Finally, at the beginning of Lent, I get around to making the first of the three posts about the Religious Vows.
To get one thing clear from the start. Religious Poverty is not the same as poverty such as is witnessed in developing countries, or in the areas of the UK where unemployment is high. It is not about us living without food or shelter or the basic necessities – although we may at times experience this sort of hardship on a temporary basis to help us identify with those who are truly destitute. We cannot live our lives like that, because we would very soon end up being unable to serve God the way we are called, and we would not necessarily be able to identify with those who are genuinely poor either.
Before I could come to OHP, I had to make sure that I had emptied my flat so it could be let, that all the clothing which I could not bring with me was sent to a charity shop (with the exception of 3 dresses and 3 skirts which are at my parents’), that all my books and CDs and DVDs were sent away, that the pieces of junk which I no longer needed, things which I had never used, things which I didn’t even know I’d had any more, were disposed of and recycled and passed on. The hardest thing to give up was my cat. I desperately tried not to cry when in July 2011 I drove her to my friend who was taking her on. I failed. But I’m glad I re-homed her then, and not just before I was about to come, because that would have been harder, and I know she’s happy in her new home and settled.
And I had so much junk. One thing I realised was that I’m really not very good at keeping on top of things. I would open the post, but instead of filing the bank statements and recycling the envelopes, I’d stick the statement back in the envelope and pile it onto an existing pile of stuff. So when it came to trying to sort things out, I really didn’t know where to start. I had help from a friend, who visited my flat several times and told me to not try to properly file things initially, but to do a general sort into four piles – rubbish, recycling, bank & insurance and other serious things, and other assorted bits and pieces such as photographs, stationary, etc. From there, it made life a lot easier. The rubbish went in the bin, the recycling went out, and I could then decide what was necessary to keep and what could be donated or destroyed.
It says in the OHP Rule that “we depend totally upon God, who supplies all our needs.” This part is a bit difficult. I’ve been so used to life being a struggle, to having had to fight and to do everything in my own strength. This part is something which is going to take a lot of work and a lot of trust on my part. I have not just to part with physical things, which on a lot of levels I have done, but I also have to mentally part with a lot of things. I have to remember that I am here not only because of my choice, but because of God’s choice. I suppose yes, I could have chosen to say “no” but that didn’t seem like it was an option. It’s also about remembering that things like computers and mobile phones and so on are just tools to help us do a job. We (meaning the community) own them. They don’t own us.
Poverty is also about receiving what we’re given with the right attitude of heart. Whatever gifts we have, whatever skills we have, are from God. If we don’t use them, He’ll take them away. One really good example of this is my flute playing. When I practice, the sound I make is quite passable. But I’m not very good at getting into the routine of practicing, even though I have the time carved into my day for me, and then when I do play, it shows. I’ve played long enough so I don’t forget the notes, but the things that matter, like timing and tuning and the tone of the sound, are not as good because I’ve not put the time in. It’s the same with any talent that requires skill to keep it at its best.
And it also means that when other people give us things, we have to accept them graciously, even if the item(s) given is something that appears to be rubbish. Expensive gifts have to be reported, in my case to my Novice Guardian. If I were given money over a specific value, I would be required to hand it in unless I had an item I needed to purchase. If I were given an item over that same value I would have to report that as well, and if it was felt that another Sister would benefit from having that item more than I, then I would have to accept that decision and allow the other Sister to have the item. Generally, things aren’t as strict as this any more, but I do know that in the past if a Sister was given (for example) two new vests by her family and the two she had were perfectly wearable, then they would have to be donated to the communal stocks.
Everything is as a result of creation, and creation comes from the Creator. Therefore, we have to look after the things we use, and treat them with respect. And when clothing gets worn, we mend it. One Sister has a patch in the back of a habit, another has what looks like long cuffs on the sleeves of one of her habits from where the fabric has been replaced, another has the same effect with the hem of a habit. Another Sister has a darn on the front of a habit (which she’s had for about 25 years but won’t replace because, in her words “it fits properly”). Yet another Sister has mended and patched her girdle (rope belt) so that it has lasted her for over 60 years.
Of the four habits which are for my use, only two were made specifically for me. One is the habit from my Clothing, and the second is a summer habit. These two habits are worn when I have to be at my smartest – so when in concert or on Sundays. My every day winter habit was made for another Sister, finished in February 2012 and she died 6 months later. It has had to be lengthened, but it has been done in such a way that this habit will probably last me through the next 10 winters at least. My every day summer habit was made for a Sister who died in 2008. It has seen rather a lot more wear, but I’ve let the cuffs down and will have to re-sew the hem as that is now showing signs of fraying unless I do something about before I wear it again.
Part of the vow of Poverty is simplicity. The ideal here is to live careful of resources, and of each other. A Sister could decide to be a vegetarian, but she would then have to stick to it, and not keep swapping and changing. We call nothing our own. Yes, I have my name sewn into my clothing, and if I were to leave, I’d take with me the clothing I brought into community but not the habits or other items supplied by the Order. But that’s a mere technicality. The reason for the names in our clothing is simply so that when we send things to the laundry, we get back not only the clothing which fits us, but is in the styles we like to wear and find comfortable (be it under things or secular clothing). We also grow a lot of our own fruit and vegetables. It’s not enough to supply us throughout the year, but it goes a long way towards right management of the land we have, and cost-effective living.
Our rule also says “As we grow in poverty of spirit, we are able to receive the unsearchable riches of Christ.” I am only just beginning to be able to wrap my head around this. Part of it is that as we detach from worldly things and possessions, we are more free to be with God and to be listening to Him. I think it means that as we have less, we become more humble, and more free to be completely ourselves with God – and more free to allow God to be Himself with us, rather than any pre-conceived idea we may have of Him.