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POVERTY: A WAY OF LISTENING

The very first word of the Rule sums up Benedict's concept of the monastic life: Listen. Listening to God is a particular way of Christian life for Benedict. It is not the way, but a way; the one upon which Benedict bases his monastic life. Everything within the monastery is oriented toward enabling the monastic to listen. This point is emphasized in the very condition which Benedict lays down for entering the monastery: "This message of mine is for you, then, if you are ready to give up your own will once and for all . . ." (Prol 3). The monastic must give up listening to self and be ready to listen to God.

Listening to God, however, is a practical rather than an esoteric business. It is done within the daily life of the monastery by listening to the abbot, to the psalmody and readings at common prayer, by sacred reading and silence, and in the gathering of the monastics at work and the common table, to name only a few ways of listening. All monastic practices are meant to foster listening within the "school of the Lord's service" where emphasis is placed upon service: the going out of self to others rather than an ego-centered plan of self-improvement. To serve is to listen. The monastic truly serves the other, rather than controls the other, by doing what he/she thinks best for the other. The monastic is always directed outward toward the other in listening.

The concepts of common ownership (RB 33) and distribution of goods according to need (RB 34) are part of this lifestyle of listening. It is important to understand this before considering legal aspects of the monastic practice now commonly referred to as monastic poverty. It is also important to understand that the underlying value of monastic poverty is different from that of evangelical poverty.

Monastic Poverty

Monastic poverty is meant to free the monastic for conversatio: a life of listening. It requires the monastic to look outside of self for the very practical needs of life. The monastic is dependent upon another: ultimately upon God, but practically upon the abbot and community. In the ceremony of monastic profession in the Rule, the monastic both symbolically and practically expresses this. The monastic is stripped of his/her clothing and clothed in what belongs to the monastery (RB 58). For even in self-expression, which is a function of clothing, the monastic is dependent upon another, directed outward from self. Listening requires an outward direction away from self. This dependency upon another fosters trust in the abbot and in the community. If the monastic can trust on the material level, then the monastic can grow in trust on the spiritual level by listening to the abbot and community in the seeking of God. Listening requires trust in the other, rather than distrust, because in distrust the monastic returns again to self-will.

Monastic poverty is based upon need (RB 34). A monastic has those things which he/she needs, but not more. Too many possessions clutter the environment and cause distraction. If the monastic's room or the monastery itself is filled with all sorts of gadgets, the monastic runs the risk of being entertained or busied all day, never having the time to listen. On the other hand, monastic poverty should not be a poverty of destitution which would only result in the monastic being overly concerned with the daily needs of life. Such a poverty would mitigate against listening because the monastic would be too concerned with mere survival to be listening to another.

Monastic poverty frees the monastic for community. Private ownership, "this evil practice," gives rise to avarice, jealousy and murmuring. It replaces listening with the desire to selfishly acquire, turning the monastic away from the other in order to satisfy one's own needs. "Mine," the self-will, takes over within the life of the monastic.

Benedict's concept of poverty is threefold. It is a poverty of dependence, a poverty of common ownership, and a poverty of need. All three aspects are oriented toward creating an environment which enables the monastic to listen within the context of the common life of the monastery. It can even be said that monastic poverty makes sense only within the actual physical living together in community-the daily sharing of the common life-because monastic poverty is a practical monastic experience of listening within the context of the monastery. This is monastic poverty.

Evangelical Poverty

Evangelical poverty, on the other hand, derives its basis from a Scholastic theory of religious life: the renunciation of honor, riches and sensual pleasure. The evangelical counsels are focused on renouncing these three worldly desires which can lead one away from God. The religious renounces these three desires by taking the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity. Through these vows, the religious can achieve personal holiness. Evangelical poverty, therefore, does not necessarily have to be lived within the common life. Its basis is the personal renunciation of riches. It is meant to free the religious for apostolic service, the religious putting aside concern for economic survival. Certainly it fosters common life, but the common life derives its purpose from the evangelical vows. The common life, in this context, is meant to protect the religious by controlling the environment, thus enabling the religious to live the vows with less danger of being overtaken by honor, riches or sensual pleasure.

