The vow of poverty is a commitment of faithfulness to the gospel itself, which summons us to a new vision and way of life that reverses the values of the world. The beatitudes of Jesus call us to trust the promise of divine fulfillment hidden in things that the world counts as barren and negative. By our vow we reaffirm our baptismal renunciations and pledge ourselves to seek out the mystery of divine grace present in places and experiences that seem insignificant, dark or empty.
By our vow of poverty we recognize that in our own spiritual lives there will be seasons in the shadow, experiences of dryness, waiting, obscurity and the seeming absence of God. In the light of the gospel we know that these are necessary, and that some of them yield more blessings than times when we are filled with devotion and confidence. “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Our whole spirituality should bear the mark of our vow, showing that God is freeing us from dependence on feelings of success and happiness.
Poverty involves radical truthfulness about our own persons and the community itself, grounded in the knowledge of our fallibility and brokenness. Popularity and acclaim are dangerous, as they can lure us away from the sober awareness of our spiritual poverty that compels us to confess that “this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” The knowledge and acceptance of our fragility preserves us from complacency and illusion, continually throwing us back on the mercy and compassion of God.
In the great prayer of Jesus in the fourth gospel he says of his disciples, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.” The vow of poverty is one of the chief ways in which we affirm our separation in Christ from everything in the world that opposes God’s way of self-spending love. It sets us in opposition to the way of coercion, violence and militarism. It commits us to reject in Christ’s name every manifestation of exploitation, prejudice and oppression. It calls us to dissociate ourselves from structures of privilege and wealth. By this vow we confess the rule of the cross: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” Through the vow of poverty we pledge ourselves to look for the signs of God’s activity and glory, especially in the lives of those who are strangers to success and power as the world defines them.
One of the signs that our poverty is authentic will be the readiness of others to confide in us their own experiences of suffering, grief and loss. If we are evading the mystery of poverty in our own lives, we will shut ourselves off from the pain and weakness in the lives of our brothers and sisters. If we are living our vow, they will find in our company a holy place of acceptance and understanding where they can wait for God to bring strength out of weakness and resurrection from death.