Detachment From Material Things

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven   

Matthew 5:3

In the Sermon on the Mount our Blessed Lord sets forth His philosophy of life. He begins with praise of poverty. This shows what importance He attributes to the virtue of detachment from all material things. It is as if He wished to say to all His followers, but especially to His chosen ones, all the members of the religious state: “Unless you are in all sincerity detached from everything that is passing, transitory, and fleeting, there can be no true spirituality, and you cannot claim to be My disciples.”

“I mean, brethren, the appointed time has grown very short; from now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the form of this world is passing away.”

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Christ had lived in poverty from the cradle to the cross, from Bethlehem to Calvary. He was born by the roadside in a manger, because there was no room for His mother in the Gesu lavora con San Giuseppeinn. To save His life, His parents had to flee with Him to Egypt, a pagan land. On their return to Nazareth, Jesus as any child did the chores for His mother and father. While he was growing up, Jesus worked by the sweat of His brow with His adoptive father in a carpenter workshop to help earn the daily bread for the Holy Family. Most of the details of those thirty years have not yet been revealed to us, yet we can imagine what life in this Holy Family must have been like.

Let us examine His public life, the three years of teaching and preaching, for the simple reason that we as adults are interested in knowing how He as an adult practiced poverty and detachment from material things. We want to learn the lessons which we must put into practice in our own lives so that we can fully emulate his example.

“Blessed arc the poor in spirit!” The addition of the words in spirit does not expunge or decrease the actual concept of poverty. Rather our Blessed Lord’s use of the word poor applies to poor people in general, to those who have little money and other material goods, who must labor every single day to gain their daily bread, and who must be frugal and deny themselves to keep their body and soul together. The addition of in spirit, which, by the way, does not appear in Luke, means merely that the blessing is for the poor who bear the hardships of their situation with dignity, in the proper spirit, in a spirit of resignation to God’s will. These, He meant to say, due to their poverty are nearer to the Kingdom of Heaven and are more certain to attain it than a rich person would. 

How did Jesus actually practice poverty? His was not absolute, not so extreme that He had nothing at all. It was not the poverty of a vagrant, but it was relative, that is to say, arranged according to the apostolic purpose, according to His vocation as teacher, preacher and Redeemer. Yet it was an extreme poverty which was full of self-sacrifices. This will be seen if we consider what He actually possessed in dwelling, food, clothing, and money. 

1. In His public life our Lord had no place of residence, at least not one that was His own or permanent. He was at home everywhere and nowhere and was always among strangers. During the day He was usually among the people, in the streets and public squares, as His calling demanded; and when evening came and no compassionate man invited Him into his house, He had to spend the night in the open or in a public hostel, which, at that time as now in, leaves much to be desired for, especially in the routine of cleanliness, comfort and safety. We find absolutely no evidence in the Gospels of our Lord having a rented place to stay, or a room in someones home, nor a place of any kind over which He could call Himself master and where He could make Himself comfortable. He actually had “nowhere to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

How many sacrifices this must have hard, due to the climate and seasons! How often must the situation have been as it is depicted by a recent artist: The Saviour mostly journeying on foot. The Gospels mention that he rode a donkey only on one occasion — His triumphal entrance into the city of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. A heavy rain cascades upon the route. To the right a fox seeks his hole as a refuge from the storm; to the left a bird is sheltered by the foliage of a tree. Yet our Redeemer has to trek onward in the pouring rain! It is never pleasant to be dependent on the pity of one’s fellow men. This is true today in all Christian lands and it was certainly no better in the land of Israel when Jesus walked upon the earth.