Parallels and Differences

While monastic poverty involves a concept of need (with the intent of keeping the monastic from becoming overly concerned for survival) the aim of evangelical poverty isholiness (needing less and less). This fundamental difference affects the attitude toward material possessions, and attitude affects the practical application of poverty in the everyday life of the one who lives it. A monastic might need more or less than others within the monastery, but this is not necessarily a sign of more or less holiness. Rather, Benedict instructs the monastic to understand the gift from God. Either in needing more, or in needing less, the monastic is to realize the other: God. The evangelical religious, on the other hand, acquires individual holiness by needing less and less because the religious must move further and further away from the desire for riches and the corruption which riches may cause.

Of course, neither monastic poverty nor evangelical poverty is better than the other. Each has its basis in a particular lifestyle which originated in a particular historical setting. Each is a practical way of attaining God. But they are different. Therefore, when interpreting and applying the concept of poverty to the practical issues of renunciation, patrimony, inheritance and gifts, the particular way of life and concept of poverty must be the context for interpretation.

For the monastic, poverty must be monastic. It must be interpreted and applied within the context of monastic life, which is a common life of listening. Interpretation based upon this fundamental reality will result in applications and practical conclusions for the monastic that will be very different from those of apostolic religious under the vow of evangelical poverty.

Law Calls for Dependence

Law ought to support, express and organize the concept of monastic poverty. The legal regulations, therefore, should be designed so as to foster listening and dependency, yet sufficiency for existence. The law does this by providing full dependence upon the monastery, on the part of the monastic, for all material needs: food, clothing, shelter, health care, travel, vacation, etc. The law also exhorts the monastery to generally maintain corporate simplicity which, in the Benedictine view, is an absolute necessity for an atmosphere of listening.

Benedictine monastics, by tradition, have taken a profession of vows which involves total renunciation of material ownership. This means that the monastic renounces both the use and the ownership of private property, both real and personal. Therefore the monastic, by ultimate legal consequences, may not receive anything whatsoever-food, money, clothing, trips, necessities, resources-as payment for work or as a gift. According to canon law, anything given to a monastic automatically belongs to the monastery. If, for instance, a monastic receives $1,000 as a gift to be used personally for a European trip, the money actually belongs to the monastery and accepting the gift does not automatically mean permission to go on the trip. And for a superior to grant permission for such a trip simply because the funds were received from outside the community mitigates against the fundamental nature of dependency in the observance of monastic poverty.

American civil law has recognized the canonical nature of total renunciation. In Order of St. Benedict v. Steinhauser, 234 U.S. 640 (1914), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the relationship between a monk (Fr. Augustine Wirth, O.S.B.) and his monastery (St. Mary's Abbey, NJ) was contractual. This means that, on the one hand, everything a monk acquires by law belongs to the monastery while, on the other hand, the monastery must provide for the monk's needs.

Even though the above case recognized the contractual relationship, a monastic civilly acquires ownership whenever he or she inherits property from a parent. The same is true when a salary is directly received. Then, by virtue of the civil contract of monastic profession, the monastic must transfer property or salary to the monastery.

American Benedictine Women

The concept of monastic poverty was altered for most American Benedictine nuns by a papal decree dated December 6, 1859, which decided a dispute between Boniface Wimmer and Benedicta Reipp. The American nuns were henceforth to become diocesan sisters, who would take simple vows and be uncloistered. This change of status meant that Benedictine women could work outside the cloister, an economic and ecclesial necessity. However, it also meant a loss of legal status. Benedictine women no longer took solemn vows and their simple vows no longer involved total renunciation. Similar to other apostolic congregations established in the nineteenth century, women took simple vows, as introduced in the sixteenth century by the Jesuits. This required the renunciation of the use of property only but not of its ownership. This was the nature of the vow for Benedictine brothers as well, who were not considered by canon law to be monks. The actual daily living of poverty, however, was no different for monks and sisters. It only meant that if a sister should leave the convent, she would have her own property or money to cushion her re-entry into a world where women had little chance to earn a living wage. It was felt that sisters, unlike cloistered nuns, were tempted far more often to forsake their religious calling because of their work in the "world."

