This article is part of a series on the ancient monastic vows of obedience, chastity, and poverty.
The world is entrusted to us as a gift from God. And because all people are God’s children, they all have a right to the resources the world offers them. It is so rich that no one should have to go hungry or suffer want or need. But the world’s goods are hardly equally distributed. On the contrary, there are atrocious disparities between the ultra-wealthy and the dirt-poor. How does such injustice arise?
We humans all have the same natural needs: food, clothing, shelter. Ever since humans have existed, however, we have competed for and fought over these basic things. In part, this is because in a given time and place the necessities of life may be in short supply, depending on the economic context, the climate, and so on. This results in a perceived need for a stockpiling economy, which is often as not combined with greed, and this leads to the accumulation of excessive reserves. So we appropriate more than we really need. And once the ball gets rolling, an entire economic system develops that drives people to consume more and more, and to hanker after greater and greater luxury.
Sociopsychological factors play a major role here: people are always comparing themselves with others and wanting to acquire the same things that others have. Possessions confer status, and those who want to be regarded as worth something must be able to signal their worth by means of their wealth. People also have deep anxieties: life is precarious in many ways and subject to forces such as serious illness, war, and death. And so people feel they have to protect themselves and try to secure their existence by means of collecting material possessions.
This sort of defense mechanism is a leading cause of the gaping economic differences between and within societies, and the chief reason for the exploitation of one class of people by another. Ironically, it always ends in untold misery, more often than not in armed conflict. Oddly, because the acquisition of possessions has such great significance, it is frequently interpreted in religious terms: the wealthy must be blessed by God. Wealth itself thus assumes a divine dimension. In the end, we find ourselves worshipping and revering the god Mammon: the golden calf, symbol of idolatrous materialism.
1. The Prophetic Critique of Wealth
According to the Bible, this world is a creation, a gift of God for all people. But greed and envy have largely destroyed the paradise-like home God intended and intends for them. Humans have become like wolves toward their fellow beings. And because no one thinks they are getting enough, it leads, generation after generation, to oppression, theft, and war.
The prophets of the Old Testament repeatedly denounce the idolization of material goods that leads to this. First and foremost, they chastise the powerful for enslaving the poor and depriving them of their rights: “Listen, you heads of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel! Should you not know justice? – you who hate the good and love the evil” (Mic. 3:1–2). For these prophets, the equitable behavior that stems from solidarity with the weak and disadvantaged becomes the touchstone of true worship: “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. … I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:21–24). In this way, the prophets proclaim a God who sides with the poor and the exploited.
Jesus of Nazareth places himself completely in line with this thinking. Because his life is rooted in devotion to God, he has no need of wealth – no need to be somebody. He is content to be the “beloved Son of God.” In fact, he distances himself from all material possessions. And since he sees love of God as the deepest fulfillment, he has no need for anxious or petty calculations. He freely gives of his time, his energy, his whole life. By means of his generous spirit, he makes visible the generosity of God, who lets his sun rise over both the good and the evil (Matt. 5:45).
Jesus has special affection for the outsiders, the sick, and the poor. Meanwhile he warns the well-off again and again about the dangers of their wealth: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24). Those who desire to follow Jesus must dispense with the external safeguards provided by property. They must put all their trust in God, who will in turn provide them with all they need. And their hearts cannot remain tied to outer things; God alone must be their treasure.
Those who enter this school of life gain the freedom that allows them to let go of possessions. Whoever looks to God and imitates Christ’s selflessness and largesse escapes the trap of measuring himself against others and turning into a rival. Those who accept and embody Jesus’ self-forgetful friendship will turn to their neighbors uninhibitedly and assist in building a culture of true humanity and justice.
2. Poverty and the Early Church
In confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God, the first Christians opened their eyes to God’s preference for the lowly. In Jesus, God chose not only a human destiny, but more than that: he chose to be a little man from a despised village. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). God was not born to parents of noble lineage or to the priestly class, but into a simple family who worked with their hands. In this way, God’s option for the poor comes to expression. Human hierarchies, built as they are around money and power, are hereby upended. Precisely those who do not count for much according to human standards are invited to experience their dignity as children of God.
The apostle Paul repeatedly marvels over the descent of Christ, “who, though he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:6–7). “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9). If this is how God has bestowed his riches upon us – through giving us Christ’s poverty – then all the riches of this world count for nothing. Worldly goods and honors are as good as rubbish (Phil. 3:8). Further, the way of Christ challenges us to work for the poor and weak and to build a more just society.