Al-Eizariya or al-Azariya (العيزرية‎, (place) of Lazarus), referred by its medieval name of Bethany2. The food of our Saviour was similarly undependable and diverse. There would have been occasions when he would not have had any food at all.  It was at its best when He broke His journey in Bethany (Today Al-Eizariya on the West Bank). These He enjoyed as His sojourn, His days of relaxation and recuperation. The sisters of Lazarus attended to His needs. Yet how rarely do we find Him in Bethany! On one occasion we find Him dining in the house of a rich Pharisee, who invited Him not out of kindness or friendship but out of curiosity and vanity, most likely with nefarious intentions, so that he could observe Jesus at close quarters, whilst he felt relaxed and at ease to spy on Him and possibly entrap him: “One sabbath when he went to dine at the house of a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees, they were watching him.” (Luke 14:1). Though invitations of this kind were exceedingly uncomfortable for Him and would most likely have preferred to go hungry rather than enduring them, His zeal for souls induced Him to participate in such banquets. At other times, we find Him eating in the desert, or when there are a multitude of people but only a handful of barley bread loaves, the usual nourishment of poor people in the East, who ate white bread only on feast days. Once we see Him at mealtime with the Apostles in an open field under the blazing sun. The harvest is due, and they are so hungry that they gather the ripe kernels for eating  “On a sabbath, while He was going through the grain-fields, His disciples plucked and ate some ears of grain, rubbing them in their hands.” (Luke 6:1).

There were many comparable deprivations and unanticipated fast days for our Blessed Redeemer, and they were arduous and wearying for Him, for at home His mother had always carefully and lovingly tended to His needs. To be sure, the meals in Nazareth may, have been meagre, but our Lady, His mother saw to it that all was clean and orderly and that the meal, though scarce and modest, was always well prepared. In His public life Jesus had to sacrifice all this.

3. The clothing of our Lord was undeniably always dignified and proper to His station, yet simple, without excesses or adornment, and all according to the custom of the land. In St. John’s narrative of the Passion we read that “when the soldiers had crucified Jesus they took his garments and made four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was without seam, woven from top to bottom; so they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.’” (John 19:23-24). Thus we see that His entire wardrobe consisted of only five items. In contrast, look at your own collection of clothing I’m almost certain that it is copious, even containing several unneeded and superfluous items that have either only been worn once or never.

4. Our Lord never seems to have carried any money at all, not even the half shekel ₪½ (approximately £3.92 GBP today) to pay the required temple tax. To pay it He had to perform a miracle, bring from the depths of the sea a fish with the coin in its mouth:

When they came to Caper′na-um, the collectors of the half-shekel tax went up to Peter and said, “Does not your teacher pay the tax?” He said, “Yes.” And when he came home, Jesus spoke to him first, saying, “What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their sons or from others?” And when he said, “From others,” Jesus said to him, “Then the sons are free. However, not to give offence to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth you will find a shekel; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself.” 

Matthew 17:24-27. 

Such was the poverty of our Saviour in His public life. It is to be noted that His poverty grew more severe as He advanced in age. Doubtless, He was poor at Nazareth, but He had a home, and since His mother’s loving care enveloped Him, such poverty was not too oppressive. In His public life He had to forego His mothers solicitous love, and His poverty became harder to bear. And finally in His bitterest agony the Romans took away His clothes, so that He had absolutely nothing at all? His body was even confiscated by the State authorities and placed under a seal.

And now in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar we behold Him in an equal poverty. None of the infinite treasures of heaven are visible to us when He descends to our altars. He brings with Him nothing but His being, deprived of everything and unadorned. We, His creatures, grant Him the species under which He appears. How much material value does the bread and wine represent? Not a penny’s worth!

How touching is the poverty of our Saviour, more so when we consider who He was and what demands He might have made without even being unreasonable. When He walked with the Apostles through the Holy Land, past the beautiful country homes of the rich, past the carefully tended gardens and vineyards, He might have had all of them. But He denied Himself because of His devotion to poverty and He wished to give us the correct comportment toward the acquisition of material possessions. Was there ever a prince or a general who needed so little, who made such humble and meagre demands? Let us thank our Redeemer for His examples to us and for the useful lesson it contains. And let us not fail to recall that a faithful following of His examples are doubly our duty since we have committed ourselves to poverty by a sacred vow.

What do you think of Christ in this matter? 

What is your attitude regarding His view of poverty and His practice of it? 