While change in the status of Benedictine women altered the legal implications of their commitment, it did not, in fact, change their practice of monastic poverty. They took simple vows and retained ownership, but they practiced total renunciation. In a document entitled Cessation of Administration each sister, upon final profession, turned over the administration and the use of interest of all present and future property to the monastery. She also left a last will and testament, giving this property to the community. The monastery commingled the patrimony funds, as they were called, and if a sister left the monastery, an equivalency of the amount of principle given was returned to her. This system was no different, in effect, from the medieval dowry system for solemnly professed monastic women.

In the 1970s apostolic communities began more clearly to emphasize the legal nature of simple vows. A person could name anyone as administrator to his or her property. It was no longer reserved to a religious community. Property could also be willed to anyone. In addition, because of faculties granted in Religionum Larcalium (May 31, 1966), superiors could permit a religious to change his or her disposition of property. And eventually disposition was changed almost at will for each new acquisition, which required an original administrative and testamentary disposition. Many Benedictine women took this legal interpretation despite the fact that it did not apply to religious like Benedictines, who placed the traditional effect of solemn vows on their simple vows (LCWR-CMSM Legal Bulletin 17).

Today's Assumptions

Nowadays it seems that both Benedictine men and women have come to expect that superiors should give permission to keep all personal gifts-not only personal property but money-to enable the monastic to buy personal items or to take trips. And some monasteries, due to lack of resources, have even begun to expect their members to obtain necessities and travel expenses from outside sources.

But the 1983 Code of Canon Law has presented monastics, both men and women, the opportunity to return to a full spirit and concept of total renunciation. It permits women to legalize the monastic tradition and men to reclaim the spirit of total dependency upon their monasteries. Canon 598 states that each religious institute (and in this case, each monastic congregation or federation) is to define the legal aspects of poverty in their constitutions. So, rather than having the Scholastic definition of poverty with its distinction between solemn and simple vows, as was the case in the 1917 Code, monastics may now define and give legal effect to their concept of poverty: total renunciation, common ownership, total dependency, interdependency and simplicity. This has already been done in most of the Benedictine congregations and federations of the United States. In the Federation of St. Scholastica, for instance, constitutional norm 10 states: "At final profession, in the tradition of the Federation of St. Scholastica where Benedictine women have made simple vows with the effect of solemn vows, the sisters will renounce all personal property." And the spirit of monastic poverty has been clearly stated in the constitutions of the American-Cassinese Congregation: "The poverty that the monks embraces in the monastic way of life has its source in Christ's total dispossession of himself for love of his Father and the world and finds its model in the first Christian community, `where all things were held in common.' Benedictine poverty directs the monk toward a spiritual dependence on Christ as represented by the abbot, toward a radical interdependence among the brothers by mutual sharing of goods . . ." (C54).

Monastic congregations and federations have defined and legalized the consequences of monastic poverty. Most have adopted total renunciation or taken a direction toward it. Now the work ahead is an actual practice of monastic poverty.

Living Monastic Poverty

Thus far I have considered the topics of the theology and the legal aspects of monastic poverty. At this point I want to discuss three difficult areas of living monastic poverty in our day. These reflections are not meant as answers, but rather as sparks to stimulate discussion of living monastic poverty now.

Daily Dependence on the Community

Monastic poverty, as stated previously, is the total dependence and interdependence of the monastic upon the community. This means more than ridding oneself of possessions prior to final profession and turning over inheritances to the community. The dependency is a daily experience of receiving everything a monastic needs from the community without dependency for anything upon an outside support. Yet here lies the rub of our day and, yes, even of Benedict's day. Monastics do receive outside support, usually gifts or work stipends, some of which are extra luxuries and others of which are needs. This is nothing new since Benedict himself had to consider the issue of receiving gifts, even from parents, in RB 54. Today, as in other periods of monastic history, the problem seems to be accentuated by the economic situation of the monastery, whether the situation is one of financial viability or financial decline.

