppressed.”2 Yet, the Gospel presents to us God Who chose for Himself poverty and weakness, and became poor for our sake (2 Cor. 8:9). The God in the Old Testament listens to the cry of the poor, and is the Defender of the weak; while in the New Testament Christ empties Himself and becomes poor. He carries our burdens as one of us. As such, Christ then is the One Who has every right to speak about this life of poverty, and is the true model for our desire to fulfill this vow. Thus, the two essential components of biblical poverty are to be “for the poor” and to “be poor.”3 As the Lord instructed the rich young man, to go sell what he has and give to the poor. These are two major aspects: first to sell what he has and become poor. The second is to give to the poor.
“To be Poor” The Definition of Poverty
Some have distinguished between four types of poverty:
1. Negative material poverty, which is the dehumanizing social condition that must be combatted.
2. Positive material poverty, the evangelical ideal that elevates and liberates people.
3. Negative spiritual poverty, which is the absence of virtue, spiritual wealth, and human values.
4. Positive spiritual poverty, which is humility and trust in God the true wealth of the poor.
Poverty means devoting the fruit of one’s labor to the service of God, and entails leaving careers and occupations, to entirely devote all of our time and energy to a life of prayer and service. St. Paul chose to live “as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things” (2 Cor. 6:10). He followed the example of our Lord, Who “though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9).
This vow is also deeply rooted in monastic tradition, from the command St. Antony received from God, “Go sell all that you have, give to the poor, come and follow me.” Abba Macarius once said, “Ascetic labors are beautiful, but the greatest is voluntary poverty” (Desert Fathers, II, 35). In the monastic life, poverty means to possess nothing. But how can someone live in the world and possess nothing? For those of us in the Brotherhood, we need a car, and a place to stay. How can we live the meaning of poverty in our life?
(1) This vow is also understood as a vow to live simply,in a world that is brimming with commodities. Through the virtue of austerity, we are ready to lessen what we possess with joy. We are sorrowful neither for what we have lost, nor for the inability to increase our possessions.
(2) The vow of poverty also means that one is unhampered by worldly possessions. He is ready not to possess anything, and has no desire to possess anything. He does not depend on possessions, but lives a life of contentment and thanksgiving to God for all that He has richly bestowed upon us.
(3) Poverty is also applied in the community, such that everything is owned by the community, and not the individual. This is why in the ancient monasteries, everything within the monk’s cell was considered as owned by the community, and none of the cells were locked. Today, the monk will give the key to his cell to another monk. In the same way, if someone gives something to a monk, he would place it in the storage of the monastery. If anyone needs it, he could take it. Likewise, with us everything is owned in common by the Brotherhood, and our cells all have the same key. Every gift belongs to the community, and not the individual.
(4) The concept of optional poverty means that the person does not desire for anything to possess beside God. There is no personal ownership, and any loss does not result in sorrow. The person who lives the virtue of austerity gives more than he takes, for in giving that person feels that what he possesses does not belong to him. As one of the elders in the monastery said, when we reach to the level that we can give something which is ours and not feel sorrowful, we have reached a life of destitution.
God fulfills all of our needs, and it is Him we desire. As we understand from the inaudible Prayer of Submission to the Son, “Acquire us to Yourself, O God our Savior, for we know none other but You. Your holy name we utter. Turn us, O God, unto the fear of You and the desire of You. Be pleased that we may abide in the enjoyment of Your good things.”So we agree now that the meaning of poverty is possessing nothing, which means that everything is owned in common, as part of our communal life.“For the Poor”St. Clement of Alexandria considered those who offer their gold, silver, and possessions towards the salvation of others as “poor in spirit.”5 For those who took the vow of poverty, such as monks, this renunciation is even obligatory. As the Paradise of the Fathers explains, one of the primary tasks of the monk is to serve the poor, even if he himself is in need. They work with their hands, and when they sell their handiwork, they use the proceeds to buy food for themselves to eat, and give the remainder to the poor.
Taken from the book ‘On Eagle Wings’