The following reflection is part of our “Jesuit 101” series, celebrating the Ignatian Year. This piece helps us to better understand the Jesuit Vows. To learn more, check out our explainer article: “Jesuit 101: Vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience.”
“You like to wear brand-name clothes. I prefer to wear more worn things.” I could not believe it. A Jesuit from another country was telling me that I dressed ostentatiously, and with nothing but Adidas and Under Armour workout gear. Not only had no Jesuit said those words to me before, I do not think anyone had said that to me.
This much is true: not many Jesuits like talking about poverty.
As a Jesuit in another country, by dressing as an American, or in my eyes, “normal,” I was suddenly calling more attention to myself than I intended. Whether my shoes, clothes, or my computer, other Jesuits have all three, but mine are evidently not the same. My brother Jesuits had pulled the rug out from beneath my “superior” sense of simplicity. My brothers were teaching me that my understanding of poverty was just that, my understanding of poverty. No more, no less.
And this is what the Jesuit vow of poverty means. Our definitions are not just Western, or limited to any one area of the world. Our definition, I should add, is not what will be found on Google, or determined by some chart created by the U.S. government every few years. Instead, it is that which is found in the Constitutions. The first important point is that our poverty, Jesuit poverty, is not singular, it boils down to no simple rule (cf. 178). One example of a written rule is that Jesuits ought to stay not in hotels while traveling, but as much as possible, in other Jesuit communities. For those who travel, it is not hard to see how this saves significant money very quickly. Another important point is to keep in mind that it is not our money that we spend, but the poor’s (cf. 216). That mentality can go a long way.
What is poverty in America, may not necessarily be poverty in other parts of the rest of the world. Truthfully, what is poverty in America may very well not be, well, poor enough, to be considered poverty in other parts of the rest of the world. The axiom that there is the West, and then the rest, may well have more truth than we Jesuits, we Catholics, we Christians, care to admit.
I, personally, have been humbled by interactions and experiences with Jesuits and lay people from other parts of the world. This makes me so grateful for the international character of the Society of Jesus and the Church. We cannot afford to only view anything solely through the lens of our own culture, time, or country, much less our language, history, or theology. We are meant to be in conversation and communion with our brothers and sisters the world over, not just from our own hometown, or state, or province. What this means is that we ought to keep one another in mind and prayer. It is a vow, after all. We live it everyday, and, according to the Examen, if we are living it, we should be praying about it, too.
Following Ignatius’s encouragement and direction to always seek the greater good, we think not just if we have enough money to purchase this or that, but “Where could the greater good be accomplished?” Shall we put in a jacuzzi, or fund a scholarship? Shall we enhance our landscaping, or support one of our ministries? Shall we keep up with the Joneses, or keep up with Jesus, present in the least?
I still have shoes, clothes, and electronic devices. In fact, after over ten years without one, I recently got a cell phone. How can I have so much and call myself poor? Well, I do not. I have taken a vow of poverty, but I am not poor. “Community” may more accurately capture what this vow means for men and women religious, or even “voluntary poverty.” While I have, in my mind, no shortage of resources, I have very few to call my own. I drive a car, a rather nice one, but it is not mine. It belongs to my community.
I have lived in nicer houses, driven in nicer cars, eaten at fancier restaurants, and spent more on higher education as a Jesuit than before I took vows. Jesuits are not poor. The Society of Jesus is not poor, but the vow helps ensure that we can do – and prepare ourselves to do – good work without compromising our good witness. Our studies allow us to teach and lead and preach and travel and serve and collaborate in a variety of ways. We are not living some sort of “reality show” fantasy to compete amongst ourselves regarding who can spend the least amount of money. We are, rather, using what God has provided, through the generosity of other people, to get the greatest theological bang for our buck.
Living a vow of community is more akin to keeping in conversation our brother Jesuits from around the world, the people we encounter in ministry, and, of course, Jesus, than it is an Excel spreadsheet that must always result in smaller and smaller numbers, at the expense of our health or ministry, whether present and future.
More important is the ministerial impact than the checkbook impact. In fact, these two need not always be at odds. We underestimate the skills and capacities of others when we reduce everything to dollars and cents. Good ministerial sense sometimes provides when our own cents, or those of others, do not.
Who are you in conversation with regarding how you spend your time, energy, resources, and money? What do they have to say? How do you respond? What invitations present themselves? Where is Jesus in all of this?
Poverty is less a number than it is a name, that of Jesus, at whom every knee, and checkbook, should bend. After all, how do we respond to a Christ that has given us everything, and done everything for us, even death, death on a cross? I suppose the least we can do is cross check our own spending habits, be they time, energy, resources, or finances to see what good we can do for a God who has given all to us and is present in all human beings.
As for me, I probably will not be changing my wardrobe any time soon, but I am more conscious of what I buy. I wonder if, instead of just not buying any new clothes for a year, might I even be able to do so for as many as two or three years? What might it mean for people to see a new priest not so much with brand name this or that, but instead, branded with a vow of poverty that keeps him ever conscious of los démas, or the least?