Community's Responsibility

If the monastery is having financial difficulties, there seems to develop the practice that the monastic, if possible, should try to receive needs from outside sources such as family. Thus the monastic seeks to have parents or siblings provide for clothing, vacation expenses, professional needs, and personal items. The monastic becomes dependent, not on the community, but on others. This mitigation of monastic poverty seems to lead toward an attitude of independence from the community, perhaps even a feeling that, except for a few friends in the community, membership is merely a legal relationship. Also there tends to develop the have and have-not monastics of the community because some can get money for trips and luxuries, while others cannot. The attitude develops that if you can get outside resources you can do or have almost anything because it is not costing the community anything. Permissions, then, are given to persons who have someone from outside the community pay for the item or trip. Obviously this situation destroys the living of monastic poverty, and possibly has within it the seeds for the death of the monastery.

Similarly, if a monastery is in a strong, healthy financial situation, a similar problem can develop. The monastery and its major works tend to be institutions of great wealth with an upper-middle-class corporate lifestyle. The individual monastic, however, is urged to live a simple personal lifestyle and thus limits are placed on personal expenses. Nevertheless, the individual monastic's lifestyle tends to adjust to the corporate lifestyle, if for no other reason than that the persons with whom the monastic associates live an upper-middle-class existence. In order to acquire the personal items necessary for this lifestyle the individual monastic is forced to seek outside income, usually from gifts and extra-work stipends. The monastic grows independent of the community and less and less orientated toward the contemplative nature of monastic life and more and more toward a consumer-oriented, status-conscious lifestyle. Again, the living of monastic poverty and simplicity is destroyed along with the bonding of community. Just as the financial difficulties have destroyed monasteries, so has wealth.

Living Outside the Communal Setting

The third area of reflection concerns whether or not a person can live monastic poverty apart from living physically in a community setting. Monastic life is not merely a theory but a concrete, human experience of living Christian life. It is a life of daily interaction in prayer and work, along with periods of personal lectio and study. It is the common life, a life with a shared identity where the monastics act as one in prayer, work, penance, eating and sleeping. Monastic poverty, as an aspect of this life, is the real, physical experience of dependency and interdependency with the monastic group. This can only be experienced in its totality by living together. This living together does not mean five individuals merely living under the same roof but individually relating back to a home monastery for permissions or income. The living group or monastic cell group must experience this interdependency and dependency. The income of the group may be sent back to the home monastery, but as a group contribution. The needs of the individual monastic are to be met by the group and its income. This enables the monastic to experience the true and full reality of monastic life rather than a mere legal or friendship relationship within a working environment. Modern monastic life must come to terms with its underpinning, the cenobitic way of life.

Legal Implications

Questions, however, continue to be asked about the practical or legal living out of monastic poverty, especially for those who have not made total renunciation either by the very fact of their final profession or through a separate legal document of renunciation.

The concept of religious poverty, in which a person gives up use of property (the usufruct) while retaining ownership of the property, seems to have originated with the sixteenth-century Jesuits who introduced simple vows. Since a person with simple vows could be easily dismissed from the religious institute, the person retained ownership of property in case of dismissal. The person then would have financial support when returning to lay life.

During the nineteenth century when the Apostolic See began approving apostolic communities of women who were not cloistered, these women were required to take simple vows. This was not because dismissal would be easy, but because they would be outside the cloister involved in affairs of the world, and thus more likely to leave religious life. Simple vows with retention of property ownership permitted them both to be outside the cloister and to have financial security if they left religious life.

