Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Poor Me?

When people ask me what we do in tertianship, I often say we take classes in Jesuit history or documents. And people nod, say "Ok, great," but I can see them asking themselves, uh, didn't he already study that? And of course, the answer is usually, yes we did.

Or the whole idea of taking classes means absolutely nothing to them, at this point, their eyes simply glaze over and they give me a "uh-huh, yeah, right, hmm, nice."

Lest you think, given all my photos of exotic places, that that answer was a cop out, this week I thought I'd share some of the insights we've been batting around about our Jesuit vows.

Today: Poverty

The most common Jesuit story about poverty involves some real-life variation of the old saw, a Jesuit invites a colleague into the community for dinner. The guest has a great meal of steak, potato, veggie for dinner, with a smooth glass of Scotch beforehand and an even smoother slice of lemon meringue pie after.

And as they're leaving the Jesuit asks them, well, what did you think?

And the colleague responds, "Hey, if this is poverty, bring on chastity!"

In the States, anyway, we're often asked about our poverty. And as Jesuits those questions are a gift, as they keep us from getting too comfortable.

But the question remains -- what is it to be poor in the Society of Jesus today?

Howard Gray, a Jesuit of the Detroit Province who has done a lot of work on the vows, says that our poverty rests on this basic insight: people are more important than things.

To put it another way, what we have to give, more than anything else, is our time. Being poor means allowing our time to be committed beyond our own desires to the random and the unexpected, without the condition that it fit into my schedule. It may not be what I had planned, but so be it. Didn't someone say life is what happens while you're doing something else?

Our vows are apostolic. They're meant to help us be better servants of Christ's people.

For those who are saying, yeah, but what about owning the newest fancy iPod, here's one other insight from another tertian: the problem with us having nice stuff is, we begin to worry about those things. We make commitments to them that become distractions -- I'm more worried about caring for my iPod than the bloke in front of me.

His solution, and I think it's a good one, is to avoid having nice stuff. But you could also say, poverty doesn't necessarily mean not having a nice shirt or a good pair of shoes. But it certainly means letting go of the worry about it.

And if that seems too vague, how about this: do you have any clothes that you love so much that you're uncomfortable wearing them very much, because you might stain them? Or things you wouldn't lend to others because they might be broken?

Being poor means ignoring those anxieties and loaning those things out, or just wearing them, for God's sake. Don't make them more important than those around you, or than life.

And still, maybe I'm avoiding an important sort of poverty. In the Society, we have so many opportunities for good things. But maybe it's possible that if I consider any particular of the good things that I receive, I might find that I have more than I really need?

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