It was out of this conviction that the first Christian communities opted for a new way of living – one that functioned without private property. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45). They saw that it is not possessions that count, but familial care and communion.
This is also how the earliest monastic communities arose. According to tradition, Saint Anthony the Great (d. 356), the son of wealthy parents in Lower Egypt, was deeply affected by this specific word from the Gospel of Matthew: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (19:21). After giving away his possessions, Anthony retreated to a life of solitude and frugality. He was soon joined by disciples, and the monastic way of life that grew up around them eventually drew men and women from across Egypt, Palestine, and Syria. This great movement admittedly had several points of origin: on the one hand, the famous desert fathers and mothers who attracted so many by their example; on the other, it was a phenomenon whose reforms point directly to the gospel, in opposition to a church that had meanwhile become wealthy and powerful.
3. Again and Again, the Call to Poverty
Even as the early church developed a hierarchy, its call to poverty did not fall silent. John Chrysostom, patriarch in the imperial city of Constantinople, was tireless in preaching against pomp and luxury; moreover, he acted as a spokesman for the poor and appealed to the consciences of the well-heeled and the influential. To him, community of goods, as cultivated among the first Christians, was the ideal way to address property. Like other fathers of the church, he criticized the institution of private property, which entails the accumulation of things by one person who holds on to more than he needs, at the expense of another, who suffers deprivation: “How is it conceivable for a wealthy person to be a good one?” he asked. “It is impossible. He can only attain goodness to the degree that he shares his wealth with others.” According to Chrysostom, a truly rich person is one who gives away his possessions to the poor.
In the High Middle Ages, when the church was at a pinnacle of power and wealth, gospel-based movements arose whose adherents cultivated voluntary poverty. Perhaps the most famous of these was the one that sprang up around Francis of Assisi (1181/82–1226). Through his own experience, Francis had been enlightened by the painful recognition that, like a drug, money has the capacity to addict and destroy a soul. Not long after this, he bequeathed his inheritance to a church – and was promptly taken to court by his father, a wealthy merchant.
Because no human is self-created, we ought to approach life as a gift from God, one that cannot to be measured in mere possessions to which an individual might be tempted to lay claim.
Striking out on his own, Francis consistently warned against wealth and, in particular, the idolizing of material things and the tendency to cling to one’s money. Possessions, he argued, can end up possessing their owner. He refused to touch money – for example, coins he found on the street. Like Jesus, he preached the sort of poverty that sets the soul free. In doing so, he did not romanticize the hardships that so often afflict people, sometimes driving them to despair. Nor did the simple life he advocated have anything to do with a compulsive abnegation. Rather, he espoused a voluntary, almost playful poverty that engendered liberation from things, and consequently opened new spaces and new relationships. And he and his followers discovered how this freedom results in fraternity, allowing people to see their fellow human beings as brothers and sisters, and moving them to share with one another.
Again, Francis of Assisi did not embrace the simple life in order to promote self-denial as an end in itself. But he did consciously choose poverty because of the meaning he had discovered in it, which he discerned to be in keeping with the gospel. It was, as he saw it, a way of assimilating his own practice with the teachings of Jesus and, at the same time, a way of demonstrating solidarity with the involuntarily poor.
At the same time, his frugal manner of living gave him a new latitude in finding communion with like-minded people. In other words, far from being grim, his lifestyle breathed something joyous, cheerful, and light. Lady Poverty became Francis’s great love, the bride to whom he was betrothed. And those who joined him were expected to share this love, and also had to renounce all of their possessions. Even mundane items such as clothes were regarded as being held in trust, rather than owned. Through this radical orientation to the gospel, numerous communities arose after the example of Francis, striving to lead a more fraternal and just way of life, both in spirit and practice.
4. The Vow of Poverty and the Gift Economy
In the context of early Christian monasticism, the religious vow of poverty is not primarily an act of renunciation but implies living together with others, as a natural consequence of brotherhood or sisterhood. This is because in a truly communal life the social roles normally associated with property do not apply. There are no nobles, commoners, or slaves, but all are “brothers” and “sisters” – a designation that reflects the nurturing of a family-like structure characterized by mutual love and responsibility. In this way, a vow of poverty obviates competitive attitudes with regard to material things.
Notably, this vow is not intended to elevate misery, nor is the point to dispense with material things. Material goods are not despised per se. Rather, the vow reflects a basic attitude: because no human is self-created, we ought to approach life as a gift from God, one that cannot to be measured in mere possessions to which an individual might be tempted to lay claim.