Does it seem to you that He is after all an extreme and one-sided dreamer who would have done better to pander to the wealthy, in order to have them as friends who would help carry His life’s work forward successfully? If He had desired the friendship of Herod, of Pilate, of the rich Pharisees and Sadducees, they would have considered it an honour to count Him as one of their own, and would have placed at His disposal one of the most opulent homes in the affluent part of the kingdom, where from a temporal viewpoint, He could have lived comfortably in happiness and without hardships. Would He have acted wisely if He had done so? There is only one possible answer to such a question: Jesus Christ, Son of God, knew the genuine way and He followed it. Since He is the only Way, Truth, and Life, what He says and does must be God’s truth for us, and it is certain that all who do not share His views will stray from the path of righteousness. Therefore, I firmly believe that those who are poor in the manner that He meant deserve His blessings and that despite all their difficulties and needs are closer to salvation than the rich. I believe that the rich deserve the “woe unto you” of which Jesus spoke (Luke 6:24) and that they shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven with difficulty (the one thing that money cannot buy for them). I believe this with the same Catholic conviction with which I believe the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity and die Real Presence of our Lord in the Holy Eucharist. I also believe that my own poverty and all the limitations and hardships which it involves are not ungodly things, but indulgences from God, that make me emulate our Saviour, that His blessing benefits my work far more than the most generous financial assistance could ever do. The same as the apostles asked of the Lord, I entreat that He “Increase my faith!” (Luke 17:5) How difficult would it be for us to obtain and hold tightly to this vibrant faith! As a result of peer pressure, the scarcity of morality and wanting to fit in with the masses we are dominated by irreconcilable standpoints to such an extent that we have the predetermined misconception that the rich are in-fact to be envied: they do not have to limit themselves so harshly, they are independent, and solely by reason of their wealth they enjoy a favoured and honoured position for now. Yet to be honest all this is nothing more than appearance and delusions. And Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to him who believes.” (Mark 9:23) Accordingly I beseech You my Lord and Saviour to disperse any doubts that I may have in accordance with Your Word that “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5)

And now, what about our vow of poverty? Having pledged ourselves to a life of poverty with our Lord and Master. What demands are expected from us? What does it mean to be “poor” in our state of consecrated life? Think of the beggars in the streets. Their clothing is threadbare; They have no house, no room, no bed or possessions of their own, no food according to their needs, appetite and choice, no medical care and no comforts at all. If they are given a room or a bed, they must be prepared to surrender it the next day, without an assurance that it will be available again that evening. If they are given clothing or food, they must be content with what is offered; otherwise, the offered articles will be withdrawn. That is being truly poor. Within the confines of scriptural poverty, we must ungrudgingly add the element of willingness and voluntary endurance. The spirit must say: “I desire nothing more, even though I could have more.” This is religious poverty. What does it demand?

Usually, we are not called upon to suffer the same deprivations as the poor on the streets such as somewhere to live and call home, food and regular meals, and so forth, which our Redeemer endured for many years. Nor do we have to live in such extreme poverty as the beggar or the very poor. We are guided by the provisions of our Rule regarding the vow and the spirit of poverty in our religious order, society, or congregation. What, then, does it mean in practice to profess true evangelical poverty, to imitate our Divine Lord and Master in poverty? For those of us who are members of one of the modem religious communities, for example, those who take the simple vows; in the first instant it means, to entirely surrender our ownership rights to all the material goods specifically mentioned in the constitution of the religious order, which usually does not involve any notable privations, for we are well taken care of: we have our beautiful hermitage, house or convent, we have our sufficiently comfortable cell or room or dormitory, some religious orders provide three square meals daily, and have clothing for weekdays and Sundays which are laundered and repaired as required. Furthermore, we are, also well taken care of in case of sickness, and when death comes, we need not worry even about our funerary arrangements. I reality do we not have all desirable security and comfort one could hope for?

