People seem so surprised when they learn that we monks don’t take the vow of poverty. I don’t know exactly what they were expecting us to do, but that’s the unvarnished truth. We simply are not Franciscans. Benedictines have never taken that vow, precisely because of the rationale that Saint Benedict supplies in his 6th-century Rule for Monks.
As a keen observer of human nature, Saint Benedict knew how easily monks can stray from the path that leads to God. In fact, experience taught him that distractions lurk around every corner; and poverty, to our surprise, is just as dangerous as wealth. How so? Benedict need only look at the monk who isn’t getting enough sleep. Eventually, sleep is what he’s going to think a lot about and crave. The same goes for adequate food and clothing. Carried to the extreme, such deprivations will derail even the monks who are most fervent in the search for God.
To be fair, Benedict has an equal concern for monks having too much of anything, but the point there is much the same. Both poverty and wealth have ways of nudging themselves to the center of our attention. So it is that Benedict prescribes sufficiency as the best antidote. Monks should have enough of what is necessary for a decent life, but not too much. It’s a delicate balance, as Benedict would be the first to admit. But neither poverty nor wealth are central to the quest for God. Nor does either one inevitably lead to God. In fact, they run the greater risk of luring the monk off into all sorts of dead ends.
I bring this up as a useful preamble to the first of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” What that does not mean is “blessed are those who are literally poor.” Nor does it suggest a grand bargain in which the poor of this world can someday demand heaven as just compensation. It promises no such thing, because Jesus had something entirely different in mind. He was speaking of a frame of mind that should guide all Christians as they find their way through life.
So if Jesus has other ideas in mind, what might they be? Well, first of all I think that Jesus intends that we not dwell on our poverty — nor on our wealth — morning, noon and night. All of us know from observation that the miser and the workaholic can push stuff to the center of their lives. But such people don’t have any monopoly on this tendency. The fact is, whether we have a lot or a little, stuff can easily become the ball and chain that ruin our lives. In its pursuit, or in its defense, all decent values can slip away, such that our very lives become warped. And this truth is apparent to anyone: you don’t need a lot of stuff to cave into this temptation.
The focus on the material also has a way of putting a price tag on human life. For better, and largely for worse, many of us unconsciously value people in direct proportion to their wealth. That’s something that Saint John Paul II hammered away at relentlessly, often with little success even within Catholic circles. Reduced to its bare essentials, such a view makes the world’s poor expendable. But as the Beatitudes imply, all people have value, and they do so because they are made in the image of God. So the material view can never be the yardstick by which one Christian measures the worth of any other person.
Finally, I think that Jesus did not intend to elevate either poverty or wealth to some special status, nor to make of them something other than what they are. In my own mind poverty is something from which we hope to escape, rather than wear as a badge of honor. Conversely, Jesus never branded wealth as an intrinsic evil. Rather, it is a tool through which a person can accomplish much good or much that is bad.
So might it be helpful to tweak this Beatitude just a bit? How might the following instances sound? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their minds will be uncluttered by distractions.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they will be free to see others for who they truly are.” “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they will know that God loves them, here and now.”
Such people will see the world differently, through God’s eyes. And such people will see that their neighbors are made in the image of God, no matter the amount of their material possessions. And that brings us back again to Saint Benedict, who wished his monks to see the face of Christ clearly, in everyone, and even in the stranger. How truly blessed are they to see such beauty in the world.
+On July 19th I presided at the funeral of Joseph Scoblic of New York City. Joe was a member of the class of ’62 from Saint John’s University, and through the years I had the chance to visit with him and his wife Barbara many times. The funeral took place in the Abbey church, with the burial in the Abbey cemetery. Joe had the distinction of looking out of his dorm room window through the years of the construction of the Abbey church. So it was wonderful to have his funeral in a building that remained an inspiration to him throughout his life.
+On July 20th I presided and preached at the Abbey Mass. You can access my sermon, Jesus still speaks in parables, in Presentations.
+On July 18th through the 20th we hosted ninety oblates of Saint John’s Abbey for their annual retreat. This year Abbot John delivered the retreat conferences.
+We have recently begun a new book in the Abbey refectory, co-authored by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. The title says it all: The Heart of Everything That Is: The Untold Story of Red Cloud, An American Legend.
+In terms of color, this must be close to the height of brilliance in many of the gardens at Saint John’s. Plenty of rain and moderate temperatures have turned much of the campus into a park, and I’ve tried to give a taste of it with the pictures in today’s post.