Even though persons with simple vows retained ownership of property, they could not use the property for themselves. In fact, they could not even be involved in its management. In their personal daily lives, religious with simple vows were to live religious poverty exactly the way religious with solemn vows lived. There was to be no distinction in the actual daily living of religious poverty. The retention of ownership existed "out there" as a security blanket in case a religious left.

When American Benedictine nuns lost their status as solemnly professed monastics in 1859, they were categorized as apostolic women living and working outside the cloister. They had to make simple vows requiring the retention of ownership of property. But in the actual living of the monastic life, they were to be no different in their daily living of monastic poverty than their solemnly professed forbears. And, in fact, these women, while fulfilling the requirements of law, actually bound themselves to the legal reality of total renunciation since they gave the income from their assets to the monastery and made the monastery the beneficiary of their wills.

The concept that simply vowed religious should live religious poverty like solemnly vowed religious found enforcement in the legislation that required a special indult from the Apostolic See for a simply professed religious to change his or her document governing the personal assets (formerly referred to as patrimony). Such an indult was not easily granted, and given only for serious reasons. In 1966, however, the legislation implementing Vatican II no longer required an indult from the Apostolic See. The religious superior, with the consent of the council, could give the permission. This change was not made to de-emphasize the strictness of religious poverty for simply vowed religious. Rather, it was part of the call of Vatican II for subsidiarity, to let what can be done on the local level be done there rather than always going to Rome.

It seems, however, that the ability of the local superior to give the permission to change the document governing personal assets, plus a renewed emphasis on personal ownership of the assets in light of IRS regulations, led to a change in the attitudes and the rights of religious regarding their personal assets. Religious began to believe that they had a right to manage their property and even to direct the use of their property for their own benefit. Thus, with permission, money from personal assets could be used to finance, for example, a trip to Europe for a religious, or to buy a computer.

These changes were never the intent of religious life under simple vows nor of the post-Vatican II legislation. In monasteries of women, where religious poverty under simple vows really had the effect of monastic poverty under solemn profession, confusion and issues arose regarding both use and administration of property. In light of this, the North American groupings of Benedictine women stated in their constitutional documents that those who retained ownership of property must still live their daily monastic life as if they had made solemn profession.

Practical Effects

The practical effects of this traditional concept of simple vows for Benedictine monastics who retain ownership is that their daily living is to be no different from those in the community who have made total renunciation. Thus, these practical norms seem to apply:

1. There is only one document of administration or trust which governs all presently owned assets and all future acquired assets. A new document is not drawn up, for instance, each time the monastic receives a new inheritance. This document of administration directs another person or institute to manage the assets and to distribute the income and principal. In no way is the monastic to be involved directly or indirectly in the regular administration and distribution of the assets and income.

2. In order to redirect the income or principal of the assets, the person must get permission of the superior and draw up a new or amended document of administration.

3. In no instance is the income or principal to be used for the personal benefit of the monastic.

4. Only income which would have come to the monastic even if the person had not been a monastic is to be part of the personal assets. In practical terms this has come to mean only inheritance from immediate family. If money, for instance, is given to the religious for a trip to Australia, the money belongs to either the monastery or the personal assets of the monastic. In the former case, the superior is not obliged to grant permission for the trip. In the latter case, the money cannot be used for a trip since personal assets cannot be used for the benefit of the monastic.

If it is necessary not to follow the above norms, then a dispensation must be sought from the proper authority as provided for in the proper law of the monastic grouping.

Perhaps the greatest difficulty when ownership is retained is that there continues to be a sense of "mine." Most often, the monastic does not want to use the personal property for self, but wishes to have a sense of control. Control can be used to enhance one's personal esteem. Control also can be used to manipulate or buy outside relationships. Interestingly, though, monastic poverty, as taught and lived by the Ancients, was to set a monastic free to listen with ear of the heart to the voice of God.

These reflections deal little with law, but rather with part of the heart of our life together. By reflecting on monastic poverty and its difficulties today. I hope that I have helped spark an evaluation of our monastic life so that we can renew ourselves by grappling with the perennial difficulties associated with monastic poverty as encountered in our day.

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