The only severe point in our practice of poverty is the renunciation of the right to dispose freely of any article of material value. By this renunciation we assume out of our love for Jesus Christ, who lived and died in poverty, the obligation never to dispose of any objects by ourselves, but only to do so according to the judgment and with the permission of our Superiors. In practice the observance of this dependence may be regarded as the essence of the vow of poverty. As long as it is observed this faithfully, the vow is never broken. But if we should begin to deal with this matter independently, in opposition to the content of the Rule, we sin against the vow we have made. The sin is venial if the value of the object is small; it is mortal if the value is considerable. In general, if the value is sufficient to constitute mortal sin in a case of theft, then it is a mortal sin against the vow of poverty.  To me personally the a sin is a sin and I never take into account differences between a venial or mortal sin. Consequently, the vow would without doubt also be violated if a religious were to hide something so that the Superior could not take it from them; if they were to take for themselves and without the permission of the Superior books or other articles belonging to the Community; if they were to fail to respond to a public inquiry concerning the articles; if they were to loan them to outsiders or to members of another Community, or borrow them from outsiders or members as is set forth in the Constitution of most Communities.

All this shows that genuine humility and a rendered sense of right and wrong are necessary if one wishes to keep the vow of poverty intact even when one reaches an advanced age. We are by reason of this vow like the children of a well-regulated family: nothing is denied them, but they are required to ask the permission of their parents to acquire whatever they need. It is a great grace that in this way we are effectively helped toward acquiring that childlikeness without which our Redeemer states “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3). It is also true that it is an act of high virtue in the eyes of God and may even confer the crown of a modest and unbloodied martyrdom, if one observes this vow steadfastly even in the smallest detail, and does not hesitate to make many and long trips in the house to ask permission in minor matters. This is particularly true in the case of one who has served the Community well and long and must perhaps run the risk of being refused by a somewhat grudging or spiteful Superior.

Of the three religious vows, poverty may he called the least, in so far as all material possessions are far less than that which we offer God through the other two vows. And in general it is considered the easiest of the vows, because as a rule poverty is not opposed by the violent passions which so often battle against chastity and obedience. From this fact arises a noteworthy new motive for the perfect observance of poverty, in the light of the principle enunciated by the Saviour: “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” (Luke 16:10); and at variance with. It may well be that chastity and obedience do not flower perfectly because the required grace is not sufficiently merited by perfect faithfulness in observing the least and easiest vow. Therefore let us be scrupulous in everything that involves the virtue of poverty, simplicity, and thrift, as it befits our vocation and as it is described in detail in the Holy Rule.

A Religious who loves Jesus sincerely and intensely and is a loyal member of the Community should never have any difficulties as to the faithful observance of the vow and the spirit of poverty.

In conclusion a few precious tips on poverty these are specifically for religious in consecrated life but is also advisable for all Christians: 

1. Simplicity in everything should characterise a follower of Christ be they lay or religious, in their room, closet, clothing and desk. Avoid singularity and luxuriousness. Never try to be “different” in material things from the rest of the community, or to have something “special” in your apparel for example.

2. Don’t make your room or cell a museum of knickknacks or old correspondence received from relatives and friends and former pupils or patients! No perfumes and scented soaps! The best odour is no odour, except for the “odour of sanctity.” A regular “house cleaning,”  e.g., on ember days or before great feast days, will convince you that you could perhaps very well be without this or that book or furniture or piece of clothing. It is understood that in this regard you should be guided by common sense.

3. Never yield to temptations to have pets your room or a private radio.

4. Avoid waste of food, paper, water, light, linen, clothing, etc.

5. If you deal with finances strictly keep separate accounts of parish and convent money, Sodality and choir money, etc., or else you could find yourself in trouble not only with your order but also the police and cause scandal within the church, your order and Christianity as a whole .

6. In the refectory you will have many opportunities to practice “detachment from material things.” Take the portion given and do not be a glutton.

7. Major and minor superiors and official visitors will do well to keep a watchful eye on one evil which in the past few decades has crept into many of our communities: the damnable habit of allowing pocket money (peculium). Beware of this! It is the source of a number of problem disorders in religious life. 

8. In general, let us be guided by the principle laid down by St. Francis de Sales: “Do not desire anything; do not want anything; do not refuse anything!” Or put it this way: There should be joy in not having; happiness in doing without; contentment of heart in not wanting.