What Does a Vow of Poverty Mean?

January 5, 2022 by

Christmas is over and a new year has begun. But as always, as Christmas approached I found myself thinking about poverty. The poverty of Jesus, born in a stable in Bethlehem. The poverty of refugees all over the world. The poverty of some of my neighbors. Poverty of spirit. Poverty of material things.

In previous posts, I shared my reflections and life experiences regarding the vows of chastity and obedience which I took as a member of the Bruderhof. But I have pondered long and hard about how my life fulfills the first of the three vows which are fundamental to our order – the vow of poverty. I think the reason I’ve hesitated to write about this one is that I don’t feel like I live a very poverty-stricken life. I have everything I need. No bills to worry about, no bank account to keep track of, no car payments or maintenance, no debts to pay off. I don’t have to go grocery shopping or rush around the mall trying to buy the latest fashions in clothing. I always have enough food to eat. I live a comfortable life.

So what is poverty, and if I say that poverty is the first of the three vows I have taken, what does it mean to me? Poverty has many definitions: “the state of being extremely poor”; “the state of being inferior in quality or insufficient in amount”; “the renunciation of the right to individual ownership of property as part of a religious vow.” In reality, only the last of these comes close to the way I live.

PovertyEmbedArtwork by Trudi Brinkmann

If you were a casual visitor to our community and sat down to share lunch with us, you would eat a home-cooked meal. It would have all the elements of a balanced diet and be presented tastefully. This is no soup kitchen, cobbling together meals from the cast-offs of local supermarkets. Most of the food is grown here, and it’s delicious! No poverty there.

If you visited one of our family apartments there might be some surprises. Furnishings are simple – no plush couches, no home entertainment units – and space is as-needed (no spare dens or rec rooms here). Bathrooms are sometimes shared with other house residents, and kitchens are always shared with at least one, sometimes two or three families. Most of us sleep on plain foam mattresses. If you’ve never known anything else there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you’re used to plush memory foam or a pillow-top you might have some trouble falling asleep on our beds. Maybe some poverty there.

The subject of clothing can be a thorny one. In theory we don’t keep up with trendy fashions, but I’m not so sure we’re really holding to our vows on this one. I’m sure I have too many pairs of shoes, and more jackets than I need.

But in the end, these are the outer trappings that are really neither here nor there in the grand scheme of salvation. The poverty I should be concerned about is not expressed through the lack of physical things. Those are relatively easy to do without. The poverty that is the hardest for me is that of giving up my own plans, ideas, opinions, and dreams.

If you follow my blog you will have read the pieces I wrote since moving to the Mount Community earlier last year. It was an uprooting that I had not been looking for, and one that thrust me into a new sphere of life. Many lessons I am still learning, and some of them connect to this issue of poverty – poverty of opinion, of all things! When you live in one place for a long time and settle into your relationships, people get to know you and learn to overlook some of your annoying characteristics; they know that’s “just how she is” and extend a certain amount of grace. But when I moved, I found myself working and living with people I had never known before, and I suddenly saw my own opinions, stubbornness, and lack of charity exposed in very blinding light. New acquaintances didn’t brush things off as “just how she is” because they didn’t know me. They were sometimes hurt by my words and actions, and I had to ask for forgiveness. Experiences like that gave me reason to pause and consider what it means to live in poverty of spirit, to surrender, to step back. I’m really bad at it, but through moving here and beginning life over I began to understand the meaning of poverty in a new light. Poverty means keeping my mouth shut and my opinion to myself when it’s just that – my opinion. It means not constantly correcting those around me or showing them a better or quicker way to do things. It means stepping back and learning their way, at their pace, in their space. It means that I’m not always right.

This is the intangible meaning of poverty. It is, in essence, humility. Yes, I am also vowed to a physical poverty, a life of simplicity in which I own nothing. And I must keep examining my possessions and my attachment to the things of this world to make sure I am living out that poverty. But the invisible struggle to live a life of poverty of spirit is equally challenging. Christmas and the start of a new year are chances to take time to reflect and pray to be one who is “poor in spirit.” In the words of a seventeenth-century poem by Angelus Silesius:

Lo, in the silent night
A child to God is born
And all is brought again
That ere was lost or lorn

Could but thy soul, O man
Become a silent night!
God would be born in thee
And set all things aright.

I’ve always loved this poem. It so eloquently expresses the inner poverty of spirit that I wish I could bring into the stable on Christmas Eve, and carry with me into the new year.

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About the author

Vivian Warren

Vivian Warren

Vivian Warren lives at The Mount Community, where she cares for the elderly and works in the community kitchen.

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