In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde identifies two economies. In a “needs economy,” material goods are viewed in terms of who owns them, and economic activity is naturally directed toward acquisition. The goal is to remove as many economic goods as possible from general circulation and to acquire them as private holdings. Since material goods are limited, it follows that the person who has more things will have more prestige and power.
One consequence of such a system is that individuals always want more than they actually need. Before long, they will not only amass possessions for real needs, but for potential ones as well, and end up hoarding wealth that cannot really be used but only flaunted. The hallmarks of such an economy are greed, jealousy, the accumulation of goods (and with it, social prestige), and, finally, readiness for conflict, if necessary, in order to defend one’s property and possessions.
What Hyde calls the “gift economy” is marked by a completely different set of characteristics. Here, material goods are seen first and foremost as resources entrusted to the user by God, by nature, and by the community. And as gifts, they are also to be passed on to others. In a “gift economy,” economic activity consists primarily in maintaining the free flow of goods, contributing to the well-being of the greater community by means of one’s own labor and talents, and fairly distributing material things. Possessions are measured in terms of actual (not merely perceived) needs, and no one privately owns the resources that everyone depends on – for example, land, water, and food. The virtues that guide such a system include generosity, simplicity, community, and compassion. Displays of wealth are seen as vulgar expressions of unnecessary consumption.
In a religious community, a rule of poverty ought to be a concretization of such a gift economy. At its root stands faith in God, the author and giver of all gifts, and the recognition that we humans are not to appropriate them for private use, but rather ought to ensure that they are kept accessible to all, so that they might benefit all.
The renunciation of private property in religious life should be a prophetic sign to a world in which property is idolized. Voluntary poverty is a visible form of protest against the dictatorship of acquiring and possessing. Simultaneously, it implies solidarity with those whose penury is not voluntary but enforced. This solidarity is made visible when those who have taken a religious vow of poverty place themselves at the side of the involuntarily poor in order to strive together for a more just world.
I lived in Bolivia for several years and got to know a priest who was also a trained gardener and taught many people how to grow vegetables. I wanted to plant an herb bed in our community garden and asked this priest for some seedlings. I was more than a little surprised when he arrived at my door one day with a whole load of sand and gravel in addition to the plants. When I inquired, he explained: “You have excellent soil, but herbs develop their aroma best in lean soil. You will want to mix the sand and gravel into the soil.” He then added, “It’s just like the spiritual life. In fat times – when there is too much, when things are going too well – a religious community will not develop as it should, let alone thrive. But in poor, lean soil it will flourish.”
This article was translated from the German by Chris Zimmerman.
From the Rule of Life of the Little Brothers of the Gospel
Christ gives us a treasure that fills our hearts. He impels us to leave everything and become poor in spiritual as well as material things.
We embrace poverty with our whole heart. Wealth is not only an unwieldy burden, but a danger. In fact, it is not compatible with love of neighbor, because whatever you keep for yourself you cannot share with others.
We want to become poor in spirit and free from every possessive desire, whether for money or material goods. Further, we want to share the working conditions of the poor. This will help us make their longings and just demands our own.
Constitutions des Petits Frères de l’Evangile, Bruxelles 1985.
Owners and Heirs
At first glance, we all own nature, from the earth with all its landscapes to the starry skies. Yet as soon as we claim ownership of even a few acres of land, none of it belongs to us any longer. Only when we are poor can we call the whole world our own, as the birds call the sky their own, and as Francis of Assisi called all earthly things his. This is why he spoke of poverty as a great treasure, and why he said that it is a great luxury to eat at a beautiful boulder next to a refreshing spring under a blue sky, while the rich (who are really poor) are confined to dining rooms with four walls and limited dimensions.
God is the Lord of the entire world, and as God’s children we are heirs to its riches. Surrounded by immeasurable wealth, we need only reach out to take hold of it all. A handful of water, even if it runs between our fingers, is no less valuable than a handful of diamonds.
And yet, again – as soon as someone purchases a piece of land and fences it in, he relinquishes his right to all the rest. …
It follows that Christian poverty does not imply owning just a little, but owning nothing at all, so as to be able to call everything one’s own. The monk does not limit his possessions to a few things; rather, he gives up all, and thus owns all: air, sun, earth, sky, and sea. Without greed, detached from everything, we too may possess everything.
Ernesto Cardenal, Vida en el amor (Carlos Lohlé, 1970).